Ever since childhood, the concept of staring into the sun has been a dangerous one. If a child were to stare too long, he/she would lose their sight. In N.T. Wright's book Simply Christian, one written for people new to, or curious about Christianity, he introduces the age-old concept as a way of gaining sight, not losing it. Wright uses the concept as a metaphor to explain a new way of studying theology. In this he means that "It's easier, actually, to look away from the sun itself and to enjoy the fact that, once it's well and truly risen, you can see everything else clear" (Wright 56). This explanation for exploring theology can be both a helpful and a hurtful way to go about searching.
As Wright begins to explain his approach to theology even deeper, he provides the reader with three similar scenarios. First he connects it to an earlier section of the book, Echoes of a Voice. He says that none of these echoes "by itself points directly to God" (Wright 55). Searching for God with just these means is much like being stuck in a dark cave, blindly searching for some kind of direction. The second scenario involves looking for the center of a maze. While the path chosen may "appear to lead to the center of a maze" Wright states, it too often will "leave us tantalizingly short, separated from the center by a thick hedge" (55). This scenario is very troubling to many readers. In it he openly states that he doesn't believe that any path can "lead the unattained human mind all the way from reflective Atheism to Christian faith" (Wright 55). This statement alone would seem to deter most of the intended audience. For if one cannot change their religious beliefs through Wright's approach to theology what is the point?
The next scenario that Wright mentions is much more optimistic and seems to answer some of the questions of the first two scenarios. In this one, he talks about a cabin in the countryside that has lost power in the middle of the night. In that situation, he describes someone as they are "Striking one match after another, you find your way to the pantry shelf that holds an assortment of candles. The candle light keeps you going while you hunt around for a flashlight." (Wright 56) Each step in this process represents the steps toward studying God. When someone first starts out, the glimpses of God and His worth are in short bursts. Eventually, those bursts become a more constant source of knowledge, but still remain very delicate. Longer down the line, that delicate 'flame' becomes a more reliable and trustworthy source like the flashlight is. This scenario makes much more sense to a person attempting to study God. It is gradual and honest about the irregularity of insight, but still provides hope. Wright is very cautious though when providing this option. In obtaining insight on God, Wright warns that it makes no sense to "go out with either matches, candles or flashlight to see if the sun has risen yet" (56). Wright makes a point to be very specific in the approach and extent that people go to seek God.
One of the main approaches Wright mentions is that in studying God, one cannot physically study God. Wright notices that too often, those who are attempting to study theology "make the mistake of speaking and thinking as though God might be a being, an entity, within our world" (Wright 56). What Wright means by this is that God, himself, is not even an entity in our world therefore, as humans, we cannot study him directly. This is very helpful in studying theology because it cuts right to the point that it isn't humanly possible to fully know all of the intricate workings of God. Therefore, when studying God through this perspective, no time is wasted trying to fully understand and comprehend Him and His wonders.
This point made by Wright can also be harmful to a person with little religious experience and knowledge like much of the intended audience is. If a person is starting off with little-to-no knowledge about God, it would be difficult to continue studying, knowing that they "shall never reach that center by our own means" (Wright 58). While this part of Wright's approach is helpful to those with a base knowledge of Christianity, it is counterproductive to those who do not.
Another point of this approach is that once you being to understand, it "illuminates not only the question about Jesus but everything else as well" (Wright 58). This aspect correlates with the end of Wright's metaphor stating that "once it's well and truly risen, you can see everything else clear" (56). What Wright means is that, when you begin to learn about God and his works, everything else in life will become clearer. This idea is comforting and encouraging not only to those just learning about Christianity, but also those who have been in the faith for years and yearn to learn more.
While some points of the metaphor "staring into the sun" can be very confusing and often discouraging to many, there are also parts that are powerfully encouraging. If focus is put onto Wright's third scenario involving the process of matches to candles to a flashlight, the idea of "staring into the sun" is put into perspective. The insight and explanation that Wright provides outweighs any doubt that is produced in a reader's mind. Even if unanswered questions are left, they, in themselves, encourage readers to search deeper into theology to find the answer. For as Wright stated earlier, knowledge of God provides insight not only into Him but "everything else as well" (58).
Wright, Nicholas. Simply Christian. New York: HarperCollins, 2006.