Andrew Ainsworth at Mormon Matters just posted about his dark night of the soul (thanks for the link, TAG), an experience described hundreds of years ago by St. John of the Cross, a 16th century Catholic mystic, in his poem Dark Night of the Soul.
Technically, the dark night of the soul of St. John of the Cross is an experience of the practical mystic where God purportedly withdraws his presence from the perception of the mystic. This has been popularized to include all crises of faith wherein the presence and existence of God are in doubt. Mother Theresa experienced her own dark night that spanned almost the last sixty years of her life. She apparently died in the midst of her crisis of faith.
Many people base their faith in God on past experiences of feeling connected to something bigger than themselves, feelings of peace and love. If you’ll forgive my digression into pseudo propositional logic, the basis for their belief can be stated as:
Spiritual feelings ⇒ God is Present ⇒ God exists
Without commenting on the strength of that chain of implication, what happens when such a believer can no longer experience those feelings which she held to be a sign of God’s presence. If she hasn’t given God a reason to withdraw from her, what does the lack of those feelings mean?
Using the same reasoning that was the initial basis of her belief, she would conclude that God does not exist, a frightening idea. Things get more complicated when she remembers the times that she once felt what she believed to be God’s presence. How is she to reconcile these conflicting experiences, the one telling her that God exists and the other telling her that he doesn’t? This is a perfect illustration of cognitive dissonance: two competing ideas that a person feels compelled to reconcile.
The idea of the dark night of the soul provides one possible explanation to the doubter: God is teaching the person something by withdrawing his presence.
Lack of spiritual feelings ⇒ God is absent ⇒ God is teaching you ⇒ God exists
This idea has ample support in Mormon and Christian scripture and theology, it provides relief from cognitive dissonance, and it suffers from a big problem. Condensing the two chains of implication makes the contradiction obvious:
Spiritual feelings ⇒ God exists
Lack of spiritual feelings ⇒ God exists
From a purely logical standpoint, accepting the dark night of the soul as an explanation for the absence of those specific feelings makes them useless as evidence of God’s existence in the first place. If I had a test for lead in drinking water that would only ever give a positive result, then the test is useless. I don’t need a test that always tells me that lead is in my water; I need a test that could also tell me that there was no lead (hopefully based on the presence or absence of lead). There is no part of this theological equation that permits us to test God’s existence. This logic only allows for one conclusion: God exists.
This logic could be extended to justify anything. I could argue that those spiritual feelings are evidence that the stars are aligned for a person. When those feelings go away, I could assert that the stars are now misaligned; or perhaps I could say that a body thetan is interfering with the person, or that someone has cast an evil eye on them. The idea of the dark night of the soul as an explanation for God’s absence tastes like superstition and religious hucksterism calculated to sell me snake oil.
Instead of accepting the dark night of the soul experience as evidence that God is teaching a person, I question the believer’s interpretation of the feelings which lead to belief in the first place. I recently read On Being Certain which makes a case based on neuroscience that feelings of certainty are largely unrelated to the truth of a belief. Certainty is instead a subjective emotional experience rooted in human neurology having little to do with reason, logic, or truth. Though the book’s subject was the feeling of certainty, I think the basic idea can be applied to spiritual feelings.
If it is true that spiritual feelings aren’t caused by a supreme being but rather by the biology of the brain, then these dark nights of the soul make perfect sense. There doesn’t have to be rhyme or reason for them because they are just the vagaries of human consciousness. We are all subject to moods. Some days we wake up happy and convinced that life is wonderful. Other days we trudge through life feeling dark and uncertain. These moods don’t seem to mean something transcendent. They’re just the ups and downs of our psychology. Likewise could the feelings which some interpret as evidence of God’s presence be the ebb and flow of natural processes in the brain.
Understanding spiritual feelings as phenomena of the brain could also explain why I never had these spiritual experiences despite having prayed long and hard for them, despite wearing myself out trying to be worthy of them. If I thought that God sends these experiences, then I would have to explain why he didn’t send them to me when he sends them to others who seem no more worthy than I. (Perhaps Calvin was right and I was predestined to damnation as an infidel.)
If these feelings are instead caused by brain chemistry, it is reasonable to think that perhaps I just got a meager helping of the genes that facilitate spiritual experiences. Perhaps I only have weak religiosity because of my brain chemistry. This makes perfect sense to me, and I don’t have to rationalize why a loving God would keep his lowly creature in the dark.
From my viewpoint, the dark night of the soul concept arrests personal growth. It is an illogical ploy to preserve our prejudices and cherished beliefs. It conveniently helps us ignore that part of ourselves that suspects that our beliefs are incorrect. But it provides comfort for those who want it. I believe it owes its popularity to the desire to believe of those who find themselves alone. The idea holds out the hope that the darkness will be followed by a dawn and a return to comfortable beliefs.
I don’t buy it, but we can all choose for ourselves how to interpret our experiences.