Sunday, August 24, 2008

Signs of the Times

I remember, growing up, when my family would drive to church, or otherwise take trips from Waterdown, ON, to Burlington, ON, we'd pass a Christian Reform church on the way into town, at the top of Highway 5. Didn't know much about the CRC or anything. All I really knew about that church was that it was perhaps the first church to have a sign out front on which it would post the now clichéed quotes and quips that are seen ubiquitously out front of churches. What now seems to be all the rage, they've been doing for some 15 years or more. And, honestly, they still seem to do it best. It's rather rare that I'll drive by, even these days, and have to groan (too loudly) at some lame pun or horribly theologically-incorrect statement. Good on them.

Other churches' signs that I've seen--not so much.
"It wasn't the Apple, it was the Pair"
"Patience is a virtue with a lot of wait"
I'll stop, I promise. But I could go on. I've got about 365 of 'em. (Someone 'thoughtfully' bought me a desktop day calendar featuring a glib little quote for every day of the year. Awww....)

Usually these signs are not much more than annoying groaners such as I'm used to hearing from several of my friends anyway (I even jokingly wrote a paper in my Pastoral Theology class arguing that such "punning" was a sure sign of the Pastor-Teacher gift in Ephesians 4:11). But every so often, I see a sign that really bothers me--because the sign says something illogical, and sometimes even contrary to the Christian faith.

Such was the case of the sign out front of the Baptist church around the corner from my house. To their credit, they try to change the sign once a week (though summer got a little slow), and more, they try to find a quote that fits with the sermon subject for the following Sunday. On the left half of the sign, they have worship time details, and the Sermon Title. On the right half of the sign, they have a quote that perhaps acts as a summation of the sermon--though in this particular case, I hope not--or else an announcement of some special event.

Well, this past week, this church has announced that the pastor will be giving a sermon entitled "Shine." Accompanying this one-word title is the quote that's got me all buggered up, and wondering just what they're teaching at this Baptist church:
"In order for the light to shine, the darkness must be present."
There's so much to take issue with in this dualistic statement that it made my head spin (and actually kept me up at night!), but fear not, true believer. I'll try to address it all.

Now, at first glance, I assume that the pastor is going to be addressing his congregation regarding being light to the world, and letting our light so shine before men that they would see our good works and glorify God in Heaven. He perhaps is encouraging his congregation to live the good life even as the darkness around us seems to deepen, and so he is trying to inspire them with the notion that their bright lights will shine even more noticeably because the darkness is so dark. And those are good thoughts, to be sure. However, the statement, as it stands, takes those thoughts a step or two further.

First of all, it declares that darkness is, in fact, something. It claims that darkness has an objective reality of its own, that is in conflict with the light, and yet, not entirely in conflict, but, like Yin and Yang, it is symbiotic with the light--each causing the other to exist. After all, what else can a statement mean that says "In order for the light to shine the darkness must be present"?

So our first problem seems to be with our definition of darkness, and the description of it as present, and as necessary. Darkness, both scientifically and philosophically, is not a "thing" possessing its own substance or essence. Rather, it is only something which is not. Darkness is the absence of light. It is the quality of lightlessness. It is not a substance, but the privation of a substance. That is our first problem, and, understanding it, I hope that all our other problems are made clear.

The second problem, then, flowing directly from the first, is apparently an equally unsatisfactory definition of Light. To say that the light can only shine if it is dark is self-contradictory. If darkness is the privation of light, then if there is darkness, it means, quite literally, that the light isn't as bright as it could be! Thus, the statement on this church sign seems to want us to believe that light, which, by definition, shines, can only do what it must do by its very essence, if it is not doing what it does to its fullest capacity. Or, put another way, light only shines when it's not really shining all that well.

Light is substance. It can be measured and calculated. Apparently, science tells us, it is composed of subatomic particles, called photons, that travel at a determined speed in a vacuum (186,000 miles per second, if my high school science hasn't failed me), but that these photons can be slowed down, or change their course, when they are interfered with by various atmospheres and objects. On the other hand, there is no "speed of darkness". Darkness is nothing. It is simply the state of things when there aren't any photons whizzing around.

