The radiant life

Last week, Dad spent quite a bit of time talking with my sisters and me about World War II. I think it is very difficult for us now to understand how traumatic those war years were, and to understand how the war and trauma affected those who lived through it; they were dark years indeed.

When Dad was at college right after World War II, he took a philosophy course with Rufus Jones, the great Quaker philosopher and theologian. He still has several books by Jone on his bookshelf, and while I was looking for something to read this morning, I pulled out Jones’s The Radiant Life, published in 1944, in the middle of the war. The book represents Jones’s search for “gleams of radiance” which might be found “in spite of the darkness of the time.”

Like his contemporaries, the Unitarian theologian James Luther Adams and Reinhold Niebuhr, both of whom were also profoundly affected by the war and by the evils perpetrated by Nazi Germany, Jones felt he could no longer cling to the sunny optimism of the Progressives, nor to the even sunnier optimism of Emerson. Where, then, should we turn to find gleams of light? James Luther Adams turned towards the social structure of voluntary associations: finding light in building robust communities that could move us towards the good. Reinhold Niebuhr turned towards pragmatism and Christian realism: accepting that in a corrupt world we may not find all the light we need (this, I believe, is the origin of Neibuhr’s famous “Serenity Prayer).

Jones, Quaker that he was, found a different answer to the traumas of the mid-twentieth century Western world: he encouraged us to accept the reality around us but also to look for the light that was always there. He wrote:

“The Kennebago Mountains are visible in the far horizon of my home in Maine, but they come into sight only when the wind is north-west and has blown the sky clear of fog and mist and cloud. Then there they are, in all their distant purple glory. But we know that they are there all the time, when the wind is east or south, though we cannot see them, and we say to our visitors, wait until the wind comes round and blows from Saskatchewan, and then you will see our mountains which are over there in our far sky-line! Some persons’ lights up like that only when the wind is in the right quarter. I am pleading for a type of life that is sunlit and radiant, not only in fair weather and when the going is smooth, but from a deep inward principle and discovery which makes it lovely and beautiful in all weathers.”

I think I like Jones’s approach better than either Adams or Neibuhr — not that I think that any one of them has the final and complete truth of the matter, nor the final answer to the traumas of life; no single human being can ever know the complete truth of anything. But to know that the mountains are always there, even when you can’t see them because they are obscured — that is worth remembering. I can see why my father liked Jones so much, and continues to like him. Adams focuses on human relations, which I admire, but I sometimes wish Adams let in a little more of Emerson’s sunshine. However, Emerson is too sunny, except in his poetry, and sometimes I can’t quite believe him. Niebuhr is too dark, and I don’t want to believe him.

How do we get through the traumas of contemporary life? How do we get through the horrors of war and terror? How can we face the damage humans are doing to the rest of creation? How can we make it through the struggles of human life, of grief and death and all the rest? I like Rufus Jones’s answer: remember that the mountains are always there even when you can’t see them. Or, to put it another way, look for the gleams of light which always may be found even in the darkest of times.

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