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The light shines incomprehensibly

Through this spring my parish, St. George’s in Dayton, Ohio, is doing a congregation-wide immersion in John’s Gospel. Close to 70 folks have purchased copies of Tom Wright’s John for Everyone. Wes Hill of Trinity School for Ministry and David Watson of United Theological Seminary will visit as guest teachers and preachers, a special collections librarian from the University of Dayton will give us a lecture on manuscript illuminations of John’s Gospel, and we’re hosting an art installation during the month of April from Christians in the Visual Arts.

As we begin this journey deeper into the Fourth Gospel, that magnificent prologue greets us like a banquet. I wager that many readers of this blog could preach on demand about its nuanced beauty and its message about the Incarnation. One particular word from the prologue has always captivated my attention: what the darkness has not done to the light in 1:5. The Greek verb can be translated as extinguished or overcome. But it can also mean understoodor perceived. The Vulgate preferred comprehend (specifically non comprehenderunt).

That beautiful phrase about light shining in darkness, but the darkness not “comprehending” it, has always arrested me. Having a rather low (perhaps Barthian) view of the natural universe — its normative posture of entropy, decay, brutal cold, violence, and death — I am always encouraged by the message here: there is light in that brutal darkness and there is nothing the darkness can do about it. All that violence, decay, and death does not have the final word.

But there’s more than a simple dichotomy between light and dark here in John 1. Comprehend implies both overcome and understood together. To comprehend something means to master it by knowing it. When we say the darkness has not comprehended the light, it means the light is both stronger than the dark and beyond the darkness’s ken and understanding. To put it another way, the darkness remains powerless in the face of the light in part because the darkness cannot even begin to grasp the light.

A few weeks ago, my kids and I were visiting the children’s museum in Dayton and in the science wing I noticed a quotation on the wall. I’d been there before, but had missed it on previous visits. The quotation was from Einstein: “The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible.” Now, I’m certain there is a great deal of context and nuance that I’m missing about that nugget, but I was struck by what appeared to be hubris in this sentiment. I say this because, even as one who supports scientific inquiry and STEM education and holds no doubt (for example) about the perilous state of climate change, I am consistently in awe of how beyond our ken — our comprehension — most of the universe really is.

Later that same day, I heard that same Einstein quotation again (I’m not making this up). That afternoon I was listening to PRI’s Science Friday, and a segment within the show was on very big questions in physics. Pushing against the modernist teleologies still bumping around in our culture since the Enlightenment, the guests on this episode (who work at Yale, MIT, UC Irvine, and the University of Illinois) argued that we are at a point of “precision ignorance.” They said that we understand only a fraction of a fraction of how the universe even works.

When the host of Science Friday quoted the line from Einstein, one of his guests took a deep, pensive breath and spoke about how so much of modern science, at a philosophical level, presupposes an enormous level of human capabilities, an omnicompetence. She then highlighted that, perhaps, we do have limitations. Perhaps we are not omnicompetent. Perhaps the universe is (ultimately) beyond our comprehension. Another guest then described his vision of a great tragedy: an alien race visiting us with enormous levels of scientific information that our brains simply cannot comprehend.

Back in 2015, Rowan Williams gave a fascinating lecture at Durham University [YouTube] on these sorts of topics: epistemology, the mythos of human progress so dominant in the West, the way the mind and the body are not independent in knowing something, the role of the community in knowing something. There is simply too much in that lecture to even begin the task of summary, but I was struck by the linking in the archbishop’s discussion between contemporary approaches to knowledge and control. Here again is that connection: competence, comprehension, and control.

The point of this brief reflection is not to advance a philosophical “God gap.” Even less is my point to bash science and the important work scientists do (work that should be well funded, I quickly add). The point is rather to give hope to those who, like me, look out into the darkness with a mix of wonder and worry. The good news for those of us who look out into that void is that the darkness has not comprehended the light. Chaos and decay, greed and corruption, injustice and ultimately death are the things that are passing away. The light shines in the darkness. It shines incomprehensibly. And the darkness cannot understand it, control it, name it, manipulate it, or master it. The light shines in the darkness. And the darkness did not, does not, and will not comprehend it.


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