Thus, on a purely physical, scientific, academic level, we find that the statement on this church's sign makes utterly no sense. That, in my mind, is bad enough. But when the statement is applied to theology, as one might expect it to be in a sermon, suddenly things go from bad to worse--from illogical nightlights to manichean dualism. That is, biblically, Light is synonymous with Good. And more, it is often used as a descriptor of God Himself. "All that is good, all that is perfect, is given us from above; it comes down from the Father of all light..." (James 1:17). Thus, if light can only shine when the darkness is present, as X Baptist Church would have you believe, then God, it seems, cannot be God unless there is darkness present. I suppose that leaves one of two conclusions: Either darkness is fundamental to God's make-up--that is, privation--imperfection--belongs to God as something proper to Himself; or this privation is itself actually a tangible essence in symbiotic competition with God: a dark god, an evil god, co-existing with the God of Light. Those seem to be the two options according to the Sign.

As to the first option, that darkness is itself part of who God is, the passage I quoted from James continues: "...the Father of all light; with Him there is no such thing as an alteration, no shadow caused by change." Or, to be even more explicitly clear, St. John writes in his first Epistle, "God is light, and there is no darkness in Him at all" (1 John 1:5). So we see quite clearly that there is no darkness in God. Indeed, for the One who is Perfect, there can be no privation.

So what of the second option, that the darkness exists as a separate, necessary corollary to God? We must reason, after all, that if God is light, and that light needs darkness in order to shine--and light that doesn't shine is not light--then God needs darkness in order to be God. But how can God need anything? Once again, that would indicate some privation in God. Furthermore, it again indicates that darkness is more than simply a privation, but a substance or essence unto itself--and one that is co-eternal to God, and which God needs in some way. An infintite being with a need, must therefore have an infinite need, and so the darkness must be as infinite as God. Therefore, we would have to postulate that some dark god is necessary for God, as is often believed in many pagan religions, most notably, as I said above, in the Manichean religion of the 4th and 5th centuries AD.

However, as St. Thomas point out in his Summa, there can only be one infinite being, since the infinity of its being would necessarily end where the other infinite being's began, thus making neither one infinite, since each has an end and a beginning. Moreover, Scripture affirms that "The Lord your God is One God" (Deut. 6:5), and, as we said, darkness is not something, but nothing. Sure wish that more people would read Aquinas, and stop recycling old errors.

God does not need anything in order to be God, and light does not need darkness in order to shine. Ultimately, the Light will eradicate the darkness once and for all. On that day, we will not cease to exist in some sort of nihilistic nirvana, but will forever shine like the Son, realising fully who we were meant to be as partakers of His glory!

7 comments:

suneal said...

Gregory, Thank you for clearing up some confusion.

Now in Hinduistic thought, Brahman, the concept for the Absolute Truth or Reality, exists in that philosophy both beyond the cosmos, as it, within it, and I believe even beyond "non-being." Now "non-being" gets pretty close to your concept here of darkness, this being darkness as the absence of substance.

But if God is Light, and being eternal is "eternal light," how can darkness exist in the first place? For He would be eternal, light, and all so everywhere, being omnipresent. So how came darkness to be? The answer must be, that God created the darkness. Genesis says, "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep.." (Gen 1:1-2). Now if God created the heavens and the earth, the cosmos we inhabit, therefore darkness as part of that cosmos was part of His creation. If not, then the darkness was before His creation, and therefore the darkness was also the essence of God, being that which exists before creation. But as you have said above, in God is no darkness at all.

Isaiah 45:7 says, "I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe, I am the LORD, who do all these things." So though I again agree darkness is the absence of substance, it still remains part of creation. The error of pantheistic thought, which is really the doctrine of God's unity carried too far, is based not necessarily upon a dualistic-yin-yang philosophy but upon the absence of a Creator who began the universe as we know it from "nothing," also known as "creatio ex nihilio." What is difficult with this Judeo-Christian doctrine, is the realization that even "nothing itself" was a creative act or work of God. For if God was always existing, then nothing at one time had no existence, or nothing becomes God as well, being eternal. Here is a mind-blowing thought. Colossians 1:18 says about Christ, "He is before all things and in Him all things hold together." God can be thought of as sustaining His creation continuously or else it would literally fall apart.

