So reality, relationship and redemption are at the heart of what it’s all about for me.
Another pleasingly alliterative way of expressing these interconnected ideas is light, life and love. They don’t map exactly, but broadly speaking light relates to reality, love to relationship, and life to redemption.
You could call love, life and light the ‘Johannine trinity’ (I prefer ‘the Johnny three’ 😉 ). They’re based on three statements about God made in the gospel and letters associated with John the mystic apostle. ‘God is love’ (1 Jn 4:8b, 4:16b); ‘God is light’ (1 Jn 1:5; Jn 9:5); and ‘God is life’ (1 Jn 1:2; Jn 14:6).
Light, life and love: for John at least, these three ideas above all sum up God’s essence, his nature, his reality. Let’s start with love.
God is love
Love is not merely one of God’s attributes; it is perhaps the profoundest statement of who he, of his most fundamental nature and character. ‘God is love’ is a revolutionary, even shocking statement. It’s not that God is merely loving, or lovely, or love-like. God is love. Love is who he is; that’s how he chooses to make himself known. He is not primarily force, or power, or wrath. He is love.
Love is a mystery. Love is real, but it cannot be measured, manufactured or destroyed. Love has qualities that transcend the physical, and anyone who’s felt its force will laugh at the idea that it’s nothing more than an evolutionary strategy to ensure our genes’ survival.
Love is a paradox. It’s the greatest power in all the worlds, yet also the weakest. Love can move mountains, break down mighty walls and melt icy hearts, yet cannot force the weakest will to change or do anything; it can only woo, not coerce. Love cannot make others respond to it or reciprocate it.
Yet perhaps in the end it’s love that guides and directs the universe and history.
All you need is love?
We are created in love, by love, and for love. We all need love – to love and be loved. Without love we wither and die. And there is a deeper love, a love beyond and behind natural loves, which creates and permeates the universe; the love of the divine being, ‘the love which moves the stars’.
Love of course has many meanings, not all of them equally helpful. In religious use, it means something like the steadfast commitment to the complete wellbeing of another person, spiritually, emotionally and physically. When Jesus calls us to love one another (even our enemies), he means to care for people, to actively seek the best for them, to assist them in their need.
Love is quite easy in the abstract, but very hard in the particular. We can be generally philanthropic towards humankind, but mean to those in our house or on our doorstep. And love always has to be particular. It’s only actual relationships with real people that count.
God is light
Physical light is a riddle. It appears (impossibly) to be both a particle and a wave. It’s the fastest known quantity in the universe, almost able to be in two places at once. It travels across unimaginable aeons of time and space to show us the far reaches of our universe and even the distant past.
Light, like love, has an almost spiritual, non-material quality. Like the mystical view of God, light is simultaneously one and three and seven – the pure unity of white light made of the three primary colours, and refracting into the rainbow’s sevenfold spectrum.
We don’t generally see light itself, but by it we see everything else. And we experience God in a similar way – not as something or someone we (usually) see directly but as one whose light illuminates all else, making all other reality known to us. We sometimes wonder why God hides; but perhaps as the old hymn has it ‘Tis only the splendour of light hideth thee’. Perhaps we’re looking at God all the time, but we don’t see him for light.
Light, in one sense, changes nothing; it just reveals what is already there, shows it in its true colours. But in doing so, it changes everything.
Light in the darkness
Light is also a potent metaphor. It’s the universal symbol of hope, truth, goodness and purity since time immemorial. Light banishes darkness and drives away fear; light exposes error and reveals truth; light gives us sight, insight, illumination, enlightenment. Light also represents reason and wisdom – the original ‘logos’ or divine Word; the law that shapes and forms the universe, making it a cosmos not a chaos.
‘God is light’ is a metaphor of course; God isn’t literally physical light. But perhaps it’s better to stay with the symbol rather than trying to ‘unweave the rainbow’, separating out light into its spectrum of meanings. There’s a reason John uses the metaphor; it lets us glimpse a fuller picture and gain deeper understanding than more concrete terms.
So the spiritual ‘light’ of God acts within our deep being, illuminating, revealing, leading us into truth. As plants need sunlight to grow and flower, so too our souls need the sunlight of the Spirit to flourish. A lot of this probably happens without our input, but perhaps we can put ourselves in places to receive more or less light. And we may also to a greater or lesser extent be able to shut out the light if we choose to.
So I believe we’re called to receive and reflect God’s light to the best of our abilities, cracked mirrors as we are.
God is life
What is life? It’s an enduring enigma. We still really don’t know how biological life arose or even exactly what it is beyond a description of how it behaves. Science may answer these questions one day, but I’m not sure that will detract from life’s mysteriousness. Like love and light, life seems to have almost a spiritual essence, something apart from merely physical existence.
Life has the almost magical ability to heal and regenerate itself, to replicate and recreate itself, to adapt and develop, survive and multiply, diversify and specialise. Concrete over the earth and life will spring through, pushing up between the cracks, breaking out into the light. And life is even able to hold its own against the universal forces of entropy and disintegration, by borrowing energy from the Sun (light again).
Just to be physically alive is a tremendous miracle. To breathe, to feel, to be aware – these are unparalleled gifts. And there is I believe also a spiritual life that flows in us, making us alive more than biologically; alive to God.
In our physical beings we need the things which sustain and promote life. And spiritually we need the life of the Spirit flowing through us, the ‘spring welling up to eternal life’ as Jesus put it.
This is the redemptive aspect of religion – God’s new life in us, his eternally renewing life healing and transforming us into his likeness. Again, some of this may happen without our awareness; life flows and grows in us without our conscious input. But we can also seek God’s life and those things which nurture it. And perhaps again we can also block them out, though we may not succeed.
Love, light, life and the world to come
Love, light and life are deeply interconnected. Love gives birth to life which grows towards the light, which sustains life, which looks for other life to love.
Love, light and life seem to come from somewhere beyond this physical realm of time and space. They shine in like the foretastes of a new kind of world, a new way of being.
Within the shell of this current order are hints of a new one being formed, like a seed in the ground, a butterfly in the chrysalis. The new realm is being made out of the transfigured material of the old creation. And the laws of this new order are love, light and life.
There are the tales, the whispers of something unprecedented yet expected; non-predictable, yet clearly right. Rumours of incarnation: of Reality made flesh, of Love come among us, of the source of Life born among decay, of the true Light beyond the stars come into the world.
And then, more surprising still, the other end of the tale: rumours of resurrection, of Love and Life and Light that cannot be stopped by mere physical death.
In Christ’s birth, imperishable love, light and life have been woven into the very fabric of space and time; in his resurrection from death, the redemption of the cosmos has begun. Death and decay, sin and evil no longer have the final word.
For now the old laws still operate, but they will not win. Love wins. Light wins. Life wins. They must, for they are aspects of the very nature and being of God; and the new realm being born among us is God’s Kingdom.
Note: Parts of this piece have been unashamedly nicked from earlier post The forces of chaos and the forces of life.