For years Kay and I used to go for an hour-long walk before breakfast, even when it was still dark. Those walks along Spanish Banks kept us in good physical condition, and sharing our concerns also kept our marriage strong.
Once at a conference over on the eastern shore of Vancouver Island, I awakened early and decided to get up and go for my usual walk along the beach.
Sands brought down by three rivers from mid-island mountains have accumulated in that area of the Strait of Georgia. The broad beaches extend an unbelievable distance out into the Strait—heading for Sechelt twenty-or-so miles to the east, over on the far shore.
The walking was easy for the tide was still out. Mine were the only footprints on the firm wet sand. The air was chilly and damp, the sky dark with low heavy cloud, but there was no wind. Before I turned back toward breakfast I stopped to listen and look. The poet in me had been awakened by that bleak stretch of seascape and the water surreptitiously rising. Coat buttoned tight, hands in pockets, my spirit opened wide and idled a while.
By moving slowly I came quite close to a crowd of silent gulls. One silent gull is a miracle. A whole flock of them just quietly standing around was more like an impossible dream. What happened then later became this poem:
The morning mountains of the world
lie here beneath my feet –
these rippled flats of sand,
a wrinkled image of the ancient sea.
Gray gulls stand here with me.
A hundred eyes in steady stare
We wait in silence under these gray skies
and over there all-whelming waters rise
to come and claim their own.
We wait together, gulls and I,
with an ageless understanding,
tugging a little now and then
at the unseen ties
that hold us one to other
on the shore.
The trickling fingers of the sea
reach out for them and me,
groping ever closer
up these tiny valleys,
covering every hill,
revisiting the shapes it chose to make
from all those snow-capped mountains
that towered long ago
above the shore.
Around these well-fed gulls
lie empty shells –
yesterday the shores
of soft-fleshed lives.
Behind those sturdy walls
dim dreams were dreamed
in safety from the rasping sea.
But that was yesterday.
Today those shells
The gulls –
gray statues whose ancestral race
is older still than mine,
but not so ancient as the sea –
stand silently with me,
Here every dawn
they dine with death
upon the shore.
A bit of drifting bark
and nods toward me.
something of the shore
slowly pulled itself up
straight and tall.
It stretched its arms out
against the sky
for twenty thousand days.
One night it fell asleep
and slumbered in the sea.
No waking now.
This was its bark –
a shore for living wood;
a shield from deadly, drying wind –
back once more,
shifting among the sands
along the shore.
I have a shore.
To some I am a shore.
With other shores
I stand upon this continental rim,
this endless ocean edge –
upon this rim of time to come,
this present massive moment,
beyond the shore.
above those eastern mountains
a sword of light comes slashing through
and parts those murky clouds.
Their edges gleam with gold.
I stand in awe
beneath a canopy of splendor.
Even the solemn sea
now glistens with the dawn
up to the shore.
lifting hands into the light,
sends every gull into the air,
in life-saving flight.
a hundred dull gray wings and tails
transfigure into glowing gems
in the light that streams aloft
above the shore.
That glorious light,
far beyond the clouds,
far above the sea,
can touch with radiant beauty
Following the gleam
Every basic book which tells would-be artists how to draw and paint will be sure to emphasize the importance of light and lighting. Every form we see appears as it does because of the way light falls upon it and is absorbed or redirected toward our eyes. Photographers can manipulate light by means of lenses, filters and flashes, but most of them like to catch pictures with unusual natural lighting effects.
A number of my own best slide transparencies are eye-catching because the subject is “backlit.” “Backlighting” is the visible effect which results when a subject is illuminated by light coming from somewhere behind it, the source being hidden from the camera. When a gull flies between you and the brilliantly lighted sky, wing and tail feathers begin to glow superbly as they become backlit. When you first see striking photos of backlit dandelion fuzz, grasses and thistledown, you find it hard to believe that common weeds could look so heavenly. The silhouetted face of even the homeliest woman acquires a halo of beauty when the setting sun shines through her hair. The spectacular grandeur of a memorable sunset is largely due to the backlighting of clouds, dust and water vapor. The delicate brilliance of “the new moon”—thin-line half-circle that it is—can easily outshine the rest of the sunset sky.
Some of what is called “backlighting” is due simply to the semi-transparency of materials such as feathers, flower petals and hair. When light filters through these translucent substances, it actually loses much of its original intensity. Because the light is blocked entirely by gull bodies, flower stalks or human heads, however, a dramatic contrast appears between what is fairly well lighted and what remains in shadow. This contrast no doubt creates an illusion that the light which succeeded in getting through is much brighter than it really is.
But there is more to backlighting than mere translucency and a resulting contrast illusion. If the extraordinary brilliance of a backlit object is only a matter of the contrast between light and darkness, the lighted parts should appear to be equally bright from all viewing positions on the near side of it. But in fact the most brilliant backlighting effect can only be caught from a “right place.”
If you try a simple experiment you will find that there is indeed a “right place” to see backlighting at full intensity, and you will discover that this remarkable effect is no mere illusion.
