Keeping Faith in Darkness

As a spotty sixth former, I was required to take a philosophy class. I remember very little about it except for one particular session that was an open discussion of the following proposition: ‘Doubt is a necessary aspect of faith’.

The general sense amongst those who supported the proposition, was that faith without doubt would not be faith at all – it would be certainty. For faith to be truly faith – a chosen attitude of the will – it must be based on uncertainty: there must be some element of doubt.

That discussion was entirely abstract. We played with the notions of faith and doubt as if they were instruments or tools – value-free, measuring and responding, detached from the inner worlds of the people they habituated.

But in other contexts, faith and doubt are much more personal, and we are involved with them. They affect us far more than we are able to observe them. In simplistic terms, they are experienced as opposites: either I have faith, or I doubt. ‘O you of little faith! Why did you doubt?’ (Matt. 14:31)

Faith can be thought of as enlightening; doubt as darkness. Faith is a way of expressing what we can see, so to speak. Doubt is when vision is impaired – clouded or foggy. Faith, like light, offers hope and life. Doubt, like darkness, can be bleak, forlorn, even dangerous.

Doubt often arises in relation to suffering. Faith in God can be boiled down to a faith in God’s goodness. The suffering of the world calls that into question. How can there be a good God in a world of suffering? And suffering itself can be described as darkness, invoking its intimations of deathliness, evil, and degradation.

How can we keep faith in darkness? What does it mean to be faithful when assailed by doubt? Is it possible to believe in God’s goodness, when afflicted or agonised?

One response has been to ignore the darkness: to pretend it doesn’t exist. To proclaim God’s goodness ever louder, in the hope that we can drown out any contrary voices. It doesn’t work. Like any phantom, the darkness will not be mastered by denying its existence. As the sardonic aphorism has it: ‘A little voice came to me out of the blue, saying, “Cheer up! Things could be worse.” So I cheered up, and sure enough, things got worse.’

What is a faithful response to the darkness – neither denying it, nor abandoning ourselves to it? How do we keep faith in darkness?

There are two other common responses to the darkness of doubt or suffering: to try to understand it, or to rage against it. To try to understand the darkness is to accept it as a reality and find a way to live with it. To rage against it is also to accept it as a reality, but to hold to the conviction that it ought not to be, or at least, ought not to be in this particular form at this particular time.

These instinctive responses are very evident in public forums – which at a time of social distancing comprise mainly online media. My social media feeds are not short of posts that complain: about the virus; about the restrictions; about the Government; about the people who break the restrictions; about the belief that it is all fake; and so on.

Sometimes it is apparent who the complaint is aimed at, sometimes not. Lament naturally finds it voice in the cry of perplexity and the implied sense of ‘someone is responsible for this mess’.

Occasionally, there is a more detached, dispassionate comment. Something that seeks to understand, to rationalise, to explain. Theories are offered. Statistics are quoted. Helpful suggestions are made. But they do not necessarily help those who are crying out in perplexity, in fear, or in distress.

The specific issues raised by the pandemic reflect the question we have already named: If the world is created and ruled over by a good God, why is there so much suffering? Surely if God is both sovereign and good, God would act to prevent – or at least overcome – human suffering. But the presence of so much suffering would seem to call into question either God’s sovereignty – being unable to prevent suffering – or God’s goodness – being unwilling to do so.

The classic response to this conundrum has been to seek to explain it. To offer theories and ideas that provide a rationale for making some sense of the issue. Typically these explanations involve the misuse of human freewill  – the idea that suffering results from humanity’s disobedience/failures, and is not God’s intention. Or they invoke the mystery of God’s ‘higher purposes’ in allowing suffering out of which something better might come.

The word used to describe such thinking is ‘theodicy’. It is an ongoing concern. Clearly, no satisfactory answer has been put forward yet, otherwise we’d all have learned it long ago and happily got on with our lives wearing T-shirts that say ‘God is good and sovereign. Life is hard. Get over it’ (or something like that).

So I was fascinated to come across a paper by Carleen Mandolfo about Psalm 88, in which she introduces the concept of ‘anti-theodicy’. She draws this concept from the work of Zachary Braiterman, in his writing about the Holocaust. If theodicy is the dispassionate attempt to explain or resolve the problem of suffering and a good God, she explains, then anti-theodicy is the refusal to try to explain it. Instead, it goes back to the other (and often the first) reaction to suffering, which is to rail against it.

But crucially, anti-theodicy is not a turning away from God. It is not a vacuous cry of desperation, or a barbed attack on soft targets: Governments, recalcitrants, ‘the church’, or other nameless ‘people’. Instead, it takes the problem back to its source and expresses the perplexity, confusion and complaint to God. As such it is a daring act of faith. It does not seek to explain or understand the problem. Rather it dares to say to God, ’This is your problem.’

