Learning to walk in the Dark is Barbara Brown Taylor’s metaphor for what it is like to be a person of faith right now!
She is an Episcopal priest who was ordained in her early 30’s and served parishes for 15 years until close to 50. She then left parish ministry for a host of reasons including a crisis of faith in the institution. As she said, “an introverted romantic with a touch of OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) doesn’t make the best pastor”!
The house where we used to live has gone dark and quiet – hearing old voices telling us things we can no longer touch or believe! Does this ring a bell with those who are SBNR?
Consider going out on a dark night – maybe fearfully at first, but remembering that being in the dark is not the same as being in danger – we all have our own definition of darkness and no one can walk in it for us. As we come to the edge of what we know we can still keep going if we want to – if we are willing to learn what it means to walk by faith and not by sight!
Barbara suggests that if we have been there we know that endarkenment can be as vital to the soul as enlightenment – the spiritual gift that most of us would prefer to leave on the table!
How important is it that we don’t believe anything unless it agrees with our own reasoning and common sense?
The Language of Opposition:
Barbara realised that much church teaching thrives on dividing reality into opposed pairs – good and evil – church and world – spirit and flesh – sacred and profane – light and dark. Even non Christians won’t find it hard to decide which half is higher or lower!
The language of opposition – teaching two minds, two natures, two sets of loyalties, two homes, and that only one was close to God. Worthy battles – the more they win out over the world, the flesh and the devil the better – the ultimate goal being to reach that bright heaven where the lower half of the equation has finally turned to dust! A salvation that divides reality into two and asks us to forsake the bottom half! Barbara just fell out of love with that vision of reality and was accused of being a Buddhist!
People don’t get much help thinking of their everyday lives as being particularly sacred!
Some of the best things happen in the darkest places – our bodies are not only a source of great pain, but also the locus of great pleasure – experiencing the world as a place of wonder as well as brokenness!
A need for those who have faith to change the way we talk?
Darkness means different things to different people – anything that scares – wanting no part in it – not having the resources to deal with it – not wanting to find out – absence of God – fear of dementia – loss of loved ones – the melting of ice caps – suffering of children – the nagging question of what it will feel like to die . . . but when plunged into darkness Barbara hasn’t yet died!
We learn things in the dark that we could never learn in the light. We may fall and get hurt. We may lose faith in much of what we thought we knew for sure. Maybe we need darkness as much as we need light! But where are the people who can teach us about that. There are endless books that can teach us how to avoid various kinds of darkness. Why lay awake at night when a few games will put us back to sleep?
So many congregations are concerned with keeping the lights on – the last thing they want to talk about is befriending the dark. Mainstream Christianity has never had anything to say about darkness? From earliest times Christians have used darkness as a synonym for sin, ignorance, spiritual blindness and death – Deliver us O Lord from the powers of darkness – Shine into our hearts the brightness of your Holy Spirit and protect us from all the perils and the dangers of the night!
This may have been appropriate when people lived with say 14 hours of darkness and no lights. But on a religious level this creates all kinds of havoc. All the sinister stuff is stuck into the dark parts, identifying God with the sunny parts? A giant closet where we can put all those things without thinking about them too much – spiritual justification for turning away from those things. God is light and in him is no darkness at all (1 John 1.5) – and no shadow of darkness can exist in him (Phillips) – deals with darkness by denying its existence and depriving it of any meaningful attention.
Barbara suggests that there are ‘full solar communities’ staying in the light of God 24/7, absorbing and reflecting the sunny side of faith – emphasising the benefits of faith which can include a sure sense of God, certainty of belief, divine guidance, reliable answers to prayer, striving to be positive, helpful in relationships and unwavering in faith. What might be described as heaven on earth?
But the trouble starts when darkness falls in any of many predictable ways. Things go wrong – accidents – loss of job – death! People pray for things that do not happen – they may begin to doubt some of the things they have been taught about what the Bible says. But speak about these things and one is likely to be reminded that God will not let us be tested beyond our strength. If the problems continue it will be seen as ‘you and your lack of faith’! Barbara has been on the receiving end of this more than once – it’s not as mean as it sounds – genuine – they didn’t have the skills to operate in the dark – she had exhausted their resources – they couldn’t enter her darkness without putting their own faith at risk, so they did their best – they stood where they were and begged her to come back into the light. If she could she would have done. There are days when she would give anything to share that vision of the world and their ability to navigate it safely, but her gifts do not seem to include solar spirituality. Instead she believes she has the gift of Lunar Spirituality, in which the divine light available waxes and wanes in seasons. The moon never looks the same two nights running! She had a great curiosity – what would her life with God look like if she trusted this rhythm instead of opposing it. How much more would be available if she could learn to walk in the dark as well as in the light. She found her teacher in John of the Cross, who she says is no help to anyone seeking a better grip on God – he wants to convince those who grasp after things that God cannot be grasped – cannot be held on to – can only be encountered as that which eclipses the reality of all other things.
