The language of Darkness: Thinking about darkness and light, metaphor and meaning

This is the third of our series of articles through the year from Spectrum, on the theme ‘Darkness and Light are both alike to Thee’. This month the article is by Catherine Bird.

As I began to acknowledge some of the physical and emotional reactions which darkness stirred within me I was reminded of God and of God’s activity in my own life. As I began in later life to reach longingly for the shade rather than the sunlight, and for night rather than day, I found myself questioning some deeply ingrained Christian metaphors and needing to express them in a way which could give expression to my relationship with God. Metaphors, of course, are rarely complete. Yet sometimes, they become so associated with their object that it is almost impossible to imagine anything else. For example, God as Father, or the use of the word ‘black’ to describe something negative. We have, thankfully, to a certain extent at least, recognised that these things are destructive in terms of how they lead us to make connections which are not necessarily helpful, and we are beginning to move away from them but there is still some way to go of course. God as light and Evil as darkness is one such metaphor and is still the predominant narrative.

Whilst I would not like us to lose light as a positive metaphor,  it is important to recognise that it is not universally helpful – light has many harmful and destructive qualities –  and if we deny that Darkness can also describe God we are perhaps missing some very important characteristics of God, as well as being rather unfair on darkness. George Orwell said, “uncritical acceptance of existing phrases can shape thinking and hinder new thought.”

I wrote my Dark Creed as an attempt to put into a liturgical context some of the ideas that were playing around in my head.

 A Dark Creed

I believe in God
The creator of darkness,
Who conceived of its potential,
And allows it to live.

I believe in Jesus Christ,
The prince of darkness,
Who raises a canopy of grace
to shade the startled ones .

I believe in the Holy Spirit,
The inner shadow,
Who clings to our soul 
and distorts the shape of our sorrow.

Like images, we also approach words and language with our own perspective and experience, perhaps our own biases and assumptions and it’s not unusual for people to react quite strongly when they read it.

If you find the image of Jesus as ‘the Prince of darkness’ concerning, then I ask you to reflect on the term Lucifer – which actually means ‘bearer of light’ or ‘Morning Star’

During the Exile of Israelites to Babylonia, there they encountered the King, who was the son of Bel and Ishtar, associated in local mythology  with Venus, the Morning star (so called  because of its closeness to the sun and appearance in the sky just before sunrise)  So, the King of Babylon became known as the  ‘Morning Star’ or Lucifer.

In Isaiah 14:12-16, the prophet is talking about how God will restore the people to Israel and they will taunt the fall of the King of Babylon (Lucifer) from his earthly throne. In verse 12 the writer gets a bit sarcastic – he talks about the fall of Lucifer from a metaphorical Heaven into a metaphorical hell. He is speaking metaphorically, about deposing the King. Sadly, over time, the sarcastic tone was lost and the verses came to be understood as being about the fall of Satan from Heaven.  Hence Lucifer becomes Satan.

Satan as the bearer of light. Jesus as the prince of darkness.  So it’s interesting to consider why, if Lucifer means bearer of Light, do we find the idea of Jesus as the Prince of darkness so difficult?

For Reflection

  • Reflect upon the ‘Dark Creed’ How do you respond to it?
  • What common metaphors for the Divine work for you or don’t work?
  • Are there other ways of describing God or words you could use which might seem unusual?

6 thoughts on “The language of Darkness: Thinking about darkness and light, metaphor and meaning”

  1. Nice one, Cathy. Darkness is when I sleep, and in the Olden Days before I was alone sleep would often be preceded by lovemaking. Both states of being were good, and God, whatever name we give God, was within both. We NEED both light and darkness. Thank you for the reminder that God’s self may be both.

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  2. Cathy, thank you for ‘pulling me up short’ and challenging me with your Dark Creed. Lots to relfect on and think about

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  3. I have enjoyed reflecting on theses articles about darkness and light but I found this third one quite challenging. The images of Lucifer as light bearer, and Jesus as Prince of darkness, were a step too far outside my comfort zone! Had it not been for the previous two articles on this theme, I probably would have kicked back angrily against them, but this time I didn’t feel anger. All week I have walked with these images in a kind of wary companionship, like going on a journey with someone you don’t know very well. They might ask more of me than I am prepared to give!
    Then this morning (30th Oct) I received the summary of this week’s meditations from Richard Rohr, and at the end is a meditation called ‘Blessing the Body’ by Jan Richardson. It is beautiful and I was truly blessed as I read it because, at the end two more lines immediately came into my head:
    ‘Holy in darkness,
    Holy in light.’ 🙂

    Thank you, thank you, thank you!
    (I feel like I have just been voted in for another week on Strictly!)

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  4. For me darkness is not a distinctive state or phenomenon but the absence of light, however I love the idea of questioning reality and finding alternative metaphors for the Divine. In that regard what about the immune system? Reflecting theologically on the work of Donna J. Haraway, a feminist anthropologist, Edward S. Golub and Richard K. Gershon, I found valuable insights in the idea that God is the immune system of the Universe.

    Donna J, Haraway, “Simians, Cyborgs and Women – the Reinvention of Nature”

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  5. We need darkness to enable us to have sound sleep. It comes as a friend at the end of a hot, bright, busy day. When walking in hot places, we seek the roadside shade out of the sun. Darkness is peace, rest, refreshment.

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