ABOVE: Ancient Crypt
Cellars in Provins, France,
a 1910 photograph by
Frederick H. Evans

Photo: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C.

The Transfiguration,
a Russian icon, attributed to Theopan the Greek, from the Cathedral of the Transfiguration in Pereslav, Russia, c.1403

Scala / Art Resource, NY

“And as he was praying, the appearance of his countenance was altered, and his raiment became dazzling white.”

Luke 9:29

Contact: Mary Ann Meyers, Ph.D., Senior Fellow

The purpose of this symposium is to explore the physics and metaphysics of light. The conversation draws together thirteen scholars and scientists who have come to Istanbul (the only city spreading over two continents as it straddles the narrow strait separating Europe and Asia) to share insights and research on a theme linked to core issues in theology and science. It is certainly so that in all the world’s religions light has served as a metaphor for ultimate reality. The Abrahamic faiths, in particular, associate God with uncreated, primal light and the creation itself with the (first) divine command: “Fiat lux.” But the link between divinity and light also exists in archaic Greek literature where gods glowed with brightness. In Plato’s cave, goodness enters the material realm “as sunlight enters darkness.” And Plotinus, among later Greeks, writes of the One coming into the world as light that will not be confined. For Christians, it is light that frames the messianic hope developed among the prophets of Israel. Above all, it is light (John 8:12) that points to the answer to the question of who Jesus is—the self-description that theologians through the ages have sought to explicate by examining Jesus’ claim and what it means for us. And it is the modern city of Istanbul that incorporates the ancient city on the Asian side of the Bosphorus where in 451 A.D. an ecumenical council of bishops wrote the rich and elusive Chalcedonian Definition gesturing toward Christ’s paradoxical (though not self-contradictory) identity. Athanasius, in writing about the far-reaching deliberations at the earlier Council of Nicaea (325 A.D.), finds an analogy for the unique relationship of the incarnate Son to the Father in the relationship between the sun and the radiance of its light. The theme of God as light was a leitmotif of the writings of Gregory Nazianzen, and more than two centuries later, Maximus the Confessor found in the light streaming forth from the transfigured Christ a parable for God’s relationship to creation.

From the perspective of physics, to ask the question “What is light?” is to address an issue fundamental to our understanding of physical reality. Discoveries resulting from modern scientific research into the properties of light would seem to deepen our sense of its spiritual significance. But even the sixth-century science of John Philoponus, taking issue with Aristotle, understood light as something dynamic. From Robert Grosseteste, the author of a highly original cosmogony, who wrote of light as the “first form” of all things, to Christian Huygens, father of the wave theory of light, to James Clerk Maxwell who proposed that light was a form of electromagnetic radiation to Albert Einstein who saw that electromagnetic radiation can behave as both wave and particle, our increasing knowledge of the physics of light has been tied to our increasing knowledge of how the physical world works in general. Observations made during the past century have linked light to the origin and evolution of the universe. The big bang is described as a burst of radiant energy that expanded dramatically outward from an infinitesimal point 13.7 billion years ago. Our earliest knowledge of the state of the universe is given us by the cosmic background radiation that fills the cosmos. We know that no signal can travel faster than light, and Einstein’s assumptions about the constancy of the speed of light enabled him to grasp the reality of a dynamic invariance inherent in the order of the world that is the basis of his theory of special relativity, which radically altered our understanding of space and time. The observation that gravity bends the path of light helped confirm the theory of general relativity, Einstein’s great discovery on which modern cosmology rests. Now with the Glashow-Weinberg-Salam model describing how the electromagnetic force and the weak nuclear force might be united in a single “electroweak” force, physics is moving closer to a grand unified theory (GUT) that would include the strong nuclear force as well. Even more audacious than the dream of a GUT is the speculation that it may one day be possible to merge gravity with the other three gauge symmetries creating a “theory of everything” that links together all physical phenomena. Could what is yet to be known about light provide further insight into the basic ontology of nature?

Key theological questions to be considered in the symposium will include: What could Jesus have meant when he described himself as the “Light of the world” (John 9:5)? Or St. Paul when he wrote to the church in Corinth: “For God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, has shone in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6)? What could the author of Revelation have been suggesting by portraying the heavenly Jerusalem as the city with “no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb” (Revelation 21:23)? What can contemporary theology tell us about the origins of the Nicaean formulation “Light from Light”? And its interpretation afterward, especially in the great mystical works of the Greek Fathers? Does it help us grasp the inner ontological coherence of the Gospel as mediated through apostolic scripture? How might the phrase be interpreted in systematic theology, both Eastern and Western, today? What do modern theologians have to say about the precise mode of the revelation of the divinity and humanity in Christ? How does Chalcedonian Christology aid or make more difficult ecumenical agreements amongst still divided Christian churches? And in terms of scientific understanding: How are new experiments deepening our knowledge of light? What significance attaches to the quantum entanglement of photons? What might theologians offer to scientists seeking a richer and fuller comprehension of created light? And what might scientists provide theologians probing the mystery of uncreated light? The discussion of such questions is intended to contribute to the ongoing dialogue between science and religion.