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Errantry: Novak's Journal
...Words to cast/My feelings into sculpted thoughts/To make some wisdom last
Theological Notebook: Augustine, Vienna Teng, The Dark Night of the Soul, and Modernity 
10th-Nov-2009 07:09 pm
Saints and Spiritual Masters
Huh. I just had a thought. A Thought, if I be flamboyant enough to capitalize it. I've been unpacking after a tiring separation from my luggage for a day, resulting in me just getting it a little while ago.

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....)
11th-Nov-2009 03:33 am (UTC)
I don't know if you've ever seen Ephraim's Radner's book The End of the Church: A Pneumatology of Christian Division in the West, but his basic argument is that in modernity the Holy Spirit has abandoned the church. It's fascinating and provocative. I don't agree with everything he writes, but it's definitely one of the most interesting books that I've read, and would possibly have some intersections with the sort of thing you're thinking about.
11th-Nov-2009 05:18 pm (UTC)
No, I hadn't heard of him or the text, but it certainly does sound provocative. I wouldn't sign off on such a thesis as such, as I think there are overwhelming indications to the contrary, but if he simply means some sense analogous to what I was saying, of a sort of "gestalt" sense of withdrawal, then it would be interesting to see how he puts his argument.
11th-Nov-2009 05:25 pm (UTC)
In many ways, I think it's the sort of book that could only be written by an Anglican!

It's been a while since I've read it, but as I remember, it's very Biblical, drawing a lot of parallels between the Spirit of God leaving the temple, and the withdrawal of the Spirit from the church. I will probably be re-reading it for my thesis this year, since I'm reading everything about divine abandonment that I can find, but haven't gotten around to it yet.
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