God’s dark side, and mine

I take it to be a sign of growth into wholeness, and not of laziness, self-absorption, or degeneration, that I’m more accepting of the less desirable aspects of my nature. “I must have a dark side also,” Jung believed, “if I am to be whole.” The dark aspects of my nature – parts I don’t and probably never will fully understand and have been taught to deny, devalue, or eliminate – are not things to be eliminated. They are things to be embraced as integral to the whole person I am, dimensions of myself waiting to be loved – to be valued as essential to my wholeness, as H. Richard Niebuhr would put it. They are daemons at home in me, waiting for their worth to be revealed, “dragons that at the last moment turn into princesses,” as Rilke believed. “[P]erhaps all the dragons of our lives,” he wrote, “are princesses who are only waiting to see us once beautiful and brave. Perhaps everything terrible is in its deepest being something helpless that wants help from us” (Letters to a Young Poet). My maturing – anyone’s maturing – involves learning to relate holistically to the darkness within.

A basic part of morning and evening prayer for Jews is the recitation of the Shema, part of which recalls the command to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” (Deut. 6:4). Jesus affirmed it as the greatest commandment (Mark 12:30). Luke added an intellectual component: “and with all your mind” (Luke 10:27). Loving God requires the use of all aspects of myself, including aspects I’ve learned to wish I didn’t have, the ones I’ve tried to purge. Fully loving God requires that I employ even those parts of myself from which darker impulses, the seven deadly sins, arise: pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath, and sloth. God must know something I don’t know about my whole self, something my traditional religious upbringing has denied me, something that perhaps can be discovered only late in the journey of faith and that must be discovered if my faith is to ripen, if my whole self is to emerge from its chrysalis.

So it is with God. John, the author of three letters of the Christian scriptures, wrote “that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). I’m not so certain. If Anaïs Nin was right, that “We don’t see the world as it is, we see it as we are,” it must be that we also see God not as God is but as we are. Each of our descriptions of the ineffable God is not really a description of God but is a projection of an aspect of ourselves that we have not yet completely manifested and need to elevate; it’s an attribution of cause or source for an experience on which we place extraordinarily high value; or it’s the sanctification of a deep human hope or need. String enough of those together and give them enough time, and they become tradition and eventually dogma. “God is light and in him there is no darkness at all” is a good example. It’s hardly ever questioned, and then only quietly and at the very edges of traditional faith.

But the counterpart to John’s message does appear in scripture, even if rarely. God’s dark side is revealed in Isaiah, where God says to the prophet, “I am the Lord, and there is no other. I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe; I the Lord do all these things” (Isa. 45:6-7). There is no other god, no demigod, that creates darkness and woe; it is YHWH, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and of Jesus, who does these things. We don’t know what to do with that aspect of God’s nature, so we deny it and create in our imagination other sources or reasons for the existence of darkness and woe. Far earlier than Isaiah, in a folk tale that predates our scriptures, Job asked, “Shall we not receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad” (Job. 2:10)? Must we refuse to receive the bad God deals us by attributing it to some other force? That darkness – that mystery, that ineffability – is scattered throughout the history of our faith recorded in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures.

“In returning and rest you shall be saved,” Isaiah heard God say (Isa. 30:15). Come to the quiet, God says, like a weaned child to its mother’s arms (Ps. 131), and there you will find the wholeness you seek. Let me lead you to green pastures and still waters, God says (Ps. 23), and there you will find you need nothing more. Be gathered to me like a hen gathers her brood under her wings, God says (Luke 13:34), and there your search will be over and you will be complete. But know this, God cautions: there you will also be face to face with my impenetrable darkness, with aspects of divine Mystery you will never understand but which you must embrace, with questions for which there is no answer and which will be your constant companions throughout life.

If I am ever to be at home with the one living God and find my true self in the process, I’ll need to embrace God’s dark side, and my own.

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