What is darkness? What is light?

Last Sunday, March 30, Dean of Duke Chapel Luke Powery preached a sermon titled “Seeing in the Dark.” In it he described the way Christian scriptures tend to associate darkness with struggle, blindness, and unbelief, while they associate light with beauty, vision, and righteousness. Readers can walk away with the simple idea that light is good, and darkness is bad. But there are dangers lurking in this message. As Dean Powery said, in this binary, “Anything that has been dark, even skin, has been deemed demonic. … There has been a sense that nothing good can come from darkness.”

Barbara Brown Taylor explores similar themes in a new book called Learning to Walk in the Dark. I haven’t read it – it will hit shelves on April 8 – but I have listened to recordings of her DuBose lectures from Sewanee in 2011, which are available online. There she encourages listeners to put aside fear of the dark and explore the “treasures of darkness.” She points to streetlights, porch lights, and flashlights, and asks, “What then shall we make of the human determination to light the night?”

What is darkness to you? What is light? Is darkness a place of depression and fear, or have you discovered treasures in the darkness? Are there dark places where you are determined to shine a light?

Do you follow Taylor, who sees mystery in darkness? “The seeds of light are planted in darkness. Where they sprout and grow, we know not how.” Or do you take comfort in Powery’s words? “Walking in the dark is a form of spiritual humility. We claim lack of knowledge, which reveals how much we really know and understand.”

Perhaps neither of these authors captures your thoughts on darkness and light. How did your faith tradition teach you to think of lightness and darkness? Are they friends or enemies? Are they apposite or opposite?

These questions have lingered with me this week. A student in our community died tragically over spring break, and I have been sitting with students as they wrestle with the darkness of loss and sorrow. In these moments it is easy to feel that nothing good can come from darkness. Yet, there is an enduring hope that the darkness will not overtake this community. Students remain hopeful about their lives, their friendships, and their futures. They are discovering some treasures in the darkness.

One of James Baldwin’s poems, “Christmas carol,” takes me right to the heart of these questions. It has been a companion for me this week, and perhaps it will be one for you, too, as you think about darkness and light. In it, Baldwin writes,

One does not always walk in light.

My light is darkness

and in my darkness moves, forever,

the dream or the hope or the fear of sight.

James Baldwin’s collected poems have recently been released in a new collection from Beacon Press.

The above photo is used courtesy of Konstantin Leonov via Flickr Creative Commons.

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