I listened carefully as she spoke. There was a sense of deliberateness to her words. She conveyed her story with authenticity, yet the story was one I’ve heard from others. Now middle-aged, she recounted how she grew up in a family and church that practiced a conservative, evangelical form of Christianity. They were the only ones to be saved. Others were doomed. As a young adult, she broke out of this system because she couldn’t believe her friends, who were Methodist, Episcopal, and Catholic, were the damned people her church and family had condemned. Without the support of family and church, she was adrift. It wasn’t long before a serious drug addiction developed. That was the only way she found to cope with the inner pain. However, in time, she made her way to rehab. Now twenty years clean and sober, she’s a practicing Christian in a major Protestant denomination.
While I respect the authenticity of her story and the reality she presented, I am troubled with something she said. She spoke about finding hope in a more moderate, mainline Christianity because, “as I look inside, all I see is darkness. Christianity helps me find the light.”
It is true that her statement conveys something that seems positive. It is an ancient statement as well. Even the first Christians understood the message of Jesus as being one of light. What troubled me was the statement, “as I look inside, all I see is darkness.” Isn’t that just another way to claim original sin or what was later called the doctrine of depravity? The doctrine of depravity, rooted in the work of 16th Century John Calvin, contends that in us there is nothing good. It troubles me that this woman, even after all of her work toward wholeness, continues to see herself as flawed, broken, and filled with darkness.
Consider for a moment a time when you held an infant or spent time with a very young child. Or perhaps you’ve watched as a mother provided care and comfort to a baby. In reflecting on these simple experiences of infants and children, it is clear to me that we each came into this world with innocence. Because we were born essentially helpless, we required care and nurturing. Any darkness we find in ourselves as adults wasn’t something with which we were born. Instead, we were born full of light, hope, and promise.
It’s not just that my experience that leads me to this conclusion about the innate goodness of human beings. As I Christian, I understand the epic story of creation in Genesis as describing this fundamental goodness that is essential to who we are. The epic recounts that we were created in the image and likeness of the Divine. The Holy One declared that we were very good from the moment of our creation. While the story itself is metaphoric, it conveys a profound understanding of human nature. Because of it, I am inspired to continue to look for goodness in myself and in others. When I find darkness or something blocking the light in me, I understand it as something in need of healing or representing an area of my life in which I need compassion. Something is out of balance and requires attention so that the inner light can shine.
Again, while I don’t question the authenticity of the woman’s story, I want to encourage her to go further. It seemed as though she had likely spent a great deal of time working with a mental health counselor and in 12-step groups. It seemed to me that the healing of her soul, her deep inner self, needed something more. From my perspective, this is the realm of intentional spiritual practice that is contemplative in nature. A regular practice of meditation, perhaps coupled with journaling, and work with a spiritual director could prove to be very helpful in finding the light within. That process is likely to be painful because of the deep wounds and scarring over those wounds have likely resulted in her sense of inner darkness. However, along the way toward greater wholeness and the experience of her own goodness, there will also be times of consolation — of deep inner peace and joy.
For whatever reason, somehow Christian writers like Augustine of Hippo and John Calvin just got it wrong. They looked inside and saw darkness. They thought that this was part of the human condition and had to attribute it to something. Augustine created the concept of original sin because he could find no other explanation for his experience of darkness. Calvin thought original sin wasn’t sufficient, so he went further with his concept of fundamental depravity. They missed that the darkness many people carry with them is a result of pain, hardship, and abuse experienced along life’s journey. While it may take time and intentionality to allow light to shine through the darkness, the inner light remains within each of us.
© 2015, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.