Booknote: The Uncreated Light  

Posted by Joe Rawls

The Uncreated Light: an iconographical study of the Transfiguration in the Eastern Church, by Solrunn Nes. Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2007.

A Norwegian Roman Catholic iconographer? But of course! In this reworking of her University of Bergen master's thesis in art history, Solrunn Nes gives us not only artistic analysis but a very useful and concise review of the Eastern Christian view of salvation history.

The Transfiguration has always occupied a position of primary importance in Eastern spirituality, and its feastday on August 6 is celebrated with great solemnity. By contrast, it was a minor liturgical event in the pre-Vatican II Catholicism of my boyhood. Jesus and some apostles went up a mountain and something weird happened to Jesus. After the Council, the significance of the Transfiguration had nowhere to go but down.

Nes' main point is that in Jesus divinity and humanity have been fully united. The light emanating from Jesus during the Transfiguration is his divinity, uncreated light pervading his human flesh. This divine light--understood as a real manifestation of God and not a created thing--is not limited to Jesus. Human beings who have attained great intimacy with God sometimes manifest the uncreated light as well. This is the traditional Eastern interpretation of the glow radiating from Moses' face after he came down from Mt Sinai. St Simeon the New Theologian (949-1022) manifested this light several times and (atypically) wrote about it. Perhaps the best-known account of this phenomenon is the description left by the 19th century Russian Motovilov of his meeting with his spiritual father St Seraphim of Sarov.

The artistic depictions discussed by Nes include two mosaics (from St Catherine's monastery in Sinai and Sant Apollinare in Classe, Ravenna), an Ottonian manuscript illumination (10th century imperial Germany) and wood-panel icons from medieval Russia. These latter are by Theophane the Greek (reproduced above) and Andrei Rublev.

The theological points of which these pieces are artistic expressions can be summarized as follows:

  • God became human so that human beings can become Godlike.
  • The light manifested by Jesus during the Transfiguration prefigured the light he manifested when he rose from the dead. That light, in turn, prefigures the light we will manifest at the general resurrection at the end of time.
  • The general resurrection is not limited to humans but will include the entire cosmos, which will also glow with the uncreated light.
The process of becoming Godlike is called theosis or divinization. Theosis is a long, gradual process which begins in this life and continues after death. Christians can attain theosis (or begin to do so) by loving others, by living a life of prayer, and by participating in the sacraments, especially Baptism and the Eucharist.

A very valuable part of Nes' book is the 51-page appendix which is a compendium of biblical and patristic texts dealing with the uncreated light.

You might also be interested in another book by Nes, The Mystical Language of Icons, also published by Eerdmans (2004). This book contains many full-color reproductions of her icons.

Anglican Theology: Follow the Bouncing Balls  

Posted by Joe Rawls

The jolly lad to the left is Richard Hooker. Richard lived from 1553 to 1600. He was ordained in the Church of England and later appointed by Elizabeth I as Master of the Temple, making him the chaplain of the Inns of Court, a key part of the English legal education system. After ten years he moved to a country parish near Canterbury where, in the remaining five years of his life, he managed to crank out his magnum opus, The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity. Reading this is a tough slog, in that it comes off as Shakespeare written by a lawyer. Nonetheless, Hooker is considered the first great Anglican theologian. Even Pope Clement VIII was impressed by his work.

Hooker is widely credited with affirming that Anglican theology is based upon Scripture, Tradition and Reason, going so far as to create the analogy of a three-legged stool. Alas, this catchy image has proved to be something of an intellectual urban legend, for Hooker never said anything quite like that. See a recent post by Tobias Haller for a succinct discussion of the holy Hooker and his intellectual furniture.

Anglican theology has always struck me as more like trying to juggle three balls at once. The juggling act is complicated by the fact that, depending on the theologian, one of the balls is usually bigger than the others.

Evangelicals typically pay more attention to Scripture than to either Reason or Tradition. The Anglican Communion is on the verge of imploding in large part because some evangelicals, unable to compromise on " the authority of Scripture", are unwilling to gather around the altar with gays, lesbians, and those who support their inclusion in the church. Recently Nigerian Bishop Isaac Orama let fly with an exceptionally vicious example of where this can all lead which can be read about here.

Anglo-Catholics tend to give pride of place to Tradition, especially those aspects of it concerned with the sacraments, with liturgy, and with spirituality. As with evangelicals, there are several varieties of Anglo-Catholics, some of whom are less brain-dead than others. For some AC's, unfortunately, Tradition boils down to lace surplices, fiddleback chasubles, semi-closeted homosexuality, the Anglican Missal, and no girls allowed in the sanctuary (except for the altar guild, of course).

Liberal or broad-church Anglicans emphasize human Reason (with experience as a subset of reason) as the key factor in the interpretation of Scripture and theological Tradition. Members of this faction who've gone off the rails would include the late Bishop Pike, the present-day Bishop Spong, and those sympathetic with the work of the Jesus Seminar. Thes folks assume the validity of secular rationalism and assert that Christianity must adjust itself to post-Enlightenment worldviews or else become irrelevant. The net result, IMHO, is Unitarianism in drag.

Bearing this in mind, I am quite willing to admit that, concerning the issue of homosexuality, reason/experience trumps both Scripture and Tradition. Many Anglicans, both gay and straight, point to the existence of committed gay and lesbian monogamous relationships (usually in the face of overwhelming societal disapproval) as evidence that the anti-gay sanctions proclaimed for so long by the church must, at the very least, be rethought.

An excellent statement of this position can be found in an essay by Luke Timothy Johnson appearing in Commonweal, long one of the main house-organs for thinking Roman Catholics. Johnson is a Catholic himself, a professor at Emory University, and a former Benedictine monk. He left the monastery to marry a divorcee with six kids. They're still an item.

Johnson's essay is available here.