The Catholic Thing
The Key that Fits the Lock Print E-mail
By Anthony Esolen   
Wednesday, 18 July 2012

One of my friends, the most brilliant man I know, is a molecular biologist. He is also a Dominican priest, equally at home speaking to world-class scientists on the aging of cells as he is speaking to ordinary people on submitting to the direction of the Holy Spirit in all that they do, including such simple things as deciding what path to take to go home.

One day, we were discussing the fruitful relationship between faith and reason. He said that he held the Catholic faith because of, literally, “everything,” or as I like to call it, The Everything. It is not only its explanatory power that appeals, but its power to bring us into ever-deeper relationship with the infinite and inexplicable: beauty, goodness, personal being, love, God Himself.

What might we expect of such a faith? Chesterton said it was like a key that fit the wondrously specific indentations of the lock of reality. Of such a key we might say two apparently contradictory things.

One, that its engagement with reality is everywhere. There is nothing so mundane or lowly that it escapes the notice of the faith. The key meets the lock at every point. And indeed the faith instructs us not only on the nature of heaven, but on the nature of earth.

It does not recommend escape, either with a golden Buddha or a steely Marcus Aurelius. In this sense, the key is like any other. But only one key fits the lock exactly, so we should also expect to find that, in important regards, it is unique.

Here we must take Chesterton’s advice, and be like the pilgrim who traveled the world and arrived at the destination of his dreams, and found it to be the home he had left but had not known aright.

We are too familiar with the Scriptures; we are too familiar with the Church; we are too familiar with at least a caricature of Jesus – it is a disquieting thing to meditate too long upon Jesus.

So, I want to begin a series of columns here examining this uniqueness.

There is no better place to begin than the beginning: “Let there be light, said God, and there was light.” A revelation that, if we could but understand it, should strike us with a tremor of the heart. What does it mean?

The first thing to note is its bold uniqueness. In every other “creation” story I know of, such as the Babylonian Enuma Elish or Hesiod’s Theogony, there’s some primal violence or sexual intercourse or spontaneous birthing or sculptor-like shaping. But the verse here rules all of that out.

It proceeds with the minimal metaphorical vehicle necessary to impart meaning to the human imagination – particularly the imagination of a half-barbaric people, as were the ancient Hebrews. The action, too, is not an action at all, but a speaking: God said.

We need not here consider the profound relationship between this verse and the other in principio of sacred scripture: “In the beginning was the Word.” The “saying” is an instantaneous act of the creative and loving will of God. Its immediacy is suggested by the Hebrew words.

Hebrew oddly alternates verb forms after the conjunction “and.” Practically, this means that a normally future form will be used for the past, after the conjunction. In Hebrew: “W’yomer Elohim: Yehi ’or, w’yehi ’or.” The “let there be” and “there was” are identical, in language and in being. It is as simple as that.

That is not only far from the Enuma Elish’s tale of the world as fashioned from the dismembered parts of the evil sea-goddess Tiamat. It’s on another plane of understanding entirely.

We see this more clearly when we consider what God first makes: light. Not the earth, sea, stars, nor any object bounded in any other way than by the being of God. For the phrase cannot have meant, to the Hebrews, “Let there be photons.” 

What does light mean in their ancient writings? The psalmists speak again and again about the light of the countenance of God, or the light of wisdom imparted by God: “In your light we see light.” The word implies intelligibility and truth, and especially the truth of the right paths of godly life.

To put it in Greekish terms, “Let there be light” affirms that there is reason all the way to the core of things. Reason is not some film floating atop a pond of unreason, a late comer to the universe. We do not have to accept the springing of intelligibility from the unintelligibility of pure nothingness.

The verb “let there be” is a command: it corresponds in the verse to come with, “God saw the light, that it was good.” The “seeing” of God is not to be interpreted temporally – as if God’s seeing depended upon a prior event. He created what was good, because of his own eternal, self-possessing, and self-communicating goodness.

But to put it in Hebrew terms, “Let there be light” affirms that there is love all the way to the core of things. To walk in the light is to walk with God. The light is good, that is to say desirable, because the God who made it is desirable.

The Neo-Platonists, a thousand years later, would come around to saying that. But since the light is made, and not simply an automatic effluence of the great Alone, as in Neo-Platonism, its goodness is an invitation to approach its Maker.

The covenant is already revealed, in that first terse and explosive sentence, “Let there be light.” And, therefore, so too is revealed what the Church has consistently taught: man is made for love and that if we are not to be intellectual and existential cripples, when we talk of truth, we must talk about our longing for union, personal union, with the Truth, for, as the exalted apostle says, “God is light.” 

Anthony Esolen is a lecturer, translator, and writer. His latest book is Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child. He teaches at Providence College.
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

Rules for Commenting

The Catholic Thing welcomes comments, which should reflect a sense of brevity and a spirit of Christian civility, and which, as discretion indicates, we reserve the right to publish or not. And, please, do not include links to other websites; we simply haven't time to check them all.

Comments (16)Add Comment
written by Randall, July 18, 2012
"We are too familiar with the Scriptures; we are too familiar with the Church; we are too familiar with at least a caricature of Jesus – it is a disquieting thing to meditate too long upon Jesus.

So, I want to begin a series of columns here examining this uniqueness."

I am waiting in great anticipation!
written by Michael Paterson-Seymour, July 18, 2012
An excellent article.

