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Journaling my PhD: Divine Illumination


My first term at Durham is winding to a close, so as they say here in England, I thought I’d “have a go” at another journal entry. Thank you for the many encouraging responses to my first piece.

The past two and a half months have been a profound and enriching journey. For those who don’t know, the British PhD is earned almost entirely by research; no classes or essay pieces are required, though students do participate in various seminars, and some, (like me), choose to audit classes. I’m taking two undergraduate modules—one that deals with key Medieval Christian thinkers (Bernard of Clairvaux, Bonaventure, Thomas Aquinas, Catherine of Siena and Meister Eckhart to name just a few), the other with key modern and early modern philosophers (Descartes, Hume and Kant this term. Next term we’ll look at Nietzsche, Wittgenstein and Iris Murdoch.) I also took a course in research German this term, and it sounds like I won’t be able to escape French and Latin.

Over the course of this past year (a year spent mostly in European monasteries), I realized that the research proposal I submitted with my initial application was really not something I wanted to spend the next three years with. My supervisor was gracious when I told him so upon arrival at Durham, and for most of this term I’ve been trying to locate a new research question along the fascinating, beautiful and troubling ideological landscape of the late Middle Ages.

“What I really want to research,” I said to my supervisor nervously some weeks ago, “is how a person’s way of believing in God can be transformed through participation in Christ’s paschal mystery.” I was nervous because I wasn’t sure whether mine was a question others were asking. Last time I wrote for Spectrum at Bonnie’s bidding, I shared how the proposition-based belief system of my Adventist childhood might have collapsed but for generous Adventist college professors and my brief exposure to Catholicism during a year spent abroad. In college and shortly after, my faith went through a sort of death and resurrection. Resurrection has been my most profound guiding reality ever since, shaping and coloring every aspect of my life—especially my way of knowing and speaking about God. I have wanted to articulate some kind of paschal mystery-infused epistemology for others who, like me, grew up thinking that knowledge of God equaled rootless propositions, stripped of the mysteries from whence they sprung.

It has been exhilarating to learn recently how many other Christians have thought about these things, and in ways far more profound than me. “You might enjoy Bonaventure,” my supervisor suggested when I posed my question. “Give him a read and let’s see what you think.” I started with his well known classic The Journey of the Mind to God, (a very dense text—thank God for footnotes). It is laden with Neoplatonic imagery and Augustinian triads, but through Bonaventure, (and then by turning to Augustine himself), I learned about illuminationism, a theory of knowledge that shaped virtually all of Christian thought from the earliest centuries of the faith through to the late thirteenth century. I feel a bit cheated having never heard of it till now. I did have a very excellent teacher of Early/Medieval Church history at my Adventist college, but if we learned about illumination theology then, it certainly didn’t stick. That class, sadly, was the first pre-Reformation history I’d ever had growing up in the church, and there was a lot to cover!

So what is illumination theology, and why is it so interesting? In the early days of Christianity, many thoughtful believers trying to articulate the meaning of their faith were helped by the language of Greek philosophy. These believers boldly critiqued philosophy where it differed from the revealed truth of scripture, but where Greek categories reflected Christian truth, early theologians happily used them to explain and to illustrate the faith. In the fifth century, Augustine went so far as to say that Christ fulfilled Greek philosophy for the Gentiles in the same way Christ fulfilled Hebrew Scriptures for the Jews.

Platonism, and later, Neoplatonism, became the most valuable threads of Greek philosophy for early Christian thinkers. Plato’s idea of forms were placed in the mind of God, who expressed them in creation—an outpouring of his own self-sustaining Trinitarian love. God himself, of course, was understood to be beyond being—not one of the “things” created, but rather the source of all things. It is in God’s Trinitarian nature that we catch a glimpse of how God can have personality without being just another thing among things.