It is in relation to Psalm 88 that Mandolfo outlines this particular concept. She sees it illustrated in this lament psalm’s unique feature of having nothing to say about God’s praiseworthiness or trustiness. (All other lament psalms do, notwithstanding the sometimes shocking level of complaint and accusation directed at God.) In Psalm 88 the psalmist clearly is wrestling with real despondency. But there is no effort to explain or rationalise the situation. God is evidently held responsible and the hard questions, implied in the description of the distress, are directed towards God for answers.

I am rather taken with this concept of anti-theodicy. Since the fundamental problem is one that concerns God, it makes sense to me to take the questions to the source, rather than grappling with them abstractedly, as if they were our responsibility alone. To express our mental and emotional angst to God (rather than merely about God) takes seriously the relationship that we have with God as a personal being, and as supremely revealed (for Christians) in the incarnation. Since God has entered the world of suffering and experienced it, all the more reason to lay at God’s feet the conundrum presented by it. Relationships do not persist merely in thinking about the other party and seeking to understand them on our own terms, but in talking with them about what matters to us. In theological terms, the notion of covenant is crucial. God has called us, through Christ, into a new covenant – that is a new mutual relationship with God – in doing which God is furthering God’s kingdom, for the benefit of all. Thus, paraphrasing Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits, not to question God in the presence of rampant evil would amount to blasphemy.

Moreover, there is a practical human benefit here. I have long felt that the barbs and complaints that we throw at each other (especially in generalised, nameless ways) may be a manifestation of a lost ability to complain direct to God. Perhaps if our senses of anger, confusion, betrayal, vulnerability etc. were more readily expressed to God, the result would be much less invective hurled at one another. We are, after all, all in this together.

Thus I think that Psalm 88, understood through the lens of ‘anti-theodicy’ is a prime example of keeping faith in darkness. It does not shy away from the distress and suffering of the world, nor does it fight shy of admitting the doubts to which these give rise. As Marion Carson has put it, ‘The presence of this psalm in the Psalter is a protest against any tendency to romanticise faith.’

And the psalm does not turn away from God in the light of doubts, or suffering, or the evil that cause them. Rather it deliberately turns towards God, precisely in order to express those doubts, those questions, those cries of anguish. Here is the Psalmist expressing faith by voicing doubt. As Mandolfo puts it, the psalmist ‘professes a singular disappointment with God, but … has not foreclosed the relationship’ and posits that this could be characterised as ‘stubborn love’. Here is a declaration of confidence in God’s sovereignty framed as questioning of God’s power to do good. Here is faith in darkness.

In hearing the words of the psalm, listen out for these features: for the honest portrayal of distress; for the sense of holding God to account; and for an unwillingness to accept easy explanations. You will notice how these themes recur and interweave; and ultimately how there is no conclusion, but a waiting in darkness, in faith …

1  O LORD, God of my salvation,   when, at night, I cry out in your presence,

2  let my prayer come before you;   incline your ear to my cry.  

3   For my soul is full of troubles,   and my life draws near to Sheol.

4  I am counted among those who go down to the Pit;   I am like those who have no help,

5  like those forsaken among the dead,   like the slain that lie in the grave, 

like those whom you remember no more,   for they are cut off from your hand.

6  You have put me in the depths of the Pit,   in the regions dark and deep.

7  Your wrath lies heavy upon me,   and you overwhelm me with all your waves.

8     You have caused my companions to shun me;   you have made me a thing of horror to them.  I am shut in so that I cannot escape;

9   my eye grows dim through sorrow.  Every day I call on you, O LORD;   I spread out my hands to you.

10  Do you work wonders for the dead?   Do the shades rise up to praise you?

11  Is your steadfast love declared in the grave,   or your faithfulness in Abaddon?

12  Are your wonders known in the darkness,   or your saving help in the land of forgetfulness?  

13   But I, O LORD, cry out to you;   in the morning my prayer comes before you.

14  O LORD, why do you cast me off?   Why do you hide your face from me?

15  Wretched and close to death from my youth up,   I suffer your terrors; I am desperate.

16  Your wrath has swept over me;   your dread assaults destroy me.

17  They surround me like a flood all day long;   from all sides they close in on me.

18  You have caused friend and neighbor to shun me;   my companions are in darkness.  

For reflection:

  • What has made prayer or faith difficult when you are in darkness?
  • What has helped?
  • Which would be more beneficial for you: understanding your suffering or holding God to account?

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