Light And Darkness

On several occasions the New Testament 'defines' both the Father and the Son as 'light'. In 1 John 1:5, 'God is light and in him there is no darkness whatever' and in John 8:12 Jesus says, 'I am the light of the world.' The prologue to the Fourth Gospel announces that '[the word] was the true light'. On the other hand, in 1 Timothy 6:16 we read that 'God dwells in unapproachable light.' And at the end of the prologue to the Fourth Gospel we find 'No-one has ever seen God.' Clearly there is a certain amount of unclarity in the minds of the New Testament writers about the availability of God to human nature.

The problem of how much we can know about God lies at the heart of all theology and all spirituality, two activities whose relationship to each other will be discussed in the epilogue to this chapter. Clearly our ability to know God is connected with our understanding of the capacities of the human mind. Is that relationship primarily a matter of the intelligence, or of the feelings, or of the body, or of all three together? The place of the body in patristic spirituality has been the subject of recent study by Peter Brown (1989). There he tries to make the spiritual strivings of the early Church intelligible to people of today, who find the quest for God in the writings of the Fathers difficult to understand and even harder to sympathize with. For Brown, the pursuit of virginity and otherworldliness was not simply a sellout to a form of Platonism, but an attempt to define oneself against the constrictions of a very demanding secular city. Therefore, virginity as an ideal did not arise from contempt for the body, but from the desire to free it from the constraints of marriage, child-bearing and service to the state. This desire for emancipation, especially on the part of women, had its more positive side, offering an escape from the prevailing social dominance of men. The desire to attend to God needed the exclusion of those elements that got in the way of this vital activity, above all noise, politics and the company of the opposite sex, and perhaps of all human society. The flight from the world was but the other side of the pursuit of God, which led the first monastic heroes to leave their villages and spend their lives in the desert or on the top of pillars, sometimes alone and sometimes in the company of like-minded men or women.

But, even granted the real importance of the body, as shown in Brown's analysis, it is still true that the intellectual aspect remains primary, and this is hardly surprising once it is remembered that from most cultures only evidence from the articulate (and the orthodox) survives. In other words, we are dependent upon the writings of theologians for our picture of the spiritual quest of the early Church. These can be roughly divided into two groups: on the one hand, those who for good reasons have an optimistic view of the human mind and a relatively restricted view of the divine nature, and on the other hand those who have a less exalted picture of the human mind and a much loftier view of God. The former group are often called 'light theologians' because they stress the importance of knowing God, the latter 'darkness theologians' because for them God is ultimately an infinite being, incomprehensible even to the angels. The principal figure in the first class is Origen, and in the latter, Gregory of Nyssa and Denis (or Dionysius) the Areopagite, so called from his supposed identification with St Paul's convert mentioned at Acts 17:34. In reality he was a Christian theologian of the late fifth century, deeply influenced by the late Platonist writer, Proclus (412-85).

Origen's optimism about the possibility of knowing God sprang partly, but only partly, from his consciousness of the need to defend Christianity from two groups within the Church who in his judgement threatened to upset the rational and historically revealed character of the Gospel. The first group against whom he defined his position were the Montanists, the followers of a second-century Christian prophet from Asia Minor, who claimed to have received a new revelation of the faith under the direct inspiration of the Holy Spirit. According to Montanus and his two female followers, Priscilla and Maximilla, the mind when under the influence of the Spirit was totally passive. The moment of divine visitation was also the moment of passive ecstasy. A witness, perhaps hostile, cited by the Church historian Eusebius (1954:15862) says that the Montanists prophesied in a state of abnormal ecstasy and frenzy. The movement gave the Church considerable problems. Was such an experience a genuinely divine one? How was it possible to distinguish between the true and the false spirit? Was irrationality a mark of divine presence? Origen's belief in the divine character of human reason, the image of God within us, gave him little natural sympathy for Montanism and he attacked it, though not by name, on several occasions. But before we turn to his own version of the interaction and interrelation of divine and human, something must be said about the second group whom he countered, the Gnostics.

It is perhaps unfair to class all Gnostics together. The finds of Nag Hammadi in 1945 have revealed the extraordinary richness and complexity of the phenomenon, misleadingly called 'Gnosticism'. The word 'Gnostic' comes from the Greek word for knowledge, gnosis, and many Gnostics, though not all, offered their followers a novel entrance into the divine mystery. This mystery usually took the form of a highly complex account of the origin of the world, which was usually regarded as deriving its existence as a result of cosmic sin committed in the upper world, which resulted in the creation of a lower one. Seeing the present order as sin-derived, as a sort of 'cosmic hiccough', they saw the way to God and to salvation as lying in escape from this world order. A negative attitude to this world and to its author is a feature common to most Gnostic systems, as is the promise to redeem the individual from it by secret knowledge. The whole system bore too close a similarity to orthodox Christian systems to be allowed to pass unchallenged. It was not inherently absurd and some of its literature possesses considerable charm. Clement of Alexandria (150-220), not himself a Gnostic, sums up the basic thrust of their teaching as follows: 'Who we were and what we have become, where we were, where we were placed, whither we hasten, from what we are redeemed, what birth is, what rebirth' (Stevenson 1957:75). The seductiveness of Gnosticism can be gauged simply from the number of replies it elicited from the 'orthodox'. A whole stream of writers set about refuting the claims of the Gnostics, including, in the second century, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria and Tertullian, and Origen in the third.