The antithesis of the above, would insinuate that God truly never created anything, but rather transformed Himself into all things we know as the universe. That would mean then, any religion not believing "creatio ex nihilio" actually does not believe in God as Creator. It would be more like believing in God as the "Shape-Shifter."

So to conclude, when you say Gregory that: "Ultimately, the Light will eradicate the darkness once and for all;" I think it is safe to say, darkness will cease to be God's creation, as the New Creation, the new heavens and the new earth replace it.

Also, if we were anything other than "created," then "the gift of eternal life" would not be a gift, it would be our right. Or, in Hinduistic philosphy, freeing ourselves of "maya" or illusion, would allow us to see the eternal within as what we really are. The dichotomy of Eastern and Western religious thought must be understood upon this one difference, Judeo-Christian God-transcendence is of a different category than Brahman-transcendence. In the former the break based on "creatio ex nihilio" between God and creation is absolute, whereas in the latter it is only in "appearance," which of course is never truly explained as to it's reason for such illusion, other than God playing tricks with himself. And because "ex nihilio" is not believed, therefore such dualisms as perceived to exist in God, being both light and darkness, are merely the logical outflow of a faulty premise, but also an outflow that is nigh impossible to not occur. Shame again, that Christians unwittingly partake of this faulty premise.

One final thought, to ask how God can create something He is not, such as darkness, is beyond our finite minds. But rest assured, we also are something God is not, even though being made in His image, yet still God says of us, "It was very good" (Gen 1:31). I believe the answer does lie somewhere in how God conversed with Himself in Genesis 1, saying "Let us make man in OUR image, after OUR likeness.." (Gen 1:26). The Triunity of His being, obviously made clearer later in Scripture, led Godself to transcend His own being in community outside of Himself. His inner Trinitarian community of Father, Son and Spirit, most powerfully exerted itself in the initialization of creation. So shall it in the conclusion of creation.

Christopher said...

Suneal,

I think there is a departure point between what you are working through in your comments, and what Gregory is going after in his post. And I think it happens here:

"The Triunity of His being, obviously made clearer later in Scripture, led Godself to transcend His own being in community outside of Himself. His inner Trinitarian community of Father, Son and Spirit, most powerfully exerted itself in the initialization of creation. So shall it in the conclusion of creation."

An interesting implication that arises out of God's decision to transcend His own being and be in community outside Himself is that He created people in His own image and likeness (which you noted), and thereby set up a moral compulsion within His creation. That is, what was created must necessarily derive a standard for being from Him who created.

Now, moral compulsions imply the possibility of contradicting the standard (in this case God); a reality that is clearly borne out in the image of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. And more, that God would transcend His own being to have community outside Himself implies the possibility of social disunity. I'm sure we could agree that this is observable through the reality of sin, which is the result of my first point: the contradiction of the moral standard.

So, while it is that you have made a strong case for God's created darkness, without Himself being dark (a point on which you agree with Scripture and Gregory), it is here that Gregory takes up the intention to deal with a metaphorical darkness, a moral and spiritual darkness. That is, Gregory, if I've read him right, is essentially saying that this transcendent God you've delineated is the light that beats back the darkness, which is simply the absence of His presence.

As a point of critique, though. I think Gregory's article, while very well written, can be misleading in such that it uses physical images and ideas to deal with an abstract, moral reality. And so, I think this is where you offered your challenge concerning created things; that is, against Gregory's physical imagery.

Still, the quote Gregory was reacting against is such a butchery of anything even remotely intelligible that it lends itself to confusion right away. For example, Gregory made a great philosophical statement concerning the nature of light/God, but using physical imagery. You picked up on the physical imagery and challenged Gregory on the nature of God wherein He describes Himself as creating the physical darkness Gregory is arguing in empirical terms against. All the while, though, I think you are both certain of the moral/spiritual darkness that God, the light Himself, shines through.

I think without this confusion in terminology bred by and entirely vapid quote, and then shoving abstract notions into physical pictures, both you and Gregory are agreed that where God shines the light of His presence, no darkness can abide.

