Embracing the metaphor of light

By George Clifford

A few months ago in Paris, I watched at sunset as the lights of the Eifel Tower were turned on. The Tower shimmered and sparkled, then the lights settled into a steady glow, a splash of light against a drab gray sky.

Light is a metaphor woven into the tapestry of Scripture:

• Jesus said, “I am the light of the world,” a theme repeatedly voiced in John’s gospel.

• The first Epistle of John describes God as light and exhorts readers to walk in the light.

• God led Israel in the wilderness at night by the light of a pillar of fire.

• Job when depressed is in darkness; when God speaks, the light returns to Job’s personal world.

• The Psalmist implores God to let the light of God’s face on people.

• The Psalmist also describes God as the one who lights the way in the darkness.

• Additionally, the Psalmist portrays God as light and salvation.

• Isaiah spoke of the people on whom light has shined and that the light, the glory of the nations has come, a sentiment echoed in Matthew.

• Jesus describes his followers as the light of the world.

• The book of Acts, in several places, uses light to describe the life and mission of God’s people.

• The Pauline epistles use light as a metaphor for God, for the transformation that occurs when people encounter God, and for the mission of the Church.

Light, however, is a metaphor for God that has consistently taken a backseat to anthropomorphic (human images) metaphors. I wonder if perhaps the time has come to discard anthropomorphism in favor of light. Bishops John Shelby Spong and John A.T. Robinson have popularized the deconstruction of the antiquated, anachronistic, and anthropomorphic images of God. Those metaphors are well past their sell-by dates.

On the one hand, considerable psychological evidence exists that confirm philosophical suggestions that anthropomorphism represents human projections. The supernaturalism associated with anthropomorphism is increasingly problematic and rightly pilloried by atheists, especially following the helpful deconstruction of the death of God theologians.

On the other hand, no alternative metaphor for God has yet gained widespread traction or credibility, e.g., Tillich’s ground of being is remembered by few apart from academically trained theologians and clergy.

Perhaps light is an apt metaphor for God in the early twenty-first century.

Mike Higton, in his biography of Rowan Williams, Difficult Gospel, identifies light as the Archbishop’s dominant metaphor for God (p. 19). The Episcopal Church and Anglican Communion, instead of engaging in interminable internecine warfare, would do well to explore the metaphor of light as an image for God.

Light is not well-understood, which is certainly true of God. Light has properties of both waves and particles but does not fit into either category. Light has power. For example, human life is impossible without light and part from the light, people tend to become depressed, sometimes even to search for meaning. Light fills the darkness, which has no substance or being but is merely the absence of light. People tend to behave differently, better, in the light than in the darkness.

Light is a metaphor grounded in Scripture but not anthropomorphic, which opens the door to conversations with members of the other two great monotheisms, Islam and Judaism, about God’s nature. Light, as a metaphor for ultimate reality, may also represent a new beginning for conversations with other religious traditions.

Light is not personal in the sense of one human having a relationship with another human. Nevertheless, light is personal in that each person’s experience of light is uniquely his or her own, as is true for all perception. The same seems likely to be true for the light that is the life of the world. There is one light that is perceived in individually unique ways.

Unless the Church successfully articulates new metaphors for God that powerfully capture the imagination of moderns, offering transformative and life giving hope in a broken world, the Church itself is likely to be antiquated and anachronistic.

George Clifford, a priest in the Diocese of North Carolina, served as a Navy chaplain for twenty-four years, is now a visiting professor of ethics and public policy at the Naval Postgraduate School, and blogs at Ethical Musings.

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