Going Over to the Dark Side

A woman from Georgia has more to say to me about God than anyone else I know. With feet firmly planted in a working farm she tends with her husband, she simultaneously culls Moses, fourth century Cappadocian monk Gregory of Nyssa and the anonymous fourteenth century author of The Cloud of Unknowing for wisdom.

Please… before dismissing her as pious or preachy, you must know that she writes for those of us who are “in deep need of faith right now, but the kind you inherited from your parents is not cutting it. You want something that asks more of you than to sit and listen quietly while someone else tells you how to live.”

I eagerly await everything Barbara Brown Taylor writes. We are about the same age. She served a good part of her life as an Episcopal priest. Having left active ministry I resonate with her honesty: “I also discovered a number of things about my Christian tradition that had not been apparent to me while I was busy upholding it.”

In her most recent spiritual memoir, Learning to Walk in the Dark, Barbara Brown Taylor says chief among these is the way Christian teaching thrives on dividing reality into opposed pairs: good/evil, church/world, spirit/flesh, sacred/profane, light/dark. Keeps life simple… you don’t even have to be Christian to know who are the “winners” and the “losers.”

Separating the world into opposing camps makes it easy to know who is closer to God and who isn’t. This really simplifies life for those who don’t care to spend much time thinking about whether their categories hold (or are even Christian). Such clarity provides a strong sense of purpose by focusing daily battles they will take on as their moral duty. The more we beat back the powers of the flesh or of darkness the closer we get to God.

BBT brilliantly coins this as “a bad case of solar affective disorder” or “full solar spirituality. She suggests we can usually recognize a full solar church by its emphasis on the “perks” of faith — a sure sense of God’s presence, certainty of belief, divine guidance in all things, and reliable answers to prayer. Members strive to be positive in attitude, firm in conviction, helpful in relationship, and unwavering in faith.  She asks, who wouldn’t want to dwell in God’s light 24/7?

But then life happens — Christian life happens! You lose your job, maybe your house. Your marriage turns sour. A grandchild is born with a serious genetic disorder. Sure, the full-solar Christians will be there for you and express genuine care. But the shady side of life will soon exhaust their resources. Too many of us are woefully ill prepared to enter the dark-side of life without putting our own faith at risk. We are prepared to deliver a hot-dish casserole when human hungers are so much more insatiable!

The great thing about BBT is that her profound observations are never a self-righteous judgment or divisive condemnation. If it were she would be guilty of the very dualistic thinking and separating into “winners” or “losers” she bemoans. Rather, Learning to Walk in the Dark is a refreshing invitation to embrace “lunar spirituality,” a realistic true-to-life faith that recognizes that the divine light available at any given time waxes and wanes with the seasons of our lives.

It’s not whether we have enough faith to explore the darkness — life itself provides more than enough incentive — but whether we are willing to bump into the things that frighten us and ask the darkness to teach us what we need to know.

Christian faith professes that Jesus was crucified, died and was buried, descended into hell, on the third day rose from the dead and only then ascended into heaven. Sounds like pretty intense darkness to me! Does this not proclaim the way and the truth of our lives?  Should we really expect it to be any different?

This reflection is largely based on the Introduction to Learning to Walk in the Dark by Barbara Brown Taylor. HarperOne, 2014.


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