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God of the dark places

God of the dark places

In her new book “Learning to Walk in the Dark,” Barbara Brown Taylor nudges Christians to remember that God did not only create the light, but the dark. And she reminds us that often the most serious encounters with the divine happen in the dark. Take Good Friday, for example. (behind a paywall):

From the moment God declared, “let there be light,” Scripture christened light as holy and condemned darkness to hell. The Christian liturgy soaked in the theme in the centuries that followed. The Book of Common Prayer addresses God as “O Light” and begs, “Be our light in the darkness, O Lord.” Hymns followed suit, from “Amazing Grace”–”When we’ve been there 10,000 years/ Bright shining as the sun”–to the hit “In the Light” from Christian hip-hop band dc Talk’s 1995 album Jesus Freak. The message is hard to miss: if you are in the dark, you are not with God.

But Taylor sees it differently. As impossible as it is to imagine faith without light, it is equally hard to imagine a world without darkness. We are taught to fear darkness as children, she says, when parents line the halls to the bathroom with night-lights to scare away the closet monsters. As we grow older, the monsters take a different shape: darkness descends with the call that a loved one has cancer, months of unemployment, a child with an addiction or an unanswered prayer. Taylor’s own darkness extends to anything that scares her, and that includes the absence of God, dementia, the melting of polar ice caps and what it will feel like to die.

On a very practical level, she says, we pay a high price to shut out the darkness. We glue our eyes to screens by day, while electric light hampers our ability to sleep at night. Then, when we lie awake with all our fears, we turn to solitaire or to sleep aids to cope. Our spiritual avoidance of the dark may be even more dangerous. Our culture’s ability to tolerate sadness is weak. As individuals, we often run away from it. “We are supposed to get over it, fix it, purchase something, exercise, do whatever it takes to become less sad,” she says. “Turning in to darkness, instead of away from it, is the cure for a lot of what ails me. Because I have a deep need to be in control of things, to know where I am going, to be sure of my destination, to get there efficiently, to have all the provisions I need, to do it all without help–and you can’t do any of that in the dark.”

Taylor is reviving an ancient idea in Christian theology, one that the mystics of the Middle Ages understood: darkness holds divine mystery. As she writes in her book, “I have learned things in the dark that I could never have learned in the light, things that have saved my life over and over again, so that there is really only one logical conclusion. I need darkness as much as I need light.”


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