The “Light Upon The Candlestick” — a call for us to celebrate the Enlightenment (Aufklärung) and raise a toast to "The Light of Reason"

Readings: Proverbs 20:27
“The spirit of man is the candle of the Lord.”

And four paragraphs from Peter Balling's "The Light Upon The Candlestick" (1662) (reproduced at the end of this address)

—o0o—

This week the theme of light has pressed upon me. In the first instance this was because the annual Hindu Festival of Diwali is currently being celebrated (23-27 October 2014).

The word Diwali is derived from the Sanskrit word Dīpāvali, made up of dīpa ("light" or "lamp") and āvalī (a "series, line or row”) meaning, therefore, a "row" or "series of lights" and wherever it is celebrated you will find countless rows of lights placed on, in and around people’s own houses as well as temples and other community buildings. For Hindus the festival stands as an expression of a belief in the victory of light over darkness, knowledge over ignorance, good over evil, and hope over despair. This is a splendid general theme with which I’m sure we all resonate but, of course, Diwali cannot be reduced only to this basic idea as it is bound up with all kinds of rituals and worship of supernatural gods and goddesses.

In the second instance the theme of light pressed upon me because next week is Halloween and, in an effort to push against both it’s celebration in secular society and what is seen as a pagan, i.e. non-Christian, reading of the festival, an increasing number of churches are choosing to provide alternative celebrations called “Light Parties”. For various reasons their promotional literature has found its way into my hands and I note that it is particularly being promoted by the Scripture Union and the Evangelical Alliance.

The light signified by these “Light Parties” is, of course, Jesus Christ understood as the second person of the Trinity and, therefore, as God himself. As the Gospel of John puts it (3:19) “And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world [i.e. Christ], and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.” So, once again we see a celebration that cannot merely be reduced to the general concept of light because it also involves all kinds of kinds of rituals and worship of, in this case, a single supernatural God.

Together, these religious celebrations of light made me think about the kind of natural, this-worldly light we in this church wish both to celebrate and alert the world to.

One important indicator of what that light is is seen in the fact that I can address you in a secular country that is able to allow the simultaneous public marking of various festivals and parties by Hindus, Christians, pagans and also an entirely non-religious section of society.

The light I am referring to is that which began to shine in the “Aufklärung”, the “Age of Enlightenment” or, as it is sometimes called, the “Age of Reason”.

An important scholar of the Enlightenment, Jonathan Israel (the professor of modern history at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton) has made an powerful case for there having been two Enlightenments. On the one hand there was the moderate mainstream Enlightenment, associated particularly with Newton and Locke which, at the time, wished to make a compromise with existing social institutions (such as the monarchy) and which also sought to preserve in some way aspects of established religious beliefs. The idea was to create “a viable synthesis of old and new.” This generally more conservative stance enabled it to win support both within the church and state.

“By contrast,” Israel writes:

“the Radical Enlightenment, whether on an atheistic or deistic basis, rejected all compromise with the past and sought to sweep away existing structures entirely, rejecting the Creation as traditionally understood in Judaeo-Christian civilization, and the intervention of a providential God in human affairs, denying the possibility of miracles, and reward and punishment in an afterlife, scorning all forms of ecclesiastical authority, and refusing to accept that there is any God-ordained social hierarchy, concentration of privilege or land-ownership in noble hands, or religious sanction for monarchy. From its origins in the 1650s and 1660s the philosophical radicalism of the European Early Enlightenment characteristically combined immense reverence for science, and for mathematical logic, with some form of non-providential deism, if not outright materialism and atheism along with unmistakably republican, even democratic tendencies.” (Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity, 1650–1750, Oxford University Press, 2001, pp. 11-12)

In Israel’s opinion, in post-1945 European culture we can see that the Radical Enlightenment ultimately won the day and our society is, today, grounded upon its basic set of principles which

“. . . can be summed up concisely as: democracy; racial and sexual equality; individual liberty of lifestyle; full freedom of thought, expression, and the press; eradication of religious authority from the legislative process and education; and full separation of church and state. It sees the purpose of the state as being the wholly secular one of promoting the worldly interests of the majority and preventing vested minority interests from capturing control of the legislative process. Its chief maxim is that all men have the same basic needs, rights, and status irrespective of what they believe or what religious, economic, or ethnic group they belong to, and consequently all ought to be treated alike, on the basis of equity, whether black or white, male or female, religious or non-religious, and that all deserve to have their personal interests and aspirations equally respected by law and government. Its universalism lies in its claim that all men have the same right to pursue happiness in their own way, and think and say whatever they see fit, and no one, including those who convince others they are divinely chosen to be their masters, rulers, or spiritual guides, is justified in denying or hindering others in the enjoyment of rights that pertain to all men and women equally (“A Revolution of the Mind: Princeton University Press, 2010, pp. vii-viii).

If you are ever minded to read Israel’s books and lectures you will quickly discover the important, and sometimes vital contribution to the Radical Enlightenment made by our own Unitarian/Socinian forebears.

