Chapter 7

The Divine Darkness

The darkness of God assumes a variety of appearances. To the mystic the darkness is a measure of the strength of God's light, uncreated and eternal, on the human soul. In much the same way as the direct impress of the sun on the naked eye would blind its sight by burning the retina, so the impingent rays of God's presence consume the secret place of the soul: a darkness heralds the divine splendour, the dazzling darkness of the mystic, which illuminates in its obscurity more than does the highest intellectual enlightenment. It is well said that no one can see God and remain alive. Job himself was treated to an account of the divine providence caring for the least of God's creatures as much as for the human with his immense intellectual grasp of the details of everyday life; the appearance of God out of the tempest was at once mitigated by the voice of wisdom to which Job could more easily attune himself. In the awesome account of Krishna's self-revelation to Arjuna in the eleventh chapter of the Bhagavadgita, the mighty warrior shrinks in terror at what he has been permitted to see. It is indeed a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the living God, especially if one has already apostasized from the divine allegiance (Hebrews 10:31), for the Lord is a devouring fire, described in Deuteronomy 4:24 also as a jealous God.

He is, however, also a God who is separate from all forms of thought. Possibly the greatest of the medieval Christian mystics, Meister Eckhart, says, "Why dost thou prate of God? Whatever thou sayest of him is untrue." St Augustine follows on, "There is in the mind no knowledge of God except the knowledge that it does not know him." He is the "Divine Dark" of Pseudo-Dionysius, and it is by "divine ignorance", or "unknowing", that the soul reaches the highest truth. The anonymous medieval author of The Cloud of Unknowing invokes the image of a cloud, in which all the normal mechanisms of the mind, such as imagination, perception and knowledge, are left behind. At the same time there is a "cloud of forgetting" as one enters the divine precincts. This is the same cloud that accompanied the Israelites each day on their journey from Egypt to the Promised Land, the cloud also that filled the Temple of Jerusalem when Isaiah was called to his prophetic ministry (Isaiah 6:1-9). Yet within this cloud there is greater illumination than in the mightiest seats of human knowledge, for one is free of all preconceptions and able to use the faculties of the soul without hindrance in a completely new way. And so, although no one has seen God, the truly illuminated person knows him by his emergent energies, uncreated inasmuch as they proceed directly from the Deity. The principal of these energies is love that brings all creatures into the freedom of service for the whole, and light that illuminates the reason with purpose, providing an insight into God's loving will, that the creature should participate in his very being (2 Peter 1:4).

There are instances, however, when both the love and the light appear to fail, and then the darkness is total; it is the result of a complete occlusion of light. While, as we read in Isaiah 45:19, God may speak with directness and clarity, and not secretly as in some corner of a darkened room, he still seems to hide himself quite often when we need him most. So it appeared to the fictional Job as he argued his case resolutely with his conventionally pious friends. It was much more frighteningly true of Jesus during the period of his passion, especially when he lay stretched out on the Cross and cried, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" To many who cannot face this degree of dereliction in one who is God incarnate, the words are simply the first verse of Psalm 22, but their stark cry as recorded by St Matthew and St Mark points to a single utterance rather than a sequence in the repetition of a psalm. God is No-Thing, inasmuch as he cannot be likened to any created object, but at times he seems also to be Nothing, who can cause serious harm by inducing despair in those who have sought him in vain and officiousness in those who appoint themselves protectors of the injured person. Here is a darkness of existential magnitude rather than mystical quality.

