More on LIGHT and other words that begin with the letter “L”

Last August, Pr. Kate and I wrote about our changing thoughts on the meaning of the University motto, “EN LUCE TUA VIDEMUS LUCEM“ – “In Thy Light, We See Light.“ I confessed that when I started my service as a pastor at the University, I read the motto as primarily, if not exclusively, about knowledge and truth. The “light” in the motto is understood as “enlightenment,” a word strongly associated with figuring out what’s real and what is going on in that reality. We talked a lot about “a search for truth” in those days, so I don’t think my impression came solely from my own head. Nor was our quest for truth without historical precedent. William Dau, the first president of Valpo’s Lutheran era, introduced the motto in his inaugural address. For him, and through his leadership for the University at that time, the motto was an expression of a commitment to academic inquiry, including the sciences, without fear that such inquiry might come into conflict with the institution’s religious identity and commitments. His reasoning was that since everything comes from God, all our studies “should be pursued as in the presence of the all-wise Creator and Ordainer of all that is.” For that time, this was a contested declaration –  that one’s commitment to Biblical truth (revealed knowledge) would not forestall and could be harmonized with one’s discoveries of empirical knowledge. While we consider whether this is still true for us, we should note what the British poet and mathematician Michael Roberts argues in his little book The Modern Mind, that our love of and trust in the empirically verified knowledge of the material world has changed the way we hear other kinds of knowledge. The tendency for us is to believe that things are true only if we can count on them being “literally true.” Roberts laments that we have lost the ability to trust in that which is “poetically true.” Specifically, we’re inclined to believe that statements of truth can only mean one thing. 

This brings me back to the University motto and the Psalm from which it comes. If I dwell in the conviction that “LIGHT” = “TRUTH” as a way of identifying knowledge and only that, I’m likely allowing my empirically biased mind to impose itself on the wisdom of the Psalm. A careful read will show more going on than the hope for scientific discoveries. 

Psalm 36 starts out with a complaint that people are not as they should be. People have become arrogant and cruel and can’t be trusted. This complaint goes on for four verses!

1 There is a voice of rebellion deep in the heart of the wicked;
there is no fear of God before their eyes.
2 They flatter themselves in their own eyes
that their hateful sin will not be found out.
3 The words of their mouths are wicked and deceitful;
they have stopped acting wisely and doing good.
4 They plot wickedness upon their beds and have set themselves in a way that is not good;
they do not abhor that which is evil.

Then, the psalm makes a turn toward the nature of divine love. It’s quite a contrast.

5 Your love, O Lord, reaches to the heavens,
and your faithfulness to the clouds.
6 Your righteousness is like the strong mountains, your justice like the great deep;
you save humankind and animals, O Lord.
7 How priceless is your love, O God!
All people take refuge under the shadow of your wings.
8 They feast upon the abundance of your house;
you give them drink from the river of your delights.
9 For with you is the well of life,
and in your light we see light.
10 Continue your lovingkindness to those who know you,
and your favor to those who are true of heart.

As we wrote last fall, God‘s love is described in rich detail. It reaches the heavens (v.5), is priceless (v.7), and goes on and on without stopping (v.10).

But that is not all! Because Hebrew poetry trades on repeating the same idea through varied expressions, we can see that when other characteristics of God are named, they are also intended to describe God‘s love. God’s love for all people is strong righteousness and deep justice (v.6). It is a refuge (v.7). It is like an abundant feast and a thirst-quenching river (v.8). The source of all life is with God (v.9). And then comes the line which is our motto: “In your light we see light.” 

One might read this as just another example of how one might describe God’s attributes, but I think there’s more here than that. Since Hebrew poetry trades on repetition, we can see this line as another way of saying that God is the source of our lives. The well of life and divine light are two sides of the same coin. Life and light are God’s abundant gifts of love for all people and all of creation. What’s more, as a student of Hebrew recently shared with me, the original line of the psalm is in the future tense: “We will see light.” So this isn’t just a description of a present reality, but a sure promise of a future hope. Perhaps our motto isn’t so much about being able to figure things out as it is about the immeasurable abundance of divine favor for all of creation whether it is known to us or not.

Regardless of what lies in the future for us individually and collectively, the source of our life, the eternal love of God, will not go away. 

Have a blessed summer,

Pr. Jim

Rev. Katherine Museus and Rev. James A. Wetzstein serve as university pastors at the Chapel of the Resurrection at Valparaiso University and take turns writing weekly devotions.

May 8, 2024