Set up a white card so that the sun’s rays fall directly and squarely over its entire area. Using a pair of tweezers or some other slender support, hold a large coin parallel to the card so that its shadow on the card is circular. Move the coin slowly back and forth between the card and the sun, occupying positions up to eight feet from the card. While you are moving it back and forth, watch its shadow carefully for changes in its tonal value. At some position a spot which is distinctly brighter than the rest of the shadow will appear in the middle of it. You will also notice a bright, many-ringed aura surrounding the whole shadow, including the shadow of the tweezers. Obviously something must be actually happening to the sunlight as it passes the rim of the coin. The bright spot and the aura are not mere subjective illusions.
If this coin-and-tweezer experiment sounds too complicated to you, try this one. Find a window with a western exposure. Some late afternoon or early evening when the sun has descended far enough to shine a good distance into the room, stand eight-or-so feet back from the window. Keep your eye in the shadow of the frame at a place where, if you moved your eye a little sideways you could see the merest smidgeon of the sun. Now cautiously and slowly move your eye over until you see the very first bright ray directly from the sun. At that moment you will find that a sudden flood of radiance will sweep across the shadowed window frame. That wash of light will be so bright that you’ll no longer be able to see that portion of frame which is in line with the sun and your eye. It’s almost as though the sun itself were shining right through the frame. THAT’S BACKLIGHTING, without translucency or illusion.
When physicists refer to the surprising effects which occur when light strikes an edge or rim, they use the word “diffraction.” People are usually more familiar with “reflection” and “refraction” than they are with diffraction, so I will offer a brief “explanation” of it.
The phenomenon of diffraction seems to arise from the wavelike nature of light. Similar effects can be demonstrated equally well with any kind of waves, whether of the water, sound or electromagnetic kind. When light waves which are parallel to a flat disk (say, a coin) strike its rim, spherically curved wavelets begin to fan out in all forward directions from every point on the perimeter. When these waves pass through each other, they “interfere,” as described in connection with holograms in chapter 31. Troughs subtract energy and crests add to it. Some of the wave-energy coming off the rim of the disk is deflected outward, away from the central axis—the straight line from the light-source through the centre of the disk and beyond it on the “shadow” side. This outward-tending radiation accounts for the ringed aura around the outside of the coin and the tweezers. But a considerable portion of the wave-energy also turns inward. These inward-moving wave fronts, of course, meet each other at the axis, along which their crests combine and reinforce each other. As a result a beam of strong waves, again parallel to the disk, heads off directly away from it along the axis. This newly constituted beam is what makes the bright spot which appears in the shadow of the coin. If your eye were placed where the bright spot appears, you would see the coin backlit with that special brilliant radiance which has been mentioned.
The waves approaching the opaque disk appear to have passed right through it and continued on as a concentrated beam of energy through the shadow beyond. Thus the disk has unexpectedly functioned more like a converging lens than an obstacle! This concentration of energy can actually be enhanced by surrounding the disk with a series of concentric, finely spaced rings.
Diffraction occurs when light strikes the edge of a body of any shape, but the full backlighting effect is the most noticeable when the light passes around disklike shapes, or through holes and slits. Crisscrossing grass stems, hairs, and dandelion fuzz form a “grating” with lots of holes and slits. The extra-dazzling radiance of a backlit stained-glass window is derived from light which is diffracted by that network of lead channeling which holds together the pieces of colored glass. When the glass is strongly illuminated from behind, the opaque channeling disappears in the blaze of light.
To summarize, the experience of backlighting occurs when someone is looking toward a source of intensely bright light which is hidden by an interposed opaque object. A surprising amount of light appears in the shadow, often seeming to emerge from the object, especially from its bounding edges.
The light of his presence
The unexpected brilliance of backlighting can readily awaken intense interest and emotion. That is why I introduced this subject with a personal poem. What can be taken merely as a physical phenomenon, can easily acquire other significance and symbolic associations.
Recently I viewed a small exhibition of paintings in the Faculty Club at UBC. The artist, Patricia McBain, lives in Vancouver. She likes to experiment with all sorts of materials and styles. In that showing, what particularly captured my interest was an otherwise modest landscape which had an unusual “glow” to it. A closer look revealed that its minor compositional units were totally outlined in clear golden yellow. It seemed mat every stone, every bush, every tree and slope was somehow backlit—glowing from some mysterious source, hidden deep within each or somewhere beyond them all.
My spirit was strangely moved by that painting. What it seemed to be saying so simply and clearly resonated completely with how I feel about the things my eyes light upon in roving about. Let me try to explain.
Characteristically I can find myself standing, silent and amazed, fully fascinated by something very ordinary> say, a dandelion growing out of a crack in the sidewalk. For me mat commonplace situation is full of mystery. How did that wonderfully organized being come to be there? The dust and dirt in that crack by themselves could not have made that beautiful little plant. The dandelion itself is too dim-witted to construct itself out of soil. Come to think of it, I couldn’t have made myself either. Whatever is at work right now, producing both that dandelion and me, is quite hidden from both of us.