But can the divine nature embrace a positive darkness, comparable with that of human nature, even the nature of wicked people? In our own time there have been outspoken voices that affirm the dark shadow in the Deity itself. Certainly the picture of God that emerges from the early part of the Old Testament is not one of reassuring compassion. From the destruction of the world at the time of Noah to the obliteration of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah later on, the wrath of God dominates the scene. The destruction of the Egyptian people at the time of Moses confirms this tendency - indeed, God is portrayed as knowing the intentions deep in the heart of Pharaoh so as to decree in advance the plagues that are to destroy his country. And so God wins glory for himself at the expense of the Egyptians. He cares tenderly for his chosen people Israel, providing they behave themselves dutifully during the journey of the Exodus, but punishes any insubordination with a terrible severity that occasions the death of many people. Joshua too, when he crosses the Jordan into Palestine, is told to raze the cities of Jericho and Ai to the ground when their inhabitants stand in the way of the colonization of the country by God's chosen ones. In 2 Samuel 24 we read of God's terrible anger against David and his people after David has been tempted into making a census of the people of Israel and Judah: a pestilence lasting three days is decreed in which seventy thousand people die. It is of interest in this account that God is identified as both the tempter and the executor of the sentence, and his wrath is assuaged only by David buying the threshing-floor of an alien, building an altar on it and sacrificing abundantly to God. In the parallel account in 1 Chronicles 21, which was written some centuries later, it is Satan who is identified as the tempter. When we consider the strange episode, almost of nightmare intensity, of Jacob's struggle with the angel of God in the middle of the night, the heavenly antagonist seems to be as close to Satan as to God. Jacob survives the attack and demands a blessing from his celestial visitor, who changes his name (and therefore the quality of his renewed nature) to Israel, which means one who has been strong against God and who in turn is a champion of God. Whatever we may make of all these accounts, there is little doubt that a dark shadow side of God is revealed, one that terrifies in its brutal mastery but shows little compassion to anyone who opposes its will.

Perhaps the best known book that emphasizes God's moral ambiguity is Carl G. Jung's Answer to Job. In this speculation, Jung sees Job's terrible afflictions as a manifestation of the divine cruelty exerted on a human being who is apparently more spiritually sensitive than God himself. Indeed, according to this controversial argument, God is forced to meet and accept his own shadow side in this encounter, and then he seeks incarnation in human form in order to come to terms with it and ultimately overcome it. The supreme incarnation is that of Jesus, in whom God achieves the goal; now at last he has succeeded in transcending his shadow side. Therefore we may say that if the light of God is uncreated light and unfailing love, his shadow, which is involved in the life on earth, is heartless cruelty. God seeks perpetual incarnation in the human soul for the union of his opposite tendencies, and in Christ the resolution of the antinomy has been achieved. Such a God would scarcely evoke a loving worship, however, even if naked fear might keep his creatures obedient to his inscrutable vagaries. Nevertheless, monotheism does affirm that God is the creator of light and darkness, author alike of prosperity and trouble (Isaiah 45:7). There is no god beside him, who puts to death and keeps alive, who both wounds and heals (Deuteronomy 32:39). Whatever repugnance we may feel against a God who sends forth pain and suffering by his creative word no less than light and vibrant life in his eternal mode, we gladly give thanks that he is in ultimate charge of the cosmos, mysterious as his ways must appear to us as we plod on day by day with vision restricted to our immediate task.

It is apparent that there is still no satisfactory philosophical solution to the paradox of rampant evil and chaos in a universe created and governed by a loving, all-powerful God. It is apparent also that the human mind cannot avoid the tendency of making a god in man's image, even though we believe that God fashioned us in his own image. This "anthropomorphism" may be simplistic to the point of naïvety, but it need not be disdained. "If a man says, 'I love God', while hating his brother, he is a liar. If he does not love the brother whom he has seen, it cannot be that he loves God whom he has not seen" (1 John 4:19-20). God shows himself to us in the form of human experience, and our understanding of him is closely related to our innate temperament. Oskar Pfister, a Swiss Lutheran pastor and disciple of Freud (even though he could not accept the dogmatic atheism of the great man), said, "Tell me what you find in the Bible, and I will tell you what sort of a person you are." It is noteworthy that as the pages of the Old Testament unfold, so does a kinder, more loving God emerge, beautifully portrayed in Psalm 103, "The Lord is compassionate and gracious long-suffering and for ever constant; he will not always be the accuser or nurse his anger for all time. He has not treated us as our sins deserve or requited us for our misdeeds" (vv. 8-10). The same loving God suffering agonies over his unfaithful spouse, his ungrateful child Israel, is portrayed in the moving prophecy of Hosea. Punishment follows sinfulness, but God is more than ready to take the initiative in restoring relationships once there has been even a flicker of repentance. In Isaiah 53 the face of God is revealed in the sacrifice of the Suffering Servant, by whose scourging the world is healed, a picture perhaps of the prophet Jeremiah, but made fully real in the person of Jesus who is at once the man for others and the Word of God made flesh.

