Mind the Light

Mind the Light

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Mind the Light
Plenary remarks to the State of the World Forum, New York, NY
September 2000 <http://www.worldforum.org>.


We are created by divine light
We are sustained by divine light
We are surrounded by divine light
We are ever growing into divine light

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth, and the earth was without form and void and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And God said let there be light and there was light and God saw the light that it was good. Long before this profound opening to the Hebrew Scriptures was written our earliest ancestors recognised that light is fundamental to our survival. Their rituals designed to ensure the sun rose in its appointed place every morning, their celebrations of spring after the dark days of Winter and the elevation of their earthly rulers to Sun gods bedecked with gold leave us in no doubt that they understood that light was an integral factor in the creation of the Universe and the very corner stone of human existence.

Moreover, every major religion has recognised that the concept of light is a powerful metaphor which allows us penetrate our inner world, a world we can access best through ritual, symbol, music, poetry and the visual arts.

This is the opening to St. John’s gospel:

“In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. All things were made by him and without him was not anything made that was made. In Him was life and the life was the light of men and the light shineth in the darkness and the darkness comprhended it not.”

Mankind is enhanced when the light of knowledge and truth penetrate the darkness of ignorance, falsehood and superstition. Our predecessors in Oxford, like many other Universities, included the word ‘light’ in the University motto – Dominus illuminato mea – a quotation from the opening of Psalm 27 – The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom then shall I fear? This psalm was intoned by the High Priest on the feast of Succoth. At the entrance to the temple in Jerusalem, in the midst of huge braziers whose light was dimmed by the intensity of the rising sun, the high priest continued, ‘The Lord is the light of my life, of whom then shall I be afraid?’ implying that the light of the Lord outshone the sun just as the sun dimmed the man made fire into insignificance. A powerful motto indeed for all those who have striven to keep the light of knowledge burning, and sometimes flickering, throughout the ages.

And today too, if we allow it to be so, the light of wisdom, knowledge and truth can continue to inform and transform our understanding of the world and our place in it.

Our lives involve journeys from darkness to light at many levels. Our very birth is a journey from the dark of the womb to the daylight. The constant rythym of night followed by day is echoed within us as over and over again we struggle to emerge from the darkness of ignorance to the light of understanding. In some measure, we achieve this knowledge by bringing our unconscious knowing to conscious reality and testing it, by integrating information derived intuitively from the world within us with information derived rationally from the world around us. We complete the cycle when we reflect on insights derived from without, allowing our minds to integrate new information into our inner knowing, so that, in turn, it can enhance and enrich us and become the source of new inspiration, which we call intuitive.

However, we cannot take this process for granted for, particularly in Western culture, our current desire for rigorous, scientifically based truth can mean that sometimes the rational and intuitive aspects of ourselves become isolated from each other.

Integration of the rational and intuitive is not easy, for often we prefer to compartmentalise our experiences to avoid potential conflict. Neither can we be compelled to engage in this activity of integration. This famous painting by Holman Hunt hangs in Keble College chapel in Oxford. It shows the Light of the world knocking at the door of the human heart. The door has no handle – it is necessary for us to summon up the courage to open it from the inside to allow the light from all areas of our experience to penetrate and to illuminate our hearts.

For the intuitive and rational to inform and illuminate the other and so lead us to make creative leaps, it is necessary to strive for maturity in both. The pain and struggle are not in vain, for when we succeed in this integration we become enlightened. Both aspects of ourselves are transfigured, they are able to sustain each other and as human beings we rise to a higher level. If we do not attempt to explore and relate both the intuitive and rational aspects of ourselves then our generation may be deemed clever, but not wise. As the writer of the book of Wisdom remarked long ago, If they have the power to know so much that they are able to investigate the whole world, how is it that they have not been able to recognise the source of all these things?

Often the drive to search for enlightenment begins with an encounter. An archetypal story is told in the legends of the knights of King Arthur, which swept across Christian Europe in the 12th century, the adolescent, Parsifal, finding himself alone at the peasants’ fire, tasted the salmon on the cooking spit. It was too hot for him to handle and he dropped it, but the taste of the salmon haunted him for the rest of his life and he never ceased to search for it passionately through thick and thin. For the taste of the salmon we should understand ‘a sense of the infinite’ for the word fish in Greek is icthyus- an acronym for Jesus Christ Son of God Saviour.

