Unapproachable light

October 30, 2007 | 19 comments

I had a little experience this weekend that was what my aunt would call a “Godincidence”, and what I would call “an event that seems like it might have been a direct answer to a prayer but could have just been a coincidence and since I try not to state definitively what is and is not a direct act of God in my life I’ll leave it to you to decide”. (My aunt’s term is better). Anyway, since I know everyone likes to hear little stories like this I thought I’d share:

As I mentioned in my last post, I’m reading Brian Greene’s The Elegant Universe. When I got to the part about the fascinating behavior of light I was reminded that, for a long time, it’s seemed to me that light might be very closely associated with God. Even when I was still basically an atheist but considering exploring religion, when I read about light and its behavior I thought, very un-eloquently, “that seems kind of God-ish”. I would read about things like the fact that time slows down as you approach light speed; or that light exists in an “immortal” timeless/ageless state (as one physicist put it: “the universe ages, light does not”); that the combined speed of any object’s motion through space and its motion though time is always exactly equal to the speed of light, etc.; then I would recall that those Christians were always associating God with light, and I’d think…hmmm…is there anything to that?

Anyway, all these thoughts were rekindled Saturday night as I read about light and relativity. The last sentence I read said:

No matter how hard you chase after a beam of light, it still retreats from you at light speed.

Wow! I put the book down after I read that to think about it. I find this concept of not ever being able to approach light so fascinating, especially the potential relation to God, that I cost myself some much-needed sleep lying awake to ponder it. I eventually said a heart-felt prayer asking God to let me know if there was anything to this, and finally drifted off to sleep.

The next day my mother-in-law was feeling down, so I Googled around for some inspirational Bible verses to cheer her up, and I came across the “fight the good fight” line in Chapter 6 of Paul’s First Letter to Timothy. In true procrastinator fashion, decided to skim the rest of the chapter. The first thing I saw was verse 16, which refers to God as he “who lives in unapproachable light”.

I thought that was interesting.


  1. Sarah

    That IS very interesting.

  2. Terri

    Definitely some food for thought here. I’ve got to get a copy of this book.

  3. Abigail

    Hmm, very interesting! And my kids think we light candles in church just because they look so pretty.

  4. jrg

    You’re definitely on to something, Jen, and your post reminds me of the first chapter of John’s gospel: John 1:5, 9-10 – “5The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. 9The true light that enlightens every man was coming into the world. 10He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world knew him not.”

    Also, I once heard a lecture where the speaker used light to describe the Holy Trinity. How can one God be three divine and distinct Persons, yet be the same God? How can something be of the same substance, but still be different and same at the same time?

    Light and brightness.

    Think of a lit candle – as the source of light in a dark room. The brightness that emanates from the candle’s flame is of the same substance as the flame but is not the flame itself. So it is with God in the world. We are surrounded, warmed and illuminated by the “brightness” of Him whether we realize it or not.

  5. blog nerd

    (We are on a divine uplink or something right now–I’m so with you here.)
    God is not of course the light–he created the light.But everything he created points back toward him.

    It is metaphor.

    How about this–

    I’ve been studying metaphor in cognitive science. Metaphor, it turns out, is not just a literary device it is the most basic mode of cognition. We learn reality through our experience of it which become imprinted on our brains as image schemas. This shapes our perception and language acquisition so much that it virtually defines it.

    If we are made in the image of God–and our minds are an image of God’s mind, why wouldn’t we find metaphor in all parts of creation?

    Why wouldn’t all parts of the created world reflect itself and God all the time, like a hall of mirrors, and then, in turn (very fractal-like) also reflect all of creation in each of even its smallest parts?

    I’m writing a piece on fractals and the scaramental imagination. One of those ones I can’t really finish because I keep having to rethink it. This just provided more fodder!

  6. Jordana

    That is really fascinating. The concept of how light works has always boggled my mind, but I had never before linked it to other mind bogglers like the eternal life of God.

