Your brightness is my darkness.
I know nothing of You and, by myself,
I cannot even imagine how to go about knowing You.
If I imagine You, I am mistaken.
If I understand You, I am deluded.
If I am conscious and certain I know You, I am crazy.
The darkness is enough.
– Thomas Merton
If God exists, why doesn’t he make it more obvious? Why doesn’t he stop more evil, answer more prayers, or perform a steady stream of miracles – or better yet, all of the above? Why all the darkness and silence, especially in a world in such desperate need of clarity and hope?
For atheists and agnostics this is a common enough sentiment; what is striking though is how often holy people have dwelt on these very same questions. In fact, the Bible itself is saturated with a piercing sense of God’s obscurity. How do we make sense of this parallel between belief and unbelief?
First, a quote:
“But if I go east, he is not there; or west, I cannot perceive him; The north enfolds him, and I cannot catch sight of him; The south hides him, and I cannot see him. Yet he knows my way; if he tested me, I should come forth like gold. My foot has always walked in his steps; I have kept his way and not turned aside…Therefore I am terrified before him; when I take thought, I dread him…Yes, would that I had vanished in darkness, hidden by the thick gloom before me.”
With all the terror, dread, and gloom, this seems like something out of a chain-smoking existentialist’s novella. But it is in fact Biblical – the book of Job.
This sense of divine hiddenness is central in the Old Testament, especially in the Psalms. In Monty Python and the Holy Grail, God himself declares from a cloudy throne: “It’s like those miserable Psalms. They’re so depressing!” Maybe the comedic crew wrote this line with Psalm 10 in mind:
“Why, Lord, do you stand afar
and pay no heed in times of trouble?
Arrogant scoundrels pursue the poor;
they trap them by their cunning schemes.
The wicked even boast of their greed;
these robbers curse and scorn the Lord.
In their insolence the wicked boast:
“God does not care; there is no God.””
Or Psalm 88:
“But I cry out to you, Lord;
in the morning my prayer comes before you.
Why do you reject my soul, Lord,
and hide your face from me?
…My only friend is darkness.”
There’s countless other examples (Psalm 30, Psalm 44, Psalm 63), and not only in those “depressing” Psalms. In 1 Kings we read a striking passage about God approaching Elijah not in a strong wind, earthquake, or fire, but a kind of “silent sound.” The prophet Isaiah contemplated God’s darkness in contradistinction to more meddlesome deities: “Truly you are a hidden God.” Even the Hebrew word for God (YHWH) signified the unutterable.
In the New Testament, one might suspect that this would all change – and it does, but it also doesn’t, not even for God incarnate. In a truly mind-bending episode, Christ, hanging from the cross, quotes Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” The Psalm continues:
“Why so far from my call for help,
from my cries of anguish?
My God, I call by day, but you do not answer;
by night, but I have no relief.”
This passage is a strange thing for a Christian; it appears, as GK Chesterton put it, that God himself is abandoned by God. “Let the atheists themselves choose a god,” Chesterton mused. “They will find only one divinity who ever uttered their isolation; only one religion in which God seemed himself for an instant to be an atheist.”
The theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar describes this mission of God into godforsakenness with great insight:
“Active faith means following Jesus; but Jesus’ mission leads him on a course from heaven deeper and deeper into the world of sinners, until finally on the Cross he assumes, in their stead, their experience of distance from God, even of abandonment by God, and thus of the very loss of that lucid security promised to the “proven” faithful. This paradox must be borne…”
And we see that “loss of that lucid security” not only in Biblical passages and theological works, but in the lives of countless believers. Saint Anselm, an 11th century archbishop and originator of the ontological argument, wrote:
“I have never seen thee, O Lord my God; I do not know thy form. What, O most high Lord, shall this man do, an exile far from thee? What shall thy servant do, anxious in his love of thee, and cast out afar from thy face? He pants to see thee, and thy face is too far from him. He longs to come to thee, and thy dwelling place is inaccessible. He is eager to find thee, and knows not thy place. He desires to seek thee, and does not know thy face. Lord, thou art my God, and thou art my Lord, yet never have I seen thee…Why did he shut us away from the light, and cover us over with darkness?…”
We see a more profound case in notable mystics of the Church: in Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross’ “dark night of the soul” in the 16th century; in the last days of Therese of Lisieux in the 19th century (“If you only knew what darkness I am plunged into,” she told her fellow nuns); and even in Mother Teresa in the 20th century (who described forty-five years of inner emptiness, feeling “neither joy, nor love, nor light…”).
Some of the greatest theological art is also focused exactly on this tortuous journey through darkness. Dostoevsky, Graham Greene, and Flannery O’Connor all wrote with a profound sense of both God’s action and absence; the work of Polish painter Jerzy Nowosielski revolves around “an immense metaphysical black hole” and the darker aspects of human experience; and Shusaku Endo, a Catholic novelist, wrote the book Silence (slated for film development by Martin Scorsese) about 17th century Portuguese missionaries who wrestle with God’s silence in the midst of great suffering:
“I cannot bear the monotonous sound of the dark sea gnawing at the shore. Behind the depressing silence of this sea, the silence of God…the feeling that while men raise their voices in anguish God remains with folded arms, silent.”