You will also discover the central importance of another figure, aspects of whose thought I often bring before you, Benedict Spinoza (1632-1677). His words, God-or-Nature, “Deus sive natura” (meaning God is Nature and Nature is God) appear at the beginning of every morning service and Israel is of the opinion that this one-substance philosophy was “the only way you could eliminate religious authority from politics.” Israel adds that Spinoza’s philosophy helped reveal that:

Our moral order is not something that is divinely revealed to us, [rather] it’s something that is relative to society only. Central to Spinoza is the concept that there is something such as a secular, material, common good or common will of society and that you will have a much better, happier society if you adopt laws that correspond to the common good (https://newhumanist.org.uk/articles/4194/seeing-reason-jonathan-israels-radical-vision)

It was Spinoza’s one-substance philosophy that influenced a friend of his, a Socinian and Collegiant by the name of Peter Balling, to compose a short tract entitled “The light upon the candlestick” from which you earlier heard an extract. The light to which he refers, and the light upon our own candlestick, is the same light of reason that was first kindled during the “Aufklärung”.

The light upon our candlestick in church today
I hope it is clear that the light burning upon our communion table here before us stands for the basic principles of the Radical Enlightenment which have enabled us to develop a secular, democratic, tolerant, free-thinking society which is able to give appropriate space and time to Hindus celebrating Diwali, to evangelical Christians celebrating the light of Christ, and also to those who wish to celebrate Halloween in whatever way they deem fit, whether religiously or not.

This is all good, but what has begun increasingly to nag away at me this week as I saw various pieces of advertising for Diwali, Light Parties and Halloween in all its guises, is the question of why on earth is the Enlightenment not being widely, loudly and joyously celebrated by our general culture? Why are we not cracking open a bottle of champagne and raising a glass to the light which has made it possible for us to envisage and begin to create our open, diverse, secular democratic society? To be sure, it is far from perfect and still needs great improvement but let that not blind us to its already great and wonderful merits.

So why is there no such thing as an “Aufklärung” party? Why?

As I began to think about it I realised I don’t really know. But one thing I do know. It is that if, as a culture, we are not prepared regularly to celebrate the Enlightenment as being central to our democratic secular way of being-in-the-world then we are surely in danger of forgetting it and of opening the door once again to the same forces of superstition, exclusion and privilege that it began successfully to overcome from the 1650s onward. Make no mistake about it we cannot passively inherit the “Aufklärung” from our forebears for this is the kind of Enlightenment that needs to be experienced anew each year, each month, in fact, each new day. The “Aufklärung” is not a fixed doctrine but an ever-unfolding commitment to light and truth as it shows up the course of our, this-worldly, human endeavours.

So, I have a question for you all. Why do we not, next year at this season, arrange some kind of joyous Enlightenment or “Aufklärung” celebration ourselves so as, gently but confidently, to remind both ourselves and those around us of the value of the light of reason?

Will it be a success and catch on? Who knows, but let’s not forget that the much loved, and now widely celebrated modern Harvest festival was started by an eccentric clergyman and his small and apparently insignificant church community. At this level then we are clearly well-placed to achieve something similar with an “Aufklärung Festival”!

But, humour aside, if we don't properly celebrate the Enlightenment and the use of reason we can be assured that the darkness of superstition, exclusion and privilege will close in upon us once again.

So, let's avoid that, shall we! I've pencilled the party in for Friday 30th October 2015 when we can all raise a joyous toast to the Enlightenment and the light of reason.

Amen.

(After the service I dug out two bottles of bubbly and, at coffee, all those present lifted a glass together and raised that toast. A splendid moment—and the party is on, by the way.)

—o0o—

Peter Balling — from The Light Upon The Candlestick (1662)

We direct thee then to within thyself, that is, that thou oughtest to turn into, to mind and have regard unto that which is within thee, to wit, The Light of Truth, the true Light which enlightens every man that cometh into the world. Here 'tis that thou must be, and not without thee. Here thou shalt find a Principle certain and infallible, and whereby increasing and going on therein, thou mayest at length arrive unto a happy condition: Of this thou mayest highly adventure the tryal. But if thou durst not do so much, 'tis hard to help thee. And if thou happenest to be one of those that wouldst know all things, before thou dost begin, yea, even those things which are experienced in a condition to which thou art so much a stranger, that there's nothing in thee hath so much agreement therewith, as to comprehend it according to truth: Know this, Thou dost (therein) just as those that would learn to Read, without knowing the Letters.
          To desire to know all things that we are capable of, is good and laudable: But to go further, is folly. There will be alwayes something else to ask, and our knowledge will ever be too short. He that will not adventure till he be fully satisfied, shall never begin, much less finish it to his own salvation.
But we judge it needful (as much in us lyes) to open unto you that unto which we do exhort you, that people may understand what it properly is.
          We say then, That we exhort every one to turn into the Light, that's in him (We give it rather the appellation of Light, than any thing else, otherwise it's all one to us whether ye call it, Christ, the Spirit, the Word, &c. seeing these all denote but one and the same thing): Yet the word Light being in all its natural signification somewhat else then that which we intend thereby, we shall therefore in brief endeavour clearly to express what we intend under this denomination.
          The Light (then we say) is a clear and distinct knowledge of truth in the understanding of every man, by which he is so convinced of the Being and Quality of things, that he cannot possibly doubt thereof.


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