The Season of Epiphany, which began on the 6th of January, is closely associated with the symbol of light, which is why we are using “This little light of mine” as our opening song until the beginning of Lent.
Immortal, Invisible, the classic hymn we sang just a moment ago, also uses light as a central image. In doing so, Walter Smith, the lyricist, makes several references to a paradox – the fact that we need light in order to see, but at the same time, too much light can blind us. “Oh help us to see,” the last verse asks, “’tis only the splendour of light hidest thee.”
We have all had the experience of looking in the direction of the sun and being unable to make out anything at all. With age, I have found this becomes a more frequent problem, particularly when driving. Too much light is almost more of a danger than too little.
Doug Hall, the United Church’s foremost theologian, wrote a little book nearly forty years ago that he called “Lighten our Darkness.” His central idea is that the Christian church in North America has been blinded by the light of its overly optimistic interpretation of the gospel story. In order that the church may understand the deep meaning of the story, Hall says, we need to abandon our optimism and recognize that rather than living in ever-increasing light, we live in deep darkness.
The optimism of which Hall is critical is not particular to the church, it is a cultural norm that arose with the Enlightenment of the 18th century – there’s the reference to light again. It is the idea that human beings are on an inevitable path of progress, moving from light unto light. As science and technology unravel the mysteries of the universe we will see more and more clearly and so we can control our future and ensure that it is an ever happier, more prosperous and even peaceful one.
Barbara Ehrenreich wrote a book in 2009 called “Bright-Sided” in which she claims that positive thinking has undermined America’s culture and economy. She is pointing to the same sort of unrealistic optimism that Doug Hall referred to thirty years earlier. The idea that ‘if I really set my mind to it, I can achieve anything’ or the notion that “anyone can become rich” are individual examples.
A few ideas that illustrate how this optimism appears on a social scale include the notion that the economy can keep growing forever and so we will solve the problems of poverty if we just keep making and selling more stuff. Or the claim that technology will find a way to repair all the damage that is done to our fragile planet in pursuit of economic well-being for the small minority of the earth’s population.
Perhaps the clearest example of the lunatic optimism to which Ehrenreich points was the sub-prime mortgage boom that led to the financial crash of 2008. Thousands of people with little or no credit history, often with little work history, signed up for mortgages on houses they could not afford. The mortgages were structured with low payments for the first six or twelve months and then the borrower was required to make a balloon payment, to catch up on all the interest they had not been charged initially. The theory was that since house prices were rising the balloon payment could be met by refinancing, getting a new mortgage. There may have been some vague hope that the borrower would eventually get a job and be able to pay, but much more important was the optimistic faith that the market would keep going up and up and up.
Optimism about the future, the expectation that things will get better with time, is not necessarily blind to the fact that we face some challenges: challenges of war and peace, civil unrest, economic crashes and ecological degradation. But optimism of the sort that Doug Hall is warning us against does blind us to the reality that not all these challenges can be met by human ingenuity. Even if the optimist points to God, not humankind, as the saviour, there is not much of a record of the world being saved from disaster through the intervention of an omnipotent god. We need to consider the possibility that making things come out in a way that we see as alright in the end is either not God’s intention or not within God’s power.
The current issue of the Observer includes an interview with Wendell Berry a poet, teacher and sage who speaks with a voice that is much like that of the prophet Isaiah. Berry echoes the concern of Doug Hall with the relentless optimism of the church and our society. For something like fifty years he has been advocating a return to a much simpler lifestyle, one where we cultivate the earth where we stand, rather than behave as if we can control for our benefit the activities of people in far away lands.
Towards the end of his interview, Berry says that he is skeptical of optimism and sees little reason to hope for a better future. “The future,” he says, “is a non-existent place in which we deposit…our wishful thinking.”
The prophet Isaiah is, I think, of the same opinion about the future, at least as he expresses himself in the passage that we heard read this morning. “I have spent my strength for nothing and in vain.” He declares. He has tried to convince the people of Israel to return to God, and they have ignored him.
Even though God has appointed him, the prophet is not letting that persuade him that he will succeed. At this point he sees nothing but darkness. Nor is he optimistic that the light of God will overwhelm the darkness.
God’s response is, it seems to me, paradoxical and puzzling. God says to Isaiah “the task of being a prophet to Israel is too small, so here’s what I want you to do – become a light to all people on earth so that they may come to know God.”
This is not the Immortal, Invisible God of light inaccessible that we are hearing from. This is a God who says to the despairing, you are the light for the world.
The ethos of the modern era, with its confidence in human ingenuity and our capacity to control nature, has led humankind to believe that progress is inevitable, that there really is no darkness, no evil, because the light is just getting brighter and brighter all the time.
If, however, we look at the historical record, we see that the world has gone down as often as it has gone up. Certainly this is so in the modern era. While there have been marvelous discoveries that have eliminated diseases like smallpox and polio, we have also created diseases with carbon dioxide in the air and sugar in nearly all the processed food we consume.
While there has been great progress toward peace, notably the avoidance of nuclear war since 1945 and the peaceful walk to freedom in South Africa, there has certainly not been an end to war as we see in such places as Syria and South Sudan.
One could go on and on. For every advance that argues for optimism, there has been an equal, if not greater step towards annihilating the human race and perhaps the planet.
The prophets of peace have every reason to join Isaiah in saying their work has been in vain. But God does not accept the fact that the work is difficult as a reason to stop. God gives Isaiah an even larger task – not to save the world or to bring the world to God, but to be a light to the world.
This involves recognizing that the world is in darkness and in need of light. How we bring that light into the world is up to each of us, but it is up to each of us.
The problem with optimism is that it is really a sort of determinism; it is the attitude that the world will inevitably get better – it just has to be that way. And if the world is on the path to getting better and better, then it really doesn’t matter what you or I do, does it? The future will turn out just fine.
The truth is, there is nothing inevitable about a good outcome, even with God on our side. The Christian faith is not faith that God will make it all right in the end. It is faith that God will be with us until the end.
The gospel passage for today introduces Jesus as the Lamb of God, which sounds lovely until we remember that lambs were commonly used as sacrificial animals in the temple cult of ancient Israel. And of course, Jesus met an untimely death on the cross. The events of Good Friday don’t teach us that everything turns out alright in the end, what they teach us is that God does not abandon us even in the worst of circumstances.
Jesus, like Isaiah, may well have said that he was an utter failure at the moment of his death. When the story continued on Easter morning, however, we are told that, despite appearances to the contrary, God had not abandoned him. But neither had God smitten the evildoers responsible for that death, or done anything to stop the thousands of crucifixions that followed.
God’s presence in the world is not a blinding light that eliminates the darkness. The church claimed for all the centuries of Christendom that God did so, but we see nothing to confirm that claim. What we do see is that the presence of God in the lives of those who are in despair, like Isaiah, like Jesus, has the power to act as a candle in the darkness and thereby affirm for us that we are loved and that our lives have meaning and purpose.
With that affirmation we can act in hope, not hope in a future of wishful thinking, but as Wendell Berry puts it, hope that comes from a “critical knowledge of our history and [a] critical understanding of our present selves. [Hope that rests] on the knowledge of the good work that has been done in the past, and is being done in the present,” and, as Berry says in his poem The Wild Geese, “And we pray, not for new earth or heaven, but to be quiet in heart, and in eye clear. What we need is here”.
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