1. Scientists are inspired and committed

Although we may be accustomed to thinking of such commitment in association with explicitly religious or artistic experience, there are countless ways in which this sense may come to us: as we quietly contemplate the wonder of growing crystals or the elegance of a mathematical theory, as we find revelation in a painting or poem, become captivated by the solemn majesty of a starlit sky, yearn for justice or experience awe and wonder in a holy place. Many of us could tell of such an encounter in our youth which has led us to action and has inspired the rest of our lives.

In striving to be true to such a formative experience and deep commitment, scientists are no different from artists, poets, theologians or politicians. Cutting edge research, like pioneering in any other field, begins in a cloud of unknowing where the unknown beckons us with all its potential and infinite possibility. The first contemplations which are transformed into brush strokes, the attempt at the poem or the posing of a scientific question, the vision we have of a world based on peace and justice – all of these commit us to the journey, to the quest. The first faltering steps we take to convert our dreams to reality invariably require courage, for they inevitably restrict the possibilities that lay in the empty canvas and unmixed palette, the unwritten manifesto or the unmarked notebook. Moreover, action exposes us all to the possibility of failure, of disclosing our inadequacy, of corrupting what appeared pure and incorruptible before our attempts to grasp, articulate and give form to that which we experienced in the mist. For our final statement is not pre-determined from the beginning, we do not have the blueprint in our initial act, we struggle at every stage to find the true colour, the exact word, the precise piece of legislation, the definitive experiment.  Small wonder that the moment of commitment is sometimes terrifying, always awe-inspiring and invariably requires courage. Small wonder that even the lowliest first triumph in self expression, won at so great a cost, will keep us returning to the source for the rest of our lives. Like Parsifal tasting the salmon at the fire, our first contact with the infinite will bind us for ever, for even if we should never experience it again all our failures will be eclipsed by that single moment of success.

‘The beginning of all things is conceived in the mist’, wrote Gibran. We strain to see shapes emerging from the cloud, to make sense of what appears as yet incoherent, unrelated or even contradictory.

So what does the scientific process involve?

  • Scientists dream.
  • Ask questions.
  • Do experiments.
  • Partially answer the questions.
  • Communicate the results to others.
  • Decide what to do next.
  • Look for ways of applying what they have discovered

Let me give you an example from the immune system. This is a very complex system which many groups of scientists are currently trying to unravel. If we look at just one tiny part of that system which is involved in defending us from viruses:

We observe that T-cells can recognise and kill virally infected cells.

Initailly no one knew how this happened.

We presume the two cells come into contact, but what happens at the junction is hidden from us, we can only imagine. The way we test our imaginery picture is by asking a series of questions.

2. So for the scientist the journey of discovery begins with the posing of questions:

1. How did the cell get infected with the virus?
2. What molecules are on the cell surfaces?
3. Which of these are required for the cells to communicate?
4. How do the cells stay close together?
5. How does the infected cell show it is infected?
6. How does the T-cell recognise this?
7. What happens next? How is the infected cell killed?

These are massive questions and many, many groups have provided data which has helped us to answer some of them, so now we can make a model of the interface between the two cells …

When scientists have begun to answer such questions they can start to ask how we can use this information and here we depend not only on scientific facts, but also on ethical judgments.

For example,

1. Can we/should we use our findings to fight viral infections?

2. If so, which viruses should we focus on? Those which affect the developed world which can afford the drugs and thus provide money for further research or those viruses which affect the largest numbers of people or the poorest people in the world?

3. If we can understand how viruses infect new cells can we interfere with this process without causing unacceptable side effects? What is an unacceptable side effect?

4. If we could find a drug would it be right to use animals to test it to ensure it is safe for humans?

So the fields of science, ethics, economics, politics and religion overlap. We carry a shared responsibility when we discuss the ethics of research into such things as the human genome, the use of human stem cells for treating disease, the wisdom of extending the lives of severely disabled babies at all costs, the relationship between human life and other forms of life, and the consequences of switching off life support machines.

