Icon Turned Iconographer: Image of God and Human Creativity | Fr. Dr. K. M. George


Is Artificial Intelligence a Threat?

There is a growing feeling among many artists and all those associated  with art that Artificial Intelligence (AI)may constitute a major threat to human creativity, and  that creative artists may  soon be replaced. Some of the art works already produced by AI seem to many people to be more enchanting, sophisticated, quicker and cheaper than what are created by human artists. But there are those who believe that artificial intelligence is a new medium that can enhance human artistic creativity to an incredible level. Several different apps are now available for anyone to create amazing works of art. According to this view neither photography nor digital art could replace artists and artistic creativity as had been feared. There is, therefore, nothing to be worried about AI, but it could be a great boon to the world of art.

We are all aware of the vigorous debate going on around the newcomer ChatGPT (Generative Pretrained Transformer) introduced by Open AI. Though it is still at the experimental level and is primarily concerned with language models, its potential for machine-learning goes beyond all our wild imagination. In fact, the newly emerging cyber technologies are taking over the traditional attributes given to God by religious people of all colours: all-knowing, all-powerful, all-seeing, all-doing and all-controlling. The conventional Srishti-Sthithi-Samhara functions are being taken over by AI, assisted by such angelic hosts like quantum computing, biotechnology, nano technology, robotics and so on.God is probably not dead, but quite unemployed, it seems!

The Metaphor of Icon and Iconography

While we wait for more clarity about the emerging scenario, my modest purpose is to reflect briefly on the traditional Christian biblical understanding of the human person as created in God’s image and likeness (Imago Dei) and its connection to human creativity, particularly in the domain of art in the context of the great transition  now taking place in human self-understanding and civilization.

I take the words icon and iconographer (from Greek eikon=image,  and iconographer= the one who ‘writes’ an icon) in a rather metaphorical sense.They are taken from the biblical image of the human person being created in God’s image and likeness, and the eastern Christian practice of Byzantine iconography. However, while we take  icon as pre-eminently applied to the human person in the biblical sense, we may take all that God has created out of divine love and will as participating in the human icon. God as artist has granted freedom and creative imagination to God’s own work, that is, the human person. But  God’s work of art is not a passive and silent one like any painting we artists produce. That icon or art work of God is gifted with free will, power of reason (logos) and creativity. The human persons are also called to be co-creators or fellow workers with God (see 1Cor. 3:19). So they can will and imagine anything, strive to make and remake it, put it to good use or destructive purpose. Freedom includes the potential for its misuse as well.

By ‘iconography’ we mean metaphorically all  this work of continually exercising human freedom and creativity – writing or portraying the image, that is, the image of God granted to humanity, by extending it, disseminating it, researching  it, experimenting with it,  elaborating it, drawing applications from it. In this sense of icon making, our science and technology, our spiritual exercises, our religious rituals, our social and  political  systems, our science and technology, all are part of the iconographical process, the continuing act of painting the icon. Let us call it ‘cosmic iconography’ for convenience.

Criteria of Discernment

In Eastern Orthodox  Christian iconography they make a distinction between good icons and bad icons depending on the strict canons regulating the subject, the technique and the act of painting. For example, it is not permitted to portray God the Father in icon painting because the absolute conceptual unknowability and ineffability of the essential nature of God has to be respected. God is spirit, and without  form, and no one has seen God, according to the Scriptures. (One may contrast this with western Renaissance art, in Michelangelo for example,  where God the Father is represented anthro-pomorphically as a majestic-looking grand old man with long beard and flowing robes). But Christ is represented in human form because in him God is incarnate as “the son of man”, and is historically  revealed in such away that human senses could perceive him and interact with him bodily. Holy Spirit is represented in images like the dove and tongues of fire as revealed in the Scriptures.

Exercising proper judgement over the extended form of iconography, that is, discerning the true from the false, the good from the bad, and the beautiful from the ugly in human creativity is a necessary task laid on theology. Here I do not primarily  mean systematic academic theology of the institutional church as taught in seminaries and theological schools, but God’s Economy (Oikonomia) of infinite love, compassion and forgiveness to human beings through Jesus Christ, the incarnate Word of God.

Thus taking it in this sense, God created Adam and Eve to be in communion with God, to reflect God’s glory in the whole creation, and help the created order to participate in the glory, grace and love of God. This was the paradise experience. Adam, the Icon of God, the first human being,was given the responsibility and privilege to take care of the garden. That means Adam, or the human species, was entrusted with the care for all creation.

