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Lord of the Dark

9 December 2008

The Lord reigns, let the earth rejoice;
let the many coastlands be glad!
Clouds and thick darkness are round about him;
righteousness and justice are the foundations of his throne.
(Ps 96/97:1-2)

In his book The primal vision: Christian presence amid African religion John V. Taylor writes:

For forty years and more the advance of the Christian Church in tropical Africa has depended more upon her virtual monopoly of Western education than upon any other factor. Today secular governments are taking that monopoly from her and it is a bitter irony that the factor which seemed to be Christianity’s greatest strength in Africa threatens to prove its heaviest liability. For to a great extent it has become a classroom religion. In many tribes the word used to signify Christian worship means simply “to read”, and believers are the same as literates. The Gospel has been presented by instruction but there has been little appeal to sympathy and imagination; the sermons have vastly outnumbered the symbols, even in the Roman and other Churches of a “Catholic” emphasis. Christianity has come as a dalight religion of reason and reasonableness set over against the darkness of superstition.

By defining the conflict in those terms it has won inevitable victories and at the same time ensured that they should only be partial, not the total victory of him who is Lord of the dark as well as of the day. By confining the Kingdom of God within the protective walls of the conscious and rational it has left untouched the great deep of the subliminal, and unredeemed the glories of the elemental energies of man. The incalculable has been left out of account, the supernatural played down, the mystery glossed over. This too-cerebral religion has no answer for young Africa when she cries:

…My God, my God, but why should I tear out my shieking pagan senses?
I cannot sing your anthem nor dance it without swing,
Sometimes a cloud, a butterfly, or a few drops of rain are on the window of my boredom.
She drives me incessantly through the space of time.
My black blood pursues me into the solitary heart of night.

It is more than forty years since Taylor’s book was published, and in those forty years we have seen the same thing in the “secular” West, with people abandoning a too-cerebral religion in which sermons outnumber symbols, and neopaganism of various kinds has flourished.

And in those more than forty years, Christianity has flourished in Africa, but not so much the Western Christianity of the classroom, but the Christianity of the Zionist and Aladura churches, with their all-night vigils.

But Taylor’s basic arguments hold: for the most part Christianity was brought to sub-Saharan Africa by missionaries from western Europe and North Ameria whose view of the world had been shaped by the Enlightenment. They could speak of the light of Christ, but perhaps their conception of that light was shaped by the rationalism and empiricism of the Enlightenment, and have been influenced as much by the “light of reason” as by the “Light of Christ”.

The classroom religion was a propositional faith, and much of it entailed learning and repeating a series of propositions about God.

The writer known to us as Dionysius the Areopagite describes this propositional faith as cataphatic or positive theology, which proceeds by affirmations.

But there is another way, apophatic or negative theology, that proceeds by negations. Vladimirt Lossky, in his The mystical theology of the Eastern Church says of this:

The first leads to some knowledge of God, but is an imperfect way. The perfect way, the only way which is fitting in regard to God, who is of his very nature unknowable, is the second — which leads us finally to total ignorance. All knowledge has as its object that which is. Now God is beyond all that exists… It is necessary to renounce both sense and all the workings of reason, everything wehich may be known to the senses or the understanding, both that which is and that which is not, in order to be able to attain in perfect ignorance to union with Him who transcends all being and all knowledge… One must abandon all that is impure and even all that is pure. One must scale the most sublime heights of sanctity leaving behind one all the divine luminaries, all the heavenly sounds and words. It is only thus that one may penetrate into the darkness wherein He who is beyond all created things makes his dwelling.

To learn more of apophatic theology, see Apophaticism on Glory to God for all things.
___
This post is part of a synchroblog on the theme of “Light and dark as motifs in spirituality”, and marks the third year of synchroblogging.

Links to other posts on this theme:

9 Comments leave one →
  1. 10 December 2008 6:47 am

    Dang! That rocks. Great post Steve. On Sunday Peter Rollins was with us, and echoed some of these same tensions.

  2. ellenharoutunian permalink
    11 December 2008 12:09 am

    Great stuff! Thank you.🙂

  3. 11 December 2008 2:45 am

    Steve – I have had a desire for quite some time to strip away all preconceived ideas as I approach God (easier said than done but I keep striving) – but I had not thought in such radical terms (It is necessary to renounce both sense and all the workings of reason, everything which may be known to the senses or the understanding, both that which is and that which is not, in order to be able to attain in perfect ignorance to union with Him who transcends all being and all knowledge… One must abandon all that is impure and even all that is pure. One must scale the most sublime heights of sanctity leaving behind one all the divine luminaries, all the heavenly sounds and words) – I like it.

  4. 11 December 2008 7:14 am

    Steve, this is a beautifully thought-through post on this topic. It lays out the path of the mystic–direct experience of God. The mystics say that they may find God in an experience of light, but that the dark night of the soul, beyond all teaching or paradigms, is where the relationship is forged.

    I loved your connection to ‘young Africa’ and the beautiful poem. It reminded me to dance my prayers more often…

    Thank you–this was such a treat.

  5. 11 December 2008 7:17 am

    Steve–this was beautifully thought through.
    You have laid out the way of the mystic: direct experience of God–often only found in the darkness.

    Beautiful poem–reminded me to dance my prayers more fiercely…

    Thank you…

  6. 12 December 2008 6:27 am

    steve – thanks for this, as always you hit on these topics from a deep and powerful place. kathy

  7. 12 December 2008 1:08 pm

    Steve,
    What is the difference between Apophaticism and say the Socratic method, or even Deconstructionism. Isn’t the goal of all of those methods to point out what you can’t know? Doesn’t the simple Epistemological model (Venn diagram) demonstrate our inability to know?

    I think Apophaticism is an awesome word, and concept, but before I use it, I’d like to see that it has a meaning different from those other concepts and is not just esoteric nomenclature – because religion is good at obfuscating through its own semantic jargon

    Josh

  8. 12 December 2008 6:03 pm

    Josh,

    I wouldn’t think of apophatic theology as having anything to do with the Socratic method, or deconstruction. I don’t think it is a “method” at all. “Methods” are, almost by definition, part of cataphatic theology.

    Did you look at the article on “Glory to God for all things”? It might be interesting to ask your question there as well.

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  1. Light and Dark as Motifs of Spirituality – December 2008 | synchroblog

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