Whether or not that little plant knows I am here, I know that it is there. But I don’t know how I know that. I have been made to be knowing, questioning, thinking, desiring, feeling, choosing, planning, arranging, valuing, accepting and rejecting—and all else that makes me a person. What is capable of making me with such high-level personal functions certainly cannot be in a lower state of existence than I. To make a human being requires a creative source far, far higher and more subtle than even a personal being. “God” is therefore the name I must use to refer to the One who, though hidden, is presently making that plant and myself.
So meeting up with that little flower in the sidewalk reminds me that there are three of us here in this magic moment: that dandelion and myself, along with the One who is creating us—plus, as well, the sidewalk, the earth under it and the sky above. We are standing in the presence of the One out of whose depths from moment to moment grows the story of the universe.
In that kind of experience I sense an unearthly but earthly presence surrounding the commonest of things. I think I feel a bit like Moses did when his eye was caught by a scrubby desert bush burning with a fire that did not consume it. When he went over to have a look, the “angel of the Lord” spoke to him out of the midst of that little old bush.1 Moses learned that he was standing on holy ground!
All ground is holy. The Creator is not far away from anything. Only by his doing could the most lowly and insignificant thing gain any being. The most microscopic details of the tiniest creepy-crawly creature are constructed with painstaking attention. Ordinary things are thus enveloped by an aura of greatness which lends them an inalienable dignity. This has nothing to do with their utility or market value. Just by existing they bear a certain solemnity which cannot be detected by any of our investigative techniques. Our tools are themselves surrounded by the very significance they would be asked to explore. All things in the entire universe are likewise backlit by the presence of their Creator.
To explain a poem will kill it. To expound a beautiful metaphor will sully it. But not everyone can enter easily into the flow of feelings in a poem, and the implications of some analogies will not be evident to those who have had little experience in certain realms. For the benefit of some, I would like to mention specific features of backlighting that have special significance for me.
In the kind of situation where things become backlit, an opaque barrier stands between the eye and the source of light. The shadows may be deep, but nevertheless light also mysteriously appears within them. To the eye of the beholder, that light in the shadows indicates that a source of light exists, even though that source is hidden. Something of that light can bypass obstacles. Nowhere is hidden from it completely. From the shadow side of the obstacle the light cannot be prevented from shining.
In him was light
Religions the world over use radiating light to symbolize the presence of the divine. What is truly divine is expected to be mysterious and powerful. In these respects light is very apt as a sacred symbol. Light is certainly mysterious in its origin and nature. If a light has shone brightly for a long time it must have possessed an unceasing supply of energy.
Moreover light is very important to living things as a source of life-energy, warmth and visibility. A major part of the information we receive about the world around us comes to us by means of light. We somehow turn the information into knowledge, which in turn yields “enlightening” guidance. The colors which light produces add a great deal to the beauty of the world as well as to the value of gems and art objects. Light can form images of things and people so that something of them can be present in picture form, even though they themselves are absent.
All of these characteristics of light have been analogized into metaphors which are not only used in theological discourse and academic rhetoric, but are found among the commonest universal figures of speech.
Although physicists today know a great deal about light, they cannot provide us with a simple, complete and noncontradictory picture of its true nature. Atoms or subatomic particles that have somehow acquired an overplus of energy can emit light. Light consists of streams of “particles”—electric and magnetic, both in one—vibrating in crossed directions and traveling in straight tines. But when these particles come in contact with material objects, they (or their “successors”) start behaving like waves. These waves move off and out in spherical forms and can turn comers. When you get right down to it, the origin, nature and behavior of light still retains a great deal of its ancient mystery, as does the way it can convey information which human beings can turn into meanings, knowledge and wisdom.
You will recollect from the previous chapter that the meaning of anything depends upon its context. Any particular context, however, also has a context of its own, and that in turn depends on another. It follows that the ultimate meaning of anything must depend on the inconceivably large universe as a whole. By definition the universe as a whole has to include absolutely everything there is. It must therefore be utterly solitary—devoid of any context of its own. But if the universe as a whole itself has no further context, how can either it or its contents possess any ultimate meaning?
With so many important meanings at stake, our minds keep demanding that there be some further context for the universe as a whole. The very nature of logic requires that every dividing line or boundary must have two sides. Beyond the rim of the universe, logic must therefore claim that there is “something” more, whose boundary coincides with the edge of the universe. But since the universe as a whole has been defined as absolutely everything there is, there can’t be anything beyond it. Here logic faces a hopeless dilemma. It must either repudiate its own essentially divisive nature or admit that the “something” which lies beyond the universe is an absolute “nothing.” And to say that nothing is a something is, for logic, a dreadful contradiction in terms.
Obviously logic fails when dealing with the universe as a whole. If nothingness is indeed the context of the universe, both logic itself and everything else must be stripped of all ultimate meaning. Nothingness by itself is noncreative. It can provide neither meaningful answers to our questions, nor support for a single meaningful question. If nothingness should have the last word about everything, our quest for meaning must end in utter darkness and dead silence.
