In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth
was a formless wasteland, there was darkness over the deep, and God’s spirit
hovered over the water. Then God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.
– Gen. 1:1-3
There is a good principle which created order, light and man,
and an evil principle which created chaos, darkness, and woman.
God is light; in Him there is no darkness.
– I John:1-5
The universe is a unity…bound together in an inseparable relationship
in space and time….From its beginning the universe is a psychic
as well as a physical reality….The universe has a violent as well as
a harmonious aspect, but it is consistently creative in the larger
arc of its development.
– Thomas Berry
My personal journey of exploration into the darkness of God offered a profound paradigm shift in the way I conceived of the Divine. It began long before I heard of Thomas Berry and the New Cosmology. I was completing a Master of Arts degree in religious studies at Mundelein College in Chicago. For my thesis, I wanted to apply my newly acquired awareness of the feminist critique to the question of racism. In the end, far more than a thesis came out of that exploration. Insights I gained through the experience precipitated a significant turning point in my own spiritual journey.
I was guided in my research by the feminist argument that the Christian tradition’s predominant use of male language and imagery to symbolize God had led to a cultural conceptualization of God as male. This conceptualization further created an association between human men and God that for centuries has justified patriarchy and women’s oppression in Western culture.
In my exploration into the root causes of racism, I realized that the Christian tradition also places an almost equal emphasis on the connection between the Divine and light. As an eco-feminist, I was aware of other dualistic splits within our culture attributed to a patriarchal consciousness, for example: masculine/feminine, mind/body, culture/nature, Heaven/Earth. I also was aware that for each split, feminists had noted that within a culture influenced by the patriarchal mindset the right member of each of these pairs is devalued while the left side is held in high esteem. The goal of feminists is to highlight this patriarchal dualistic thinking, and to bring these pairs back into balance in our lived experience.
The connection in Western patriarchal culture between the Divine and the experience of light is visible in the language of prayers, creeds and the lyrics of songs used at any time during the liturgical year, but it is most prominent in the liturgical use of fire during the Easter vigil. In fact, one might say that darknessoverall gets a very bad rap in Christianity.
As we once again prepare to enter the Easter season, I share these reflections with a warning: if you take them seriously, your liturgical experience will never be the same. However, during this season, both secularly and liturgically, we also celebrate the miracle of resurrection; of life coming forth from death. It is a most astounding, creative process, and connects to one of the first and most profound insights that flowed from my research into racism, giving birth in me to a new awareness of the association between darkness and creativity.
A Transformative Insight
Christian feminist theologians who threw the full weight of feminist critical thinking upon the Christian cultural and liturgical practice of using only male imagery to describe God suddenly found themselves asking new questions about the existence of the “feminine” in God. To go beyond exclusively male God imagery, feminists had to ask, “What does femaleness in God look like?” To explore this possibility, feminist theologians returned to the Bible, and there “recovered” feminine images of the Divine. They found feminine personifications of the Divine in the Old Testament references to Wisdom (Hokmah in Hebrew and Sophia in Greek, both feminine-gender nouns). They also found maternal metaphors for God, as in the prophet Isaiah’s depiction of God’s faithfulness as the steadfast love of a nursing mother (Isaiah 49:15), and God’s comfort as like a mother who comforts her child (Isaiah 66:12, 13) (Clifford. 2002, pp. 104-105).
In the process of my research, I very soon realized that in doing a similar feminist critique of the use of “light” imagery in the tradition, I needed to ask a similar question, “Is there darkness in God?” As a result, I found myself faced with trying to embrace darkness as a positive experience. For the first time in my life, I found myself seeking to better understand and embrace the presence of “darkness” as well as “light” in my life. I realized I needed to bring a balance to the dualism of light/dark in my thinking about my life experiences.
In one sense, I already had done this experientially. Since childhood, I have loved to spend time outside at night, embraced by the darkness and gazing up at the night sky filled with stars. I also actually prefer low light and even darkness to a brightly lit room. But previously, I never had brought these feelings into my conscious awareness of my attitude toward darkness.
Several new questions and insights began to emerge as I considered the “darkness” of God. I began to ask new questions about paradox, both in Divine and human experience. I began to ask questions about God’s presence in the “darkness” of suffering. I still grapple with these questions and others like them. However, an unanticipated transformative insight, which I was able to immediately embrace with certainty, came in new thinking about the birthplace of creativity.
The first place I was led in my attempts to “recover” positive Biblical images of darkness was to the Creation Story in the book of Genesis. The story begins as in the passage quoted above, with God hovering in the “darkness over the deep.” In my mind, I recalled the story and realized that I previously assumed from it that the first act of God was to proclaim, “Let there be light!” Throughout my life, in hearing that story, my attention had been drawn away from the darkness to the act of creating light. Suddenly, in pondering that Scripture passage with my new awareness of my questions around the positive side of darkness, I exclaimed: “No, creating light actually is not the first thing God did. The first thing God did was hover in darkness for a very, very long time, before ever coming up with the idea of creating light.”
This very new approach to the Biblical passage caused me to begin to think that perhaps being alone in darkness, literally or figuratively, is necessary for the birth of any new idea, just as with the idea of light within God’s own consciousness. I began to think in new ways about the relationship between darkness, creativity and the emergence of new life. I recalled with a new importance the fact that seeds spend time buried in the deep darkness of Earth before sprouting into life, and that humans spend time wrapped in the darkness of our mother’s wombs before coming forth into the world. Perhaps it is quite natural that ideas, I began to realize, spend time in the darkness of our subconscious, gestating for an appropriate period of time before they emerge into consciousness and begin to shape our reality.
Discovering the new story of our Universe, prompted me to broaden my investigations to a global perspective. I learned that in the ancient creation myths of some cultures, the creation of darkness not only precedes, but also gives rise to light. In Polynesian myth, for example, the idea that chaos and darkness precede all other things is widespread. Light, day, and sun seem to rise out of darkness rather than be hostile to it (MacCulloch, 1951, pp. 47-50).
In my study of the relationship between darkness and racism, I also learned that for humans raised in Western culture, our attitude toward darkness seems to stem from a deep, psychological fear. Blended into this experience of fear are our inability to see in the dark of night, a terror of the unknown, and the unsettling experience of chaos. I now recognize that this latent fear has caused us to overlook the creative dimensions associated with darkness.
I will say more about our fears of the dark in a later post. For now, in the context of creativity and the upcoming season of Resurrection, I simply would like to invite us to ponder a suggestion from Ursula le Guinn: “Praise then the darkness and creation unfinished.”
Clifford, A. M. (2002). Introducing feminist theology. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis.
MacCulloch, J.A. (1951). Light and darkness. In Encyclopedia of religion and ethics. New York, NY: Charles Scribner & Sons. Vol. 8.