In Defence of Darkness: In pursuit of a theology of balance

by Catherine Bird.

We are pleased to continue our partnership with Spectrum, a community of Christians of all denominations which encourages groups and individuals to explore the Christian faith in depth. This year the study papers are writen by Inderjit Bhogal and Catherine Bird on the theme ‘Darkness and Light are both alike to Thee’. This is the first of six coming through the year, by Catherine Bird…

 Isaiah 45:3                                    

‘I will give you the treasures of darkness
and riches hidden in secret places,
So that you may know that it is I, the Lord,
Who call you by your name.’

I love darkness and it has always troubled me why, if darkness is so wonderful, is it associated with evil? Darkness is after all, necessary for life. All life begins in the total darkness of the womb, darkness nurtures the seed beneath the ground before it bursts into life, our bodies need darkness in order to release the necessary hormones for sleep, a whole world of creatures live and thrive in the dark and in the night. And think of how we cultivate darkness to create that cosy intimate atmosphere in which we gather with those we love. We dim the lights and shield our eyes from the sun when it gets too bright and dazzles us. Leonardo da Vinci used to paint after the sun went down because it enabled him to see a wider range of tones in the colours he was using. Yet, everything, or so we think, in our Christian tradition tells us that darkness is bad, evil, to be overcome and banished.

In order to explore this apparent contradiction I decided to go to the darkest place on earth! Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago, which lies some 400 miles north of the mainland and deep within the Arctic Circle.  Between October and February Svalbard experiences a ‘Polar Night’ when the sun does not show its face above the horizon at all, and the landscape is plunged into a constant state of lightlessness. To live in darkness 24 hours a day, seven days a week is a remarkable thing.  Day is as dark as night and night is as dark as day. Whilst there, I had to learn to see things in new ways, and I soon realised that if I wanted to see the details of things in the dark, I had to move closer in. Darkness does that – it makes us move closer in.  Light scatters, darkness gathers, and it’s in that need to make us move closer in that I believe much of the beauty and power of darkness lies.  But I am not advocating getting rid of light! This is about balance. Light and dark together, both necessary for life, both evocative of relationship, both capable of leading to death.  Light is to darkness as breathing in is to breathing out. In this ‘spirituality of balance’ we can change our way of speaking and thinking to acknowledge that not only is light a wonderful thing, but also that darkness is also necessary for life, and at the heart of life and in the heart  and very nature of God.

But it’s about even more than this. Not only is this about wanting to redeem darkness as a better experience for people, it’s actually something to do with opening up new ways of thinking about God and Christian Mission. I have always hated a model of mission which uses the language of taking light into the dark places in which light represents what is good and right and true, and darkness represents ignorance and basically anything or anyone which isn’t Christian. Personally, I’d rather say that there is nowhere from which God is absent – perhaps sometimes there is work to do to reveal God’s presence, but that is not taking light into darkness; that is about partnership and finding balance. If we see that both light and dark have positive and negative qualities then we can think of it differently, saying perhaps, ‘let me bring the light and dark of my tradition and faith to meet the light and dark of yours and we can learn from each other and grow together.’ If we can somehow find a way of undermining our traditional dualistic way of thinking – not light and dark as good versus evil, but rather a balanced God who seeks the restoration of a balanced universe, perhaps then things might look a little different.

For reflection:

  • How do you feel about darkness?
  • Try and recall times when physical darkness has offered you a safe and healing place, and light has been problematic.
  • How do you feel about darkness being used as a positive metaphor for that which is Divine?

7 thoughts on “In Defence of Darkness: In pursuit of a theology of balance”

  1. Is it that Darkness enables us to experience the Infinite / Eternal in a deeper way?
    There is no horizon in total darkness, no boundary, no limit, no edge.

    We used to be taught in Infant School to sing
    ‘Hands together softly so – little eyes shut tight……’
    And we still close our eyes during prayers in church in order to focus.

    But the light / darkness thing has been with us for ever, and we do try to follow ‘The Way’ guided by ‘The Light of the world’. I sense my favourite theological concept ‘both-and’ coming into sight here. I like ‘Spirituality of Balance’! It suits my twilight years.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I wrote the following as a teenager, far too many years ago:

    The darkness descends
    and embraces us,
    warm, tender and protecting.
    Each night we return again to the womb,
    where, safe and secure, we rest
    until dawn.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I associate darkness not so much with evil but with a bad place to be mentally. Dark clouds, a dark tunnel, a black hole, are all metaphors for depression. But thinking about point 2 in the reflections, I remember occasionally suffering with migraine and the only comfortable place to be was in a darkened room.

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  4. In this part of England, Selsey Bill, West Sussex (the home of Patrick Moore) some areas have no artificial lighting so we can see the stars and because they are of necessity away from roads there are no sounds save natural sounds. So we say “The darkness is no darkness to Thee but the night is as clear as the day”.

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  5. If we are talking about physical darkness, it is not actually the darkness we are afraid of but the people of
    ill-intent, burglars, rapists, murderers etc, who operate under cover of darkness. That’s why we lock our doors at night and have security lights on our homes.

    Spiritual darkness, however, is a different thing altogether.
    Jesus said ‘I am the Light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness.’ (John 8:12)
    We would be a bit naive not to be afraid of dark forces in the world, black magic, satanic cults, the dark web.

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  6. Further thoughts:

    ‘Hello darkness, my old friend,
    I’ve come to talk with you again,
    Because a vision, softly creeping,
    Left its seeds while I was sleeping ……’ (The Sound of Silence, Simon and Garfunkel)

    How lovely to think of physical darkness as a friend! It is when we surrender to the darkness in sleep, and switch off our conscious mind, that God can speak to us in mysterious ways. How often do we go to sleep with troubled or muddled thoughts about a situation we find ourselves in, and in the morning we have clarity, or the seeds of an idea, or some inspiration to guide us and help us through?

    ‘What I say to you in the darkness, speak in the light; what you hear whispered, proclaim from the rooftops.’
    (Matthew 10:27)

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  7. Perhaps we could see light and darkness not as a duality, but reflect that darkness is simply the absence of light. Theologically then we could think of light as understanding and darkness as a lack of understanding. I take it that in Christ we should question all the dualities that divide people: Good and evil, sinners and non-sinners, saved and not-saved, Christian and non-Christian. We should even try to accept tax collectors, prostitutes and other sociopaths, because nothing can separate any of us from the unconditional love of God, even being in the dark!
    Here is a quote from Richard Rohr:
    “If you accept a punitive notion of God, who punishes or even eternally tortures those who do not love him, then you have an absurd universe where most people on this earth end up being more loving than God!”
    ― Richard Rohr, Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life.

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