  7. John Seymour

    We really shouldn’t be surprised (though I am constantly amazed) at how science matches up with our faith. If facts (the realm of science) are true, they must, of course, align with revealed truth.

    Of course, “knowing” that doesn’t reduce the goosebump factor.

    Blog Nerd, how close is your concept of metaphor to the Platonic Forms?

  8. blog nerd

    hmm–Platonic forms. Not really close at all.

    This concept of metaphor (not the theological part but the cognitive science part) is derived from the notion that we develop these image schemas from being embodied creatures who move through time and space.

    So the “forms” or image schemas are there from sentient experience.

    Plato believed there were these universal and a priori forms that are not derived from sense perception.

    Platonism posits these disembodied ideals–it becomes rather Gnostic if you carry that out to its furthest extreme.

    Though it is not usually used to argue for theism or any such thing–these cognitive theories deal with radical embodiment. There is no truth without bodily experience.

    Since God put his only Son into a body this sort of rings more true than universals that exist outside the experience of embodiment–

    My baby is crying…’

    interesting question…

  9. Anna

    I’m with Blog Nerd on this. To put what he said in my own words… We’ll go wrong if we think that light IS God (God created light as per Gen 1:3, and God isn’t physical the way light is). (Among other things, that would make nighttime essentially evil, rather than a different beauty than the day). But the God-like attributes of light don’t need to be accidental or coincidence, either; there’s a beauty in picturing God as making light as the physical image of Himself, reflecting various aspects of himself. And thinking that way also means that the Biblical comparisons of God to light aren’t just taking advantage of something that happens to resemble something in some way, but rather those comparisons are tapping into the deeper meaning and purpose that God gave to light when he made it.

  10. John Seymour

    Blog Nerd, Sorry, I wasn’t thinking so much of just the cognitive science piece (which as you say would be materialistic)as the theological aspect. If all parts of creation reflect God, can they be said to “participate” in God? Rather than Platonic Forms, this is probably Thomistic participation.
    I am probably misunderstanding your idea. After a lifetime of business and law, I am only now beginning to study philosophy and theology. My modest understanding of Plato is exceeded only by my near complete ignorance of TA. Well, not “only.”

    Again, I am probably misunderstanding you, but it seems to me wrong to say “[t]here is no truth without bodily experience,” as God is Truth and requires no bodily experience. But perhaps you mean that we have no avenue to understanding truth except through bodily experience. Something to think about.

    Jen, sorry for the off-topic digression. I think I will also order this book. I have just recently ordered two books on quantum mechanics. My philosophy prof made the comment that at the atomic level, reality is not deterministic (i.e., mathematic), but rather probabilistic. It was one of those comments that made me feel like the earth was shifting under my feet. I had previously understood Heisenberg (from high school and college physics) as addressing limits of knowing, not truly random behavior. As far as a Theory of Everything, my own thinking is that science will never achieve this because its tools are by definition limited to the sensible and the calculable. Any Theory of Everything will have to include God. As soon as well do that we have moved beyond physics, as in your reflection on light.

    Once again you have written a post that, together with the comments of your readers, has made me think. Thank you. God Bless.

  11. Matt

    As to the light being a creation of God, there is the theory in the Orthodox world (some would say the devotional center of the Orthodox world) of Hesychasm. The Hesycasts are a group of monks who lived on Mount Athos in Greece where they practiced a sort of silent reflective prayer. Some of the Hesycasts claimed that, after years of such silent meditative prayer, they were shown what they called the ‘uncreated light’ of God.

    They went on to develop whole theories of what this uncreated light was. It was not God Himself, for no man can see God and die, but rather God’s ‘energies’ as they put it.

    It’s a very interesting theory and that’s just a very surface level synopsis. St. Gregory Palamas (a St. in both the Orthodox and Catholic Churches) is the foremost scholar on the subject if anyone wants to look into it.

