Knowing Darkness: Reflections on Skepticism, Melancholy, Friendship, and God
by Addison Hodges Hart
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“In other words, conventional piety is fine so far as it goes, but it doesn’t go very far at all in making sense of the larger mystery enveloping our existence — it has significant limitations where ‘explaining’ human experience is concerned.”
In Knowing Darkness, Addison Hart pushes back against several common notions of conventional piety. He argues that soul-conditions like melancholy and skepticism are vital parts of the life of Christian faith, and that our sad attachments to surface religiosity often keep us from being true friends to one another in the struggles of life.
Hart is unapologetic about his use of vintage words to describe types of dis-ease we experience in our lives. “I find that in some cases archaic terms are useful precisely because they don’t carry along with them the baggage of modern tastes and prejudices found in contemporary terminology and neologisms.”
And so he speaks of melancholy rather than “depression” and describes it in more robust terms as “a feeling of thoughtful sadness.” Hart bluntly says that anyone devoid of melancholy in a world like ours lacks something vital with regard to an essential humanity.
Anything calling itself “faith” that sets itself against the essential human feeling that engenders melancholy is in fact a fraud. Even when melancholy becomes a malady,there are few things more intolerable, tyrannical, and oppressive than the inane injunction that “Thou shalt smile:” When this absurd dictum goes on to get mixed up with mass-market religious drivel, such cheerfulness and baffling optimism are enough to drive a thoughtful believer to the brink of disbelief or even despair.
He also believes that skepticism is misunderstood, especially by the religious. In modern usage the term “skeptic” is used to describe new atheist cynics and those who rail against religion as intellectually unfeasible and morally indefensible. They are not skeptics, but idealogues. At their core they are fundamentalists, unyielding in their commitments. They are judgmental, not open and inquiring, toward those they accuse of casting judgment. Hart would like us to recover the true meaning of the word “skeptic” and come to recognize how important this attitude is to an adult faith.
Genuine skepticism, like melancholy, grows out of distress and dissatisfaction with regard to the human condition. The brokenness within and around us eggs us on to scrutinize life and the philosophies put forward to explain it more sharply and critically, to avoid accepting “the neat packages provided by unthinking biblicism, dogmatism, traditionalism…, moralism…, or so-called liberalism.”
It possesses a place of distinction as a laudable quality which keeps religion honest, obliging us to have our eyes open and our brains functioning, making sure that good sense isn’t stifled by claptrap, status, fakery, and mummery.
…Again, skepticism is precisely the frame of mind we should adopt toward a great deal of what we see and hear around us in the religious context, just as in the political,social,and economic spheres. Bombarded as we are by tripe, idiocy, propaganda, lying, “humor;” and hubris — in other words, “sound bites” — we are fools if we aren’t skeptics at some level.
At first, Addison Hart thought that a discussion of these aspects of the life of faith would be sufficient to push back against the tide of superficial religion that keeps us from growing up and being fully human. However, the more he read books like Ecclesiastes and Job, he saw a third theme emerging that should be discussed along with melancholy and skepticism. In a life of faith where these and other human feelings are experienced and not denied, there is a need for faithful, supportive friendship. “Faith is maintained in relationship to those we have grown to love and trust, whose support upholds us.”
It seemed natural to me, therefore, that an extended reflection on melancholy and skepticism should finally touch on the subject of friendship in Christ as well. All three are rudimentary and integral to human life, immediately interrelated, and therefore part of faith.
After introducing the three main themes of the book, the author devotes a chapter to each theme, then explores what light two books of the Bible — Ecclesiastes and Job — shine on them.
He then ties his thoughts together in the context of friendship with the report of a spiritual conversation about these topics among friends at a convent hermitage.
Knowing Darkness ends with a “Concluding Unscientific Postscript” reflecting on what these themes have to do with the underlying subject of the book — faith – faith not as something static and flat that simply “is,” but rather as vital, growing, changing; an active trust and feeling that lives and morphs in response to the realities of human life in this world.
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This is a wise book, well worth your attention and contemplation.
It encourages us: Don’t settle for less than real life, real humanity, real faith, a real relationship with God and others in this world.