But human minds have a thirst for meaning—for their own lives and for everything in the world around them—just as everywhere human beings experience physical thirst. The presence of thirstiness implies that somewhere there must be, or certainly must have been, a liquid substance which will slake that thirst. Similarly there must be something or someone to slake this universal thirst for ultimate meaning. Accordingly above and beyond this universe, with power over nothingness, many people feel impelled to believe that there must be a self-sustaining Creator-Savior God whose will and purposes bestow an ultimate meaning upon everything in the created universe.
It seems to be impossible to provide a flawless proof mat an ultimate, most high God actually exists. Nor could we ever be sure that “the God we had proved to exist” was identical with “the real God.” To do that we would have to have direct, immediate and complete access to the entire fullness of God—which we don’t have. That’s why honest religion lays an emphasis on faith.
But “having to believe” in God, instead of “knowing God with through-and-through certainty,” doesn’t bother me. Even science, logic and mathematics have to believe that their initial assumptions, as well as their general approach to the world, are correct and fruitful. I have no doubt whatsoever that believing in a Creator God makes much more sense of the world than leaving it in the dubious embrace of nothingness or a cosmic question mark.
We don’t know why the divine source of all that is symbolized by light is himself hidden from us. But in any case God’s hiddenness is not to be taken for God’s nonexistence. It is very faulty reasoning to jump quickly from our inability to prove by infallible logic that God exists, over to a complete assurance that he does not exist at all. Although I’m sure that “exist” isn’t the right word for God’s mode of being, it can be meaningfully said that God “exists,” but in hidden-ness.
What is hidden cannot be openly seen. But that doesn’t necessarily imply that we cannot have any general notions concerning what it is that is hidden. One of the children in a family may hide. You find a blanket roll. From its size and shape, an occasional squirm and that shoe not quite covered up, you know that a child is in there, probably even which one. When a wrapped box is delivered to your house, or a parcel comes through the mail, there are usually enough clues about such packages to give some inkling as to what their contents could be. Even so, however, we always learn something new when the contents are actually revealed.
With the help of the metaphor of backlighting, it makes sense to say that although God is a “God who hides himself,” some light from him can nevertheless make its way to us from behind whatever it is that hides him. We are not left in unrelieved and total darkness.3
Darkness upon the face of the deep
If light symbolizes the presence of God, darkness can stand for his apparent absence. Light gives life, health and vigor, but in darkness these languish and die. Because of light we can see things clearly, but in the dark we imagine things and fear them. Light brings information which leads to knowledge, but darkness stands for error, and undetected deception. With light we can find the right path, but in darkness we may stray off into danger, then stumble and fall. Clothed in light most things appear beautiful, but in darkness their beauty departs. When there is light we can see meaning in the relationships between things, but in the obscurity of darkness one thing looks much the same as any other, and who can tell what are the connections, if any, between them?
This world has many kinds of darkness, and a great deal of each of its varieties. Take the area of knowledge. Our minds are capable of many wonderful feats, but nevertheless in many respects the world remains opaque to our intellects. Scientists and philosophers are well aware that anyone who attempts to offer a complete explanation for any phenomenon must come at last to the unexplainable and paradoxical. Who knows for sure what “first cause” originated the universe? Where does space end? Why does time continue to move on and on, but always in the same direction? Those “constants” which set the scale of things in the universe and determine the bearing of its “laws”—why does each have its own particular and peculiar value? How is it that these crucial constants exist at all? Why hasn’t the universe yet “run down” much farther than it actually has?
The act of thinking still defies our thinking. We don’t really know how we know anything. We know how to send signals but we aren’t at all sure we know how they suddenly turn into meanings. How does matter affect mind, and how does mind affect muscles and materials? What are “ideas” and how do minds manipulate them so as to invent some new device such as a computer system? How do we pay attention? What physiological arrangements accompany “being interested” in something? What happens inside us when we form a “purpose” and “decide” on a “plan”? Is one chemical associated with “appreciation” and another with the feeling that something is “important”? How little we know about our own minds! Their most ordinary operations are extraordinarily inscrutable.
Knowledge-wise, darkness isn’t hard to find very close to home. We don’t understand ourselves, and who really understands other people? We misconceive our relationships to others and to the group welfare of out society. Untold misery is caused by the deliberate pushing of wrong relationships. Try to change people’s attitudes, customs and privileges, however, and their angry resistance will quickly convince you that you have run into a wall.
I need say no more about opaque obstacles and the darkness to be found all around us—you can make your own list.
And there was light
If in the full presence of God there is light unspeakably full of glory, and if the streaming forth of that light is obstructed and kept from our senses by an opaque world, the darkness we experience is understandable. But some people take the presence of darkness as evidence that there is no God at all. To them the notion that there is a light called “God” which is blocked off and hidden from us is unwarranted. The world’s darkness is primary. It simply is what it is, requiring not explanation but revolutionary displacement by human powers.