Even popular songs expressing the darkness and silence of God are so much more interesting (and popular) than sanguine worship songs meant to pacify. In a song of the same name and theme as Endo’s book, the Jewish singer Matisyahu sings:
“Bring my broken heart to an invisible king
With a hope one day you might answer me
So I pray don’t you abandon me.
Your silence kills me;
I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Is it wrong to think you might speak to me?
You might speak, would it be words and what would you say?
It’s so heavy, a heavy price to pay
“Testin’ Me” by Stones Throw artist Dudley Perkins, Tom Waits’ “God’s Away on Business,” and The Roots’ “Dear God 2.0,” all capture a similar lament:
“Dear God, I’m trying hard to reach you
Dear God, I see your face in all I do
Sometimes, it’s so hard to believe it…
If your love’s still around, why do we suffer?”
The atheist might respond that this plethora of modern cases shows that this is a modern phenomenon. Maybe the “God of darkness” is just the fallout of a post-Christian God evanescing under closing gaps of scientific knowledge – that he appears to be a distant shell of his former glory because science has explained so much of what was once attributed to the divine.
But remember, our investigation began millennia ago. This obscurity of the God of Abraham has been with us from the beginning, and not just on the periphery, but right there on center stage. When we read tweets from someone like Matisyahu in a Jacob-like grapple with God (“I have never stopped asking this question. Are you real? Are you listening? Who are you?”…”I am not impressed with answers. A question that comes from deepest depths is worth more then a mountain of answers”), we’re not seeing a gap-less God of the gaps or an artsy affectation, but a supreme truth of faith: that it’s a long day’s journey into night.
Is this something rotten at the core of faith itself, then, whatever the century? Is the darkness and silence not a drawing forward from beyond the veil of the world, but just what it is – darkness and silence?
Nietzsche thought so. In Dawn, he wrote:
“A god who is all-knowing and all-powerful and who does not even make sure his creatures understand his intentions —could that be a god of goodness? Who allows countless doubts and dubieties to persist, for thousands of years, as though the salvation of mankind were unaffected by them, and who on the other hand holds out frightful consequences if any mistake is made as to the nature of truth? Would he not be a cruel god if he possessed the truth and could behold mankind miserably tormenting itself over the truth?… they as yet know nothing of a Duty of God to be truthful towards mankind and clear in the manner of his communications.”
Bertrand Russell is said to have put the matter much more pithily. Below, philosopher Peter Kreeft recounts the famous story about Russell’s deathbed quip, and introduces some of the classical responses to the problem of divine hiddenness:
Michael Novak, in his book No One Sees God: The Dark Night of Atheists and Believers, is wise enough to move beyond these answers, good as they are. Novak focuses instead on the plain fact that this darkness and silence is common ground for us all – whatever it amounts to, whatever it means, we all share it. (He confesses early in the preface: “It was crystal clear to me even at age twelve that life is far more horrible than anybody had heretofore suggested. Unbelief, atheism, and cursing the darkness might for me and for all turn out to be the more honest way.”)
“Serious and devout believers from the time of Elijah and Job have known about the darkness in which the true God necessarily dwells,” Novak writes. “Darkness is the normal mode of Jewish and Christian belief.”
For Novak, as for Kreeft, this darkness fosters “the true relation between the Creator and the creature,” which is more hide-and-seek than lost-and-found, in both directions:
“God hates to be too obvious about things. He writes pretty darn good mysteries into almost everything He does. Our fun lies in the detection. Who would be attracted to God if He didn’t drop a hint, or plainly plant a clue? And then cover it up again? We have to work for it. Use our brains a little. Keep pursuing the hidden God. God is pursuing us…but we keep running from Him. There is a little verse that presents God as “The Hound of Heaven”:
I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind.
That poem nails the reality.”
But Novak’s final point, the point of the book, is that “the line of belief and unbelief is not drawn between one person and another, normally, but rather down the inner souls of all of us.” We aren’t so different after all:
“Both the atheist and the believer stand in similar darkness. The atheist does not see God – but neither does the believer…we all stand in darkness concerning our deepest questionings…withal, a certain modesty should descend upon us. Believers in God well know, in the night, that what the atheist holds may be true. At least some atheists seem willing to concede that those who believe in God might be correct. Sheer modesty compels us to listen carefully, in the hopes that we might learn.”
This is an especially good caveat for the faithful. Pope Francis wrote in his first encyclical Lumen Fidei (or “The Light of Faith”): “One who believes may not be presumptuous; on the contrary, truth leads to humility, since believers know that, rather than ourselves possessing truth, it is truth which embraces and possesses us. Far from making us inflexible, the security of faith sets us on a journey…”
In other words, faith does not mean knowing God through and through and tapping a stockpile of straightforward answers. Instead, it’s an ontological light burning in the same existential darkness that scandalizes the atheist. “Faith is not a light which scatters all our darkness,” Francis reminds us, “but a lamp which guides our steps in the night and suffices for the journey.”
The believer can and should be struck by the same darkness and the same profound questions that trip up the atheist. The atheist, on the other hand, can be struck by the lightning of grace and the thunder of desire, given the assurance of things hoped for. But even then, the darkness remains; the soul will still see by a mirror, at night; the eye will not see, nor mind visualize, what God has prepared; she will continue to journey and climb, a child of the light but still a child. But on the wings of grace, that “deep but dazzling darkness” is enough, and her cup overflows.