28 June 2015

Learning to Walk in the Dark - Barbara Brown Taylor

I finished reading this book this afternoon, and I don't think that I can start another book until I have managed to get some of my thoughts about this book out of my system.  And there is so much to think about.

This book was mentioned by my Spiritual Director this winter when we were discussing fears.  I didn't have time to read it then, but I added it to my ever-growing TBR list.  Once summer holidays started, I put my name on the hold list for it at the local library.

"… dark and light, faith and doubt, divine absence and presence, do not exist at opposite poles.  Instead, they exist with and within each other, like distinct waves that roll out of the same ocean and roll back into it again.  As different as they are, they come from and return to the same source.  If I can trust that - if I can give my heart to it and remain conscious of it - then faith becomes a verb, my active response to the sacred reality that the best religions in the world can only point to." [1]

I have never been afraid of the dark, though I know many people are.  I don't even like to sleep with a clock radio in the room (as both of my sisters will attest to), since the light disturbs the darkness when I sleep.  (Besides, I am blind as a bat and can't read the numbers without putting my glasses on, so it is purposeless light.)  I have some lovely memories built around nighttime and the dark:

  • Cooking outside in Tanzania after dark on a charcoal stove, watching the bats swoop out of the rafters chasing down mosquitoes.
  • Cross-country skiing by moonlight with my father, hearing coyotes yipping off in the distance.
  • Watching the sun set in Zambia and the dusk and darkness rolling in in rapid succession.
  • Waking up in a tent in the middle of the night on a canoe trip, and lying there in the dark thinking about the day past and the day to come.
I love the dark.  I enjoy being in the darkness.  I have struggled with the metaphor of light for God.  It is a very powerful metaphor.  The smallest light can transform the darkness in the same way that God can transform anything that God comes in contact with.  And yet if God is only ever associated with light, then where is God in the darkness?

And to take the metaphor one step further, darkness is often associated with pain, with suffering, with confusion, with all of the negative things that happen in life.  If God is only associated with light, then where is God at these "dark" times?

So many scripture verses associate God with light, and the implication is that darkness is anti-God.  "God is light and in him there is no darkness at all." (1John 1:5)  "For once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light.  Live as children of light - for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true."  (Ephesians 5:8-9)  "Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, "I am the light of the world.  Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life."  (John 8:12)  Even one of my favourite verses in the whole bible villainizes darkness:  "The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it." (John 1:5)

Over the course of a year, half of our hours are spent in darkness.  In life, difficult times - times of pain and sorrow and suffering and questioning and despair and confusion - are just as real as the joy-full, loving, relaxing times.  If God is only ever associated with "light", where is God in the "dark"?

In the first biblical creation story, "the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.  The God said, 'Let there be light'; and there was light.  And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness." God's first recorded creative act was speaking light into being.  Was darkness created, or does the creation story assume the scientific explanation of darkness being the absence of light?  If God proclaimed that light was good, does this imply that darkness is bad?

These are some of the questions that this book wrestles with.  These are some of the questions that I have wrestled with, and continue to wrestle with.

This book comes to similar conclusions as I have.  God is always present - in times of literal or metaphorical light; as well as in times of literal or metaphorical darkness.  God is.  Light is a powerful metaphor for God, but it shouldn't be the only metaphor; because as soon as a metaphor is used exclusively, it restricts that which it is describing.

"God created earth and heavens;

            God created day and night.
God creates each day that follows –

            holy darkness, shining light." [2]  

This book points towards some of the encounters with God in the time of the ancestors that take place at night or in the dark - Abraham is led outside at night by God and is told that his descendants will outnumber the stars (Genesis 15:5); Jacob encounters God twice at night (Genesis 28:10-17, 32:22-32); the Passover and Exodus from Egypt happens at night (Exodus 11 and 12); Moses encounters God in a dense cloud on top of a mountain (Exodus 19:7-25); God calls Samuel at night (1Samuel 3:2-18); Elijah hears the "still, small voice of God" in a cave at night (1 Kings 19:9-12).

If we limit God to the metaphor of "light," we create a "God-in-a-Box" who behaves the way that we want God to behave.  If we embrace a multiplicity of metaphors, we will have a more broad picture of a God who is wholly/holy mystery, beyond all human understanding.

"Instead, I have been given the gift of lunar spirituality, in which the divine light available to me waxes and wanes with the season.  When I go out on my porch at night, the moon never looks the same way twice.  Some nights it is as round and bright as a headlight; other nights it is thinner than the sickle hanging in my garage.  Some nights it is high in the sky, and other nights low over the mountains.  Some nights it is altogether gone, leaving a vast web of stars that are brighter in its absence.  All in all, the moon is a truer mirror for my soul than the sun that looks the same way every day." [3]

[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, Learning to Walk in the Dark (New York: Harper One, 2014), 148.
[2] Springs Gush Forth, verse 3.  http://katesnextgreatadventure.blogspot.ca/2014/11/hymn-writing-assignment.html
[3] Taylor, Learning to Walk in the Dark, 8.