Today scientists are searching for breakthroughs, in our own fields certainly, but beyond that many of us are also seeking to integrate our findings into other contexts. First, within ourselves so we can be at one with the systems we are studying, then with the insights of other scientists and the more widely still with others, such as theologians and philosophers, who view life from different angles, complementing our own.

As individuals and as communities we cannot afford to choose between the insights of one or the other. Not only do we share the same inner creative drives, our particular insights are part of a much larger whole.  For the scientist who cannot access the experience of those who aspire to raise the dreams of mankind beyond those of mere physical existence will be the poorer. And religion will cease to fulfil its most noble purpose if those who practise it cannot accommodate and reflect on the experience of the scientist.

However, at the grass roots level, commitment to such an integrated way by either scientists, politicians or theologians will remain risky as long as each tradition is still viewed with some suspicion by the other. But if bridges are to be built then it is necessary for us to take the risk. As our disciplines come of age we can afford to be open with each other. It is no longer appropriate to compartmentalise our thinking and ring fence our particular intellectual field with jargon and tradition so it cannot seriously be challenged.  We recognise today that there are different ways of knowing and that we are not restricted to choosing only one. However, it seems that we have yet to understand how to weave them seamlessly together either at the personal or public level.

Perhaps the following reflections will allow us to discover that, whatever our intellectual discipline or profession, there are many things we have in common.

3. Answering the question

Even when scientists have formulated a question, setting out to answer it can be a way of negation, for we may well have neither the scholarship nor the technical skills to move forward. How, for example, do we isolate the molecules embedded in the cell surface of a T-cell? When we know the proteins have sugars attached to them how do we analyse the structures of the sugars? Often we have to develop new technologies before we can even begin to answer these questions.

‘To arrive at that which we know not we must travel by a way which we know not’ said St. John of the Cross. Religion is older, far far older than the practice of science and it has much to teach us about such a way. Through allegory and myth, art and music, ritual and symbol religion provides a rich treasury of human experience expressed in a way that is accessible to us all. It is a resource which can sustain us through disappointment and failure and which support and uplift every human inspiration and every human struggle to create a world where knowledge, beauty, truth and peace are a reality for all of the creation.

4. The way may need solitude

The yearning which scientists have to understand the created world can lead us into solitude. How do we decide which experiments to do first, when we get data how do we know how to interpret it?  We can expect to have to enter periods of darkness and solitude so that we can develop our skills and find a sense of direction. When we get it right it feels like stepping out of the shadows into the sunlight.

Bathed in moonlight with stars and planets hanging like lanterns from the middle Eastern sky, Mount Sinai, as the Children of Israel knew, is mysteriously beautiful at night, full of soft blue-velvet shadows. The small camps of the Arabs selling water to the travellers are sprinkled along the winding track up the mountain side, their twinkling lights showing the way to the summit. It is a quiet, gentle, feminine experience inviting silence and reflection and inner stillness from those of all religions and none who ascend to the summit to greet the dawn.

The middle eastern sun rises with unbelievable splendour over the mountain tops, dimming the deep shadows of the night with penetrating shafts of red and gold, bringing heat and light to an awakening world.  In a moment of exquisite harmony half of the mountain is bathed in sunlight while, behind the observers of the rising sun, the remainder lingers in the pale light of the remaining stars and the fading moon. That the power of the sun can chase away the shades of night is indisputable and we are creatures of the light.

Perhaps so, but we should not fear the night. Many mystics speak of the growth which takes place in darkness, the insights derived in solitude and silence. And those of us who work in the dark at the limits of our current understanding in any profession know that we move forward by faith and not by sight. Recognising and coming to terms with our own inadequacies can be tough, knowing how and what to lay down so that we can take up new burdens and new challenges is difficult. But we need to know ourselves, we need to find an overall sense of direction, we need to develop sound judgement to decide what is of lasting importance and what is merely an ego trip which will fade with the rising sun.