John is a teacher in a negative way – he doesn’t teach anything about God by saying what God is – John clears space by teaching what God is not – that images and ideas about God are really obstacles between them and the real thing – offering no handle on this elusive God who cannot be grasped. Often what we don’t want to look at is what we most need to see!
Barbara goes on to say that there are times when whole communities lose sight of the sun in ways that alarm them. Main line churches (often called side-lined?) are losing members at an alarming rate while experimenting with new worship styles. But the old ways of being Christian aren’t working so well – not even for those of us who are older. Something is dying. Something is being born that we can’t yet define?
Karen Armstrong describes it as living through a time of global transformation – where religions around the world are taking stock of what their enmity has cost them, and turning to some new wisdom of what it means to be fully human.
Phyllis Tickle suggests we are in the midst of a great rummage sale of ideas that the Christian Church holds from time to time – every age has its own accumulation to deal with and its own reasons for what stays and what goes. Is substitutionary atonement still useful; what about salvation by faith in Christ alone; do we really need professional clergy; what about those 19th century hymns? The last rummage sale was the Protestant Reformation – no one knows what to call this one yet!
Hardy Cox in The Future of Faith suggests that the age of belief ended in 2005 when the EU (European Union) declined to mention Christianity anywhere in its constitution. He suggests that the new age – the age of the spirit is well under way in the global South. But if this is a liberating moment for some people of faith it is a profound loss for others – age makes a difference!
Fowler’s Stages of Faith (1981):
Barbara suggests that the stages still sound familiar despite all that has happened since then. The fantasy filled faith of early childhood – the more literal faith of adolescence – then the conventional faith largely inherited – followed by the individuated faith of young adulthood – and plenty of people stop there, while others go on to stages that are harder and harder to describe. At the fifth stage (unusual before mid-life) people know the sacrament of defeat. They live with the consequences of choices they cannot un-choose – permanently shaped by commitments they cannot unmake – but there is still a lot of undoing at this stage as many let go of the certainties about themselves and the world in which they live that they earlier worked so hard to put in place. The boundaries of the tribe no longer hold – strange truths are no longer frightening, but have become strangely compelling. Paradoxical truths are the most compelling of all – with the seriousness that comes when life is more than half over, people are ready to spend and be spent in one last ditch effort to make meaning.
Fowler suggests that religion, faith and belief are not the same thing. In the 16th century to believe meant to set the heart upon, or to give the heart to as in ‘I believe in love’. But after the Enlightenment secular use of belief and believe began to change until they said less about the disposition of the heart than the furniture in ones mind. By the 19th century when knowledge about almost anything consisted chiefly of empirical facts, belief was held to be the opposite of knowledge. A personal belief in God was reduced to his or her belief system – the unprovable statements of faith that person judged to be true.
Fowler says that the great pity of this conflation is that when faith is reduced to belief in creeds and doctrines then plenty of thoughtful people are going to decide that they no longer have faith. They might hang on if they heard that word used to describe trust or loyalty in something beyond the self but when they hear faith used to signify a belief in a set format of theological truths the light in their eyes goes out.
When Barbara talks to her 19 year old college students it is beliefs that interest them most. Do you believe in the virgin birth; that Jesus died for your sins; that only Christians go to heaven. They never ask, “On what is your heart set?” or “What powers do you most rely on?” or “What is the hope that gives meaning to your life?”. These are questions of faith, not belief!
No answers about faith are written down – and they have a way of shifting in the dark!
Augustine said, “If you have understood, then what you have understood is not God”.
But there are not many people lining up to learn what God is not, especially now with so many self-appointed teachers to any who will listen. The only people wanting to know who God is not, are those who have been through all the other answers and found them wanting – having come to the end of their own intellectual resources, and often their religious resources as well! They have nothing to do but lie in the darkness and listen for a voice that may or may not come. Those who have been in that position know how fast that can make you ready to listen to anyone who can tell you what all that not-ness is about.
Back to Lunar Spirituality:
In the simplest possible terms John of the Cross says that the dark night is God’s best gift to you, intended for your liberation – about freeing you from your ideas about God, your fears about God, your attachment to all the promises of believing in God, your devotion to spiritual practices that are supposed to make you feel closer to God, your dedication to doing, believing all the right things about God, your positive and negative evaluations of self as a believer, your tactics for manipulating God, and your sure cures for doubting God.
All of these are substitutes for God! They all get in God’s way.
Barbara suggests these are addictions to a God substitute that finally bring us to our knees – by helping us to realise how far we have strayed from our hearts desire. Could it be that
God puts out our lights to keep us safe because we are never more in danger of stumbling than when we think we know where we are going. When we can no longer see the path we are on and no longer read the maps or sense anything in the dark that might tell us where we are, only then are we vulnerable to divine protection. Maybe this remains true even when we cannot discern God’s presence. The only thing the dark night requires of us is to remain conscious. If we can stay with that moment when God seems most absent the night will do the rest.