But even the gospels portray a God of vengeance no less than one of love, and his wrath, at least in some of the more terrifying parables, like that of the Sheep and the Goats (Matthew 25:31-46), knows no ending for those who have done wrong and not repented at the end of this short life on earth. Nevertheless, the theme of God's love does predominate in the New Testament, shown in the free sacrifice of Jesus for the reconciliation of the world to God, and brought down to earth in an intelligible context in St Paul's radiant outpouring in 1 Corinthians 13, as well as in the parables of Luke 15:1-32: the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin, and especially the Prodigal Son. Somehow a balance has to be struck between an affectionate acceptance that sweeps aside all past misdemeanours, and a judgemental wrath that condemns a large body of mankind to eternal damnation. The first can become permissive to the point of moral indifference, the second so frightening that the individual is coerced into righteousness in the fear of perpetual exclusion from the presence of God. Such a righteousness, as we have already seen, can lead to an egoistic virtuousness, typical of the Pharisee in the famous parable, that is completely devoid of love. The end is a persecution of all foreign elements who threaten the precarious faith of the believer.

Authentic love accepts a person for what he is now in order to direct him to what he is to become - a true son of God modelled on the figure of Christ but within the integrity of his own personality. The famous words of Galatians 2:19 sum this up well, "I have been crucified with Christ: the life I now live is not my life, but the life which Christ lives in me." If acceptance brings the person to the valley of decision, the urgency of the situation makes him dedicate himself at once to God rather than remaining in a state of uncommitted agnosticism. Acceptance should be lovingly infused with urgency, since the present moment is of vital importance in a person's later development. But the end is not a promise of future heavenly favours so much as a present experience of freedom in the service of God and the creation around us. This freedom is eternal, 'heavenly bliss' and it looks for nothing beyond itself. Furthermore, as we now are, so we shall continue in the future, whether here or in the life beyond death. It is in this frame of mind that the pure love of God is known without any menacing shadow to distort it. Needless to say, the attainment of this blessed state of equanimity is a product of divine grace on the one hand and human toil in service and daily sacrifice on the other. If the attainment is selfishly contrived, the ego interposes itself between God and the person; all his endeavours fail, and he moves into the darkness of isolation until he has learned the lesson of humility.

With all these considerations in mind I personally do not accept a fundamental shadow side of God. The creative principle of the universe, called the Godhead, is beyond the dualities of human conception - indeed the divine darkness, the cloud that fills us with divine ignorance. This immeasurable, ineffable being manifests itself in the universe as a tangible presence whom we can know and worship in love and dedication of ourselves to the highest we may conceive. This is the personal God whose effulgence of love sustains the universe. In Hindu thought the ineffable Brahma shows itself in the world as the personal Isvara, which is responsible for the creation, preservation and dissolution of the universe. The Supreme therefore has two natures, the higher, which is incomprehensible, and the lower, which is the object of worship, whose very nature is love. In the words of Jakob Boehme, "Creation was the act of the Father; the incarnation that of the Son, while the end of the world will be brought about through the operation of the Holy Spirit." They are all one God, and each fulfils every function, but each one has a pre-eminence, according to his nature, over the others. The end of the world is to be seen as the dissolution of present forms in preparation for a glory as yet unrevealed except in mystical illumination. And yet that glory was there at the beginning, it is now, and it shall always be in a created order that has no end other than in the mind of God. The process of creation seems to be a gift of pure divine grace so that innumerable forms might enjoy finite existence. The end of the purpose of creation is the raising up of all those forms to the divine light, in whose loving radiance they are transfigured, dissolved, and finally resurrected in the uncreated energies of God.

