One of my friends, the most brilliant man I know, is a molecular biologist. He is also a Dominican priest, equally at home speaking to world-class scientists on the aging of cells as he is speaking to ordinary people on submitting to the direction of the Holy Spirit in all that they do, including such simple things as deciding what path to take to go home.
One day, we were discussing the fruitful relationship between faith and reason. He said that he held the Catholic faith because of, literally, “everything,” or as I like to call it, The Everything. It is not only its explanatory power that appeals, but its power to bring us into ever-deeper relationship with the infinite and inexplicable: beauty, goodness, personal being, love, God Himself.
What might we expect of such a faith? Chesterton said it was like a key that fit the wondrously specific indentations of the lock of reality. Of such a key we might say two apparently contradictory things.
One, that its engagement with reality is everywhere. There is nothing so mundane or lowly that it escapes the notice of the faith. The key meets the lock at every point. And indeed the faith instructs us not only on the nature of heaven, but on the nature of earth.
It does not recommend escape, either with a golden Buddha or a steely Marcus Aurelius. In this sense, the key is like any other. But only one key fits the lock exactly, so we should also expect to find that, in important regards, it is unique.
Here we must take Chesterton’s advice, and be like the pilgrim who traveled the world and arrived at the destination of his dreams, and found it to be the home he had left but had not known aright.
We are too familiar with the Scriptures; we are too familiar with the Church; we are too familiar with at least a caricature of Jesus – it is a disquieting thing to meditate too long upon Jesus.
So, I want to begin a series of columns here examining this uniqueness.
There is no better place to begin than the beginning: “Let there be light, said God, and there was light.” A revelation that, if we could but understand it, should strike us with a tremor of the heart. What does it mean?
The first thing to note is its bold uniqueness. In every other “creation” story I know of, such as the Babylonian Enuma Elish or Hesiod’s Theogony, there’s some primal violence or sexual intercourse or spontaneous birthing or sculptor-like shaping. But the verse here rules all of that out.
It proceeds with the minimal metaphorical vehicle necessary to impart meaning to the human imagination – particularly the imagination of a half-barbaric people, as were the ancient Hebrews. The action, too, is not an action at all, but a speaking: God said.
We need not here consider the profound relationship between this verse and the other in principio of sacred scripture: “In the beginning was the Word.” The “saying” is an instantaneous act of the creative and loving will of God. Its immediacy is suggested by the Hebrew words.
Hebrew oddly alternates verb forms after the conjunction “and.” Practically, this means that a normally future form will be used for the past, after the conjunction. In Hebrew: “W’yomer Elohim: Yehi ’or, w’yehi ’or.” The “let there be” and “there was” are identical, in language and in being. It is as simple as that.
That is not only far from the Enuma Elish’s tale of the world as fashioned from the dismembered parts of the evil sea-goddess Tiamat. It’s on another plane of understanding entirely.
We see this more clearly when we consider what God first makes: light. Not the earth, sea, stars, nor any object bounded in any other way than by the being of God. For the phrase cannot have meant, to the Hebrews, “Let there be photons.”
What does light mean in their ancient writings? The psalmists speak again and again about the light of the countenance of God, or the light of wisdom imparted by God: “In your light we see light.” The word implies intelligibility and truth, and especially the truth of the right paths of godly life.
To put it in Greekish terms, “Let there be light” affirms that there is reason all the way to the core of things. Reason is not some film floating atop a pond of unreason, a late comer to the universe. We do not have to accept the springing of intelligibility from the unintelligibility of pure nothingness.
The verb “let there be” is a command: it corresponds in the verse to come with, “God saw the light, that it was good.” The “seeing” of God is not to be interpreted temporally – as if God’s seeing depended upon a prior event. He created what was good, because of his own eternal, self-possessing, and self-communicating goodness.
But to put it in Hebrew terms, “Let there be light” affirms that there is love all the way to the core of things. To walk in the light is to walk with God. The light is good, that is to say desirable, because the God who made it is desirable.
The Neo-Platonists, a thousand years later, would come around to saying that. But since the light is made, and not simply an automatic effluence of the great Alone, as in Neo-Platonism, its goodness is an invitation to approach its Maker.
The covenant is already revealed, in that first terse and explosive sentence, “Let there be light.” And, therefore, so too is revealed what the Church has consistently taught: man is made for love and that if we are not to be intellectual and existential cripples, when we talk of truth, we must talk about our longing for union, personal union, with the Truth, for, as the exalted apostle says, “God is light.”