When I was an actor, tech week was the bane of my existence. The nights are long and slow, but more pointedly, instead of being the stars of the show actors are reduced to props as lights are adjusted – first an inch to the left then two to the right, then as gels are put in and taken out as the right level of ‘warmth’ is sought. For one week Light becomes the star of the show – which is important (as I was reminded more than once), because without light nothing will be seen. As much as I didn’t want to admit it, everyone takes second billing to the light.
Christians need to learn to perform the truth about our reality. The very beginning of Holy Scripture gives us this truth. Not in some scientific sense, rather we are given the thick truth of the reality in which we exist. It is not something we come up with, argue for, or prove; we receive this reality through the gracious self-revelation of God.
What then, can we say about our reality? To approach this question I wish to draw on the work of the remarkable Katherine Sonderegger. Let us look to the First Day where, as Sonderegger puts it, God “wills and designates the cosmos’ true character: it is light.” She continues, “we can never exhaust the richness, density and scope of this claim: created reality is light.” This is why the command of light precedes the minutiae of sun and stars, of greater and lesser lights. It is not an oversight that there is light before the sun – as if the New Atheists are the first to reach the requisite level of intelligence to notice the supposed illogic of that sequence. It is of another order altogether, a “primordial marker of reality itself and of all God’s commands that enlighten the eyes.”
This light is not always evident. Though seen and deemed good by God is, for us, often, hidden, muted, disguised. But when we turn to Holy Scripture; to the commands, covenant, praise; we find illumination, which allows us to see and confess, “that the cosmos truly and most deeply is, reflects, and is bathed in benevolent light” (Sonderegger once more). And so to tell the truth about our reality, about the universe and nature in which we find ourselves, we turn to Scripture to learn and see the goodness of the world as created, as light!
What might it mean to live or perform the truth that light, this benevolent light is the character of our cosmos? The first way is the rational pursuit of knowledge about this world. Whether through a telescope or microscope, whether the observation of the beasts, or the study of soil, whether history or sociology, psychology or neuroscience; the pursuit of knowledge and appreciation of the marvelous intricacies and awesome scope of the created reality is a means of telling the truth that the world is bathed in light, a primordial light deemed good by God.
The second way this truth telling can be performed is by taking pleasure in the good and natural things of the earth. From the second day God “made creatures that rest upon and partake of the benevolent light” (again, Sonderegger). All the many splendid and varied things that make up this natural world (trees, plants, flowers, animals, oceans, and springs) are gifts given to tend, meet, and enjoy. Yet, we live lives both detached and distrustful of that given to us to sustain our bodies – and not only sustain, but given to delight. We can go unnatural amounts of time without our feet touching the earth; we greet food with increasing suspicion control, devising ever-new ways hack our intake of fuel. Taking pleasure in the earth, in the things of the earth, in the natural world and that which bursts forth with the rhythms of the seasons is its own way of telling the truth about the character of our reality and the character of God who spoke it into being.
But why do we need to tell the truth about our reality? Well, much like the increasingly contested nature of truth in a post-truth, fake news (sad!) world, reality is also a less fixed and uncontested concept than it once was. The emergence and expansion of accessible virtual reality extends a trend which has rapidly expanded with the technological advances of the early 21st Century. We are increasingly gifted the ability to augment and curate our engagement with reality. Whether it is the way we present our lives through social media, or the way we take in the world (seen through the periphery as we walk through the world transfixed by screens, or seen but not heard as the quality of noise-cancelling headphones makes increasingly possible).
Our ability to curate and augment our engagement with reality is unparalleled in human history. The character of the reality we inhabit is increasingly put in our hands, we are able to fashion the world in which we live and move and have our being – and this means we will need to work harder to confess and embody (to ourselves and others) the nature and character of our reality: which, you guessed it, is Light.
Liam Miller is the Uniting Church Chaplain at Macquarie University