This God, the living image of the incomprehensible Godhead, is pure light and unceasing love. In the words of 1 John 1:5, God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. It is we who are dazzled by the intensity of the light into the darkness of silence, in the hush of which the light penetrates the inner depths of the psyche, revealing everything that was hidden, unwholesome and sinful. In that light we start to see ourselves unshielded by any illusions; the darkness within is illuminated so that its composite elements are brought to our knowledge. The love that accompanies the light works towards their integration and the healing of the personality. Dame Julian of Norwich saw truly: "I saw no wrath but on man's part; and that forgiveth he in us. For wrath is not else but a frowardness and a contrariness to peace and love and either it cometh of failing of might, or of failing of wisdom, or of failing of goodness: which failing is not in God but is on our part" (Chapter 98 of Revelations of Divine Love). William Law also, some three hundred and fifty years later, came to a similar conclusion in his last writings, The Spirit of Prayer and The Spirit of Love. God's will is restoration, not rejection, but we must remember that love remains inactive until it is accepted by the beloved, and the gift of free will determines this acceptance. God himself cannot force his attentions on his creatures without annulling the freedom of choice he has given them. Here lies the impasse, the tragedy of creation.

To me, the apparent wrath of God is embodied in the law by which the universe is governed no less than our lives on earth. Psalm 19 juxtaposes the cosmic law very effectively with the law that God gave to his chosen people, and through them to mankind as a whole, by the prophetic word of Moses. "The heavens tell out the glory of God, the vault of heaven reveals his handiwork . . . The law of the Lord is perfect and revives the soul. The Lord's instruction never fails, and makes the simple wise." If we live within the compass of that law, we shall be safe, but if we disregard it, we shall suffer. Much of the Wisdom literature of the Bible, especially the Book of Proverbs, amplifies this theme, which, within its limits, contains much truth. Those who lead chaste, sober, disciplined lives are certainly less liable to disease and misfortune than those who cannot curb their appetites and lusts. But the case is less clear-cut than this: the story of Job's sufferings demolishes a comfortable theory of simple cause and effect, for here a perfectly righteous man suffers abominably, and he, to his credit, does not flinch from asserting his innocence, even at the cost of setting himself up against God, whose favour he might have curried by an attitude of obsequious self-denigration. One's mind harks back to the absurdity of the confessions of treason exacted from Stalin's antagonists in the infamous Moscow trials of the late thirties. Job, being of an infinitely stronger moral fibre than those ambivalent victims of injustice, does not betray the truth.

The story of Job is repeated with inevitable personal variations in the lives of the world's martyrs not only those who adorn the official hagiography (the biographies of the great saints of the religious traditions), but also the ordinary folk who suffer terrible misfortune of a degree quite out of proportion to their failings as people. One thinks of the young victims of progressive crippling disease, cancer and mental breakdown, and the older ones whose lives are brought low by senile dementia, to say nothing of the countless multitudes who have died in prison camps and in the wake of nuclear fall-out. Nevertheless, before we cringe at the arbitrary wrath of an inscrutable God, we should remember that we do not live private lives in isolation from the greater community. We are, on the contrary, all parts of the one body. This famous statement of Ephesians 4:25 may have applied especially to the members of the young Christian community, but it is also true of humanity as a whole. The purpose of a spiritually orientated group is not simply one of mutual support, which, of course, is fundamental, but also one of service to all people, the whole created universe in so far as this impinges on it. The supreme action is prayer, for in it the power of God infuses the person with a greater potential for service consequent on his inner renewal than would be possible if he simply relied on his own strength.

Membership of the human race brings with it the advantages of civilization which we tend to take for granted until they are taken away from us. But we are also exposed to the communal, indeed global, sinfulness of man, so that even if our own lives have been relatively blameless, we are called on, in the likeness of Christ, to assume some of the many burdens of the less perfect members of society around us. Suffering, in other words, is essentially retributive for those on the lower rungs of the spiritual ladder. As we ascend painfully to the enlightenment that finds its apogee in love, so our suffering assumes a redemptive quality both for ourselves and the greater body of creation around us. We remember St Paul's famous insight here, that although the whole created universe groans in all its parts as if in the pangs of childbirth, it is to be freed from the shackles of mortality and to enter upon the liberty and splendour of the children of God (Romans 8:21-22). This, I believe, is the great purpose and destiny ahead of the human race, but first of all it has to get its own house in order. The winnowing effect of suffering shrives it of illusions of grandeur, ownership and complete autonomy. Then alone may humility leave it open to the creative power of God, who is eternally making all things new (in the vision of Revelation 21:5).

