by Vern S. Poythress, Ph.D., Th.D.
[Originally published online at https://www.truthaboutangelsanddemons.com/vatican-hidden-archives/articles/the-path-of-illumination-2.html May 13, 2009. Used with permission.]
“The Illuminati called their string of markers ‘The Path of Illumination,’ and anyone who wanted to join the brotherhood had to follow it all the way to the end. A kind of test.” — Dan Brown, Angels and Demons, 151.
Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons postulates that the Illuminati, a secret society, had a secret path, “The Path of Illumination.” As the protagonists, Robert Langdon and Vittoria Vetra, follow the path, they find their way to the next step by showing their aptitude for deciphering hints and making clever inferences. They grow in knowledge of Illuminati secrets.
The theme of secrets crops up here and there in human history. Why do people find secrets so attractive? For one thing, we are aware of our limitations and our lack of knowledge. We do not know the innermost secrets of life and of the universe. And some of us keenly wish that we did. Science nowadays seems to be unraveling more and more secrets. But can it give us the most valuable secrets about persons, the secrets of who we are and what it means to be a person?
Secrets also have an attraction precisely because they are secret—not everyone knows. If you possess a secret, you belong to a privileged inner group, and you have power and fellowship within that group that outsiders do not possess.
Because a secret is inaccessible, it is a kind of prize. If you discover it you can also take pride in the discovery. You found it out; others, less worthy, did not. As we follow Dan Brown’s story and identify with the protagonists, we can feel a kind of secondary pride over their successes in unraveling the secrets.
Secrets in Religion
In Dan Brown’s story the secrets of the Illuminati intersect in fascinating ways with the secrets of religion. Most of the action takes place in the context of Vatican City, which is not only a territory with restricted access, but has its secrets: a secret conclave; a secret space where the antimatter sits; secret archives to which even the expert Robert Langdon has been denied access many times. Religion is naturally associated with secrecy, not only because it may have secret formulas and secret records, but because that which is holy is felt to be inaccessible to human beings. Only people with special qualifications and special rituals may entry holy spaces.
Human religions are largely built on the assumption that the holy exists and that it is secret. We are barred and cannot gain access.
The Bible claims to be a holy document, delivered by the God of all holiness. But it is radically different. It announces that all the man-made secretive offerings of access to the holy are counterfeit. Human religion is about man seeking the secrets of God. The biblical message is about God coming to seek out man, in spite of his flight from the true God.
Consequently, the biblical message is not a secret. It is open. “By open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God” (2 Corinthians 4:2). What is the message? There are many open summaries of it in the Bible:
… that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, …
“in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their traspasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:19).
The biblical way is easy, because we do not need special passwords, special cleverness, or special human insight. But for the same reason, it is hard! It is hard because no one can any longer take pride in his achievement or his insight. “No human being might boast in the presence of God” (1 Corinthians 1:29).
At the heart of the invitation in the Bible is the person of Christ. His resurrection from the dead implies that he is alive today. And what he said while on earth is still true: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father [God] except through me” (John 14:6). Jesus Christ gives us access to God, access to his holiness. And it is not a secret!
The true path
It is striking, is it not, that Jesus claims to be both the way and the truth. When he says that he is the way he means that he is the true path leading to the light of God. He is the path of illumination in the true sense. When he says that he is the truth, he implies that illumination, the knowledge of the truth, comes through him. In the Bible he also claims to be “the light of the world” (John 8:12), which corresponds to the metaphor of illumination used by the Illuminati.
Are these similarities mere coincidence? I think not. Dan Brown’s book is meant to be action-packed and fun to read at one level. But it touches on our deeper longings. We want a path in life that will lead us somewhere, hopefully to satisfaction and joy and peace. We want illumination and truth that will satisfy our minds and our sense of being in the dark about what is most important. If we long deeply enough for these things, we are tempted to invent stories and pseudo-truths that will satisfy us. We invent counterfeits of the truth that is found in God himself. Such inventions result in counterfeit religion. The good news of the Bible is that God himself has come to seek us out and to make himself known through his own Son: the Son says, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father [God]” (John 14:9).
C.S. Lewis, “The Inner Ring,” in The Weight of Glory: and Other Addresses. New York: Macmillan, 1949.
Vern S. Poythress, Redeeming Science: A God-Centered Approach. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2006.
Vern S. Poythress, “The Quest for Wisdom,” in Resurrection and Eschatology: Theology in Service of the Church: Essays in Honor of Richard B. Gaffin, Jr. Ed. Lane G. Tipton & Jeffrey C. Waddington. Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 2008. Pp. 86-114.