What weakens the force of their objections is that, despite the darkness which they insist on emphasizing, there has always been a great deal of light in this world, and that in many kinds and varieties—even before human beings appeared on the scene.
Life certainly seems to come from a source beyond this world and our human powers. Although we can arrange conditions within which life may appear, we can never truthfully claim that we have created it.
The secret of life is opaque to us. The nature of any organization is difficult to understand. But life is particularly mysterious because it is an organization that exists by organizing! The bits and pieces which an organism selects from its environment to consume and assimilate into its own organization, are very often the remnants of former systems which the power of nothingness (entropy) had previously disorganized. Death, decay and erosion disintegrate physical organization, but even these processes can be turned to the nourishment of living things.
At least for us humans, mealtime should be an occasion when life’s victory over nothingness should be celebrated—often with candles, colored lanterns or shining candelabra. To turn around the “downward-outward” dispersal of energy so that entropy not only supports living systems but empowers their activities, would be considered a miracle if we weren’t so used to it. Only God could have tamed the menace of nothingness and made it the servant of life. Light shines in the darkness, but only life knows that it does.
While we may not know all that we’d like to know, real, true, genuine knowledge does exist in abundance. While we may not be able to do everything we’d like to do, the possibilities for positive and constructive action in this world are endless. If we have to live in the midst of a great deal of darkness, at least we exist. It is true that eventually we will all die and disintegrate, but the vast majority of us are glad that we have been alive this long.
Every day we learn about new manifestations of the moral and spiritual darkness that is all too evident in political, economic, social and religious affairs.
It is so easy to forget that there is also a great deal of light in all these realms of life. Many people do their jobs well, even beyond the call of duty, despite a continual barrage of criticism. Every day millions of undistinguished folk do helpful, kindly things even though those whom they benefit seldom say thank you. Dark as this world may be, there are many shining lights—I’m sure you know some of them.
Among these lights, Jesus of Nazareth was certainly preeminent— indeed, the light of the world. No one following him can say that they walk in darkness. His understanding, his compassion and his life of disciplined, self-sacrificing love were incomparable. Were the rest of the world all darkness, the appearing of Jesus among us sheds quite enough light into it to give me a reason to believe in a Source of light beyond. His rising from the vast abode of the dead throws light not only upon the past and gone, but also upon the possibilities of our future life.
So there is light in the world’s darkness. We should not speak of this as being simply a “dark” world, but rather as one “with shadows.” Were it not for the shadows, the light which we have would not be appreciated so much. Without the light there would be neither shadows nor knowledge of them. The world may be opaque to us, but a good deal of light has made its way into this shaded side. I believe that this comes to us as a kind of backlighting: the universe is backlit by God.
Every painter has experienced the amazing transformation which comes over a drab, lackluster, earthbound picture when a bit of lighted sky is introduced up in one corner. The surroundings in which many people find themselves are so ordinary and no-hum that they are hardly aware of them. Even experiences that once were exciting now seem just so-so. If those unenchanted folk could see the things around them as backlit by God, an element of sublime grandeur would greet them out of the most commonplace situation.
For God’s sake
To avoid depression and pessimism over the existence of so much “darkness,” we should keep reminding ourselves that light from God is here in our midst. Just knowing that the light is here is important, but more important still is how we receive it. If the light of his presence continually awakens appreciation and gratitude within us, we will feel an inner glow of spiritual warmth. But if I quickly gulp down some fruit without giving any thought to the presence of God throughout its development, and the wonder of having it there in my living hand, I am undernourishing my deepest self. When I recognize and acknowledge the glory of God, I believe I am fulfilling the purpose for which I was born. It seems right to take the persons and things around me not only as the physical objects which they are but also as reminders of him who is here and now creating both them and myself.
Theologians have often speculated as to why God ever made a world at all. They used to say that God created the world “for his glory.” This seems to imply that if God had not created a world, less glory would have accrued to him. How much less?
Before God had created a world or anything at all, what was his context, his environment? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. In the midst of nothing but nothingness, who was God? In such a context, what glory or significance did God have even for himself? Whatever else he may have known about himself, it was not even edifying to understand from that (lack of) environment merely that he was not nothingness. That realization would not be significantly different from that of being “nobody.” To be not nothing is definitely not anything very glorious.
We must assume that God was not satisfied with that totally unrewarding environment, for he got to work to do something about it. After something which he had created was set out there in the nothingness, God was no longer in solitary unconfinement. Because he knew where his created world was with respect to himself, he knew where he himself was. Having experienced his power to create, he knew he could remake, reshape and direct a whole universe. He had begun making a name for himself.
Having a universe for his personal context was very important to God. With respect to that created world out there, he was “Somebody.” And as God went on creating more and more new things in all sorts of wonderful arrangements and systems, he was at the same time creating new and greater significance for himself. His glory was increasing.
