Reflections on Light from a Theology & Biology Professor

Sacred Darkness: A Theological Perspective

By Rhonda Burnette-Bletsch, PhD

We don’t have to look far in the Bible to find a connection between God and light. In Genesis 1:3, God calls forth light from primordial darkness and declares it good. Echoing Genesis, John’s Gospel describes Jesus as word and light made flesh (John 1:1-14). “I am the light of the world,” Jesus declares. “He who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12).

Many biblical authors draw a sharp distinction between light and darkness. Biblically speaking, light stands for things that we find reassuring—truth, goodness, safety, life, and the sustaining divine presence. Darkness, on the other hand, is shorthand for spiritual blindness and the many things that scare us: sorrow, pain, sickness, and death. 

The truth, however, is that all of us spend time in life’s darker seasons, not because God is punishing us or because we lack faith. Such seasons are just part of being human. Thankfully, biblical authors recognized that times of darkness can also be spiritually sacred. Many significant biblical events take place in the dark. Darkness fell across the earth when Jesus died on the cross (Mark 15:33). It was on a dark night that God showed Abraham the stars of heaven (Gen. 15:5), and dark clouds covered Mt. Sinai when God’s presence descended upon it (Exod. 19:18).

As a fourth century Cappadocian monk named Gregory of Nyssa pointed out, Moses’ experience of God began with the light of a burning bush, but as he matured in faith, Moses learned to see God in the darkness. Likewise, sixteenth century mystic St. John of the Cross encountered the divine in the complete darkness of a solitary prison cell. No matter what season we are in, the God of Light is with us. Here is the testimony of faith: God comes to those who walk in darkness, because darkness is not dark to God; the night is as bright as the day (Ps. 139:11-12).

Rhonda Burnette-Bletsch is professor of Biblical Studies and chair of the undergraduate Theology department at Eastern University.

Sustaining Light: A Biological Perspective

By Rebecca Hays, PhD

Light is foundational to almost all life on earth. Quite simply, life as we know it could not exist without light. Light is foundational, and yet we treat it so simplistically. We think about light in terms of what we can see, but there are so many wavelengths of light that we cannot see. We could not exist without light, and yet we so often only think about light in the context of sunny days or lights turned on and off in our homes.

Light is necessary to all life. Plants use light in photosynthesis to create sugars that sustain life. Through photosynthesis, plants, phytoplankton, and algae take light energy, and through biochemical pathways, create sugars (stored energy for later) and structural compounds. Without light, these organisms would not be able to grow, as they would only be able to work off of their stored sugars. Plants will actually grow in different ways to get better access to light. Animals, like mice and fish, that eat the plants and algae thus can only grow because they ate those sugars. Predators, like hawks and sharks, that eat the mice and fish then only grow because of photosynthesis too, even though it is indirect.

Without light, any life that existed on earth would be quite different. There might only be life in hot springs and hydrothermal vents. The existence of humans, dogs, flowers, or birds would be uncertain. But, if by some miracle we did have humans,  there would be shocking differences. We wouldn't need eyes to see if there was only darkness. There would be no color. There would be far less beauty in the world. Life would be radically different in every way without light. Light not only illumines our way, but sustains the beauty of our world as we know it.

The importance of light becomes especially profound when we consider Jesus’ command for us to be the light of the world (Matthew 5:14-16). He calls us to illuminate the way for others and to sustain the beauty of the world around us — just as physical light does. Our call to “be light” plays as necessary a role as light itself.

Rebecca Hays is associate professor of Biology at Eastern University.

This article was originally featured in the Spring 2020 Edition of Eastern Magazine. View the full magazine here.