Barbara Brown Taylor, Learning to Walk in the Dark (New York: HarperCollins, 2014), 200 pages
The title of this book intrigued me. I have long been a fan of Barbara Brown Taylor and have read most everything she’s published. An Altar in the World and When God is Silent are favorites and I have recommended and lent these two volumes to many people. Back in the 90s, I was blessed to have been spent a week in San Francisco with a small group led by Taylor and came to admire not only her careful use of language but also her love of the natural world. When I saw she’d written a book about darkness, I ordered it and immediately started reading, sitting aside other books that I was already reading.
Taylor describes her book as a journal instead of a “how-to” manual. She begins with a phrase most of us who grew up in an age when kids played outside all day have heard: our mom’s calling us, saying, “Come inside now, it’s getting dark.” From an early age, we are taught to fear the dark. Darkness also becomes a metaphor for all that is bad, which is seen through the Jewish and Christian scriptures. Yet, as Taylor points out, the God of the Scriptures is responsible for the darkness, too, having separated day from night. And besides, there are many good things that happen at night in Scripture (44f). She also raises questions about our “full solar spirituality” which only focuses on the light, the pleasant, the sunny. Such spirituality sees everything as positive and upbeat, but such theologies fail to provide support when things fall apart. Quoting theologians and others who have written on darkness and what we might learn from such experiences, she sets off on her journey. Along the way, she ponders the idea of restaurants where one eats in the dark. As you are served, you are told where your food is at on your plate (93ff). She goes through a “blind exhibit” where she gets to experience what’s it like to move through the world without sight (96ff). She crawls through a cave in West Virginia. And she spends the night alone in a cabin in the words, experiencing night in a new way (153ff).
By exploring darkness, Taylor has an opportunity to explore an overlooked branch of theology that expresses what God isn’t, instead of what God is. There is an ancient root to this. Augustine, in the 4th Century, said, “If you have understood, what you have understood is not God” (144). She spends time with the writings of John of the Cross who believed “positive statements about God serve chiefly to fool people into believing that their half-baked images of God and their flawed ideas about how God acts are the Real Thing.” By teaching what God is not, John attempts “to convince his readers that their images and ideas about ‘God’ are in fact obstacles between them and the Real Thing” (38).
The lunar cycle provides the structure for the book. She recalls the parallel between the three days separating the old (waning) moon and the new (waxing) moon to the death and resurrection of Jesus (108). At the end of Taylor’s journey, she experiences a moonrise, a new experience for her (166ff). I was shocked at this, perhaps because I grew up close to the ocean and have experienced many moonrises, especially in the fall of the year while surf fishing at night. Before the moon appears, there is a light on the distant horizon, and when it rises, it appears to be much larger than it does when overhead, and its rays seem to shimmer across the water as if they were directed at you. Taylor’s moonrise was moving enough that she decided to make a point to experience more such events. I also found myself wishing that she had experienced a night sleeping under the stars in the desert or high in the mountains, where you wake and gauge the time by how far the stars appear to have moved across the heavenly sphere.
Although the book may fail to teach us to walk in the dark, it does help us appreciate what we gain from the absence of light. Quoting Carl Jung, we’re reminded that “one does not become more enlightened by imaging figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.” (86) There is much we might learn from the darkness and Taylor’s book is a beginning guide to help us see when the lights dim and the shadows overtake us.