For God, creating must be an ongoing process, not only of invention, but of self-discovery as well. If he didn’t make and do all sorts of wonders, he would never experience the actuality of all the powers that reside in him. Nor, without creating, could God actually see in full reality all the possibilities inherent in the kinds of things he has already made. Novel developments can emerge when things are placed in new contextual situations. Everything that God creates throughout the entire universe he creates for his name’s sake. He loves them all as he loves himself.
It is for God’s sake that I am alive, nor merely for my own. “My” life is both his and mine. The flexibility, conscious understanding and purposiveness of human beings give us a special place in God’s creative purpose. We can be aware of God’s glory and declare it with a response of wonder, love and praise.
In the secret depths of my very existence I am in contact with the Creator’s will. So is everything else around me. Because every being is backlit in this way, I and everything the Creator has made have a dignity imparted to us by the Creator. Our status is thus elevated well above being simply this-here-now. We have an intimate connection with the ageless, ongoing, universal thrust of him who overarches all lives and ages. Even when I change my point of view, turn my attention elsewhere or disappear entirely from the scene, mat light from the same God will keep on shining. The visibility of the glory that surrounds things may come and go, but the divine presence and concern outlasts all occasional divine appearances.
The accumulating glory of God cannot reach its totality unless or until the Creator completes his exploration of all that is possible. As he continues to create, producing wonders upon the ordinary and wonders upon wonders, God’s name increases in glory. At any given time the name of God can only be what it is. But, knowing that the present glory of God will be surpassed, increasing throughout the coming years and ages, it can truly be said that his name will be what it will be.
The Hebrew letters with which Moses spelled out the name of God may be translated either by the present tense of the verb “to be” or by its future tense. Those translators who think of God as being absolutely changeless are likely to translate those Hebrew consonants as “I AM WHO I AM”4 rather than “I WILL BE WHO I WILL BE.” I like to understand the truth and significance of the hallowed name both ways.
A vision revisited
How I’d like to get through or behind the opaque world which blocks off so much of the light of God! Then I would be able to see that hidden realm directly. But maybe neither my eyes nor my mind as they are could stand that fullness of the light which presently backlights the whole universe. Maybe I couldn’t bring into focus light which comes from everywhere at once. In any case I’m thankful for the wonderful backlighting which does keep shining here, revealing something of the unseen God.
Having backlighting on this side of the creation barrier is very encouraging. We have not been left in deep darkness. God is with us. In sharing our living, he also shares our work and our problems. He not only works with us but for us. I’m glad my problems are not mine alone. They are shared with God. We are yoked double with him who is stronger and wiser than we.5
Of course this relationship—like a yoke—works both ways. We are here to share in God’s work, helping with his creative purpose. Furthermore as we think of God’s presence with us, we must not forget about our presence with God.
When the concluding book of the New Testament was written, its author was in exile on the island of Patmos in the Aegean Sea. John had been coerced into those hard conditions because of his unshakable belief that Jesus of Nazareth had risen from the dead and ascended into heaven. Jesus had been enthroned as the Lord Governor of the world, outranking even the Roman emperor. The Roman authorities considered John’s notions so dangerous that he was removed from his leadership in the church, taken far away and forbidden to retain.
But John knew that he was not really alone. In the Book of the Revelation he wrote: “I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day.” John was more than startled however when he heard behind him a deep voice commanding him to write down everything he saw. On turning he beheld a majestic personage, all agleam in the light from seven great golden lamps. That magnificent face shone like the sun. In the right hand of that radiant figure John saw seven stars. A door had opened in heaven. John could peer into mat unfamiliar realm “on the other side” of this created world. Obediently he wrote down what he saw: insights into past history, glimpses of future events and vistas of a new world to come.
One forenoon during the writing of the book you are presently reading, against my own wishes I was preparing to lead some professors in a study of the Book of the Revelation—a part of the scriptures with which I had never quite come to grips. Nevertheless I was making a real effort to fix in my mind the main features of John’s vision.
At one point I found myself wondering how it would feel to be holding a handful of stars. Knowing about the inconceivable heat which stars generate, I involuntarily flinched.
In my mind’s eye immediately I could see that radiant personage throwing those luminaries one after another into the night of space. Out they went in their several curving arcs, circling over to his other hand which then returned them to the hand that had launched them.
Awestruck, I found myself watching the performance of a cosmic Juggler as he was sending the planets around in their orbits. They were shining in the light from his face. Why, of course—the solar system!
One of those planetary balls was particularly beautiful—Earth! The moon was a jewel circling around it, and shiny little satellites twinkled as they answered technicians who were interrogating them. Gigantic weather systems rotated slowly as they drifted over the slower swirl of currents in the blue, blue oceans. The mist which rose from the sea fell as rain upon the dry land, and water kept flowing back to the oceans through brooks, lakes and rivers. Ships and aircraft were heading out in all directions toward destinations from which others were returning. On land, railroad systems were doing the same. Everywhere I was seeing all sorts of systems, and all of them were being thrown by the same great Juggler!
