The Darkness of God

I remember many years ago listening to a dialogue between two theologians, one Protestant and one Orthodox, about our language surrounding light and darkness. The Protestant — I sadly don’t remember who the participants were — made the statement that he didn’t believe we would be able to successfully address racism in our culture until we addressed our theological language surrounding darkness. I scoffed at the time. The two seemed so completely disconnected to me: What could our theological metaphors possibly have to do with a social and political construct like race? And, as regular readers know, the theology of light is very close to my heart, and in those days I wasn’t really open to anything that would displace or minimize it. And so I dismissed the idea. But, despite this off-hand rejection of its premise, the theologian’s statement has always sat there inside me, like a pebble in my shoe, or grit in an oyster. Some part of me has wondered, especially since anti-Black violence has come back prominently into the cultural awareness in these long years since the killings of Trayvon Martin and Mike Brown, if he could be right.

Certainly, there are examples enough of how the images of light and darkness were used in support of the European colonial project: the language of “darkest Africa” that so captivated the Euro-American mind in the nineteenth century, for example; or the horrifying idea of “white man’s burden” being to “enlighten” the dark-skinned races. So it would seem, if nothing else, reasonable to think through how we use the concept of darkness, and see if we might find a way towards a positive Christian theology of darkness in order to balance out our language and insulate it against harmful misappropriation.

First, though, let’s talk about light. Light has always been one of the primary metaphors in Christianity — an indeed many religious and spiritual traditions — to describe God. Here’s just a sampling of the New Testament texts that use this metaphor:

  • “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” (John 1.5)
  • “I have come as light into the world, so that everyone who believes in me should not remain in the darkness.” (John 12.46)
  • “For once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light.” (Ephesians 5.8)
  • “God is light and in him there is no darkness at all.” (1 John 1.5)
  • “You are the light of the world.” (Matthew 5.14)

And so we have good biblical precedent to use this image to guide our understanding of God and faith. This stands to reason; light is about as universal a metaphor as there is: Humans are, after all, a diurnal (i.e., day-time) species. Light has natural connections for us of safety, stability, growth, vision, and warmth, and all their symbolic extensions in the realms of psychology, spirituality, mythology, and culture.

And yet, every light casts a shadow, and our language around ‘light’ is no exception. Our words matter. Our symbols and metaphors matter. We cannot deny that the concepts of darkness and light were weaponized by lighter-skinned peoples against darker-skinned peoples for centuries. And we still live in a time when the consequences of that weaponization are alive and well. So then, how might we rethink our conceptions of darkness in a way that doesn’t undermine the metaphor of light, but rather buttresses it to ensure we deploy it in ways that are life-giving for everyone?

What strikes me right off the bat is that there are two very different types of darkness. First there is darkness as an absence of light. This is the notion that is so strong in the Christian tradition. Here darkness is defined as a lack of something, as a deficiency. But, there is also darkness as the presence of pigment, of colour. Here darkness is not defined by lack, but by abundance. Without this kind of ‘darkness’, life would be pretty boring and bland; who doesn’t want a little colour, a little spice, a little zest, in their life? I’m also reminded of the darkness of a rich, fertile soil. This conception of darkness as the presence of something dense, zesty and life-giving reminds me of some of Jesus’ images for the Kingdom of God, like salt, which preserves and enhances the natural flavours of food; or yeast, which adds lightness and life to dough. (This is, of course, also the kind of darkness at play in the wonderful varieties of human skin-tones.)

If we’re going to find a positive Christian language of darkness, this is where we should look for it.

This is why I don’t think St. John of the Cross’s idea of the Dark Night of the Soul is a good place to begin a search for a Christian theology of darkness. As powerful as the experience he describes is, it is still an experience defined by absence. It still fits into the first category.

As it happens, not only is there a place in the Scriptures where God’s presence is associated with darkness, but it’s also a well-known story that has long been understood as symbolic of the life of faith: Moses’ encounter with God on Mt. Sinai. So, we don’t actually need to discover a ‘new’ Christian theology of darkness; we just need to remember and appropriate the language that already exists in our tradition. In both Exodus and Deuteronomy, God gives Moses the Ten Commandments in a theophany of divine darkness: “Then the people stood at a distance, while Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was” (Ex. 20.21); and “These words the Lord spoke with a loud voice to your whole assembly at the mountain, out of the fire, the cloud, and the thick darkness” (Deut 5.22).

In his Life of Moses, the fourth-century theologian St. Gregory of Nyssa — whom the great patristic scholar Olivier Clément called “the poet and dramatist of darkness” — focused on the idea that, while God’s self-revelation to Moses took place first in light at the burning bush, it is consummated in darkness at Sinai. He goes on to reflect that the soul, like Moses, “penetrates into the sanctuary of the knowledge of God that is wrapped on all sides in darkness.” This darkness is not conceived of as an absence of light, but of a superabundance of light — a presence so intense that it blinds and stupefies. In Clément’s words, “This darkness does not deny the glory that flows from it. It is not the absence of light: rather it is more than luminous.” Elsewhere, St. Gregory uses the image of the soul in the presence of God getting drunk from just “a few drops of night,” a darkness which he describes as “fullness” (Homilies on Song of Songs 11).

What we have, then, in the deepest parts of our spiritual heritage, is an understanding that we come to know God most fully in darkness, a darkness which is not an absence of light, but as the all-saturating presence of God.

So, you may be wondering, what’s the point? Why does this matter?

On the practical level of day-to-day Christian life, it probably doesn’t matter much at all. But, I think it is a helpful example of how we can find within our own traditions ways of balancing out our language surrounding faith and God — especially when that language has been misappropriated for evil, dehumanizing ends. We don’t need to be threatened when we are asked to do this. God cannot be limited by one set of analogies or one-sided language. As I said so often in last year’s series on Knowing God, the Infinite is, after all, Infinite.

And so, in conclusion, I offer this simple prayer:

May God’s presence brighten your days and illumine your path; May God’s thick darkness saturate your life with colour, flavour, and zest. May you know God in the light May you know God in the dark. Amen.

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