September 30, 2020

IM Book Review: Knowing Darkness

Knowing Darkness: Reflections on Skepticism, Melancholy, Friendship, and God
by Addison Hodges Hart
Eerdmans, 2009

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“In other words, conventional piety is fine so far as it goes, but it doesn’t go very far at all in making sense of the larger mystery enveloping our existence — it has significant limitations where ‘explaining’ human experience is concerned.”

In Knowing Darkness, Addison Hart pushes back against several common notions of conventional piety. He argues that soul-conditions like melancholy and skepticism are vital parts of the life of Christian faith, and that our sad attachments to surface religiosity often keep us from being true friends to one another in the struggles of life.

Hart is unapologetic about his use of vintage words to describe types of dis-ease we experience in our lives. “I find that in some cases archaic terms are useful precisely because they don’t carry along with them the baggage of modern tastes and prejudices found in contemporary terminology and neologisms.”

And so he speaks of melancholy rather than “depression” and describes it in more robust terms as “a feeling of thoughtful sadness.” Hart bluntly says that anyone devoid of melancholy in a world like ours lacks something vital with regard to an essential humanity.

Anything calling itself “faith” that sets itself against the essential human feeling that engenders melancholy is in fact a fraud. Even when melancholy becomes a malady,there are few things more intolerable, tyrannical, and oppressive than the inane injunction that “Thou shalt smile:” When this absurd dictum goes on to get mixed up with mass-market religious drivel, such cheerfulness and baffling optimism are enough to drive a thoughtful believer to the brink of disbelief or even despair.

The Sheep-Shearers (after Millet), Van Gogh

He also believes that skepticism is misunderstood, especially by the religious. In modern usage the term “skeptic” is used to describe new atheist cynics and those who rail against religion as intellectually unfeasible and morally indefensible. They are not skeptics, but idealogues. At their core they are fundamentalists, unyielding in their commitments. They are judgmental, not open and inquiring, toward those they accuse of casting judgment. Hart would like us to recover the true meaning of the word “skeptic” and come to recognize how important this attitude is to an adult faith.

Genuine skepticism, like melancholy, grows out of distress and dissatisfaction with regard to the human condition. The brokenness within and around us eggs us on to scrutinize life and the philosophies put forward to explain it more sharply and critically, to avoid accepting “the neat packages provided by unthinking biblicism, dogmatism, traditionalism…, moralism…, or so-called liberalism.”

It possesses a place of distinction as a laudable quality which keeps religion honest, obliging us to have our eyes open and our brains functioning, making sure that good sense isn’t stifled by claptrap, status, fakery, and mummery.

…Again, skepticism is precisely the frame of mind we should adopt toward a great deal of what we see and hear around us in the religious context, just as in the political,social,and economic spheres. Bombarded as we are by tripe, idiocy, propaganda, lying, “humor;” and hubris — in other words, “sound bites” — we are fools if we aren’t skeptics at some level.

At first, Addison Hart thought that a discussion of these aspects of the life of faith would be sufficient to push back against the tide of superficial religion that keeps us from growing up and being fully human. However, the more he read books like Ecclesiastes and Job, he saw a third theme emerging that should be discussed along with melancholy and skepticism. In a life of faith where these and other human feelings are experienced and not denied, there is a need for faithful, supportive friendship. “Faith is maintained in relationship to those we have grown to love and trust, whose support upholds us.”

It seemed natural to me, therefore, that an extended reflection on melancholy and skepticism should finally touch on the subject of friendship in Christ as well. All three are rudimentary and integral to human life, immediately interrelated, and therefore part of faith.

Field with Ploughman and Mill, Van Gogh

After introducing the three main themes of the book, the author devotes a chapter to each theme, then explores what light two books of the Bible — Ecclesiastes and Job — shine on them.

He then ties his thoughts together in the context of friendship with the report of a spiritual conversation about these topics among friends at a convent hermitage.