5. The way may involve changing direction

In both our personal and professional lives we need to change direction sometimes. This is risky, for only too often this feels as though we have lost our secure foothold on one bank with no certainty that we can reach the other. We may be driven to a place of no return, where the established dogma is no longer adequate to incorporate the new findings but the new theories are not yet in place. But if we are to achieve a breakthrough, either in our personal research or in our attempts to relate to other disciplines we have to be prepared to let go, to take risks and to change and to grow.

For example, during the latter part of the last century, scientists have moved from a philosophy restricted to description, prediction and control. Such a philosophy is not sufficient to answer the ultimate question, What is it all for? Even to answer more limited questions a detailed analysis of constituent parts is necessary but not sufficient. In many cases we have yet to work out how we can envisage whole systems. Vital though reductionism is to the process of understanding, we know that in many cases the pieces which we isolate from a system operate very differently in their natural environment where they are responding to their surroundings.

Religious practice has also evolved and changed direction with our developing insights into human nature and the world around us. Theologians can use scientific insights as well as those of the historian to sift superstitious and party political agendas from their doctrines. Passing too are the days of religious intolerance, when my being right necessarily implied that you were wrong. Just as in science more than one model may serve to explain an observation or describe a concept, so in religion a different view can provide a fresh aspect and new meaning.

None of us is yet at the end of the search:

For as Luther said, ‘This life is not a state of being but of becoming. We are not yet what we shall be but we grow towards it; the process of learning and growing is not yet finished, but is still going on. All does not yet shine with glory, but all is being purified.’

6. The way is dynamic

Progress like riding a camel, is a dynamic activity, which requires us to cope when things are temporarily out of balance or out of order. Once we begin to order things, to summarise concepts in laws and doctrines, we are more comfortable because we feel we are establishing control and gaining insight, but as we continue our options steadily become more narrow. We can learn from the natural world, for it is dynamic, constantly re-arranging and re-interpreting itself to create new features, new worlds, new life. It is often a very violent universe, working through fire and tempest, death, destruction and pain to forge new life. Sometimes we have to let go of old ideas for there are times when something has to die so that greater ideas and new visions can grow.

A supernova is an exploding star which in its death scatters its contents into the Universe where they will be incorporated into new worlds.

Soft shimmering light belies the catastrophic moment that brought you to your present state, that rent your very being to the core, shattering your inner life, revealing your labour of a million years, forging the seeds of worlds to come. Worlds of richer life and higher knowing, who will gaze upon your disappearing veils with gratitude. (Kate Boisvert)

And as this Zen garden with its stone garden set with 16 stones which can never all be seen simultaneously, proclaims: creative potential is greatest when we are not entirely in control, when things are not yet finely balanced – when our thoughts are as yet disordered or even chaotic and we can dream of possibilites. Here we may feel that we can connect with Nature herself, for it seems that even the Universe itself was created at a moment of assymetry.

7. The moment of success

In the depths of our being lies a dream that we can interact with being beyond ourselves, that in such an encounter we will grow in wisdom and understanding and love. For a human being to approach the source of all Being and Creativity, through Science requires a heroic struggle and, for many, a commitment which requires love costing not less than everything.

” Jonathan Livingstone Seagull understood this only too well. After his long, lonely struggle to achieve perfection in flight he found that the dream to which we all surely aspire became a reality. They came in the evening then, and found Jonathan gliding peaceful and alone through his beloved sky. The two gulls that appeared at his wings were as pure as starlight and the glow from them was gentle and friendly in the high night air. We’re from your flock Jonathan. We are your brothers. We’ve come to take you home. As it had shined across him all his life, so understanding lighted that moment for Jonathan. They were right. He could fly higher and it was time to go home. And Jonathan Livingstone Seagull rose with the two starbright gulls to disappear into a perfect dark sky.”

When this happens all the pain, all the failures, all the struggles, all our doubts and uncertainties fade into insignificance, for all are eclipsed by that single moment of unalloyed delight. Life can never be the same again. For we have been touched by the infinite. We have approached the Holy ground and found freedom, acceptance and love for we are not required to enter into a forced march where we feel dominated. Without losing anything which makes us uniquely ourselves, we discover that we have engaged in the dance, in a partnership with the created world and with the source of creation. If only for a fraction of a second we have glimpsed the glory which will envelop and change us for ever.