In Origen the defence of Christianity, as he conceived it, took the form of an insistence upon the value of reason, freedom and Scripture, above all the Old Testament as a worthy and credible account of the nature of God. Convinced as he himself was that history did not hold the key to the ultimate truth about God and the human soul, he had a difficult path to tread between acceptance of the truth and importance of the historical elements of Christianity, on the one hand, and, on the other, the belief in their nonultimacy.

In order, therefore, to assert the rationality of religion against the emotional faith of the Montanists and the 'hidden, otherworldly absolute' of the Gnostics, Origen insisted on the availability of God to the rational intelligence. For Origen, God could be known to and by the purified intelligence. He was essentially a 'lightful' being. To the claim of the Montanists that they had been inspired by the Holy Spirit who had taken them outside themselves, Origen replied that it was not the habit of the Spirit of God to act in this outlandish fashion. He moved gently and helped rather than replaced the mind in its activities (1965:396-8; 1966:223ff). When Origen is described as a 'light mystic' what is meant is that he believed that God could be known by the activity of the human mind. He rejected the idea of the utter incomprehensibility of God and also the false notion that in order to be touched by God you have to be 'out of your mind'. But in addition to his distaste for Gnostic incomprehensibility and Montanist ecstasy, Origen was clearly not at home with those passages in the Bible which spoke of the divine darkness. For example, it is remarkable that in those passages in Exodus and the Psalms where God is said to make darkness his dwelling place, Origen either offers no comment at all or takes the text to mean that access to God takes time and effort and is not to be had automatically or for the asking. Commenting on the verse of the prologue to the Fourth Gospel, 'The light shines in the darkness', Origen observes that nothing is absolutely inscrutable; all is available in Christ.

This positive and optimistic attitude to the powers of the mind was not simply a reaction to less hopeful views. It seems to have expressed his own conviction about the nature of the human intelligence and the value of revelation. It was not the only attitude adopted in this period to the value of emotion in religion or to the problem of the availability of God. The fourth century witnessed the flowering of two movements which stand as a contrast and challenge to the Origenistic vision, represented by the so-called Macarian Homilies and Gregory of Nyssa. The first of these is far more emotionally charged than Origen and speaks the language of the heart with great and appealing force. The collection of Homilies, ascribed to Macarius of Egypt, in reality probably comes not from Egypt but from what is now Iraq. In them, the importance and claims of experience are expressed in a way quite uncharacteristic of Origen. Towards the close of his first homily, Macarius writes:

If you are not conscious of having experienced any of these things [i.e. the heavenly food of the Spirit], weep, mourn and groan because you have not been made a participator of the eternal and spiritual riches and you have not yet received true life.

Direct experience is made the criterion of being in contact with God. This by itself is enough to distinguish the spirituality of the Macarian homilies from that of the bulk of Eastern spiritual writers, and they represent the more significant of the two movements that contrast with the position of Origen.

There exists within the Eastern tradition a line of thinking about God and our relation to him which is the direct opposite of Origen's 'light' mysticism. Philo the Jew (c.20 BCE-c.45 CE) from Alexandria exercised a profound influence on the later Christian tradition. Although he almost certainly did not invent the idea of the divine darkness and incomprehensibility, it certainly plays a central role in his thinking. He is the real founder of the so-called apophatic tradition, that is, the tradition that says that God is radically beyond the reach of the human imagination and mind, either because he is so great and infinite that it would be in principle impossible to grasp him, or because the human mind, dwelling in a body and being essentially limited, can never hope to see or fully understand the divine nature. Why did Philo come to this rather startling conclusion? He may have been influenced by contemporary speculation surrounding a citation from Plato's dialogue, the Timaeus, which states that 'it is hard to know and difficult to communicate the nature of God'. But Philo goes well beyond this, and in the absence of any evidence of mystical experience on his part we are forced to conclude that he was led to the idea of the divine darkness by reflection on the meaning of certain passages in the Bible (see above) which talk of God's living in darkness. Exodus 20:21— a key verse for all future discussion, though significantly omitted by Origen in his homilies on Exodus—speaks of God dwelling in thick darkness. This text is used by Philo in his treatise On the Posterity and Exile of Cain (5.14) to prove that 'The Existent Being belongs to an unapproachable region where there are no material forms...for the Cause of all dwells high above space and time.' The result of this discussion is expressed by Philo as follows: 'We apprehend the real boon of realising that the God of real Being can be apprehended by no one, nor can he be seen by any.' Although God himself is beyond the reach of mind and eye alike, the effects of his action and the power by which he acts in the world can be apprehended by us. Here also we have a foretaste of a similar distinction made by the Cappadocian Fathers in the fourth century.

