Friday, 11 January 2019

What the Light Isn't

An image of coloured bars of light, with a transparent sphere in the foreground seemingly refracting the image of the lights such that the space seen through the centre of the sphere is apparently empty.
When we talk about our different conceptions of the Divine, we tend to speak in positive terms. That is to say, we talk about what we can say the Divine, Light, God or whatever you want to call it is, what characteristics it has. This is understandable. This is how we usually think about things in life, and if we try to list everything any given thing isn't it tends to take a lot more time than describing what it is.
However, in the case of the Light, perhaps we should talk about that more. That's why I'm going to try doing so – talking about what I think the Spirit is not, as I conceive it and in my experience. This is actually a tool, a theological approach, that is as old as organised Christianity. Apophatic theology, or theology of denial, also known by the Latin expression via negativa (“negative way”, perhaps better thought of as “route of negative expression”, was applied by some of the Church Fathers based on an intellectual tradition that long predates Christianity. It reached its non-Christian philosophical peak among Pagan Neo-Platonism, a school that flourished for over a century in Roman (and later Byzantine) Greece – until Justinian cracked down on Pagan thought as well as Pagan religion.
It is associated with mystical approaches in both Christian and non-Christian usage, often relating to the idea that it is easier to know what the object of mystery is not than it is to know what it is. In the case of the effective founder of Neo-Platonism, Plotinus, the object in question is considered impossible to think of while there is any other thought in the mind. To that end, one approaches it negatively, so as to remove all the things that are not The One (as they termed the object of their mystery, though it is not a God-figure) so as to approach apprehension of it. The Christian approach of the early Church Fathers who advocated this approach is similar, and is well represented by the writing of Tertullian,
that which is infinite is known only to itself. This it is which gives some notion of God, while yet beyond all our conceptions – our very incapacity of fully grasping Him affords us the idea of what He really is.”
Or we might consider the later description by St Cyril of Jerusalem,
For we explain not what God is but candidly confess that we have not exact knowledge concerning Him. For in what concerns God to confess our ignorance is the best knowledge.”
Or even St Augustine of Hippo, who described God as “other, completely other”. It is today the pre-eminent approach to theology in Orthodox Christianity, and it is far from unknown in the Western Church.
Which is all to say, this isn't some random idea I had. I'm just saying it may be an interesting approach to our diversity of belief – a view shared by the “Theology Think Tank” that worked on the issue at the behest of Britain Yearly Meeting's “Book of Discipline Revision Preparation Group”.
I have a sneaking suspicion that we will find some extra things in common if we try this approach, especially if we avoid specifying that we don't think it's what some other Friend, or group of Friends, thinks it is. So, let's avoid things like “creator of the universe”, or anything involving “Jesus of Nazareth”, or “spirit of Nature”. If you're going to have a go at this, try to focus on what characteristics you think it doesn't have.
That isn't to say we won't have any disagreement, and I expect many of you will take issue with some part of what I say. That's fine – I believe in theological pluralism, and disagreeing isn't a problem. We need to share our different conceptions and experiences so we can all have the fodder for our spiritual development. So, that said, here's what I think the Light (or the Divine, or…) isn't
For starters, it doesn't judge. It does not arbitrate and settle punishment on offenders. Such consequences as they are for wrong action, whether they be practical or spiritual (and you might like to look at my earlier post on the idea of sin on that score), are a natural consequence that doesn't require any agency. This is, of course, a departure from the common understanding of the Christian God, but it is not entirely strange to Christian theology – and very much not strange to some non-Christian approaches to God or God-like figures. True, there are bible passages that describe God as a judge, but there are also bible passages that tell us to stone adulterers, or even that simply looking at a woman with desire (presumably with the exception of your wife) is adultery of a sort. I know that many of my Quaker readers identify as Christians, even as I do not, and attitudes to the bible will vary, but it is hard to square biblical literalism with the experience of liberal Quakerism. So, not for the first time, I will not assume that contradiction from scripture guarantees that Christian Friends disagree with me on this one.
Whatever the nature of the Divine, my experience and conviction tell me that it is not able – or perhaps not willing – to cause gross physical impacts directly in the world we know, nor to interfere with free will. It may guide us, if we listen, or influence us subtly even if we do not, but it does not cause accidents, nor cause or cure illness, nor yet decide who wins the lottery. This is, I think, the premise of a piece of my verse-form written ministry, No Hands But Ours.
Now we get on to some that I know will be more controversial for some Friends. Perhaps they might even be seen as “wedge issues” among liberal Friends, though I see the opening of discussion of that difference as an opportunity, not a threat. It is only through communication and acknowledgement of difference that we can reap its benefits. You may think that this wedge will be between Christian Friends and those who do not take that identity, or between non-theists and others, but you may be surprised how many people agree or disagree contrary to what you might expect from those identities.
The Divine does not have identity. It is hard to point to what it is in my experience that convinces me of this, but it is clear to me. It does not have personality or personhood, does not have desires, does not have will. Its reflection in us, the working of the light, leads us, drives our own desires sometimes, but it has none itself. It is deeply personal in its working in and upon us, but it is, in itself, entirely non-personal.
It is not constant, unchanging, or eternally static. It may well be that it is eternal in existence, or it may not be, but it has changed and evolved even as we have. Perhaps there is some unchanging essence at the heart of it, but the heart is not the whole.
It does not care what we believe. What we do, perhaps, in as much as it cares about anything – there's a little mental gymnastics here due to the limitation of language, a little cognitive dissonance in conjunction with the point about personality and will – perhaps even why we do it, but what we believe, especially what we believe about it, is not important to it at all.
That is what I can say now, easily – this isn't an easy thing to do, but I have found it fruitful. I hope you have found my efforts fruitful, and I hope even more that your own will be, too. What can you say the Light isn't? I'd love to hear your thoughts.
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