Taking Custody of our Eyes

Robin M. Jensen

Early Christian writers worried about the corrosive power of idols, not only upon individuals who sought out painted or carved images of pagan gods for religious reasons, but on those who inadvertently encountered them as they went about daily life. Tertullian of Carthage urged caution against the snare of idolatry, even for innocent bystanders. He believed that a demonic power might actually radiate from certain inanimate objects and infect a heedless spectator.

Most modern thinkers probably don’t attribute that degree of agency to visual images, yet in our media-saturated environment we may underestimate the influence of the things we admit, subliminally or intentionally, into our field of vision.

St. Augustine distinguished three elements of the act of seeing. First was the thing seen, which had some kind of prior existence. Second was the act of seeing itself – the reciprocal activity of subject and object. Third was the viewer’s conscious choice to sustain the gaze and be affected by it (On the Trinity, Book 11, chapters 1-6). The actual experience of sight, he believed, was conditioned by the viewer’s state of mind or objective. In brief, he believed that the external image is sought by the eye, impresses itself on the mind, and impinges on the soul. But the state of the soul also affects what and how a person sees. A propensity toward violence,  covetousness, or lust will direct the gaze and influence its effects, just as a predisposition toward love and compassion will reap different results.

Augustine’s argument – that what we see, and seek to see, profoundly shapes our values and changes our attitudes – seems obviously true, but perhaps is something we do not seriously consider.

We can be accidental viewers, bombarded with uninvited and random images, from things that pop up on our iPhone screens, advertisements along our streets, or events that suddenly unfold in front of us and which our eyes happen to catch. Or we can be captive viewers – in classes, in church, or during television commercial breaks.

Other times we are more discerning viewers, choosing what we see and giving our studied attention or supplying critical judgments. This is the way we typically approach works of art. But if Augustine is right, whether or not we are deliberate and selective about what we look at, the impact of our gaze depends upon our disposition.

This suggests new relevance to a long-standing Catholic admonition – that we should maintain custody of our eyes. This advice – old-fashioned as it may sound – presumes that our ethical formation is influenced by our viewing habits.

Meanwhile, the object itself is not neutral. Objects have a certain kind of independence, with power to change our experience of the world for good or ill. This is, of course, true for works of art. They can challenge us, comfort us, edify us, or upset us. We may be baffled by them, instructed by them, or enchanted by them. Some, however, can be abusive, deluding, or harmful.

The outcome of such encounters will be different for each viewer, and may also change from instance to instance. Visual images produce particular responses, just as stories or sermons may provoke certain reactions. They may be edifying, inspirational, or emotionally affecting. Some provoke action, some soothe, some disturb. Others foster hateful or abusive behaviors, reinforce prejudices, fuel greed, feed resentments, or prompt self-loathing.

Augustine asserts that these varied effects arise from the inclination of viewers to see – or seek – those images that mirror the state of their souls. By extension, specifically seeking out inspiring, beautiful or challenging images should train and transform our souls towards pursuing what is worthy and uplifting.

If we make a case for alertly using our eyes to see, we must also make a case for the need, occasionally, to avert our gaze and turn away. Not from sights that are true though potentially distressing, but rather from those that can harm others and us. Those early Christians who worried about idolatry were not, I argue, worried about the dangers of art per se as about the dangers of these deceitful and destructive images – the false gods that seduce our eyes away from what is honest, morally elevating, and spiritually nourishing. If we are what we eat, we also reflect what we see. The things we look at enter us and change us for good or ill, so let us maintain custody of our eyes.

Art historian Robin Jensen will join the faculty of Notre Dame in the fall after many years at Vanderbilt, where she taught the history of Christian art and worship. Her books include Living Water: Images, Symbols, and Settings of Early Christian Baptism (Brill, 2011), Baptismal Imagery in Early Christianity (Baker Academic, 2012), and Understanding Early Christian Art (Routledge, 2000). She was a contributing editor and essayist to Picturing the Bible: The Earliest Christian Art (Yale, 2008).