The Darkness and the Light

The eighteenth century Enlightenment myth of the Middle Ages was that it was an age of darkness, shrouded in the mists of superstition and mysticism. It was the same charge leveled against the Catholic church by Luther and the Protestants the previous century. With the Reformation and the Enlightenment, Europe was dragged out of ignorance and into the light of Reason and Common Sense.

Although it was a myth, it was powerful enough to persist up to the present. We still think of the Enlightenment as a watershed in history, as the beginning of the modern age. And in a sense, it is. But the light of the Enlightenment cast a big shadow: first the French Revolution and then the Napoleonic Wars, and then the Twentieth Century.

It is true that the Middle Ages are shrouded in mystery and darkness. But the mistake of the Enlightenment philosophers was to assume that this was a bad thing. There is no light without dark and no dark without light. The Christian mystics of the first half of the second millennium understood this. The Cloud of Unknowing, written in the 14th Century, beautifully articulated the process by which the human mind could attain the true light of enlightenment, through unknowing and darkness.

We are only haltingly coming to appreciate this in the modern age, blinded as we are by the phosphorescent lights of Science and Rationality. Part of our re-membering is due to the discovery in the West of the treasure trove of Eastern mysticism. The first chapter of the Tao Te Ching sums it up beautifully:

Yet mystery and manifestations / arise from the same source. / This source is called darkness. / Darkness within darkness. / The gateway to all understanding.

T.S. Eliot understood that the banishment of mystery and darkness in the modern world was a spiritual tragedy:

Not here / Not here the darkness in this twittering world.

But there is good darkness and bad darkness. There is the pregnant mystery at the heart of creation and there is the impenetrable veil of ignorance spun by human minds. Of course there was plenty of that in the Middle Ages. But that was what the church was for. Orthodoxy mitigated the descent into madness and confusion that descent into the dark might occasion. Tradition was the ongoing conversation between the ineffable mystery and its representation in word, art, music and doctrine.

In my little Tibetan mind map, the Titans (muppets) can fall foul of either too much artificial light or too much artificial darkness. Type 1 muppets, the scientific materialist militant atheists, live in a false dawn of LED strip lighting. Type 2 muppets, the cultural relativist postmodern nihilists, live in a false dusk of cynical nonsense and obscurantism masquerading as wisdom.

Type 3 muppets, the revolutionary socialist utopians, live in the long shadow of the Enlightenment. Whether Marxist, Leninist, Trotskyist, Stalinist, Maoist, Jucheist, Mussoliniist or Hitlerist, these muppets believe that no amount of darkness can dim the radiant purity of their enlightened vision. Type 4 muppets, the religious fundamentalist jihadists (of all affiliations) likewise.

O dark dark dark. / They all go into the dark, / The vacant interstellar spaces, the vacant into the vacant.

That’s what you get when you cut yourself loose from the mystery of your own spiritual tradition.