In the past, many cultures worshipped the sun as a supreme god. This is understandable, as the sun provided what they needed to live but was still mysterious in its power. Even as people now know much more about the true nature of the sun, the comparison of the sun's life-giving power with God's life-giving power is still apparent. Writer N.T. Wright takes this comparison a step further in his book Simply Christian, saying that attempting to study God by doing theology is similar to staring at the sun. By this, he means that people do not need to focus on a far-off point to get to know God, but rather they can see the evidence of God all around them on earth (Wright 56). This metaphor is helpful because it parallels Wright's ideas that no one person can fully understand God, that people need certain "equipment" to do theology, and that the spheres of heaven and earth overlap. However, this metaphor is problematic because it places God in a physical space and also presents doing theology as harmful.
First of all, the metaphor of staring at the sun helps Wright win over his post-modern audience, since it alludes that no one has the ability to fully understand God. No one can stare at the sun, so no single person's image of God is objective. As Wright describes, "no human argument could ever...force [God] to submit to human inspection" (57). For a post-modern audience accustomed to subjectivity, this is a welcome idea. Still, this idea does not cave into post-modernism and diminish the power of God, saying that everyone's subjective image of God is true for him or her, but rather it contends that God will always have a degree of mystery that humbles individual views.
However, certain equipment can aid in understanding that mystery. Scientists have learned to examine the sun with powerful telescopes, and sunglasses can allow people to look at the sun every day. For Wright, the equipment used to stare at the sun by doing theology is knowledge of the history of Christianity. He describes how understanding Jesus' story in its historical and culture context is essential to understanding who Jesus was (Wright 71-72). If people do not look at history, then their image of Jesus "slides away into fantasy" (Wright 95). Also, knowledge of the Bible in its entirety aids in doing theology. Not only does help with setting a historical context, but it contains numerous recurring themes and images. Wright says that these themes and images are like lenses that allow people to understand Jesus' story in greater depth (108). Ultimately, growing in understanding of Jesus leads to a better understanding of God. Thus, because of Jesus' presence on earth, people have equipment to use for doing theology.
Jesus' presence on earth is also pivotal in Wright's idea of the overlap of heaven and earth. However, thinking of heaven as God's domain and not as a far-off place may be a new idea to many readers, which is where the sun metaphor helps once again. If doing theology is likened to staring at the sun, then God can accordingly be compared to the sun. The sun is in a physical domain other than earth's, yet the earth feels the sun's presence with warm rays and bright light. To some degree, those two domains overlap. Similarly, God is in heaven, a domain (or state of being) other than the earth's. Then, when Jesus came to earth, people saw evidence of God's presence and power. As Wright says, God was "present on earth without having to leave heaven" (65). Jesus provided the definitive overlap of heaven and earth, and because of that, people do not need to stare at the sun to see the light already around them.
Unfortunately, the metaphor of "staring at the sun" runs into trouble if people take the metaphor of God in connection with the sun too seriously. True, the comparison gives a sense of the power of God, but it also places God in a specific place distant from the earth. This is precisely what Wright argues against. He says specifically that when he says heaven, he is "not referring to a place or location within our world of space, time and matter" (Wright 59). Then again, because Wright does take care to explain this shortcoming of the metaphor, it is only mildly problematic.
A larger problem arises because, when compared to staring at the sun, doing theology is presented as harmful. It does not allow people to make a lifestyle of understanding and getting to know God, but rather seems to say that trying to understand God is alright only in extremely brief, superficial interactions. Furthermore, if staring at the sun is alright with special, expensive telescopes, then this metaphor hints that only a very select few can work to understand God personally. From the common Christian viewpoint that a personal relationship with God is important, this metaphor is difficult to accept.
Despite these glitches in Wright's metaphor, his book does invite this writer to consider Christian theology more deeply. In particular, his idea of the overlap of heaven and earth opened a new, creative view of Christianity that was quite exciting to read. As this writer read Wright's book, she was in Israel on the Sea of Galilee, where she could nearly sense the remaining holiness of that past overlap of heaven and earth. Then, Wright presented an even more exciting idea: that "the whole world is now God's holy land" (125-126). This simple statement brought that overlap of the past into the present for this writer, which was a wonderful new way of looking at Jesus' life and work on earth. Thus, because of both Wright's new angles on familiar ideas and personal experiences, this writer does wish to explore Christian theology in greater detail.
Wright, N.T. Simply Christian. New York: HarperOne, 2006.