8. Finally, the way involves communication

Let us think for a few moments about this icon, which has to do with relationships, for our lives have primarily to do with relationships – within ourselves, to the world around us which we seek to understand, towards each other and to God.

Rublev’s icon of the three angels who visited Abraham to tell him that Sarah was to conceive a son, has also been taken to symbolise the Trinity. Like all icons, this was painted by a man at prayer. It powerfully demonstrates the gentleness and strength of the relationships between the three angels or aspects of the Godhead, showing how each gives meaning to the others, sustains the others yet depends on them to achieve his own wholeness.  What is more, the icon draws us in too, encouraging us to absorb, contribute to and relate to the scene before us.

One interpretation of this Trinity is that the first person represents that part of ourselves which is the root and ground and source of our being, which, when we approach it, creates a sense of awe in us as when we contemplate the vastness of the universe or see for the first time the organisation in a single cell. The second represents that part of the centre of our being to which we have access, that which we have struggled to bring to conscious expression, articulating it first maybe in music, through symbols or the visual arts and finally in words. The third, represents the creative skills by which we are enabled to bring this intuitive understanding to conscious knowing so it can become for us a base from which we can search for further understanding. These three facets of ourselves are inextricably woven together, for contemplative and intellectual knowledge must both move through our levels of understanding to nurture and sustain our whole being in harmony. To subordinate or deny any one of these aspects is to disturb the interrelationships, to undermine the beauty and balance of the whole and to stifle our creativity.

Such concepts are expressed even more powerfully in Eastern religions where the relationships between body, mind and spirit have remained connected – in the Hindu Trinity of Sacchitdananda and the Buddhist Trinitiy of Dharmakaya, Sambogakaya and Nirmanakaya.

So how, at a professional level, are scientists and theologians to address the problem of communicating directly with each other on a day by day basis? If we are afraid of unresolvable conflict we can avoid the risk by trying to compartmentalise our personal scientific and spiritual lives so that they never meet. At the next level up, the scientific and religious communities can do the same thing. That way everyone is safe in their own world, we ring fence our disciplines with unintelligible jargon and no-one gets hurt, but is this really the way things should be?

What of our common search to understand God and His relationship with Man today? I believe we are being challenged as never before to develop and expand our religious doctrines to accomodate the rapidly growing data base of human knowledge and understanding. If the existing religions are going to be sufficient for our needs in the next millenium, I suggest that one of the major tasks for all who profess a religious commitment will be to reflect on the current knowledge emerging from their particular discipline and to relate this to the innermost needs of the human spirit.

For science and religion are just two of the starting points from which we can begin to describe different facets of the world and of ourselves – and both involve penetrating the darkness of unknowing, pushing back barriers of ignorance and dispelling misinformation to enlighten our understanding of the Universe and our place within it. And once we allow light from each to enlighten the other our interpretation of earlier insights will inevitably be changed, transfigured by the blaze from our new vision.


We are created by divine love.
We are sustained by divine love.
We are surrounded by divine love.
We are ever growing into divine love


I believe that Bruch describes such a sense of integration in this music which is based on the opening theme of the Jewish festival of Yom Kippur. Kol Nidrei is the prayer which speaks of the reconciliation between God and man, when all debts between man and God are forgiven. It resonates with some of the deepest hopes and aspirations of the human spirit and echoes the restless searching that is an integral part of human nature. This music combines the spiritual insight of the Jews, the work of the composer who painfully brought this music out of the mist of his own inner experience, the skill of the orchestra and the scientists whose understanding of the nature of sound made the recording possible. Together they have done what no individual could have done, they have made it possible for us to respond to this music not only with our highly developed physical senses, but also with our minds and spirits.

 Dr.Pauline M. Rudd BSc, PhD
The Glycobiology Institute,
Department of Biochemistry,
University of Oxford,
South Parks Road, Oxford OX1 3QU