    In Pax Christi,


  12. blog nerd

    It’s a good point John, I’ll have to think about it.

    Except that God didn’t need bodily experience…

    …but chose to enter into it anyway.

    Jesus wasn’t just God’s son. He WAS God himself.

    He also has plans for our glorified bodies in heaven–this is part of Theology of the Body and I’m not sure I get it either but its also a part of the problem you point to in my statement, which I’ll admit is problematic but perhaps not entirely incorrect…

  13. Anna

    Angels presumably experience truth without bodily experience. I wouldn’t really expect human-based cognitive theories to apply to non-humans anyhow (including non-incarnated members of the Godhead).

    An interesting question, though, is whether the idea that “There is no truth without bodily experience” would conflict with Catholic doctrine/truth in general. Is it possible for a human to experience spiritual truth without there being a bodily component or reflection?

  14. blog nerd

    I suppose to be wicked safe I should retract and say, “FOR US there is no truth without bodily experience” or “God intended us to experience truth through the body”

    it is certainly true that Truth BECAME a body.

    JP II’s Theology of the Body has a lot to say about this.

    Interestingly enough, as a young philosophy student JP II was very interested in Phenomenology which was the philosophic antecedent to current neuro-cognitive philosophy.

    Phenomenology was very concerned with embodiment as a central fact of knowledge and was concerned with something known as “lifeworlds” which were only experienced in and through the body.

    JP II Theology of the body is very concerned with the Pauline teachings of the body which, of course, couldn’t reflect the current level of knowledge about how much mind (spirit) and body (brain) are truly connected. You’d expect there to be contradictions.

    But there is not–the body in Pauline doctrine is something that one needs to experience, honor, and MASTER in order to find peace.

    Another thing that is very clear we will achieve perfection only through a resurrected and glorified body–so we cannot really contemplate truth without a body since it is not destined for us to know such a thing. We are destined to exist in heaven in a glorified body.

    Could there be an intermediary experience of truth, passing between this body and the resurrected body we are destined for in heaven?

    Now that’s the real question I suppose.

  15. John Seymour

    Lot’s to think about. Thanks.

    I have Theology of the Body on my bookshelf. Its size and presumed density have been a little intimidating. I will have to pick it up and start in on it. But not until I finish Ratzinger’s Introduction to Christianity, which is taking longer than expected.

  16. John Seymour


    Thought you might be interested in the following from then-Cardinal Ratzinger’s Introduction to Christianity in a discussion on understanding the Trinity: “The physicist is becoming increasingly aware today that we cannot embrace given realities – the structure of light, for example, or of matter in general – in one form of experiment and so in one form of statement; that, on the contrary, from different sides we glimpse different aspects, which cannot be traced back to each other. We have to take the two together – say, the structure of particle and wave – without being able to find a comprehensive explanation – as a provisional assessment of the whole, which is not accessible to us as a unified whole because of the restrictions implicit in our point of view. What is true here in the physical realm as a result of the limitations in our ability to observe is true in an incomparably greater degree of the spiritual realities and of God.” In a footnote, he notes that Neils Bohr who introduced this concept of complementarity to physics explicitly related it to theology, to the complementarity of God’s mercy and justice.

    I read this earlier this week and immediately thought of this thread.

  17. Jennifer F.

    John – that is so interesting — thank you for posting that!

  18. Jeannelle

    I landed here from your 5/17/09 post. Its great to read your posts…..I’ve done some reading about quantum physics, nonlocality, light properties, etc., too, and find it all very fascinating.

    Here’s an amazing experience an acquaintance of mine had.

  19. teresa

    here's a story you may like but I wish I could share all of them with you.When I was a young girl, I used to lay out in the sun to tan in order to pass time and i would get lonely and think to myself that this sun was from God and He was my friend. Later in life when I came to know God I read a verse which stated that God is kind for He makes His sun to shine on the just and unjust alike.

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