Seminar: Religion and Light

14 June 2018

Utrecht University, 14 and 15 June 2018
Convened by Birgit Meyer (UU) and Jeremy Stolow (NIAS, Concordia University)

Associations between light and divine presence are ancient and widespread, and can be found in religious traditions around the world, including cults devoted to solar deities, from the Ancient Egyptian Ra to the Aztec Tonatiuh to Ancient Persian Manichaeism, among many others. As a perceptual experience, a metaphor, or an instrument of devotional practice, cosmology, and mystical technique, light in its various modalities – clear, colored, radiant, glowing, shining, and even blinding – has played a central role in histories of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Neoplatonic mysticism, as well as in Buddhist and Hindu esoteric traditions, to name only the most well-studied. The association of light with knowledge, wisdom, insight, justice, and the good, and the absence of light (darkness) with ignorance, secrecy, deception, corruption, or evil are likewise familiar tropes that can be found in diverse religious contexts and have played out in European imperial outreach and informed missionary projects across the world. In the history of Western metaphysics, culminating in so-called Enlightenment philosophy, ‘clear’ light serves as a common metaphor for the mind’s capacity for orderly thought, true perception, and self-awareness, and ‘transparency’ provides the metaphorical ground for identifying that which can be known and shared, and thus a fundamental condition of possibility for democratic deliberation. As argued in a long line of Western philosophy and esotericism going back to Aristotle’s notion of the media diaphana, light is typically also colored, and differences in color are associated with different natural (and supernatural) powers to influence minds, bodies, and souls, not least as manifested in healing techniques.

A vast scholarship has been devoted to exploring and analyzing all these tropes of light as they are figured in religious textual and ritual traditions, but for the most part this work is rooted in methods of textual hermeneutics, and thus has little to say about how experiences and ideas of light are worked out on the ground. Also, historians of science, technology, and media have concerned themselves with the ways light is produced, manipulated, directed, or even expunged through different instruments and technologies: lenses, windows, mirrors, cameras, lanterns, curtains. This work has generated important insights into the role of light-mediating technologies in diverse scenes of scientific observation, urban nightlife, theatrical performance, spectacle, cinema, etc, but scholars have rarely applied those insights to the particularities of religious practice.

We propose to convene a transdisciplinary seminar that will bring together scholars with diverse perspectives on the topic religion and light: as metaphor, as technology, as material practice, and as a medium of perception. What is the relationship between, on the one hand, the figure of ‘light’ as a key trope within different religious textual traditions and modes of artistic representation, and on the other hand, the concrete practices and perceptual experiences of religious actors who make use of specific light- bearing techniques and technologies? In posing this question, we are especially interested to examine how the nexus of religion and light offers new insight into the practices and experiences of religious actors in the context of broader political-religious settings. How, for instance, do varying uses of light play out in tensions and clashes between religion and reason? How does ‘light’ mediate the representation of the unseen in different religious traditions, and how do those mediations shape distinctions between art and religion? How are light and darkness framed in specific religious regimes, and what moralities do they underpin? How is light employed in relation to non-“enlightened” others (such as in the history of Christian missions and colonial administrations)? What about the use of light as a medium for visibility and – with extreme intensity – invisibility? To what extent and in what ways, are visual technologies incorporated in practices of religious and scientific mediation, and what do they make (in)visible? What is the relation between light, (in)visibility and power?