But how does the suffering arise? In the allegory of the creation and the fall, while Adam and Eve are in heaven they live in a child's world, ignorant both of God and of their own identity. When they yield to the temptation of satisfying themselves in disobedience to God's strict instruction, they at once fall from their innocent state of ignorant bliss and enter upon an adult world of separation and suffering. Now at last they know God in their distance from him, just as they know themselves in their separate identity. The great work is one of returning to God in corporate unity as responsible adults, who can contribute their individual talents to the communal welfare, and not simply thrive on it like thoughtless children. "The tempter, the serpent, was more crafty than any wild creature that the Lord God had made" (Genesis 3:1). It is evident that God has made provision for evil in the universe no less than for good. Whether the evil is a primary quality of the creation or a secondary consequence of the ignorant, self-centred response of the disobedient creature we cannot tell - in fact, the two possibilities merge when we ponder the matter deeply. It seems clear to me that this was part of the divine plan, for without the constant threat of extinction there would be no mental development. Sin is indeed a necessary part of life, as Julian of Norwich was told, but nevertheless in the end all shall be well. Sin plays a needful part in bringing us to the depths of our own being, so that, when its consequences are faced, we may seek divine forgiveness. And so love enters the heart, a love from God that enables us to love ourselves in all our frailty and then to love our fellow creatures in their frailty also. It is no mystery that the repentant sinners in Jesus' parables, and also in the course of his daily ministry, are much closer to God than are their cold, virtuous detractors. These latter live to the letter of the law, but the spirit underlying it is far beyond their comprehension. That spirit is love, a gift of God which cannot be induced, let alone contrived, by the human soul acting alone. The essence of that love is a constant giving of oneself to God's care day by day, in all one's frailties, not a striving for personal mastery that puts oneself far above others in one's excellence.

When we can accept the manifest presence of evil in the creative process, interestingly we become less dominated by its power. By coming to terms with the springs of evil in the world no less than deep within ourselves, we are in a stronger position to master it, so that its dynamic potential can be deflected and neutralized. It is precisely those who are most fearful of evil, striving obsessively to eliminate it according to their own insights, that are specially vulnerable to its naked, demonic thrust. They are tempted to project it on to those whom they personally dislike. On the other hand, we dare not trifle with evil, let alone tolerate its effects in our midst. It may be the destructive impetus without which conscious growth would soon come to an end, but left unchecked it would soon cast the creation back to the primary chaos out of which the cosmos evolved. It is in this context that we can begin to grasp Christ's injunction against resisting evil: the more it is hated, the more does it thrive on that hatred. But if it is accepted and sent back in love to God, from whom it too finds its challenging origin and final consummation, a blessing may remain for all involved in the transaction, not excluding the evil thing itself. "You have learned that they were told, 'Eye for eye, tooth for tooth'. But what I tell you is this: Do not set yourself against the man who wrongs you. If someone slaps you on the right cheek, turn and offer him your left" (Matthew 5:38-39). The problem is, of course, how to put this injunction into practice, when there is a seething ferment of anger within oneself. Once we can accept the dark side of reality as a fact within our own psyche no less than in that of other people, we can be still and carry out the sacred act of compassion even when anger gnaws at the root of our being. As the action of reconciliation is repeated, so will the resentment deep in the heart be mollified until, with the passage of time, it is imperceptible save for the awareness of a quiet forgiveness that shows itself in a greater love for those around one. But forgiveness does not annul truth; those who have acted dishonestly have to face their own corruption before they can be healed. The measure of this healing is their will to restore the damage they have done.

In fact, the inner mechanism of this slow change of heart to forgiveness is the presence of the Holy Spirit deep within the soul. Usually our emotions take us over so precipitately and with such overwhelming power that the inner light is eclipsed by the darkness of personal grievance. But if we can learn to be quiet, the voice of God can still be heard, and the inner power that radiates from that voice can strengthen us in the way of forbearance, even when the world itself seems to be falling in pieces around us: "Be still, and know that I am God" (Psalm 46:10). This psalm reminds us that, no matter how menacing the outer situation may be, God is still in charge of events: If we remain calm in prayer, we will know the divine presence within us, no less than in the outer turmoil. And then we can act as responsible human beings, infused with the power of God. This seems to be the usual effect of prayer: the problem is not so much solved from without as we are strengthened within so that we may learn to cope more responsibly with it. Most problems remain insoluble until people grow into something of the stature of Christ himself, or as Jesus would have put it: for mankind it is impossible, but all things are possible for God.

