The theory of illumination has fallen on hard times these days. Or has it? Has the light of human reason fully eclipsed the luminosity of God, or might human reason be growing dark while some other lights begins to shine? Might there not be a return of illumination or more sinister variety?
From Illumination to Enlightenment
While there were certainly ancient precursors, Augustine (5th centurty) is a high points for the theory of illumination. It theory states roughly that all our ideas of the world and God participate in the ideas which God has of them. Or said differently, everything we know is taught to us by God as He casts His light over the world. Everything is illumined according to the intelligible light of God.
This tradition carried on into the Medieval Ages and culminates Saint Bonaventure (13th century) who claims that the light of Christ illumines both the science of faith (theology) and the science of the world (philosophy). But along with this tradition began to grow another, more dialectical approach, prepared by Anselm (11th century). Thomas Aquinas, a contemporary of Bonaventure, articulates this approach as a dual light: the light of Christ and the light of human reason. The second light, while derived from the first, has its own integrity and autonomy. The light of human reason can illuminate worldly objects all on its own, leading toward an independent science of the world which exists alongside the divine science of God, illuminated in Christ.
Of course, eventually, in the modern Enlightenment (16th century) the light of human reason replaces the divine light altogether, such that philosophers began to dismiss the need for God’s illumination at all. In this great Enlightenment human reason comes out from under its self-imposed bushel (…I mean prison), and begins shining out as a beacon of hope amidst the Dark Ages. According to Enlightenment philosophers like Descartes and Kant, the Age of Illumination was really an age of darkness and obscurities.
From Enlightenment back to Illumination
Of course this tale could be told with more detail, but I wonder if with all the talk about being post-Enlightenment and post-modern that perhaps we have entered into a new Age of Illumination, but possibility of a more sinister kind.
In this hyper-technological and hyper-media age, where our faces are aglow from our smart phones and laptop screens, illumined by our televisions and neon lit billboards, our knowledge is now more and more given, shaped, and determined for us by other minds. But not the mind of Christ. But rather the target marketing, fear instilling, product placing, agenda setting minds of corporate executives and political think tanks, illuminating our world with the ominous glow and baleful brightness of global crises, economic meltdowns, and geo-political showdowns.
But this has all been prepared by critical theory and philosophy which sought to emancipate thought by revealing the historical determinacy of thought and meaning. Yet, with the dissolution of the Enlightenment project, the theory of illumination has come back, in a negative manner after the death of God: for Marx it is False Consciousness; for Freud it is the Super Ego; for Lacan it is the Big Other, or Symbolic Order; for Foucault it is the Knowledge/Power nexus; for Althusser it is the State Apparatus. These hermeneutics of suspicion took the theory of illumination based in transcendence and recast it as an immanent illumination of knowledge production, socio-economically based and cultural-linguistically conditioned.
And I would say that much so called postmodern and/or postmetaphysical theology often succumbs to this immanent illumination such that all talk about God actually become the darkness of vain human speech, conditioned and produced according to language and culture.
“This little light of mine…”
Perhaps, then, the work of contemporary theology (and practice) may therefore be very similar to that which Aquinas accomplished, albeit in the opposite direction. He sought to incorporate the independence of the human light into the reigning theory of divine illumination. We, on the other hand, must incorporate the independence of divine light into the reigning theory of historicized human illumination. Whereas Enlightenment philosophers sought freedom from theology’s illuminationist doctrines, today’s theologians must seek freedom from philosophy’s enlightenmental constrictions, which have redoubled into its own theory of illumination.
Perhaps the goal then is to reunite “this little light of mine” which shines forth from historically determined and linguistically conditioned reason with the divine revelation of God’s illumination, trans-historical and trans-linguistic.
Perhaps the goal of contemporary theology is to again be able to sing, and sing confidently:
Great Father of glory, pure Father of light,
Thine angels adore Thee, all veiling their sight;
All praise we would render; O help us to see
’Tis only the splendor of light hideth Thee!