One of the most powerful images in the Bible is the distinction between light and dark. Light represents God, or Christ, or goodness; darkness, by contrast, represents ignorance, or evil, or sin.
Consider, for example, this passage from the first letter of John:
This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all.If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.1I John 1:5-7
Jesus, of course, proclaims “I am the light of the world” (John 8:12); and elsewhere in the Gospel of John, we find this statement: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:5).
So if the Bible rather consistently offers this image of light representing good and dark representing evil, why then do we find writings in the literature of mysticism with titles like The Dark Night of the Soul (St. John of the Cross), The Darkness of God (Denys Turner), and A Dazzling Darkness (an anthology of mystical wisdom)? In The Darkness of God, Turner points out that a long lineage of Christian mystics, from Pseudo-Dionysus the Areopagite, Augustine, Bonaventure, Meister Eckhart, and others, all have stressed darkness, negativity, or not-knowing as keys to the spiritual life.
So what gives here?
Darkness is Not Dark to You
To explore this seeming paradox, let’s begin with this passage from the Psalms.
If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light around me become night,”
even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is as bright as the day,
for darkness is as light to you.2Psalm 139:11-12
It’s natural for human beings to be afraid of the dark. In the wilderness, after sundown comes the time when humans feel vulnerable in the presence of animals that have better nighttime vision than we do. But the danger of the night isn’t just limited to nature: crime and violence both seem more likely under the cover of darkness. Every American city, after all, has neighborhoods where the locals will tell you, “don’t go there alone at night.”
But science reminds us that the line separating “light” from “dark” is created by the limitations of our own eyes. Infrared or ultraviolet light are both forms of light that can be measured — only not by the naked eye. So our fear of the dark is very much driven by our own humility. God does not need to fear the dark, for God’s “eyes” can see any form of light. “Darkness is not dark” to God, for since God is light, God cannot be constrained by any type of darkness (physical or spiritual).
The Gospel of John includes this hopeful thought: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”3The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. Darkness cannot overcome the light of God, for God’s light can shine into any darkness. Darkness, after all, is like silence: it is a bowl into which the light of God’s love can be poured, and is continually poured.
“Silence is God’s first language; everything else is a poor translation,” notes Thomas Keating, borrowing a concept from Rumi. I think the point is not that God speaks no language, but that God’s voice resonates at a level below/above what the human ear can comprehend. This is why silence is never purely silent: it always rings out with the music of the spheres, only we cannot hear it. But it does give us the space to be, to think, and to know (the hidden presence of God).
So darkness is to the eyes what silence is to the ears. God’s light fills every darkness, just as surely as God’s voice fills every silence. That we are shielded from directly perceiving this is a grace, given to us, for surely the mortal human body could not perceive the fullness of God’s glory and live.
So it’s important to draw this simple yet essential distinction. The Bible’s seeming dualism between light=good and dark=bad is operating on a strictly human level. But on a more truly divine level, all dualities fall away, and light is filled with the light of God, and so too is darkness filled with the (invisible) light of God. The mystics intuited this, so in their halting attempts to give voice to God’s beauty and wonder, they wrote of finding God even in the dark night, the cloud, the darkness filled with a light so radiant that it dazzled the eyes.
One Final Note
Above, I quoted John 8:12, where Jesus proclaims “I am the light of the world.” I always like to pair that verse with Matthew 5:14, part of the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus tells his listeners, “You are the light of the world.” So is this just the idiosyncracies of two different Gospel writers, or is there an important message here?
I think there’s an important message. Christ is the Light of the World. And you and I are also the Light of the World. Any mystic worth his or her salt would agree. This is no paradox; it’s simply a reminder: We are Christ.