There is, however, a time when God's presence does seem to fade from our sight. We have already considered the existential darkness which follows the apparent withdrawal of God from our lives. It happened to the fictional Job, and all his debates with his three friends ended in a silence of ignorance. It happened to Christ on the cross when he cried out in despair to the God who had forsaken him; he received no reply except the taunts of the onlookers. It happened to the victims of the Holocaust in Europe no less than to those on whom the atomic bomb fell in Japan. It happens day by day to those who are afflicted with terrible diseases that yield neither to medical treatment nor to prayer. Where was God then? How could a God of love tolerate such enormities, whether of existence itself or of the evil that people inflict on each other? Surely he could have intervened! This is the ultimate problem confronting all who believe in divine providence, who worship a God of love. The solution to this problem, as far as I am permitted to see, is that the victim is being prepared for growth into the stature of a full person, no less than Christ himself. Certainly the God who showed himself to Job did not reveal the nature of the contest he and Satan were having at Job's expense, but Job grew sufficiently through his trials, bravely if rebelliously borne, to see God directly. The God he had worshipped from afar, sincerely enough but with an undercurrent of fear lest misfortune should strike his family, had now disclosed himself as a living presence whom Job could know personally. All his suffering faded away as a triviality in the face of this supreme revelation, and we may be sure that Job's attitude to possessions and human relationships was far less clinging after that encounter.

In the same way the crucifixion drama, an event of terrible failure in the perspective of Good Friday, found its consummation in the Resurrection two days later. But neither Job nor Jesus could glimpse the victory in the darkness of the hell they were obliged to experience.

In the days of his earthly life he offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to God who was able to deliver him from the grave. Because of his humble submission his prayer was heard: son though he was, he learned obedience in the school of suffering, and once perfected became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him, named by God high priest in the succession of Melchizedek (Hebrews 5:7-10).

One might add, in response to this famous passage, that Jesus' prayers were not apparently heard either in Gethsemane or on the cross at Calvary. Jesus had to do the great work of reconciling the world to God on his own, while the Father stood by in his own helpless grief. It was his previous prayer life that sustained Jesus in this period of darkness, when prayer, indeed faith itself, seemed a pitiful delusion. But he persevered in the darkness and he attained the victory over the forces of evil, so that the Father could declare him Son of God by a mighty act in that he rose from the dead (Romans 1:4). The God who lamented so sadly the idolatries of faithless Israel in the prophecy of Hosea, wept even more at the suffering of Jesus. And this lament has continued; Christ will indeed be in agony until the end of the world, as Pascal said. In the pain of his creatures, their disease and their cruelty to each other, God suffers, but he may not intervene until they too have attained their own blessing, as did Jacob when he wrestled with the angel of God in the darkness of a lonely night fraught with foreboding but consummated in victory. This is the purpose of incarnation, whether divine or human.

To see what this means on an earthly level we need only meditate upon the father of the Prodigal Son. He did not interfere when the thoughtless boy took the money due to him, and went out into the world squandering all he had on vice. The father could never, we may be sure, take his mind off his ungrateful son, praying for him constantly, but being quite unable to assist him in his travail. When the boy was in destitution he could at last, in the silence, come to himself and yearn sincerely for his father's support. Only then could the father run out to meet the stricken boy, not with recriminations but in paeans of joy. The son could, however, have remained obdurate, in which case the father's love, though never ceasing, would have been powerless. We can only hope that all sentient life will eventually respond to the love of God and move towards its own way of resurrection. This is the way in which the evil, separative impulse is redeemed and healed. But until there is this universal response to God's love, the innocent will suffer as they take on the burden of their sinful brethren. They too will, however unconsciously, assume the role of the Suffering Servant, by whose scourging healing comes to the world. In this life their end, like that of Jesus, may be appalling, but there is much experience of God's love ahead of them. To grow progressively into the knowledge of God is the end of the spiritual quest.

Chapter 8
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