I find myself dwelling more and more on a pithy aphorism of Pascal's, "Thus, without Scripture, which has only Jesus Christ for its object, we know nothing and see only obscurity and confusion in God’s nature and ours."
written by Suzanne, July 18, 2012
I hadn't read such an interesting article on faith/religious matters in a long, long time...
Thank you and please keep them coming!
written by Grump, July 18, 2012
Tony, in Genesis 1:3-5, we are told, "On the first day, God created light, then separated light and darkness."

Then in Genesis 1:14-19, we are told, The sun (which separates night and day) wasn't created until the fourth day.

Elsewhere in Genesis, we are told trees and birds were created before Man (GE 1:11-12, 26-27); then that Man was created before trees and birds (GE 2:4-9).

I'd like to have your faith, but somehow my reason gets in the way of these clear contradictions. Maybe you can straighten me out.


written by Tony Esolen, July 18, 2012
Hi Grump,

Some of those apparent contradictions are caused by bumps in translation -- and deliberate bumps at that. I think that our self-styled theological translators get into big trouble when they approach poetic language with the criteria of a police detective at a crime scene. They end up making assumptions that are just unwarranted. Case in point: the Hebrew of the first verse of Genesis says, "In the beginning God made the heavens and the earth." That is what it says; that is also how it is translated in the Septuagint. Our translators-come-lately muddy everything up by putting a "when" in there.

As for the sun, that too is fascinating: evidently the sacred author did not mean to include the sun when he says that God said, "Let there be light." The "day", too, is evidently not a day as we know it by sunrise and sunset. The problem isn't a problem at all, but a terrific revelation, once you stop assuming that what looks like a contradiction was not absolutely intended by the author.... and give him the same credit for intelligence that you would give to a most profound poet (for God may well use poets for His purposes!).
written by Steve, July 18, 2012
I'm a Catholic academic who would love to teach at an expressly Catholic institution. Let non-Catholics that object to the Church's teachings so much find work elsewhere and leave their positions for us.....
written by Grump, July 18, 2012
Tony, I appreciate poetry and allegory as much as the next fellow but when read literally the Bible is filled with contradictions, absurdities and inconsistencies, especially with respect to the "Resurrection."

Since "interpretation" and "context" are typically cited, the need for theologians will never cease.

All the same, thanks for your take. I'll keep pondering.
written by Chris in Maryland, July 18, 2012

The problem you cite is a problem for Fundamentalist protestant denominations, but not for Catholics.

Don't put that obstacle between you and revelation.
written by Caroline Walker, July 18, 2012
Yet another beautiful illustration of Von Balthasar's phrase, the "Truth is symphonic."
written by Bill Kysela, July 18, 2012
This is quite an article and I commend the author, Professor Esolen. From my earliest days of youth I have always had a desire to be one with someone; a desire to be filled with love from someone; a desire for union, fulfillment and oneness. That desire of my life came true when I was 15 and one winter afternoon I discovered Christ's personal love for me when I called out to God in a total state of despair and His love filled me completely! Since that day that love has never left me and joy has filled my life daily! The terrible darkness that posessed my soul that day was totally obliterated by His Light and His Life in Jesus Christ! Thanks Professor for explaining the "LIGHT" - and how it relates to the Genesis account - I never saw that before. I am now 76 and that day years ago is as alive and vivid as when I experienced it in 1950!
written by Gian, July 19, 2012
In the modern cosmological models, the photon exists before the evolution of stars.
written by J, July 19, 2012
Augustine's "Literal Commentary on Genesis" is severely critical of Christians who bring their faith into discredit by treating Genesis as creation-science. Nevertheless, he could also argue that the correct literal interpretation of Genesis is a matter of such uncertainty that none can assert it to be at variance with science anyway. —Henry Chadwick (1991): 77, n.8.
written by Tina, July 19, 2012
Very interesting article and comments. Catholic school teachers explained that Genesis 1 is not written in the literal sense(let alone strict literal)...except for what God says, of course...but rather, as to 'how', Genesis 1 is meant in the "typical" sense (based on the figurative or typical relation of Biblical persons, or objects, or events, to a new truth the Holy Spirit wants to reveal, and the typical sense is also called the spiritual, or mystical, sense). I wondered why it was written in that sense, and I also wondered why God says, "Let there be light" before He created our Sun. But, I came to the conclusion that it's 'poetic license'....figurative/typical...and let it go at that until...I got bold enough a few years ago to see what Quantum Physics (light/particles/waves, etc.) was about. Didn't think I'd understand the slightest thing about it but..surprise surprise...I can grasp most of it. While reading about it, it mentions how atoms interact in 'the cosmic light' and I stopped for a moment and thought, "Yeah...cosmic light would have existed before our Sun (and its light) did. Thus, for me, "Let there be light" means "cosmic light"...and it also means "intelligence"...something like 'Let there be a noticeable intelligence at work...a continued orderliness...after taking order from chaos...'
written by Louise, July 19, 2012
I have a little "touchstone" i go back to occasionally regarding Genesis and Church teaching: Pius XII's Humani Generis,#'s 36-39.
written by Dave, July 19, 2012
This is simply the best exposition, short or long, of the "Fiat lux" that I have ever read. Thank you so much, and I can't wait for the rest of the series!
written by Facile1, October 24, 2012
Before I was sent off to my four-year college degree program in Photographic Science and Instrumentation, my father (who owned a Photographic laboratory --- remember those?) asked me "Why did God create light and not darkness?" It took me four years before I realized darkness is not a created thing. One can measure light.

My father footed the bill for my college education. Thank God! I never would have chosen this major on my own.

I think I shall enjoy reading your series.

Write comment
smaller | bigger

security code
Write the displayed characters


Other Articles By This Author