Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church

Filter By:

            “The people who have walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who have lived in a land of deep darkness–on them has the light shined.” It is nearly impossible that any people of this earth would not understand – and delight in – this prophesy of Isaiah were they to hear it. To be in the dark is a bad thing; to see the light is a good thing. Everybody everywhere knows that.

            For example, in ancient Greece, Plato proposed an allegory of the human condition and its deliverance. We are like people chained in a dark cave, he said, people who are watching shadows flit across a screen-like wall in front of us. These are the shadows of cardboard figures that we cannot see, because they are being paraded in front of a fire behind us. Unable to turn our heads or see the source of the shadows, we think they are real. We even have contests where prizes are awarded for shadow-judging, not realizing how empty our judgements are. But, then, Plato goes on, imagine someone who is unchained and dragged out into the light from that cave. At first, her eyes might hurt, at first what she sees would appear unreal. But in time, in the light, she would see things as they really are. She would be enlightened. The one who walked in darkness would indeed have seen a great light. The Buddha would have understood, too, as he set his disciples on a path of enlightenment. “Sages cultivate the bright,” he says. The Bible says so, too, in several places. In the Gospel of John, we are told about the light that was with God in the beginning, that was the life of all people, and that has come and dwelt among us to set us free. We celebrate that event tonight.

            Three hundred years ago and even a bit more, Western society underwent a great intellectual upheaval that we now refer to as the Enlightenment. The men of that time thought that they had seen a great light, and that they had a great light to dispense to the world. That light, which they thought was unclouded reason, they asserted would liberate humanity from tradition and superstition, and bring humanity to fullness. They would see everything clearly. “What is enlightenment?” a leading philosopher asked. “To be freed from our self-imposed immaturity,” he answered. And how do we do that? “Dare to understand!” he declared.

            For a long time that attempt at enlightenment has been our heritage. So, how has it worked out for us? It has given us many good things, science and its vast, sprawling technological empire and whatever blessings that brings; they have been many. But for each blessing, there always seems to be a negative, too. We split the atom, and we made a bomb. We found new mobility and new power to build many things that have made human life better, but with them we also got pollution of water and air, and global warming that in time may well threaten life itself.

            But there is an even deeper and more disturbing aspect to our modern enlightenment, built on the light of reason alone. We have actually lost vision, vision that was wrapped in the silly things of old that we got rid of because they didn’t seem reasonable. Throwing them out, we have lost the vision that gives direction to our reason. For you see, reason is really a tool; and, without vision you can easily misuse the tool. With hammers and saws and nails you can build a house, but only if you know what a house is and what it is for. We don’t know what reason is for anymore. We don’t know what we are for. As a result, we have lost wisdom by pursuing the power of knowledge alone. We, in our hurry to grow up, have made the mistake that all adolescents make. Thinking they are adults and fully mature, they cast aside the wisdom and vision of the past, they think they are self-sufficient, that nobody has really thought before them. Unfortunately, they do not realize how deeply inter-related we all really are. They do not realize the deep wisdom that comes from having a heritage, a religion, that comes from having roots. They do not realize the importance of roots or of vision. That is us.

            The ambiguities of our present-day road to enlightenment underline this. On the one hand, many proclaim they no longer need God; because they have science, they find the very idea of God incredible. Yet, without any larger horizon, or purpose or vision, without an expanded mind and heart, reason itself can be doubted. Once it is, we tend to find ourselves in darkness. In America there are any number of people who have come to doubt reason itself and its conclusions, believing that you can believe anything you want – that the earth is flat, that it is only four thousand years old, that we are not actually killing the planet itself, that science necessarily excludes God, that we can have alternative facts. We need to realize that although many pundits play it this way, God and rationality are not the real antagonists here. In true enlightenment, belief leads to understanding. But, in the present age, both--what passes for much religion and much of what passes for reason--these days it is just one big shadow-judging contest. We are walking in darkness. As Proverbs said, “…when there is no vision, the people perish.”

            We all want to be knowing and rational. It is a great thing and should be pursued. The life of the mind ought to permeate all that we say and do, and it should be evident in them. But to be wise, to be enlightened, we need also to be silent and to listen and to lay aside our own words for a moment. We need to let in the Word and the Light that is above us, and we need to let it permeate our knowing. We need to let it get inside us and expand our very being. That is the only way we will be wise. That is the way we get vision. That is way that we come to enlightenment.