Philo's personal influence and the way of thinking about God just outlined had a colossal influence on the nascent Church. The apophatic tradition is clear in Clement of Alexandria (c. 150-220), a converted philosopher from Athens. Unlike Origen he was happy to use the same texts as Philo from the Old Testament which refer to the divine darkness. The modern Russian Orthodox writer, V.Lossky, sees in Clement a genuinely Christian writer, precisely because of his stress on the inaccessibility of the unknown God; and even that awareness is something for which we depend upon the special grace of God.

But it is with Gregory of Nyssa that 'darkness' theology and mysticism move to the centre of the stage. He is rightly regarded as the apostle of apophaticism, a view of God which he roots rather in the divine nature itself than in the limited, sense-bound character of the human mind. He outlines his understanding of the way to God in his Life of Moses, most of which is an allegorical account of Moses' pursuit of God, mapped out in three stages. Moses begins in the light of the burning bush and there discovers that God is 'really real'. Then, Exodus 20:21 takes him a step further to the idea of God as incomprehensible. Finally, Exodus 33:23, where Moses is allowed to see the back of God but not his face, is taken as evidence of the fact that God is infinite. The move from light to darkness serves to underline the difference between Gregory and Origen, for whom God is light; but it also serves to distinguish him from Philo, who only got to the second stage of Moses' ascent. The divine infinity is the culmination of Gregory's exploration of the divine nature and occurs in all of his mature writings, whether they are of a dogmatic or spiritual character. Part of Gregory's stress on the infinity of God arises from his awareness that the desire for the divine, which urges the soul to move ever onward in its passionate search for him can be satisfied with nothing limited. God is the 'ever beyond', 'the ever greater', the 'ever more'; in short, he is the infinite, and darkness rather than light is the more appropriate image with which to express this truth. Apart from the language of Scripture, Gregory may well have wished to distance himself from the contemplative tradition of the Greeks, where the accent falls on seeing, and on its intellectual counterpart, knowing. Plato had used the image of the sun to illustrate the nature of the Good; Gregory, perhaps in conscious contrast to this, used the language of darkness, where we cannot see, to suggest the fact that God lies beyond the reach of both bodily and mental seeing. Whatever the precise weight to be attached to the dogmatic and spiritual strands in Gregory's understanding of the divine infinity, his stress on this feature in both types of writing marks a new stage in the history of the idea of God.

The last and in some ways the most influential exponent of the idea of darkness in the patristic period is Denis the Areopagite. The extent of his dependence on Gregory of Nyssa is clear from his work, The Mystical Theology. Its first chapter is entitled, 'What is the divine darkness?' and begins with extremely negative language:

Trinity! Higher than any being, any divinity, any goodness!...Lead us beyond unknowing and light, up to the farthest, highest peak of mystic scripture, where the mysteries of God's word lie the brilliant darkness of a hidden silence.

Like Gregory's Life of Moses and to some extent indebted to it, Denis bases his account of the progress of the soul and of the divine nature on the same passages in Exodus that had influenced Gregory. The aim of the upward movement for Gregory had been the darkness where God was; for Denis in chapter 2 it is the darkness 'so far above light'. Indeed, Denis is more consistently and resolutely apophatic than his predecessor. Had he received any particular experience which enabled him to speak with such evident assurance about the remoteness of God? We do not know. Like most of his predecessors in the patristic period he is very reticent about himself, in this unlike Plotinus (205-70) the great neo-Platonist mystic philosopher, who did experience ecstasy and vision. It is hard to believe that the strong, convinced and passionate language of Denis springs simply from some abstract theologi-cal speculation, especially when it is remembered how close theology and spirituality were for the Fathers. In the absence of any clear evidence, it seems best to conclude that Denis did enjoy some temporary elevation of the spirit, which he calls ecstasy and to which he refers on several occasions in his writings. In the opening chapter of The Mystical Theology he writes: 'It is by an unrestrained and absolute ecstasy from yourself and from everything that you will be carried up towards the ray of divine darkness beyond being.' The idea of ecstasy here expressed is not that of the Montanists, who had apparently employed the word in order to describe a wholly irrational encounter with the divine Spirit. Far from being irrational, Dionysian ecstasy is the mysterious perfection of our natural powers in the presence and enjoyment of God, who is beyond all being and conception. It is important to make this distinction between rational and irrational ecstasy, in order to avoid the suggestion that once the Montanist challenge was over the Church simply reverted to a Montanist position. Although both Gregory and Denis use the language of divine drunkenness and of ecstasy and darkness to describe their relation to God, they must not be taken to mean by this language a form of irrational religion, but, rather, a form of supra-rational religion.

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