Light has always been a symbol of religion. Jesus said, “I am the light of the world.” The Buddha was the “Enlightened One,” the one who had become a “knower,” who had seen the light. The Quran speaks of God as “Light upon Light,” and the Hebrew Scriptures declare, “The Lord lights up my darkness.”
The morning breaks, the sun pierces through the clouds, a flame dispels the darkness: Now awash in brilliance, hearts and minds forever leave behind their bewilderment and gloom. Is that how religion works? Not always.
There is a story about a man who comes upon his friend one night, crawling around beneath a streetlamp. “Charlie,” the man asks, “What are you doing?” Charlie answers: “I’m looking for my car keys.” Being a good friend, the man joins Charlie down on the concrete.
After several minutes of crawling about on the ground prove unfruitful, the man stands up, dusts off his trousers, props up against the streetlamp, and asks Charlie, “Are you sure you lost your keys right here?” Charlie answered, “No! I lost my keys down by the other corner, but the light is so much better here.”
Regularly, religion operates more like Charlie’s search for his keys than as the path to true enlightenment. We come upon a sliver of light in an ominous dark night, and standing in that gleam we become immovable – fixated – looking and exploring no further than the edges of the tiny, fetishized circle of light we have discovered.
This is exactly how religion – what should enlighten us – can entrap us. The light can blind us to what lies elsewhere. It can prevent us from searching for what and where we should really be looking. It can harden us, make us uncompromising, and afraid of what we cannot see in the shadows.
Leo Tolstoy, that Russian genius, understood this danger. He concluded that when we read a religious text like it is a be-all, end-all rule book, we are standing in the light of a streetlamp (e.g. Charlie). There is knowledge and insight, but with these come limitations. Per Tolstoy, we must stay where we are, “for we have no other place to go.”
But if we keep searching, eagerly pursuing, then we become “like a person carrying a lamp: The light is always leading. It continually opens up in front of us a new, illuminated space which draws us always onward.”
It takes a lot of blame for the troubles of this world, but religion is not the problem. “Bad” religion is: “Faith” that willingly chooses ignorance over reality; “spiritual” movements that intentionally do not move; religion that imprisons, that doesn’t liberate the vulnerable.
There is much darkness in this world. That is certain. But nothing is more terrifyingly bleak than those who refuse to seek and see; those who‘ve been blinded by their own light; and those who will not follow the Truth, because it leads them away from the security they have known.
Photo by Jonas Verstuyft