Ask Dr. Cobb

March 2009 Question

I have a theological question. I understand the Divine as light, and energy. I understand energy as part of God's healing presence in the world. How does process theology come to terms with darkness? The whole darkness/light contrast contributes to racism, and, living energy still exists in the dark. There is the darkness in which we rest and sleep, the darkness which is the shade from the desert sun, the gentle dark.

Dr. Cobb's Response

It is certainly true that there is a widespread association of goodness, truth, and wisdom with light and of ignorance, confusion, and evil with darkness. And it is certainly true that this association has had destructive consequences. One of these is in the area of race, as noted in the question. Especially in the West, but not only there, light-colored skin has often been favored over dark. So far as I can recall, this prejudice does not show up in the Bible. Also, In the Bible, alongside a great celebration of light, there is a great appreciation of the shadow cast by great rocks in the desert and the shade of trees. Much as people everywhere enjoy the sun, especially those living in or near deserts are aware that one can have too much of a good thing. They are grateful for shade.

The associations that we should take seriously in a religious sense are, of course, not between light and the color of skin, but between light and seeing, and between seeing in a literal, visual sense, and understanding. We say, “Oh, I see!” when we grasp something. We speak of “insight” when we mean deep understanding. We say that someone is “in the dark” on some matter when she or he lacks information or understanding. People seek “enlightenment.” We say people are “blind” when they do not recognize what is happening before them. The connection of light and sight with wisdom is widespread and not connected with the color of the skin.

The prologue to the Gospel of John makes extensive use of these connections. The Word is the creative source of all things, but especially of life and of light. The light is here not literal vision but understanding, and it is not extinguished by the darkness of the world. Finally, the light is incarnated in Jesus. Some love darkness, or ignorance, and reject him. Others find salvation in him.

In addition to the totally unbiblical application of the preference for light to the color skin, the major damage of this imagery has been psychological. It often leads to the concealment even from oneself of those thoughts and feelings that are not socially acceptable. Obviously, this is not the point of the language in John or generally in the Bible. Often the world and what is socially acceptable in it are described as darkness, and the light is viewed as threatening to it. It brings to light what the society conceals and requires its members to conceal.

But in any society a child is brought up with ideas of what is socially acceptable, what may be brought to light without harm, and only a few really transcend the social pressures, whatever they may be. In some cases what they conceal for social acceptance are precisely those feelings that John would affirm as belonging to the light. But in a culture influenced by Christianity, it is likely that they will try to conceal such things as jealousy and anger and unacceptable sexual desires. Although most of us agree that on the whole it is better not to act on these, their concealment and even denial are profoundly unhealthy. In a truly biblical understanding it is the function of the light to bring all of this “to light,” but in a Christendom that absorbed the biblical vision only fragmentarily and often transformed the freedom it offered into a new law, the actual impact was quite different.

For these reasons, it is truly important to recognize the limitations and ambiguity of the language and images that we use with respect to light. That does not mean that we should try to avoid them. They are too deeply rooted in our tradition and in our personal experience for that. It means that we need to use other images as well and become more aware of the importance of checking each image with others.

Thus far I have responded simply as a Christian theologian. Christian process theologians certainly make use of the image of “light” just as other Christians do. We are greatly concerned for insight and wisdom, and we use images of light in this regard. Nothing I say below is intended to oppose such imagery.

On the other hand, we are not committed to use of visually oriented language to speak of wisdom. Indeed, we think that philosophically the strong focus on vision has led the West, sand many people elsewhere as well, away from true understanding and wisdom. Some scholars have suggested that the Hebrews were more focused on hearing than on sight, and process theologians think that some of what we most appreciate in the wisdom of what Christians call the Old Testament results from this priority. Even in John’s prologue, the agent is the “Word.”

Accordingly, in any technical presentation of process thought, light does not play a central role. We can celebrate shade and darkness just as well. The communication of meanings through sound is at least equally important. And we emphasize relationships that do not depend on any sense organ or even consciousness. We judge the value of both light and darkness, and of both sound and silence, by the norm of love.

The idea of “energy,” on the other hand, does play a central role in process thought. Process metaphysics emphasizes the shift of focus in physics from “matter” to “energy.” “Matter” is an idea that is rooted in visual and tactile experience. “Energy” is experienced at a deeper level than any of the sensations.

Actually, the word “matter” does not appear in physics. “Mass,” however, is a near equivalent. Einstein taught us to speak of “mass-energy,” and he showed us their equivalence. However, there are forms of energy that do not, in any ordinary sense, have mass; so it seems better to give priority to energy in our understanding of the physical world. An additional advantage is that we can think of our own experiences as expressions of “energy.” A process thinker can say that to be at all is to be an embodiment of energy. And an embodiment of energy is, necessarily an event.

Because “energy” derives its specific connotations from physics, Whitehead prefers to use “creativity” to label what is most universal. But we can say that every instance of creativity can also be called an “energy-event.” Whitehead holds that every event is something for itself as well as for others. So he is open to speculating about what energy is in itself. He proposes that it is emotion. Of course, the great majority of energy events are unconscious, and even in partly conscious human experience, much of the emotion is not conscious. Hence, most of reality consists in unconscious emotion. Of course, all of this applies to light, but it applies to much else besides.

For Whitehead, ultimate reality is creativity, which is nearly identified with energy. Some process theologians identify ultimate reality with God. However, Whitehead did not. For him, and for me, the word “God” is best used to identify that which makes for good in both a general value sense and in a moral sense as well. Creativity or energy is neutral. It is embodied magnificently in the explosion of a hydrogen bomb, but Whitehead does not think we should worship that kind of power. He discerned within the totality of reality a different kind of power, one that draws the world toward richer forms of experience and, when creatures with considerable capacity for self-determination arise, toward acting with a wider area of concern.

Above I referred to the Prologue of John. For Whitehead, too, there is a divine reality apart from which nothing has come into being. It draws creatures toward life and understanding. It draws us beyond instinct and self-interest to concern for others. That “lure” is present to us Christians with vividness and effectiveness in the person of Jesus, in whom we believe that it was uniquely enfleshed. It is the power of love, not force or coercion. It is the power that empowers and liberates, not the power that restricts and controls. We can also say that it is the power that “enlightens.” Again, we do not oppose the metaphor of light.

Process theology appreciates the image of “God’s healing presence.” In a broad sense, that language can be used for the whole of God’s activity in the world. We believe that it is also quite literally true with respect to what happens in our bodies and psyches. God works for health in all the cells in our bodies and in our psyches as well. Doctors can do much to remove obstacles to that healing work, but for the actual healing they too must rely on that aspect of nature that we call “God.” All of us can work with God, physically and psychologically, instead of placing obstacles in the way of healing.

Overall, my answer to the question is that the questioner might consider trying out different images. Light is certainly important and valuable as a way of thinking of God. But the problems she noted show its limitations. For Christians “love” is more central than light. The one systematic theology that process theologians can fully affirm is Daniel Day Williams’ The Spirit and Forms of Love. I continue to recommend it heartily.   

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