In East Asian religions, the notion of enlightenment gets expressed in a variety of ways. For the most part, it indicates a certain level of awareness, a plateau of consciousness and spiritual freedom in which the individual is raised beyond the disorders of a fallen human nature. Of course, those religions do not necessarily have an understanding of a primordial “fall,” but nonetheless, there is a perennial wisdom contained within many of the world’s religions that spiritual growth involves a movement from a state of disharmony to one of harmony.
If we talk about the notion of a “Christian Enlightenment,” and if we were to place it alongside the East Asian notion, then we would have to draw a very clear distinction between the goal of each. While East Asian religions promote a path of peace and interior harmony, Christianity sees spiritual experience and interior harmony not as an end in itself, but rather as a means in service of an interpersonal commitment. Along these lines, the goal of Christian Enlightenment is a conformity to the person of Jesus Christ.
While interior harmony and equanimity can provide the preconditions which lead to the surrender of faith, hope, and love, we should also understand that there remains a distinction. Our interior balance and mental well-being, while a natural good, is not in and of itself salvation. As much as we can prepare our hearts to receive God’s love, nonetheless it is always first and foremost a free gift from God. Thus, Christianity most always cling to the possibility that many people who never experience the heights of mystical experience are nonetheless saved.
With this in mind, we should recognize that our efforts are merely the means to give space for the activity of God, to abnegate our will for God’s will. For example, in the Desert Fathers the cultivation of interior stillness was merely a preparation for the reception of Divine love. Because of its gift character, Divine love transcends our natural abilities, and this awareness leads to a posture of receptivity and dependance on God. While spiritual experiences can be pleasing and nourishing, their ultimate orientation is to attach us to the person of Jesus Christ so as to share his love with the world. Thus, Christian enlightenment is other-centered, leading us to communion with God and neighbor.
If we can talk about Christian Enlightenment, it would necessarily involve a continual path of conversion whereby the individual learns to move outside of oneself and towards God. This constant turning to the Lord in the heart means that Christian Enlightenment must be renewed day by day for as long as we are in this world. As we move out towards God in faith, hope, and love, this joins us to our neighbor through Jesus Christ and creates the opportunity for us to be truly united in him.
What would distinguish Christian enlightenment from its East Asian counterpart is that it would not be the exclusive domain of monks and religious who dedicate their lives to spiritual perfection. Rather, within the Christian context, enlightenment is the vocation of all the baptized because to be in heaven is to be in relationship with Christ. Cultivating this relationship with Christ in this world through the sacraments and personal prayer is nothing short of us allowing heaven into our daily lives.
Maybe that is the best definition for Christian enlightenment, giving permission for heaven to enter our lives.