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Dark Night of the Soul

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.

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  1. Andrew Ainsworth said,

    June 18, 2008 @ 2:26 pm

    While I appreciate that my blog post helped elicit further discussion, I have to respectfully state that I believe the author of the post above did not understand my post, and that the “straw man” logic chain that the author has constructed above is neither expressly nor impliedly stated in my post.

  2. markii said,

    June 18, 2008 @ 2:45 pm

    “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.”

    damn i had a hugely profound and hard-hitting spiritual experience while preparing for my mission. i remember it till today and at the time i could only describe it as “extra-terrestrial”. i could easily have described it as intense euphoria, spiritual extacy, or god’s presense. it brought me to tears for the first time in 6 years and it the thick warm blanket stayed with me for a half hour until i got home. everyone saw what i had experienced, my red eyes and happy demeanor. everyone was shocked to see this in me. as was i, the skeptic in me at the time laughed out loud as the tears came for it was so awkward, so unexpected, so not-from-me.

    “I don’t buy it, but we can all choose for ourselves how to interpret our experiences.”

    family members say i have forgotten that feeling and “my testimony”, but i haven’t forgotten it at all. i think this should testify as to how convinced i am that the church is not true- even against such a strong spiritual experience as i’ve described above. the damning evidence overrides even this powerful experience i went through.

    now the hard part is figuring out what that was that i went through that day, i am not wholly free of the cognitive dissonance from this nor do i think i will ever be as scientific explanations in neuroscience are new and feel somewhat lacking. maybe the church is true and god just wants logical and studious people out of it. there, that almost makes sense.

  3. Jonathan Blake said,

    June 18, 2008 @ 8:18 pm


    I understand if you don’t see yourself reflected in what I wrote. I’ll have to reread your post to see if I misunderstood. Perhaps I missed some new angle on the dark night of the soul. In any case, my post wasn’t a direct response to yours. I was responding to how the dark night of the soul has been used by the religious to justify their belief despite feeling no one on the other end of their prayers. Mother Theresa’s confessors are an example of this, so my post isn’t a strawman argument. People actually belief that.

    For what it’s worth, I still feel the same feelings I once associated with the Holy Spirit even though I no longer believe in any typical conception of God including the Mormon one.

  4. Jonathan Blake said,

    June 18, 2008 @ 8:23 pm


    To be honest, I’ve never had an overwhelming spiritual experience so it is probably easier for me to dismiss them.

    I think some people—like your some of your family it sounds like—never seem to understand that these experiences are always filtered through our personal interpretation. There isn’t one obviously right interpretation otherwise we would have only one religion.

  5. Jonathan Blake said,

    June 18, 2008 @ 8:52 pm


    I reread your post. I applaud your new openness to ambiguity and doubt. I wish more people would be less certain of their beliefs. A little humility is a good thing.

    From your post:

    So to anyone who feels he or she may be experiencing a Dark Night of the Soul, please consider that it’s not necessarily because you did anything wrong, although an honest self-evaluation never hurts. Nor does it necessarily mean that the Church isn’t true. Nor does it necessarily mean that God doesn’t really exist after all. Rather, you might be experiencing a Dark Night of the Soul simply because God wants to see who you truly are, or perhaps because He wants to help you see who you truly are.

    Restating what I understand from this passage, you are saying that being unable to feel God’s presence may not mean that God doesn’t exist. You are saying that it may mean that God is testing you.

    This is the same as the logic that I discussed in my post except that you don’t state these propositions as a certainty. That uncertainty is good and reasonable. I can’t say for certain that a dark night of the soul means that there’s no God. None of this negates what I said about accepting the concept of the dark night of the soul undermining the use of spiritual experiences as evidence of God.

  6. BEEHIVE said,

    June 20, 2008 @ 8:18 am

    Reading some of Mother Teresa’s letters feels me with great pain. I can not understand why God would seem to treat the very “worthy” with silence. What is the point of torturing individuals that adore Him? Yeah, I would say that those that believe try to find answers to situations such us the “dark night of the soul” because they’re fixated on the existence of God. I myself have never had the “spiritual experience” that so many church members claim to have despite my diligence. In a way, why struggle to be worthy if you are only going to be rewarded with silence.

  7. Jonathan Blake said,

    June 20, 2008 @ 8:37 am

    That’s how I felt at the end. It even seemed dishonest to myself to continue to believe in God despite that silence. No reaching out to God and doing my best to be worthy changed anything. If I haven’t seen the evidence that others claim is the foundation of their belief in Mormonism, why stay?

    If God wants me to believe, he knows where to find me. :)

  8. Stephen Merino said,

    June 23, 2008 @ 8:56 am

    One of the important issues you bring up in your post is the interpretation of experiences we have. Let’s just call them “spiritual,” since we have more or less a shared understanding of what that means, especially in the Mormon context.

    I would offer another viewpoint on how we interpret these experiences. Always the sociologist (I can’t help it!), I think we should not underestimate social influences. By the way, I think everyone has “spiritual experiences.” Even total nonbelievers. As you know, I’m agnostic as to what their source is (I lean heavily toward the non-supernatural, though). But they are still real. I think they are real experiences that make us feel small, big, important, insignificant, inspired, or otherwise. They connect us to our surroundings and to other people. They connect us to the earth.

    I’m not a praying person, but when I am in nature I feel prayerful. I say prayerful because I don’t have a better word for it.

    Anyway, back to social influences. We understand and interpret our experiences using the tools we have. A kid growing up in a secular family has a neat experience at camp or during a family movie night or something and he just interprets it as a nice experience that confirms the beauty of the earth, or family, or whatever. A Mormon kid has the same experience and his linguistic and social tools lead him to interpret it as a message from Heavenly Father through the Holy Ghost. Also, there is social pressure for that Mormon kid to experience (and correctly interpret) such experiences. So I’m talking about cultural and linguistic tools, as well as social pressure to conform and have certain experiences.

    I should know – those tools and that pressure kept me active in the church longer than I should have. But these experiences are real, and we should exercise caution and respect when we speak with others about their own.

    Yes, I agree with your assessment of shoddy logic that points to God’s influence in his absence and his presence, in blessings and in the lack thereof.

  9. Jonathan Blake said,

    June 23, 2008 @ 9:03 am

    Agreed, Stephen. It is unavoidable that our social environment colors and shapes our interpretations of all experiences, including those called “spiritual”. This even includes the child of non-believing parents. Perhaps these really are communications from a God of sorts (I’m pretty doubtful), and that child would then be ill equipped to understand it as such. I feel like the non-believing position is the null hypothesis in this situation, so I think it’s the healthiest, most honest attitude to take, so I’m OK taking my chances that I’m wrong. :)

  10. Stephen Merino said,

    June 23, 2008 @ 9:05 am

    I should add that I have had some rather powerful “spiritual” experiences that I interpreted to be clear messages from God about everything I was supposed to believe: the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon, the church and its mission, the reality of God and Jesus Christ, and so on.

    What to do with these experiences now, and how to interpret them, is an issue that I certainly have to deal with. In my last comment I talked about the social context of our experiences, and I certainly think that explains a lot of my own experiences. But, I don’t feel like I can just explain it all away so easily.

  11. Jonathan Blake said,

    June 23, 2008 @ 9:09 am

    I have found that in my experience, there are no clear cut messages from the universe to me. Everything is mixed with contradictory evidence. This includes spiritual experiences. These must be balanced against the experiences that indicate contradictory things. That’s part of the inherent difficulty of life it seems.

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