Friday, April 2, 2010

God’s Dark Night of the Soul

My analysis of the Passion as tragedy is inspired by the work of the great Russian-British philosopher and historian of ideas, Isaiah Berlin. For Berlin, Moral conflicts are "an intrinsic, irremovable element in human life" and constitute the tragedy of human life. It is much harder, but considerably more conducive to moral growth, to see things from this perspective, rather than our usual either/or, good guys/bad guys dichotomy. This does not mean all values are equally good, or appropriate at a given moment, or that genuine evil does not exist. Rather that we have so many loyalties it is almost impossible to honor one without risking harm to another.

Jesus is crucified on a cross made of the tragedy of conflicting interests, the clash of moral concerns each of the key players considers important for survival and well-being.

Caiaphas and his supporters want to save the Jewish pilgrims at Passover from insurrection and the ensuing Roman crack-down. Pilate is devoted, to maintaining the Pax Romana which is widely seen as bringing an era of peace to the war-torn Mediterranean (though his methods are so harsh even Rome will condemn him).The disciples want to follow Jesus, but he has now led them down a path so full of peril they are forced to consider their own lives and well-being as family men with other obligations.

And at the center of all this, the provocateur Jesus will not back down from his assertive demand for personal and national change, reorienting Israel toward the values of prophetic justice, righteousness, and compassion. As a result he is “betrayed into the hands of sinners” — those moral men upholding their particular moral concerns, albeit willing to sacrifice their moral integrity to uphold them.

Tragedy and God

We will err if we see Jesus’ willingness to enter into the growing darkness of this tragic clash apart from the whole sweep of biblical narrative—for the Scriptures might well be titled “The Tale of the Tragedies of God.” Jesus reflects and embodies, in human form, what the Divine Love has experienced again and again.

In the biblical Saga, God has been “crucified” in just such clashes again and again. The creator is betrayed by the man and the woman in the Garden, seduced by a mysterious lying snake who promises great good to humans. The highly favored Noah, the new Adam and second father of the human race, proves a disappointing role model and parent. The clan of Abraham which the divine Wisdom chooses as its pilot project in healthy community-formation proves a truly difficult bunch of learners (as do the Jesus people much later in the story — and the church's history is hardly any different).

The first king of Israel God chooses messes up almost immediately and then tries to kill his successor-designate. The beloved David, a virtual bosom-buddy, succumbs to lust, murder, favoritism and a lassitude that sets the divinely chosen Royal House off in the wrong direction. The chosen nation refuses to heed the prophets sent to avert their destruction.

More than the “tragedies of God” one might well call the Scriptures the “failures of God” — just as Jesus, God’s latest outreach to save humanity from its own ignorance, resistance and downright folly, has walked right into apparent failure.

Tragedy redeemed

Now in a Greek tragedy, just as soon as Jesus breathes his last, the deus ex machina would descend and read everyone the riot act: “You did this wrong, that was your fatal flaw, this is the way you messed up, and you, over there, you overreached destructively. Got that? Too bad about all the dead people.”

But biblical tragedy always turns out differently. After all, the Greek gods and goddess are deeply involved in bringing the tragedy about themselves. They represent precisely the conflicting values we have been considering: family, state, prophecy, religion. And at his best, the deus ex machina merely tells you what went wrong, and how it comes out of your hubris, or ignorance or malice or whatever. The God perceived by biblical people can radiate that penetrating, revealing, fault-exposing light, too; but this God does a great deal more. Tragedy is not reversed, but redeemed.

