In the background is Vienna Teng's oddly exultant "Augustine," which, as I mentioned earlier, had been the occasion for my and Mike's speaking to her a little after her concert in Milwaukee last month. The lyrics led me to think something about the phenomenon of undergoing a spiritual crisis – something that we do more than once in our lives. In the great saints and spiritual masters – as we see stetched out over a decade in Augustine himself, as related in his amazing Confessions – such spiritual crises end not in the defeat of faith, hope or love, but in sometimes astonishing transformations in grace. "The Dark Night of the Soul" and "the silence of God" are phenomena that one finds throughout spiritual experience, as far back as the Jewish prophets themselves.
And then here was my Thought: spiritual literature and scholarship has explored this "Dark Night" experience of feeling only an absence of God, and it is pretty sensibly understood, I think, by those wise in spiritual matters. But it just struck me that that is always dealt with in an individualistic manner: of speaking of God as interacting with an individual person for their spiritual benefit. What if, I suddenly thought, you could look at this as a social phenomenon as well? We speak of Modernity as a time of the fading of religion and highly-developed spirituality in the face of Secularistic philosophical movements like the European Enlightenment. But what if you could look this experience as a social or corporate experience of something similar to the "Dark Night" experience? I frequently speak in my Theology classes of the development of spiritual sensibilities on a corporate level: of the individual, almost childlike, spiritual encounter with God in the revelation to Abraham; of the development in Moses of the giving of the Law to the people of Israel, like a child gaining rules and chores as part of their development; and of the development after the revelation in Christ and Pentecost to young adulthood, of being sent out into the world with your own responsibilities for transforming it.
Well, I thought, what if one looked at Modernity and its challenges to faith as akin, on a societal level, to the individual experience of the "dark night of the soul" and that experience of the absence of God, with all its potential threats and benefits to spiritual growth? I've never heard an analysis of this sort. While I see obvious problems with it – it certainly indulges in generalization, of course – I still wonder whether such an exploration might be an interesting exercise in a kind of spiritual historiography. I've always found compelling the analogy that God relates to humanity through history like a parent or teacher, back since I found that argument or observation in Irenaeus of Lyon and his explanation of why God's approach to Israel or the Church or humanity seems to change and develop through history. On a personal level, the "Dark Night" experience is so critical for developing to a deeper level in faith, so why not the possibility of exploring that possibility on a wider, corporate level, too?
(Now if only it didn't take half an hour to type out an idea like that....)