Christopher

suneal said...

First of all, to clear things up I was not at all arguing with Gregory, but agreeing and commenting further beyond what he said.

Gregory said the following:
"So our first problem seems to be with our definition of darkness, and the description of it as present, and as necessary. Darkness, both scientifically and philosophically, is not a "thing" possessing its own substance or essence. Rather, it is only something which is not. Darkness is the absence of light. It is the quality of lightlessness. It is not a substance, but the privation of a substance. That is our first problem, and, understanding it, I hope that all our other problems are made clear."

To the above, Gregory obviously got into the physical realm of darkness, later into the theological. The reason I believe is to understand the faulty premises Christians later draw from the analogy to physical light and darkness.

So, I will throw the point out again, if darkness "is something which is not," or as when I drew from Hinduistic thought, "non-being," how can non-being exist or "that which is not" before creation, with a God who is Eternal Being? To add further to the equation, one can argue the actualization of "that which is not" into reality or the cosmos, is an integral part of a temporary cosmic order, but certainly of no relevance to an eternal order.

But as soon as your statment, Chris, is addressed, which is now a step toward theology, the

"transcendent God you've delineated is the light that beats back the darkness, which is simply the absence of His presence."

Here now we are into the spiritual realm and I fully agree with you, even as I did with Gregory. However, here, this type of darkness, which Gregory gets into in his second half of his post more, I would never infer God created. So did I confuse the two categories? I would say I did regarding Gregory's concluding statement, so thank you Chris for clarifying the two different categories. Here is Gregory's concluding staement:

"Ultimately, the Light will eradicate the darkness once and for all. On that day, we will not cease to exist in some sort of nihilistic nirvana, but will forever shine like the Son, realising fully who we were meant to be as partakers of His glory!"

But I wonder what Gregory is applying this to, is it ONLY spiritual darkness. What of the new heavens and new earth? I think here all of us are left in the dark:) But if you Chris, or Gregory can refute what I am saying, go for it. I would like to learn where I may be off in my thinking.

Now getting back to Gregory's post, in the next paragraph after the first quote above, Gregory says:

"But when the statement is applied to theology, as one might expect it to be in a sermon, suddenly things go from bad to worse--from illogical nightlights to manichean dualism."

Here Gregory is moving from the physical type to the spiriual application. He did a great job, so that was not my focus. I merely wanted to trace back to the deeper reason behind why dualistic attitudes toward the nature of God exists. My argument was this, if "creatio ex nihilio" is not properly acknowledged or understood, then any analogy to light/darkness in a spiritual/theological discussion will often stray into misconceptions about God, and very theologically errant statements such as the sign Gregory was annoyed with.

I realize some of what I said is "out there," such as God creating "nothing." I believe nothing can be viewed in various ways. Obviusly, that which does not exist is one definition. So think about it, before creation how does "that which does not exist" have any place with Him whom only exists? Therefore, nothing is part of God's creation.
For us eternal life is a miracle that blows our minds. For God, the creating of mortals, well,.. that also blows my mind! God being infinite and creating something finite had to create a "nothing" category from which to make the finite. I believe, if I am correct, not realizing this has led to gnostic/Hindiuistic-type dualisms in thinking about God. I may be off my rocker here, but if someone can make more sense of this, go for it!

Gregory said...

Hey Suneal,
Thanks for your comments. And, you know, for agreeing. I might respond to what you've written above because I'm not sure whether I've completely expressed myself as clearly as possible, and whether that has led to some potential problems I've noticed in your response. I'm not trying to be argumentative, but there are some philosophical questions on which we differ, that I would like to explore further. It's a fascinating subject, with some definite import to Christian theology.

suneal said...

You're welcome, Gregory, and why not agree with you, when you so aptly highlight non-Christian dualisms sold as Christianity? This topic at first glance can seem simple, but I think it is vast. I merely took a stab in the dark:)

Gregory said...

I honestly think we just got off on the wrong foot in the past. It's good to have this opportunity to start over. Anyway, hopefully I can work through the post later tonight...

suneal said...

Second, third, fourth chances, sounds like my Lord.
Cheers.