As the shepherd of Israel, “He” sets out yet once again to rescue and gather the lost sheep. As holy Wisdom, “she” not only exposes flaws, but instructs, heals, inspires and assists in rehabilitation and growth in virtue. More than that, this God, faced with repeated failure, begins more and more to take on the very suffering caused by humanity’s misdeeds—feckless and malicious alike. As Isaiah comes to see, “In all their afflictions, God was afflicted, and the angel of his presence saved them: in this love and pity he redeemed them, and he bore them and carried them...” (Isaiah 63:9)

Jesus as a "Man of God's own heart"

Viewed only as tragedy, Jesus goes down to defeat. But Jesus is “more than a prophet,” as he himself says. The heart and soul of his humanity “cleaves” to God so completely that he has awakened to himself “in God” and welcomed God to live “in him.” As such, he becomes the human vessel (or as the “ascension” mystics of his day called it, the “chariot”) of the divine Love, the Word or Wisdom or Expression of God in the world. Though the man in front of them is clearly human, people who welcome him easily feel themselves to be in the presence and atmosphere of God.

And, as the followers of Jesus reflect on this experience, they decide that in Jesus the Divine is able to experience what being human feels like: all the lurking fear, lust, pride, malice, all the loneliness of being cut off from the profound participation mystique of pre-human, paradisical life. God enters into the depths of the human “dark night” as well as knowing, from the inside of flesh, its capacities for good.

And so, when Jesus walks into the dark night of abandonment — by friend, follower, nation, world, and even abandonment by a felt sense of the presence of God — the Cosmic Mind that weaves the worlds is “afflicted in his affliction,” synergistically with the human soul of the Man Jesus. God in Jesus, and Jesus in God understand the tragedy in the context of compassion for human vulnerability, ignorance, fear and the viciousness that comes from all three. Jesus utters words that build on Isaiah’s insight into the relentlessness of the divine Love: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” And though he does not say it, the God Jesus reveals may even be heard saying, “I forgive, even when they know what they do.”

Forgiveness as the door to redemption

This forgiveness is not some namby-pamby willingness to put up with evil. Rather, it is a firm dedication not to give up on the Humanity Project—to stay in relationship. In human life, there is no recovery from tragedy but a forgiveness that can open the door to repentance, reconciliation, change in relationships, and reparation if necessary. Amazing, according to the Story, the forgiveness radiates out through time as Jesus is pictured entering into Hades itself, into the furthest pole of alienation from light, life, and God, to wrap the imprisoned souls in the light of compassion and love and open a way for them to come out. Even ancient tragedies like the ignorance of humankind before the Flood can be transfigured, new doors to the future opened.

In human life, tragedy happens again and again. Whistle-blowers get blackballed (I knew one who even went to jail as an accessory to the corporate crime he discovered and exposed). Children and spouses are betrayed by a parent who sacrifices them for the career meant to support the family. Religious hierarchies bury crimes secretly lest their moral credibility be publicly lessened. Adulterers do not own up to their infidelity lest it shake the trust of spouse and damage the marriage. Politicians betray some supporters to represent others. All too often, such actions eventually lead to crisis, perhaps disaster.

Still, as Archbishop Tutu says, “Without forgiveness, there is no future.” Tragedy set into the unconquerable Love of God is not obliterated, but transfigured and set in a larger atmosphere of possibility.

Whatever else the resurrection of Jesus means (and it means more than this), it is a sign of the persistence of an unconquerable Love—a love that will not let us go, even in the darkest night. A love that can lead us in that darkness, through that darkness, perhaps even beyond that darkness if we are open to it. And, if all else fails, companion us in the darkness until we fall through it into the radiant and eternal Light around and beyond it, the Light which the darkness cannot overcome.

Easter Monday:

New weekly series of blogs on the Resurrection:

#1: Carrying the darkness of Hades still in his eyes......


  1. Robert, yours are wise reflections and beautifully expressed.

  2. Happy Easter! And thank you for these thoughtful meditations. I’m glad that you wrote about the importance of forgiveness. I love the quote from Archbishop Tutu, “Without forgiveness, there is no future.”

    One of my specialties is art and I am in awe of the painting you posted by William Blake. I’d like to research this work and write about it on my blog in the future.

  3. Thank you, Robert, for this insightful and wise Easter meditation. I found it yesterday morning, and it illuminated a glorious day. A glad Easter to you as well.