Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Dazzling Darkness

The author Ursula Le Guin describes how she was once given a box by her young daughter. Without opening it, she asked her daughter what the box contained. ‘Darkness’, was the secretive reply! 

If we think of God in terms of either light or darkness, then we are almost sure to think of God as light. But to the Gnostics, God was described by the term ‘Dazzling Darkness’. To us the term seems self-contradictory, for surely it is light which is ‘dazzling’? This description of the Gnostics seems to function partly in the same way as a Zen koan – a contradictory statement the contemplation of which pushes us towards new enlightened realities. ‘What is the sound of one hand clapping?’ is perhaps the best-known koan.

For the Gnostics, God is not the Christian creator god - the ‘God the father’. God is beyond this, something truly immeasurable, unknowable. If we even describe what God is, then what God ‘is’, is already changed by our attempts at some sort of a description. To describe this unknowable form of God, this ‘God which is beyond’, we perhaps need one word only. That word is ‘potential’. Think of darkness. Like the box which Ursula Le Guin’s daughter presented to her, we cannot see what it might contain. It might contain anything – and everything. We can neither describe nor limit what we cannot see, what we cannot know. Now we can understand the way in which God can be described as ‘Darkness’.

But why is darkness - of all things! - ‘dazzling’? ‘Dazzling’ describes the limitless potential which the darkness of God contains. To the mystics, this ‘holy dark’ was truly perceived as dazzling: something scintillating with rich creative possibilities. The mystics witnessed this glittering darkness in their contemplations (we would use the term ‘meditations’). God is indeed a ‘dazzling darkness’ out of which all else flows. Our inability to imagine what that darkness is, and what it contains, says something about our own limitations. But we ourselves emerged from that darkness.   

Glass perfume bottle 'Dans la Nuit' by René Jules Lalique


  1. The Gnostics were mystics and had spiritual knowledge of God, not by conceptual understanding, not by blind or forced belief, but through a method of direct 'knowing.' In this way the Gnostics share a commonality with other mystics such the Taoists, Sufis, Vedic masters, and certain Buddhists schools such as Zen. They were unfortunately severely persecuted by the mainstream Church. The idea that Christians can gain spiritual knowledge directly from God was a little too frightening for the Church!

    I think this idea that we can access a direct 'knowing' of God is very relevant today not only for Christians but for all people. An common teaching among mystics and spiritual teachers is that the way we define God limits our true understanding of what God really is. Emma states,"If we even describe what God is, then what God ‘is’, is already changed by our attempts at some sort of a description." This is an incredible truth. Our concept of God is often a reflection of what we personally think God should be, and not what God really is. In order to have a deeper understanding we must start with letting go of all our preconceptions become truly open... and not place limits upon God.

    "God is indeed a ‘dazzling darkness’ out of which all else flows..... we ourselves emerged from that darkness." The light is something we are attracted to. It is something we can see and imagine. It is a thing. But what about "darkness?" It doesn't seem to be anything. And it seems to be represent an absence. This absence, or darkness is not an empty nothing but it is the divine potentiality from which all things came to be. This divine potentiality can't be defined accurately.

    It is difficult for the rational mind to form an idea of God with the words "dazzling darkness." Precisely! This is because God is not understood by the rational mind but by another faculty within us. The Gnostics understood that God is found within, by turning our attention inward through contemplation.

    Thank you Emma for this truly remarkable and insightful blog!

  2. Joseph, you raise an issue here which I also find fascinating. Emma's post likens aspects of Gnostic thinking to Zen koans, and you carry this parallel further by pointing out the commonalities in mysticism of different cultures. This raises the intriguing question as to whether there was an actual interchange of ideas between East and West, or whether such mystic teachings have a common basis - a sort of substrata of knowledge - that becomes available once a certain level of 'reality' is accessed.

    Perhaps both happen. There are certainly lines of thinking which find it feasible that an actual interchange of ideas as well as goods took place along the Asian trade routes of the time, as well as around the Mediterranean. But I'm also inclined to think that there does indeed exist a level of universal knowledge that can be accessed by all: the very 'gnosis' which Emma mentions here. This is the place where our own everyday reality breaks down to reveal deeper truths: the place where rational descriptions become meaningless, and terms such as 'dazzling darkness', which the human mind would normally struggle to grasp, suddenly make perfect sense!

    I do tend to feel that the way in which conventional religious belief has encouraged us to think has been more of a hindrance to accessing these precious truths. The historical upheavals which have resulted from disagreements over points of doctrine are enough of a painful reminder as to how easy it can be to drift away from the path.

    But intriguingly, science now seems to be siding with the mystics! 'The presence of the observer changes the outcome of the experiment' has become a maxim in science - and it remarkably mirrors what Emma points out about attempting to describe 'God'. And scientists working in the field of particle physics are practically having their noses rubbed in the ultimate elusiveness of what up till now has been thought of as our reassuring 'reality'. Is light a wave or a particle? Well, it seems that it is both - and at the same time! And it is now postulated that there could be, not just our familiar three, but as many as thirteen different dimensions. Is God 'Dazzling Darkness'? Oh, yes!

  3. Yes Hawkwood, there appears to be some historical evidence indicating that certain ideas and philosophies were shared as people traveled along the ancient trade routes between East and West. And Gnostics were not only comprised of Christians but there existed other streams or schools of Gnostics throughout what is now the Near and the Middle East. And I do believe that many mystics have certain elements in common when they do write or reveal their knowledge although their words may be couched in different images dependent on their particular culture. If mystics have developed some inner faculty to perceive a deeper reality, then one would think that common themes would start to emerge, and I believe that to be so. As you stated, our breakthroughs in quantum physics have made our universe much more mysterious and paradoxical. There is starting to be a convergence of science and mystical knowledge, each approaching from a different place to understand the universe.

  4. What wonderful, insightful and inspiring comments from both of you. It is incredibly helpful to discuss this particular theme, as God as a concept has given rise to so many questions, but also has given as many uncertainties as certainties. It all depends on the eye of the beholder, on interpretation whether from the East or the West. What Rumi once said could well have the same essential meaning as what a contemporary blogger might write: the same, but simply from a different perspective. They could however also contradict each other and still both versions could carry some essential truth.

    And in our attempts to describe God, we are defining God as well. But maybe it's not a coincidence that the words 'define' and 'confine' sound so similar! To define something is also to limit that thing. We cannot limit God, but we can limit our perceptions of what that means to us by attempting to create a definition of what God is. Which is why such a powerful and apparently self-contradictory term as 'Dazzling Darkness' is so appropriate. Such a term, by its very elusiveness, places no limits on what the idea of God might contain.

    There is one other point I would like to mention. We talk about contemplation and meditation, but not everyone meditates, of course. Neither is meditation the only method for someone to get where they wish to be in terms of their own spirituality. For some, a particular piece of music might be an aid to a contemplative state. For others, perhaps it is simply sitting calmly in a favoured beauty spot surrounded by birdsong, or just by stillness.