Looking in more closely, I could see people leaving home in the morning for work. At nightfall they would make the trip in reverse. Each person’s heart was pumping blood through arteries out to bodily organs, and it returned through veins to that heart for a rerun. As each person breathed, air pushed into lungs only to be forced out again. Everybody’s bodily systems had the same routine: in and out, around and back.
Inside each cell of each living tissue, tiny vital currents were eddying viscously. In some cells the chromosomes were performing their stately dance of separation and reunion. Deep within the ingredients of organic substances, the forms of atoms would regularly flicker and flee. These spinning microsystems were being thrown by that selfsame Juggler who was keeping the planets and stars in their wingless flight.
As the earth moved around the sun, the land greened up with seasonal vegetation, then browned off again as the season turned. In the forest, each tree was a living fountain. The dissolved dust of the ground flowed up through trunk and branches to become leaves that, on dropping off, fell again to the ground and returned to the dust.
Everywhere I turned I could see systems without number being thrown by the Juggler, all intermingled in well-timed coordination. A superb performance, to be sure!
What John heard and saw when a door in heaven opened impelled him to fall prostrate upon the ground in fear and amazement. That unexpected revision of what John had seen was for me not only involuntary but deeply moving. In one quick summary, that vivid portrayal of a cosmic Juggler maintaining his dazzling universal cascade of interlocking systems had given me a compact understanding of the world—something which had eluded me throughout years of persistent questing. The feelings that swept over me on that occasion cannot be put into words.
Since then I have thought a good deal about what I saw. For me it still makes a lot of sense as a symbolic thumbnail visualization of what really does seem to be going on in the world. Daringly but competently the Creator keeps throwing all sorts of systems in the midst of threatening nothingness. Some of them appear to move so slowly that they— the vast and distant galaxies—seem fixed in their positions like those lamps on their stands around the Shining Figure in John’s vision. Other systems are so miniscule and swift that the human eye cannot follow them in their coursings. The immense range between galactic systems and these subatomic dust-devils is filled with countless varieties of the myriads of other systemic species. All of them have sprung from the Juggler’s fantastically fertile imagination.
He keeps these swarms of systems all wheeling and cycling at once! Level upon level they intermingle and interpenetrate interdependently. Yet astonishingly what happens at one level is compatible with what is going on at each higher or lower level of the system. Just try changing something in this tightly interwoven network of interrelationships without disturbing anything else!
Like the hands of a magician, a juggler’s hands must be extremely deft. The more objects thrown, the more the kinds of objects and the more numerous the paths they must take during a routine, the more difficult is the juggler’s handwork. The divine Juggler’s hands are inconceivably swift, for at each fresh moment they have to be in touch with everything of every kind everywhere at every systemic level. Quicker than the eye! Everywhere at once! No wonder we can’t see the hands of God!
As an expatriate in the land of Babylon, the prophet Ezekiel also experienced an impressive but baffling vision.6 The heavens opened and he saw, as it were, a whirling storm wind full of glowing radiance. Out of it light was continually flashing. Within this ever-moving apparition, almost hidden by its inner brilliance, was an indescribably complicated configuration of “living creatures” and “wheels within wheels.” The forms of the living creatures were bodied forth by “flaming coals” that were eddying swiftly within them, and the motion of the wheels within wheels was coordinated with the coordinated movements of me living creatures.
Above this mysterious undercarriage was what you might call a flight deck. There upon a sapphire throne ringed with rainbow, Ezekiel could make out a dazzling, majestic form in human likeness—the One who was calmly in charge of all that was whirling and rolling onward below.
Ezekiel’s vision was complex indeed. It too bears an interesting— though dim—resemblance to the actual multi-ring spectacle presented by this inconceivably complex universe which the Creator continually sets form and keeps going so handily.
World without end
Although the teeming multitude of systems is already utterly mind-boggling, the great Juggler keeps adding new ones and giving new twists even to his most familiar routines. In the all-over panorama of the universe, no two successive moments of cosmic history are ever precisely identical. Novel effects are always emerging out of new arrangements of familiar systems.
Why does God continue with this vast program? I believe that, like us, he finds real joy in accomplishing new things and in achieving by some ingenious improvisation what to us would seem to be utterly impossible.
He certainly appreciates truth, goodness and beauty, for in general and in the long run, they survive much better than the crumbling legacy of ugly power. When something good and beautiful suddenly emerges from a certain combination of systems, I’m sure the Creator is thrilled.
I believe that he’s always on the lookout for arrangements that work well. They can be used elsewhere and elsewhen with variations. He appears to be exploring every last possibility which resides in every kind of creaturely system. In how many ways can all of them be combined? How many as-yet-blank pages in the history of music will yet be written upon? What will come of technological changes that are already in the works? The engineering of the various kinds of genetic material has only begun. In every field innumerable possibilities remain to be explored.
If the spirit of Jesus were given full scope, creative solutions could appear for at least the human factor in persistent problems such as world poverty, world government, the arms race, destructive addictions, and many mental and physical diseases.