            This last year, a young colleague introduced me to the fine contemporary American poet, Christian Wiman who now teaches at Yale. His poetry rhythmically alters your imagination, and makes it dance. He has written some very thought-provoking prose as well, especially a book entitled My Bright Abyss. It is a wise book, and at the heart of it is a profound insight into the nature of faith. And, I would add, it is an important comment on what we have lost and what we need to be thinking about what we are doing tonight.

            Wiman grew up in West Texas and his family was properly evangelical. He imbibed the faith the way that anybody would who grew up in what Flannery O’Connor called “the Jesus-haunted South.” But after college, and moving to urban areas, he lost that faith. He lived in a culture now that was secular. He observes, “Live long enough in a secular culture. Long enough to forget that it is secular, and at some point religious belief becomes preposterous to you. Atavistic. Laughable.” Such is the mind set of many an enlightened sophisticate, as I suspect we all know. The Christian faith to many is so foreign, so foreign that it isn’t even worth arguing against it. As Wiman goes on, faith “seemed not only absurd to me, but an obvious weakness.”

            Wiman was diagnosed with a rare blood cancer. A young man, he had been married not all that long, he wanted children. But with the diagnosis, he didn’t know if he would live, or how long. Life had changed. Now, the way that these sorts of stories get told, this, the point where one faces his own mortality, is where the protagonist of the story always finds religion. The way that a lot of these stories get told, while sincere, can be a bit cheesy and naively saccharine. They ignore the hard road out of the cave. Wiman tells his own story of awakening differently. He says that there wasn’t a bolt out of the blue or anything like it. What did happen is that he realized, he says, that his old ideas simply “were not adequate for the extremes of joy and grief that I experienced... but when I looked at my life through the lens of Christ it made sense. The world made sense.”

            Think carefully about what exactly he is saying. It isn’t just about facing your mortality and it certainly isn’t wondering about where you will end up. It is about living with an illness that makes you sick, and it means, too, that you have other times when you are in remission and hope that it won’t come back. It is about being married to somebody you love, and about having children with that person even though you don’t know how long you will live. It is about loving life in a way that people who take it for granted never do, and it is also about real pain, intense pain, and it is about hope and it is about worrying about loss. All of these things are an everyday present reality that Wiman lives with. They are extreme. Now, how do you make sense of that? How do you tell the truth about the good and the bad? How do put all these things together without lying so that you have a life that you can call yours? How can you pack all that is happening to you into that life? How do you do justice to everything that is going on? Well, as Wiman tells it, the old ideas didn’t let him do that. The faith that he recovered did.

            What exactly that means is what we need to pay attention to, for it means something about human nature itself. Human nature is unlike that of any other animal. It can change, it can change radically. It can expand, and it can contract. Nice dogs get mean if you mistreat them; skittish dogs might learn to be trusting in time with good treatment. But humans alone can expand their very being and become something that they weren’t before. They can take in new ideas and those ideas can change them forever. They can take in new ways of relating themselves to others, and those can change them forever. It can go either way, positively or negatively. What Wiman is telling us is that the old ideas, the smart, sophisticated rationality of his secular life couldn’t fit the highs and lows of life lived intensely. His life would have been contracted had he tried. Life would have been flat and ultimately pointless. But faith expanded it and gave him in full reality, his pain, his illness, and his joy and his love. But if that is so, then the lesson to take away is that, at the very least, faith is the very expansion of our souls. It is not just a set of propositions, either to be proved or to be laughed at. It is a new born capacity.

            But it is also something more than a new capacity. It is the discovery of a light within us. It is that light that creates the new capacity, that makes that new capacity what it is. That light that fills us is the real light, the real enlightenment that Isaiah promised. It is far more than reason; it isn’t a tool. But it does show us how to use reason.  That is what it means really to say that the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light, that light has shined on them.

            Tonight, we celebrate that the Word that was with God, that was God, the one that was light, the light of all people, became flesh. Indeed, God did become flesh. But what it means to say that the Word became flesh is not only that the God/Man existed and walked among us. It means to say that because the Light has become flesh that God has made human nature so that it can welcome and take in the Light; in Christ’s incarnation, flesh is now able to be a carrier of the Light. It means not only that the glory of the Lord shone all around, as the shepherds saw; it means that we can be filled with the glory of the Lord. It means that we can find the light that is within. That is what God meant to do on this night. For God meant to give us a light that would dwell within us, a light that would open us up to the whole world, a light that would make us love, and that would redeem our lives from the inside. Glory to God and peace to all on earth!