Knowing Darkness ends with a “Concluding Unscientific Postscript” reflecting on what these themes have to do with the underlying subject of the book — faith — faith not as something static and flat that simply “is,” but rather as vital, growing, changing; an active trust and feeling that lives and morphs in response to the realities of human life in this world.

* * *

This is a wise book, well worth your attention and contemplation.

It encourages us: Don’t settle for less than real life, real humanity, real faith, a real relationship with God and others in this world.


  1. This is a book i must have. Sounds like its right up my alley.


    I hear what he says about the militant atheists. I realized their rhetoric was similar to the militant fundagelicals and the culture warriors. I saw that at the Reason Rally firsthand.

    Speaking of skepticism. I had an interesting experience yesterday. I popped up in an evangelical church here in the Washington, D.C. area. It was their graduation Sunday and the youth pastor spoke. He discussed about learning to be content with God amidst suffering. He gave a story about his Dad being in the ER for a heart issue and saying that he had to be content with God taking his father away.

    For me the jury is still out. But after the service I walked down and spoke to the pastor. And I asked him…when it comes to being content. Should a person be content with being molested or being raped? We had an interetsing discussion. And he said it was a a very difficult question. He probably didn’t expect it.

    But speaking of evil…should I open up a betting pool? The question is how long will it take before a Hyper-Calvinist lectures, writes, or preaches on God ordaining suffering and uses the Penn State/Jerry Sandusky situation as an example? After what some in that crowd have said…I wouldn’t put anything past them. And with that I’ll throw $50.00 into the ring! 😯 Any takers?

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      I hear what he says about the militant atheists. I realized their rhetoric was similar to the militant fundagelicals and the culture warriors. I saw that at the Reason Rally firsthand.

      Because both are Party Line Ideology. Funhouse mirror images of each other in eternal opposition, like Communism and Objectivism.

      But speaking of evil…should I open up a betting pool? The question is how long will it take before a Hyper-Calvinist lectures, writes, or preaches on God ordaining suffering and uses the Penn State/Jerry Sandusky situation as an example?

      In a nation of 300 million people, there’s always going to be somebody who shoots off his mouth.

  3. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    “Have you ever thought that depression might be your spiritual gift?”
    — Related to me by a writer contact in Louisville, about how it is often the dark and strong emotions that put power behind fiction or art

    “Hell hath no torment worse than Constant Forced Cheerfulness.”
    — G.K.Chesterton, “Three Tools of Death” (a Father Brown Mystery)

    • Adrienne says

      Wow Headless, thanks for your comments. Depression a spiritual gift. Now you’ve got my attention. Great.

      And I will be ordering this book for sure. My day is off to a very good start.

    • HUG, I’m calling this “Comment of the Day”. You’re up for the IM Top Ten for the season.

      It’s an interesting thought, depression as a spiritual gift. My thoughts run to the “dark night of the soul” so many believers have experienced. Could it be that our feeling that God is not present in our lives is actually assurance…assurance that even though we feel he isn’t present, he at least exists? Our God is a God who operates heavily in paradox, so the idea is not so far-fetched. And let’s not forget the Church Fathers and early saints, who would make uncomfortable homes in the desert, isolate themselves, fast for long periods, etc…don’t you know that melancholy invaded their spirits?

      Good thoughts for the today.

      • Make that “Good thoughts for today.”

      • I’ve had similar thoughts about God’s absence, Lee. What if His absence could be viewed as a positive and not a negative (in philosophical terms). In other words what if His absence is an action and not a lack of action. If one happens to be in a stage of life where he or she is pursuing other than God, and if God’s presence made such a person feel secure enough to continue on the other-than-God path, then wouldn’t God’s presence end up encouraging that person to down the wrong path? So then His absence could be posited to be assurance that He has not abandoned us, but that He is directing us to the correct path through absence.

        Or am I totally crazy?

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        That comment was related to me in private correspondence several years ago. My source said it was told him by a travelling speaker, then went on to say how the Christian emphasis on Shiny Happy Clappy Joy Joy Joy has driven off the often-morose artistic types who could have painted the next Sistine Chapel and/or written the next Narnia.

