Dazzling Darkness

Every now and then I read a book which makes me feel like I’ll never be quite the same again. Every now and then I read a book which makes me want to repeatedly yell “Yes!” in recognition of my own innermost thoughts expressed much more clearly than I could ever put them myself. Very occasionally I come across a book which does both of these things – “Dazzling Darkness” by Rachel Mann is one such book.

I devoured it in a single sitting on my day off, and have been thinking about it ever since. This isn’t a book review, and I wouldn’t even attempt to summarise it – I couldn’t possibly do it justice. Just read it. Seriously. Even if you don’t think you’re interested in issues of gender or sexuality. Even if you’ve no desire to read about chronic illness. Even if you couldn’t care less about God. Just read it. You won’t regret it.

What I do want to do is share some of the thoughts “Dazzling Darkness” triggered in me, some of the ways it both confirmed and extended my own thinking about God and what God is like. For as long as I can remember, the idea of God in the darkness has been important to me. A God who is present in the pain and sadness and illness and grief which is an intrinsic part of human existence, seems to me the only sort of God worth knowing. What has dawned on me this week, partly as a result of reading “Dazzling Darkness”, is this: for God, darkness is not second-best.

Let me explain. I very frequently say things like “God is there even in the pain”. Dealing with bereavements in school recently, I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve said “Even when we are sad, God is with us.” But actually, that isn’t quite right. In that formulation of “even if”, “even when”, I am unintentionally implying that, while God is definitely there with us in the darkness, God would rather be with us in the light. That’s the implication of much of our language about God and suffering, God and pain, God on the margins. And I don’t believe it’s true. I don’t believe God is in the darkness in a way that is reluctant or half-hearted or in any way less than the way in which God is in the light. In both darkness and light, God is.

And that has implications for how we relate to God, and perhaps more importantly for how we relate to those people with whom God walks in darkness, including when we ourselves are among those people. We are fond of talking, in some parts of the church at least, about God being with the least, last, and lost. And indeed God is. But the implication is often that God is with them even though they are least, last or lost, even though they are on the margins, even though they are damaged and flawed. But if God is in darkness as much as in light, those “even though”s are not the right way to describe what’s going on when God meets with people in darkness. The way we speak betrays an assumption that God, although present with people in the darkness of the margins, would prefer to walk with them in the light. And that isn’t true either.

“Darkness and light are the same to you” we read in Psalm 139. And if that is true. then darkness is not second-best. The people who walk in darkness are not second-best. God does not come near to people in spite of their grief and pain and brokenness, God simply draws near. God does not walk with people in spite of them being on the margins, God simply walks with people. God does not love in spite of the darkness, God simply loves. Because love is all that God is. 

Once we accept that God in darkness is not less than God in light, I think we must accept this: the people we perceive as being in darkness are not less than the people we perceive as being in light. And, perhaps harder, this: we ourselves are not less when we feel ourselves to be in darkness than when we are in light. God makes no such distinctions, so how can we?

These are my initial, rather unformed, thoughts on first reading. I will no doubt return to it at some point. I would be very interested to hear what others think, particularly those who have read “Dazzling Darkness” (which I hope will soon be all of you!).