Choosing the Light

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And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light, and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.

John 3: 19-21

It is hard to be born as a human being, and hard to live the life of one. It is even harder to hear of the path; and harder still to awake, to rise and to follow.

The Dhammapada, v. 182

Last evening while watching the news, I saw a report about a governor in an American state who was threatened with impeachment over an extra-marital affair with a member of his staff and his misuse of state funds for personal purposes. The governor, while refuting that he had actually had an affair, admitted to an improper relationship. What was striking, however, was his struggle to articulate his responsibility in the matter. As he spoke publicly about the matter and came to the moment to describe his own stance in the situation, he said that he was “in control.” It was clear to any listener that the word to describe what he meant was “responsible.” Yet, he could not either find the word or bring himself to utter it.

It is hard, says the Buddha, to be born as and to life the life of a human being. It is harder still to awaken to “the path,” the Way of distinctively human possibility, and to follow it. Yet, this is what is required if we are to “do what is true.” It is hard for us to admit to and to commit ourselves to follow a truth that often asks of us more than we are able to fulfill. So, we tend to prefer the darkness of relativity to the light of Jesus, to the Way that He is. Our choices for the “darkness rather than light” are usually more choices to live half awake than to choose the hard path of awakening.

It is very difficult to say to ourselves as well as to others that “I am responsible” for my own failure to live the truth. It is easier to adopt a tired and cynical view of reality that reduces truth to historical and cultural pulsations, and so to the reactions of others to us. We can find ourselves far afield from the teaching of Psalm 1.

Happy the one
who never follows the advice of the wicked,
or loiters on the way that sinners take,
or sits about with scoffers,
but finds his pleasure in the Law of Yahweh,
and murmurs God’s law day and night.

We come to the light, says the Jesus of John’s gospel, by doing “what is true.” This requires courage on two fronts. First, the courage to “awaken” and “follow the path” of a Way that is far beyond us, that asks of us what feels to be far more than we are capable. The call to love our enemies, to give all we have to the poor and follow Jesus, to turn the other cheek when one strikes us, and on and on are not things most of us, with the rare exception, can ever truly carry out. Which takes us to the second demand on our courage and commitment: we must come to be able to acknowledge and to repent each time we love “darkness rather than light.” To live the life of a human being in all of its possibility requires of us a constant stance of humility. Paradoxically enough, we most often follow the path and live in the light in our taking full responsibility for failing to do so. This is what the medieval mystics meant by speaking of being “put in our place” or “brought low.” The reality of God’s love (“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son . . . .”) is known to us in the fact that it comes to us even, and perhaps especially, in our failure to be true to our destiny as beings who are, in fact, so loved.

In our day, many would call hypocritical the holding to a Way that we do not always, and perhaps not even most often, live up to. It may even seem a waste to devote one’s life to following a path that is unrealizable. Such a view, however, reduces the significance of the human person. Rather than recognizing that it is “hard to be born as a human being . . . and to live the life of one,” this perspective wants to make it easy, to reduce human life to just what it appears to be. Yet, the reality within and among us of the One who has been sent into the world  to save us reveals to us all who we truly are and how God sees us. This day, as every day, we shall at times prefer the darkness to the light. If we can, however, keep returning to the truth we shall at the same time be choosing the light. In the truth, we bring all of our deeds, good and evil, virtuous and sinful, into the light, the light of God’s love and mercy toward us and all our world.

The world is cruel and God is merciful. The sword draws blood on every side and God is righteous altogether. The great religions are counterstatements made against a reality that does not affirm them with much consistency at all. This can only have been truer in any earlier century, when life was more brutal than we in the West can readily imagine. The temptation has always been to hold affirmations of this kind up to given reality and then declare the two of them irreconcilable, the faith statements therefore unsustainable, weighed and wanting. This is to deny the ethical meaning of such affirmations. Sigmund Freud said we cannot love our neighbor as ourselves. No doubt this is true. But if the reality that lies behind the commandment, that our neighbor is as worthy of love as ourselves, and that in acting on this fact we would be stepping momentarily out of the box of our subjectivity, then a truth is acknowledged in the commandment that gives it greater authority than mere experience can refute. There is a truth that lies beyond our capacities. Our capacities are no standard or measure of truth, no ground of ethical understanding.

Marilynne Robinson, The Givenness of Things, pp. 99-100  

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