So in dealing with God’s creation Adam and Eve, as icon par excellence of the Creator God,  and as iconographer – artists have to assume the divine qualities of compassionate love, and creative enhancement of all forms of life. Apparently God has not set any limit for the human icon’s  iconographic imagination or creativity and activity. The very first commission of God for  Adam to freely name  all creatures in the  garden of Eden shows the amazingly absolute degree of trust the original Artist-Creator put in the unique human  Icon. (‘Whatever Adam called every living creature, that was its name’, Genesis 2:19-20). This exercise of freedom and creativity in naming everything in the Gardenstill continues in the complex process of creative human imagination, invention and interaction with reality. This is what we call creative holistic iconography. Its dimensions are virtually infinite since it is called to participate in God’s own creativity.

Beauty in Interconnectedness

In fact, the descendants of Adam and Eve have to keep the same divine criteria  for judging all that is created by human beings, from the construction of a simple hut to sophisticated architecture, from using  a stick as a tool to pluck fruits to the creation of nuclear missiles, from shepherding the people  to making a massive army and weaponry. Some basic questions need to be raised with regard to every creative act.  Does it help life or destroy it? Does it promote justice and peace for all people? Does it foster the harmony between humans and their environment? Does it contribute to the common good? What is true and good for all human beings as well as for all living beings and the environment of life is to be considered beautiful.

Searching for beauty in isolated entities has no real meaning; it is to be recognised in the interconnectedness of all things. Only a true artist-iconographer can perceive and create abiding beauty in such a holistic manner. We may  remember that at the deepest levels of particles or pulsations that constitute our material universe, truth and beauty emerge  from their mutual connections and not from so-called individual particles that are really non-existent without connections.

Human Enhancement

One may think of an example like the Human Enhancement projects in order to clarify what we said regarding the holistic nature of beauty and goodness. We are familiar with very useful modern forms of enhancing human bio-physical abilities like organ transplantation, chip implants and other augmenting devices. Technology  is aiming at narrowing down mind-machine interface, genetic screening, elimination of all potential diseases already at the embryonic level, and creating cyborgs that will merge intelligent self-learning machines with  living organisms. The overall goal of  such Enhancement programmes is to create super humans who will live probably 150 or even more years. Death is to be finally eliminated. A simple question is about the environment of such super human or post-human species. Can we also enhance our natural environment, prevent the phenomenon of death and decay in nature? Are we humans an isolatable species of beings?

Limits of Human Creativity

In fact, the only limiting condition for our power of holistic cosmic iconography might be the quite likely  impending geological-ecological cataclysm. Every major religion on earth has a picture of the final end of all life, apart from the individual human death.  Even a  virus, a little more fatal than Corona, can usher in the dooms day. There is no reason why the Homo sapiens cannot be totally extinct like many  other extinct species on earth. There is  dramatic increasein references to the scenario of total human extinction in contemporary literature compared to the first part of  20th century.


At this stage of radical  transition we are unable to answer complex ethical, spiritual and aesthetic questions that might arise in our minds. One may, however, draw some tentative conclusions:

* The human person as Icon of God, individually and collectively, is endowed with freedom and creativity, and is called and authorised to be iconographer – artist to name and  rename,  shape and reshape, configure and reconfigure” the world that God so loved” in such a way that it always gets the ever refreshing sense of orientation and meaning.

* The human Icon turned Iconographer participates in God’s ongoing creative Energy, and engages in a holistic iconography, taking all elements in the universe in their  vital interconnections as one body, and reflecting God’s own compassionate love, all-inclusive care, foundational grace, inexhaustible goodness, infinite beauty and humble identification with creation as manifested in Jesus Christ.

* Although the human icon is capable of infinite creativity, there are, however, limiting conditions like finite space and time, huge natural  catastrophes and viral  pandemics that may threaten the very human existence on earth, and in our digital age, malware viruses that may instantly explode  the cyber bubble and reduce human technological civilization to square one.

* We need to exercise aesthetic discernment in the realm of our cosmic iconography, developing ways and means to judge our work of art, that is, all that human creativity produces. The transcendent roots of the human Icon and its spiritual qualities that motivate our ‘iconographical’ work  alone can help us make the right judgment on all human creativity,  from the art of painting to the  creation of a post-human species.