Saturday, December 22, 2007

Vulgate Verse: Deus lux est

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Now that I have finished doing the Vulgate Verses book, I have the pleasure of getting to comment on some of these verses here, focusing on the verses that seem to me to have a special significance for religious literacy and topics of general interest, completely aside from the Latin itself. You can see other posts in this series by clicking on the Vulgate Verses label.

Tonight is the night of the Winter Solstice, the longest night of the year. After tonight, the days will start getting longer, so the celebrations of the solstice often feature the symbolism of light and the triumph of light over darkness, which is why I chose this verse from New Testament letter I John to comment on today:
Deus lux est et tenebrae in eo non sunt ullae

God is light and there are no shadows in him.

(Greek: ὁ θεὸς φῶς ἐστιν καὶ σκοτία ἐν αὐτῶ οὐκ ἔστιν οὐδεμία)
We are so used to this type of Biblical language that it is hard to see it again with fresh eyes. The way I read this, although others might read it differently, is that it is a metaphorical statement, but one that is combined with a paradox.

It is a metaphorical statement in that the statement does not mean God is is the light that we see with our eyes, the physical light of the world, the particles and waves studied by physicists. Rather, God is like light; we can use our everyday experience of light in order to attempt to understand an extraordinary divine realm.

The paradoxical part is the second part of the verse: God is a light without any shadow part in him. The idea that light and shadows coexist is part of our everyday experience. Any object that is placed in front of a light casts a shadow. The day of light is succeeded by a night of darkness, and night's darkness is succeeded by day, and so on in succession. The night of the Winter Solstice, commemorated tonight, marks a pivotal moment in the balance of the day's light and the night's darkness, but it is still light with darkness.

The word "paradox" is from Greek and means, literally, beside or beyond (Greek para-) accepted appearances or common sense (Greek doxa). So a paradox is a statement beyond everyday experience, something outside accepted beliefs, yet which is nevertheless true. The idea that God is light is not paradoxical, but the existence of pure light, without shadows, introduces an element of paradox. The language of Christianity often revels in paradox, although sometimes we have grown so accustomed to the cliches of Christian expression that its paradoxical qualities escape us.

It is perhaps worth noting here also that "shadows" are at the heart of the Philip Pullman books, the trilogy comprising His Dark Materials, which has lately been upsetting some Christian organizations. In the universe imagined by Pullman, there is something called "dust" or "shadows," the embodiment of self-awareness, and also free will. Rumor has it that Pullman is working on a fourth volume which will be called the Book of Dust. We shall see what he has to say about shadows there! For me, rather than seeing a war between different systems of belief here, I believe we can learn more on both sides from the exploration of these different ways of seeing the universe, in all their metaphorical paradoxes.

Pullman's novels are famously set in an alternative Oxford, so I will use for an image here the motto of Oxford University itself, which is built on the metaphor of light which is at the heart of Christianity: Dominus illuminatio mea, "The lord is my illumination," as shown here in Oxford University's coat of arms:



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