        I know from personal experience that when I have the occasional spontaneous “story which writes itself”, it is usually dark. Beheading-a-Unicorn dark.

    • I usually agree with what you write here, I shudder to think of depression as a gift. Depression, at least in my experience, is not far from my friend’s experience with Rheumatoid Arthritis. Minor pain on many days, major pain on some days. Eventually, you hopefully learn to manage it and learn to vastly reduce and even eliminate the pain on most days.

      I suppose the definition that I use for depression is different than the one most people use. When I talk about depression, I talk about a melancholy so deep that there is pain. Not physical pain, but (for lack of a better term) pain in the soul. Not just a long black night (or teatime, whichever) or the soul, but something that feels like wound to it.

      Then again, depression varies from person to person, so perhaps my experiences are unlike others.

      I still think the greatest description of depression comes from William Styron in Darkness Visible.

    • Interesting. Possible justification for my existence.

  4. “Bombarded as we are by tripe, idiocy, propaganda, lying, “humor;” and hubris — in other words, “sound bites” — we are fools if we aren’t skeptics at some level.”

    That’s a great statement. The book sounds wonderful, Chaplain Mike.

    I like this too: ““Faith is maintained in relationship to those we have grown to love and trust, whose support upholds us.”

    • Joseph (the original) says

      I like this too: ““Faith is maintained in relationship to those we have grown to love and trust, whose support upholds us.”


  5. “Anything calling itself “faith” that sets itself against the essential human feeling that engenders melancholy is in fact a fraud.”

    I’m not a hugger, and I want to hug this guy. Went to Amazon. Ordered the book.

  6. Christopher White says

    Bold it is to speak to melancholy in a nation neck-high in medications for depression and sleeplessness. Having been on the road myself, I cannot remember a time anyone suggested that a certain sadness is inevitable if one is to stay awake to the world’s suffering. On another note, I am a pastor (evangelical church) leading a group of men through “Mere Churchianity.” We, indeed, quietly call ourselves The Skeptics.

  7. This makes me look forward to the Chaplain Mike’s upcoming review of Christianity’s article on the “Juvienilization of Christianity” even more. We are not only fools if not skeptics at some level, but we also remain forever immature. There are reasons that books like “Dark Night of the Soul” and “Cloud of Unknowing” are such heavy-lifting to read. There is a difference between child-like faith and immaturity. Eugene Peterson covers this subject well in his commentary on Psalm 131 in “A Long Obedience in the Same Direction”. Over-protective parents want their kids to be happy by shielding the hard realities of life from them. I think this is what the church has done by promising that life can be boiled down to cliches, soundbites, and ten-steps to happiness and the victorious life. What we need may not be child-like faith but grown-up courage.

  8. Clay Knick says

    Addison has a new book coming out this month on the Sermon on the Mount: “Taking Jesus at His Word.” He’s a very good writer, thinker, and theologian.

  9. Ken Stewart says

    Looks like a must-read for me. I half believe that my first word was “melancholy”! No wonder I’m enjoying this rainy day, made better by the discovery of this book. Thanks, Mike!

  10. Thanks for your review of this book. It should help in many ways. What I found most interesting is the note about friendship and relationships. I have been in my ministry promoting the idea that the church exists chiefly for relationships among the whole community in which the church is sent. We have lost the art of having honest, respectful spiritual conversations among each other, particularly within the church. Our conversations are about promoting our viewpoint, theology, or doctrine and thinking we must win at all cost. Our conversations instead of guiding people to a life in Christ, drives them away, because we can’t be honest about our own feelings and doubts. I will get this book.

    • humanslug says

      You’re quite right about the need for honest, open, free, and respectful spiritual conversations within the church. But, in my experience, the only instances where I have seen this happen on a regular basis have been in very small, intimate gatherings, and more often than not, they’ve occurred in someone’s home or some other place besides a “church” building. And the most meaningful spiritual conversations almost always break out spontaneously in a completely non-church setting or environment.
      Strangely, we seem to do a better job being the church and actually functioning as a body when we’re not at church.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        Then why all the Evangelical emphasis on scheduling Church Activities 24/7/365? So that you’re “in church” whenever the doors are open?