In those first centuries of the Church, believers would have been very confused by the modern distinction we make between knowing and loving God. To know God was to love him; it was the same enterprise, and knowledge grew as men and women turned from sin by recognizing their origin within the loving mind of God. The modern Protestant disjoint between justification and sanctification was therefore also absent. Salvation, rather than being an acquired legal state, was envisioned as a journey of return to God, ultimately consummated in the beatific vision. Through this journey, sin was healed by the radiance of God’s love shining increasingly in the mind and heart.

This deepening—this movement toward the knowing love of God—was only possible because of what came to be called Divine illumination, a teaching resembling Plato’s doctrine of recollection, which taught that souls gradually return to the truth of themselves by recalling their own past-life experiences. Christian thinkers naturally rejected reincarnation and all forms of self-reliance, teaching instead return to God through the inflowing, sanctifying light of God’s own knowledge about himself. This radiant God-life illumined the soul, enabling it to see the truth not only of God, but of all created things. We are wounded by sin, but we are children of love.

What is important to note here is that for the first thirteen hundred years of the faith, Christians believed that genuine knowledge of God was indeed possible. It was often described as dark and veiled, as in the writings of great apophatic theologians such as Dionysius the Pseudo-Aeropogite. But it was possible nonetheless. It was not until the rediscovery of Aristotle in the late thirteenth century and the radicalizing of his thought in the nominalism of John Duns Scotus and especially William of Ockham in the late thirteenth century that Christian epistemology shifted, paving the way for modernism and philosophers such as Descartes and Kant. Having lost the concept of universals through nominalism, Christian theologians replaced illumination with a theory of knowledge dependent only on what could be known through the senses and with the mind’s own capacities, divorced from any external or residual internal Divine light.

The scientific age has blessed us abundantly, but the loss of illumination has left us spiritually poor in some profound ways. I suspect that quite a lot of Adventist theological thinking has grown out of unhelpful modernist paradigms, and part of the reason so many Adventist collegiates abandon faith is because they grow up thinking of faith either as some kind of daring leap into the extra-rational, or they hear that faith is something that can and should be based purely on “evidence” (I believe I picked this up as a teen from our beloved brother Graham Maxwell). Both extremes are the children of modernism, and neither is satisfying or sustainable. I’m sure the solution is not simply to rewind the clock seven hundred years in order to recover a pure thirteenth-century theology of illumination, but somehow Christian faith must discover again the deep mystical grounds of truth and knowledge.

Some Adventist readers will reject my suggestion here, recoiling from any theology that might have garnered assistance from Greek philosophy. (I’ve noticed that most Adventists are allergic to Platonism, rejecting the whole package uncritically because of its body-soul dualism.) I would simply point out that those elements of Platonism and Neoplatonism which most shaped the Christian doctrine of illumination are not unique to Plato and Plotinus. That the locus of all knowledge exists outside our own limited human capacities is a truth recognized by numerous schools of thought, and not only in the West. It rests at the mystical heart of all the major religions, simply because it makes good sense.

Not only that, it makes things beautiful. It illumines the whole of this broken world, flooding it with light, life and joy. A couple weeks ago one of the priests at Durham Cathedral invited our little young adult group over for dinner and a movie called “Gran Torino,” starring Clint Eastwood. It was the sort of thing no Adventist pastor would ever screen at a church film night, and to tell you the truth, that makes me very sad. It was full of the sort of real-world violence and aggression that we in our tight-knit Adventist communities would rather insulate ourselves from. Set in inner city Detroit, bigoted, foul-mouthed and angry Eastwood finds himself inexplicably drawn into the lives of his gang-terrorized immigrant neighbors. Eastwood’s character is the last person you would ever expect to become a saint, and yet at the ground of his own foulness, Eastwood gives himself away through an act profoundly resonant with the gospel. I left the film in awe of the God at the heart of all reality, the one infusing every aspect of this human journey with light and truth, if only we have eyes to see.

Merry Christmas, everyone. May the light coming into this world fill us all and grant us peace. 


The author of this reflection asked that this article be shared anonymously, which Spectrum does in some specific instances.

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