Archives For The Enlightenment

This entry is part 2 of 5 in the seriesThe Light of the World

In John 7, the Jews go up to Jerusalem to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles. While this festival is going on, there is nonstop speculation about who Jesus is. Everyone is talking, whispering, and accusing with regard to Jesus’ identity and intentions.

Some are convinced that “he is a good man,” and others are saying exactly the opposite: “no, he is leading the people astray” (7:12). The question of whether or not Jesus is the Messiah gets raised a few times (7:26-27, 31, 41). Others speculate that perhaps Jesus is “the Prophet” (7:40), an Old Testament figure that would rise up to fill the shoes of Moses in leading God’s people.

CandleIt’s in this context that Jesus addresses the people in John 8:12, and says simply: “I am the light of the world.”

Light is a common metaphor. It speaks of purity rather than filth. Of truth rather than error. Of knowledge rather than ignorance.

As it happens, we have many candidates vying for the status of “light of the world.” In the 17th and 18th centuries, we had “The Enlightenment,” where the wisdom of the ancient Greeks was re-embraced. Some of these enlightenment philosophers were set on escaping the darkness in which the church had held the world (during a period that came to be referred to as “The Dark Ages”), and shining the light of true humanistic, autonomous, philosophical light around the world.

Those types of thoughts are still with us. Some would say that knowledge is the light of the world. All we need is better education and we will step out of darkness and into the light. Or perhaps we could argue that science is the light of the world. As we learn more about our universe through science, we will finally be able to become the type of superhuman race that can rid the world of its evils and enter into a golden age. Others would argue that deep religious knowledge is the light of the world. We need to look deeply within and gain the type of inward knowledge that leads to enlightenment (this is the mystical/eastern/new age approach).

But Jesus’ statement is unequivocal. I—and I alone—am the light of the world! It’s fascinating to consider that Jesus made this statement hundreds of years after Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle lived and spoke their profound philosophical teachings. As helpful as those insights may be—and some have said that all philosophy is simply footnotes to Plato, these guys still have a voice in the debates—there is only one light of the world.

The setting in which Jesus spoke these words is also significant. John 8:20 tells us that Jesus spoke these words in the treasury, which means that he was in the Court of the Women, which was the most public part of the temple. In this court were four golden candelabras. Each had four golden bowls that were filled with oil by the priests. On the first night of the Feast of Tabernacles, which was either still going on or newly ended at this point, these candelabras would be lit. These may have inspired Jesus’ statement.

Pillar of FireBeyond that, the Feast of Tabernacles is significant here. They were celebrating God having led his people out of slavery in Egypt, through the wilderness (hence the “tabernacles” or tents), and into the Promised Land. Remember that God led his people as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. It was this unique light that guided the people out of slavery and into the Promised Land.

And here Jesus stands, at the conclusion of this feast, identifying himself as the light of the world. He is the one who will lead his people out of slavery and into the Promised Land. And he will lead not only his Jewish people, but the whole world. Jesus says, “Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” We won’t be lost, we will know where to go. We will know who to follow. We will have the light of life within us. And as we will see in the next post, this last statement is incredible.

 

We are often told that Christianity is incompatible with scientific inquiry, or even that Christianity is anti-scientific. We are told this so much that we begin to believe it. Maybe they’re right, we think, maybe I should keep my religion safely tucked behind the church doors and leave the science to those who aren’t so biased by religious beliefs.

But here’s the thing. If our Christianity leads us to have a religious experience with the God who claims to have crafted this world—who claims to actually hold it in existence at every moment—then shouldn’t he know what he’s talking about when it comes to describing the way the world works? I should think so. Should we really be satisfied with a God who can explain the longings of our souls but who can’t write basic history and seems to be clueless about scientific principles? I should think not.

So the whole “Christianity is anti-scientific” thing should strike us as odd.

Despite what we’re told, Christianity is pro-science. In fact, science as we know it has Christian origins. In the midst of sixteenth-century Europe, a part of the world in which the Christian worldview was still dominant, scientific discoveries began to pile up at a shocking rate. Contrary to what leaders in the Enlightenment claimed, it was not “throwing off the shackles of the church” that allowed scientists to make these discoveries.

In this historical context, people believed that the universe had been created by a reasonable, personal God. And as such, the universe could be known and understood. More than that, the universe was worth examining because through knowing the universe people could learn about the God who made it.

If the universe was all an illusion to be rejected—as in Eastern pantheistic belief—then why would we examine the illusion? If God were fickle and changing, then we wouldn’t have any reason to believe that his world would operate consistently. But God is a loving and careful creator, so why shouldn’t we be able to know him and his world by studying it? What might we learn by paying close attention to the phenomena that take place around us all the time?

Blaise Pascal

It’s not that every scientist at this point in history was a devout Christian. It’s simply that the Christian worldview, which believes in an orderly, reasonable, personal God, was dominant at this time. So even those who were more deistic (believing that God created the world and then backed away) or those who disbelieved in God’s existence were still shaped by this worldview that saw the world as ordered and understandable. And many of the scientific discoveries at this time were made by committed Christians. A good example of this is Blaise Pascal, who was pretty much brilliant in both the scientific and theological worlds.

I would recommend two books to those who want to look into this further. Francis Schaeffer explains this in How Should We Then Live? in a chapter entitled “The Rise of Modern Science.” His account is compelling and easy to read. The other book to look at is Rodney Stark’s For the Glory of God. His chapter entitled “The Religious Origins of Science” explores this in much greater depth, and he cites a wide range of historical writing and source material.

In any case, the origins of modern science show that Christianity is not anti-science. We should be the first to promote science and to warmly welcome its investigation into the world God made. Of course, we should all be careful of biases that are inevitably involved in every area of human endeavor, but this does not make science bad. Christianity is not anti-science, nor is science anti-Christian. Let’s remember that the next time we’re told to mind our own business and get back to our religious games.

 

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