        On my side of the Tiber, not even cloistered monks and contemplative nuns carry it that far.

      • I remember a Luther quote from somewhere to the effect that:

        I’d rather a man sit in the tavern thinking about God than a man in church thinking about the tavern.

        I hope I get the quote somewhat right

  11. Bill Metzger says

    Depression as my spiritual gift. Briiliant!!! A whole new perspective on my melancholic personality! And I thought being melancholic made me a loser. Didn’t Jesus speak about “losing” our selves? THANK YOU for that comment.

    • > And I thought being melancholic made me a loser.

      No way. As an upside it hopefully slows down your judgements and opens the capacity for compassion towards some who the shiny happy people find intolerable.

      Whether is a gift or not depends on what you do with it [or let it do to you].

      There have been many times in my life I would have much preferred to talk to a sad pastor.

      • humanslug says

        Or, at least, a pastor who doesn’t treat people with honest doubts and sorrows as if they were intentionally marching out of step from everyone else in the big, victory parade along the glorious road to Zion.

  12. Randy Thompson says

    What makes Jeremiah compelling reading is that Jeremiah does not enjoy the word he preaches, but, instead, finds it heartbreaking. If anything, maybe “melancholy” is too weak a word to describe Jeremiah’s state of mind: “Cursed be the day I was born. . . Why did I ever come out of the womb to see trouble and sorrow and to end my days in shame?” (Jeremiah 20:14-18).

    To live in this world, and in this country, and not be depressed by it, is to live without compassion.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      And what does that say about Shiny Happy Clappy Christians?

      • Randy Thompson says

        It says that they either know the Lord way better than I do, or simply aren’t thinking. I hope for the former, but fear the latter.

  13. Fascinating review. I need to read this book. I think itmight hold part of the key to re-engaging those older high schoolers, college kids and twenty-somethings who are leaving the church, as well as some of us older folks. Just my own observations, but I find that among the younger crowd there is an acute awareness that all is not well with the world or with the people in it. At the same time, the prevalent message of evangelicalism is that happiness=holiness, without a clue of how to accept doubts, skepticism or melancholy as part of faith.
    Thus the disconnect. Yes, there are more factors the dynamic of people leaving the church, but I can’t help but think this is big part of it.

  14. Darkness – ..and God spoke to Moses out of the thick darkness. Yet He dwells in unapproachable light. At some point we start to see the darkness and light of God as we experience those very things within ourselves. A “still” voice could be defined as an unmoving voice or no voice, yet it is that voice that speaks creation into existence. Christianity is a crude set of behavioral norms, devoid of power to create life unless it takes hold of the darkness and navigates it. It is like the myth of the young Indian about to become a medicine man who is sent into the netherworld and utterly dismembered by dark spirits, piece by piece. I don’t know all the details but he is reconstituted and brought up whole again. From then on his reformed members become the source of healing for members of the tribe. His power is made complete and he becomes a life giver. Christianity without that cross is without a soul and the bible is a warmed over instruction manuel.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Speaking more as a wanna-be artist and writer, how do you even know what light is unless you have darkness for contrast? They say you can’t have real heroes unless you have a real villain, and the greater the villain the greater the heroes; this is something that has handicapped Conventional Christianese fiction over and over.

  15. These things did Thomas count as real:
    The warmth of blood, the chill of steel,
    The grain of wood, the heft of stone,
    The last frail twitch of blood and bone.
    His brittle certainties denied
    That one could live when one had died,
    Until his fingers read like Braille
    The markings of the spear and nail.
    May we, O God, by grace believe
    And, in believing, still receive
    The Christ Who held His raw palms out
    And beckoned Thomas from his doubt.

    – Hymn 394 of the Christian Reformed Psalter Hymnbook