This world’s history could well be considered as an experimental venture, a trial run, a practice session, or perhaps a pilot project. After many ages of creative composition, when enough significant and useful routines have been honed to perfection by the divine Juggler, and when enough responsive spirits have showed themselves capable of participating appropriately in God’s best social system, I believe that there will be a crowning age of recall and reconstitution.7 God will recollect all that history has produced, and he will summon into new being all those systems, human and otherwise, that will cooperate nicely in a glorious life of truth, goodness and beauty. He will work them all up together into an ideal world—a new heaven and a new earth.8
By recommissioning the right routines out of his vast repertoire of valuable systems, God could combine and adapt his choicest achievements to produce a program of supreme excellence—an age-long, unimaginably wonderful performance.
But even such a superlative production as that might not be the end of God’s creative activity. Out of that glorious age there might emerge, in this or some other galaxy, a whole new enterprise that as yet we cannot even begin to conceive. As to how long the overture to that new world fantasia will take, who could make a credible guess? But I’m looking forward to being there on opening day!
On the other hand
Sometimes people become very gloomy about “the way the world is heading.” Political, economic, social and religious affairs seem to be in a terrible slump. We’re going through a phase of degeneration, and the whole thing seems to be beyond anyone’s control.
But we must not forget “the other hand of the Juggler.” In juggling there are always hands-off intervals when what has been thrown by one hand has not yet arrived at the other. Between the momentary pulses of creation, anything or anyone possessing freedom is relatively free to adopt a new attitude or make a certain choice.
During those intervals of freedom, many untoward things could happen if adjacent and involved same-level systems did not restrain each other. What higher-level systems can do depends a great deal upon the current state of lower-level systems, and vice versa. Sometimes with my mind I want to do a certain thing, but I can’t do it just then because an arm or leg is still recovering from an injury. Sometimes I can’t make any progress with my writing because I’m emotionally upset—a function no doubt of the state of the cells in some of my glands. We are never absolutely free.
But imagine trying to juggle live birds that can fly off in any direction at any time! In general the great Juggler does well at bringing birds back to certain locales. Now imagine trying to juggle jugglers who are busy with their own juggling! We human beings have always got something new “in the air.” Some of our technical projects have beneficial results, but sometimes our systems go awry and destroy systems that formerly worked rather well. Remedial action is then called for on our part and God’s.
When the human race does get off course, “the other hand of the Juggler” has ways of turning things back and around into more favorable directions. In history this is usually called “the swing of the pendulum.” When some movement has “gone too far,” something will surely happen that “turns the tide” in the opposite direction. Military expansion, once considered invincible, will drag to a halt and be turned back. Devastating epidemics like the Black Death run their course and come under control. Unbridled enthusiasm for complete “liberation” can be the prelude to a demand for strongly ordered social structure, and vice versa.
What is evil cannot last forever. Evil is a parasite that feeds upon good. Lies have little force if they are known to be lies. Lies have power only as long as they are taken to be the truth. When all members of a social grouping have taken to lying, that group will inevitably disintegrate, for no one will believe anybody. To keep going, evil must always masquerade as good. In the long run we can see clearly that this world is biased toward truth, goodness and beauty. Every attempt to build an evil world will inevitably come to failure. It will fall into “the other hand of the Juggler.”
Likewise many situations which we as individuals personally consider to be evil—our restraints and reverses—can be understood as our personal encounters with the other hand of the Juggler. Obstacles, limitations and setbacks often awaken in people a consciousness that the hand of God is turning their lives in significant new directions. Failure in business, a breakdown in health, a serious accident, the breakup of an important relationship, or the death of a loved one, has often pushed people toward attitudes that are much more realistic, positive and constructive. More thought is then given to the question of what in living is really important after all. A new sense of values can emerge. Along with new appreciation of ordinary health, activities and associations, the frailty, brevity and uncertainty of life may come to be acknowledged. When their lives are overshadowed by trouble, people often turn more serious thoughts toward God, and become more open toward his light and love.
Knowing that God has solved so many impossibly difficult problems in the past, we can be confident that he will find a way to reverse today’s disheartening trends. The Creator is resourceful beyond belief in coming up with alternative approaches to problems. When highways and main streets are blocked, he’ll work through the lanes and alleyways. By diffraction and backlighting he has succeeded in getting light around impenetrable obstacles. He turns the rim* of those opaque barriers into radiating sources of light—light which gathers and darts forth on the other side of those barriers almost as if they never1 existed. In this backlit universe we always have one big reason for hope.
Our Creator God has abundant patience, creative imagination, love that never gives up, unsurpassable power, and all the time there ever will be. With our shadowed world “on his hands,” I’m glad it is he who “has the whole world in his hands.”
Such as it is, I now lay this book in those wonderful hands, asking him to do with it what he wills.
“In Thy light we see light.”9
(of the beginning)
1. Exodus 3:2.
2. Isaiah 45:15.
3. Isaiah 9:2.
4. Exodus 3:14.
5. Matthew 11:29-30.
6. Ezekiel 1:1ff.
7. Acts 3:21.
8. Revelation 21:1ff.
9. Psalm 36:9.