Darkness and Light in the Knowledge of God

Venerable Theodosius the Great, the Cenobiarch

Venerable Theodosius the Great, the Cenobiarch

My beloved spiritual children in Christ Our Only True God and Our Only True Savior,

by Vladimir Lossky

In dealing with the knowledge of God, it is impossible to talk about darkness without talking about light simultaneously. But in most religions, and also in all philosophical systems animated by a religious spirit, the place attributed to light is so important that it is almost possible to identify knowledge of God with light, though "light" sometimes is to be taken in the sense of a metaphor and sometimes is understood in a real sense as a datum of religious experience. Thus as we consider the question of darkness in relation to knowledge of God in thought of the Patristic age, we shall be raising the question as to the sense in which the two contradictory terms, darkness and light, could refer to God in the works of some of the theologians and spiritual writers of the first centuries of Christianity.

First of all, how could a Christian thinker ascribe to God anything that might be "darkness" when all the writers of Holy Scripture agree in opposing all that is "darkness" to God, Who is "Light"? Saint John announces as a revelation received from Christ Himself that "God is Light and in Him is no Darkness at all" (I John 1:5). The world which refuses to receive the divine revelation and is enclosed in its own self-sufficiency is opposed to the light and is seen as "darkness"; and all that will be definitively separate from God is destined for "the outer darkness" (σκότος το εξότερον) where no communion with God is possible any longer. If God is known as Light, the loss of this knowledge is darkness; and since, eternal life consists in "knowing the Father and His Son Jesus Christ," absence of knowledge of God ends in the darkness of Hell. Light, whether interpreted in an allegorical or in a real sense, will then always accompany communion with God, whereas the dark reality can overrun human consciousness only when human consciousness dwells on the borders of eternal death and final separation from God. Thus the obvious sense of darkness seems to be, above all, pejorative. It is the absence of God (1) in the order of knowledge (ignorance of divine things and atheism), (2) in the moral order (hostility to all that comes from God), and (3) in the ontological order, where darkness is no longer to be taken metaphorically (the condition of all beings in a state of definitive separation from God).

However this may be, it is possible for darkness to be taken in a different sense which, in relation to knowledge of God, is not always pejorative or privative. The word can signify the presence of God as well as His absence. The meaning of darkness as an accompanying condition of the divine presence has it source in the Bible. It is enough here to remember Psalm 17(18), "He made darkness His covering around Him," and, above all, the nineteenth and twentieth chapters of Exodus, where Moses meets God in the darkness which covered the summit of Mount Sinai. The darkness of Sinai may be variously interpreted, but it is always connected with the knowledge of God, whose allegorical expression, for many Christian exegetes, is the ascent of Moses. But even before specifically Christian exegesis, Philo of Alexandria interpreted the darkness of Exodus in the same sense, as a condition of the knowledge of God...

"...It is beyond the summit of Sinai, beyond the summit of intelligible things, that ignorance begins, for Moses enters into the darkness to stand face to face with God. This darkness has a subjective and pejorative meaning: it signifies "the unbelief and ignorance of the multitude that cannot know God." "Among men one cannot learn things concerning God." That is why Moses speaks to God in the darkness of human ignorance, "formless and blind" demanding of God that He should show Himself to him. This is a confession of faith in a personal God, transcending all human knowledge and unable to be known unless He reveals Himself by the power which comes from Him "by the grace and the word which is with God." All γνώσις (knowledge) comes from God through His Son; it is a grace which He gives. But to attain it, by going beyond the summit of intelligible things, we must make the leap of faith, for, as Saint Clement puts it, "we fling ourselves (απορίψομεν) upon the Majesty of Christ. For indeed, Saint John teaches us (John 1:18) that "no one has ever seen God; the Only Son, Who is in the bosom of the Father, He has made Him known." It is through the Son that we are liberated from the dark shadows of human ignorance, to receive the light of gnosis and "to apprehend the unknowable" (τό άγνωστον νοείν). But here it appears that the Christian "gnostic," when once liberated from the darkness of his subjective ignorance, comes to a different kind of ignorance, which is not to be taken in a pejorative sense. For it St. Clement uses another term than "darkness" (γνόφος or σκότος). He calls it the "abyss" (βάθος), a term borrowed from the Valentinian gnostics, which he uses to signify the transcendence of the Father. Saint Clement indeed tells us that, starting from "the Majesty of Christ" one proceeds "through holiness" towards the abyss of God-who-contains-all (παντροκράτωρ), "knowing God not in what He is but in what He is not." It is "the bosom of the Father" that contains the Logos/Word, the Father Himself being the unengendered God, All-Containing without being contained or circumscribed by any other. Thus even in His revelation by grace and by the Son, God remains unknowable, the abyss thatwe contemplate face to face, knowing Him. Apophasis here appears anew, this time in relation to an abyss which is the Father, in order to make us aware of His radical transcendence...

"...Darkness," says St. Dionysius the Areopagite, "becomes invisible in light and above all in abundant light. Knowledge purges ignorance, and above all abundant knowledge...in one passage from Divine Names (4, 5), where light and knowledge are placed above darkness and ignorance--these understood in this passage in a subjective and privative sense. In that He manifests Himself and can be contemplated, God is Light..."The divine darkness is the inaccessible light (απρόσιτον τό φώς) where God dwells."

"...God is transcendent in His essence--in the darkness which is "His covering around Him" (or, if you will, in His "inaccessible Light")--but God proceeds outside His essence. He continually bursts forth from this hiding-place, and this bursting forth, these "processions" or δυνάμεις, are a mode of existing in which the Divinity can communicate itself to created beings: they are an imminent aspect of God, His manifesting descent, "the superessential ray of the divine darkness". This image gives simultaneous expression to the two distinct but inseparable aspects of God: immanence, in that the Divinity proceeds in the δυνάμεις like light ("ray") and trasncendence ("darkness"), in that it remains inaccessible in its essence.

 Here we recognize the distinction between the unknowable ουσία (essence) and the manifesting energies according to which the divine names are formed-- a distinction suggested in the works of Saint Basil the Great and Saint Gregory of Nyssa...

"...In the age to come, the vision of the face of God will not exclude this impetus towards the Unknowable, which St. Dionysius this time describes in terms of light: "Then, when we shall become incorruptible and immortal, having reached the state of blessedness and having become like Christ (χριστοειδείς), we shall be forever with the Lord, as Scripture says, enjoying His visible theophany in most pure contemplations, illumined by His bright rays just as the disciples were at the time of His divine Transfiguration; then, with intelligence which is without passion and without matter, we shall share in His intelligible participation, and also in a union beyond all intelligence, in the unknowable yet blessed shining of rays which are more than bright, in a state which is like that of the heavenly spirits.  For as the word of the Truth says, we shall be like the angels and sons of God, being sons of the resurrection..."

"...In that period, as a dogmatic teaching about grace is clearly defined by the Councils of the Orthodox Church, the image of the divine darkness, as we have met it in Saint Gregory of Nyssa and Saint Dionysius Areopagite, no longer will have the same importance. The theology of darkness--which was but a metaphor of a dogmatic truth--will give way to a theology of the Uncreated Light, a real element in mystical experience. The darkness of Mount Sinai will be changed into the Light of Mount Tabor, in which Moses at last was able to see the Glorious face of God incarnate. (Source: In the Image and Likeness of God by Vladimir Lossky)



The Grace of Our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God and Father, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all. Amen.


"Glory Be To GOD For All Things!"--Saint John Chrysostom


With sincere agape in His Holy Theophany,
The sinner and unworthy servant of God

+Father George