On the Darkness

I caught the darkness. I was drinking from your cup.
I caught the darkness drinking from your cup
I said is this contagious?
You said just drink it up.[1]

For some time now, I have been talking about a darkness descending on our society and our Church. I have, as have many others, variously called it a new Dark Age, which is being caused by radical individualism and which, like its medieval antecedent, has led to a general inability to make moral discriminations and to collective amnesia, i.e., the loss of expertise and knowledge. The difficulty with using a concept like darkness in this context is that it has no independent substance[2] and thus no “philosophical content of its own.”[3] It cannot, for example, be understood in terms of its optical effect, that is, as the absence of light, or even the opposite of light. In fact, it does not exist in any form apart from the presence of light. It is the profound nothingness of the earth without form, void, and wraped in darkness. The first act of creation was to bring light into being and only then could the darkness be identified for what it was. So, the best way to understand darkness is as an “enveloping sphere and described in its significance for existence, i.e., as a hindrance to movement and action, to foresight, as the sphere of objective peril and subjective anxiety.”[4] It offers no life, no potentiality. It reveals nothing but is itself revealed. As such it is always the “encompassing darkness of death.” As an objective situation darkness is “concealment, obscurity, and as a subjective attitude secrecy, deception; it is the obscurity of a thing or a speaker; and it is a lack of knowledge or insight, i.e., error.”[5]

The New Testament authors developed the theological significance of darkness along these very lines. Darkness is that which envelops and denotes the “whole range of what is harmful, or evil – in the sense of the threat to life, of what is bad for me, as well as in that of moral evil – or fatal.”[6] Being in the darkness is being blind, being ill, dead, not able to understand the truth (light) and, worst of all, being separated from fellowship with God, in this life and forever.

Jesus takes this duality to a remarkable, if not frightening, level when he says, “If then the light which is in thee be darkness, how great is that darkness” (Mt 6.23). Here he is not talking about darkness as the absence or even the opposite of light, but rather as a substitute for it, darkness being allowed to take over the place and function of light. But is this even possible? It has been said that the light is not afraid of the darkness. That the smallest candle dispels the deepest darkness. But what if the candle radiates more darkness? What if the light is black light and only illuminates what is unseen or already dead? If what Jesus is describing is taking place today, we should indeed be afraid.

As I see it this is, in fact, the horrifying paradox of our present situation. Darkness masquerading as light, blindness as sight, death as life. And just what does darkness illuminate? Nothing. Darkness? Does “walking” in the darkness (pretending it is light) bring more intimacy with God or turn our practice of the faith into superficial spectacle, a cynical fraud. Even the pious and ritual words and acts of Christians can be transformed into the speech and actions of darkness. As the blessed Augustine put it, “to give food to the poor is good if it be done from merciful motives, but evil if it be done from ostentation,”[7] the light of Christian witness snuffed out by the enveloping blackness of ignorance and self-love. Indeed, to turn one’s love from God to the self is to transit from light to darkness, from life to death, in which case any inter-personal or social interaction serves to spread and intensify the darkness and is highly contagious.

No wonder the song writer speaks of catching darkness because he drank from the cup. You might think this a horrifying and sacrilegious idea, but St. Paul himself indicates that taking communion for the wrong reason can bring about illness (I Cor 11:27-30). If that is the case, then what is intended to be light functions as darkness. Does this result in the dark darkness Jesus warned us about? The same thing could be true for a host of other so-called Christian practices. Do we, for example, catch darkness when we participate in a second wedding service in which marital betrayal is officially accepted, even blessed? Is darkness transmitted when we disrespect and insult others in the name of transparence or honesty? Do we catch darkness when the traditional language of the pious is used as we break our promises? Do we catch darkness when representatives of the faith using the authority of their positions corrupt the young? Is darkness spread when individuals hiding behind monastery walls do harm to others? Do we catch darkness when those who declare friendship continue to validate and defend our enemies in the name of the faith?

What to do? Avoid the darkness, throw it off, have no fellowship with it as we are taught (Rom 13,12, Eph 5.11)? But what can that mean? If the source of the contagion is other “believers” or even the “church,” are we, then, to abandon all religious activity, disengage from other believers, refuse to attend Church or participate in the sacraments? Is quarantine or isolation the way to avoid being infected with darkness? Certainly not! No, Jesus guides us to a far more effective response to darkness, namely, to be so completely immersed in divine light that we ourselves become light in darkness. More on that in the next post.

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Leonard Cohen, “Darkness,” in Old ideas (New York, NY: Columbia,, 2012), sound recording performed music.

[2] Kittel, Gerhard (ed.). Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), Vol. VII, p. 424.

[3] Kittel. Theological Dictionary, Vol. VII, p. 424.

[4] Kittel. Theological Dictionary, Vol. VII, p. 424.

[5] Kittel. Theological Dictionary, Vol. VII, p. 424.

[6] Kittel. Theological Dictionary, Vol. VII, p. 424.

[7]   Thomas C. Oden, Ancient Christian commentary on Scripture. New Testament, 12 vols. (Chicago, Ill.: Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers, 1998). NT Vol. IA, p. 140

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