Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates a brother or sister is still in the darkness. Anyone who loves their brother and sister lives in the light, and there is nothing in them to make them stumble. But anyone who hates a brother or sister is in the darkness and walks around in the darkness. They do not know where they are going, because the darkness has blinded them.
1 John 2:9-11
Many years ago, a wise counselor communicated to me a basic truth which it was not easy for me to accept. He reminded me that “We love and hate the same people.” A great theme in the school of John is that of living in the light or in the darkness. Despite the deep truth it contains, it also has come over time to distort our understanding of our human experience. We can hear the call of living in the light rather than the darkness as a binary choice. Yet, our lives are lived really in both spheres. Aside from Jesus, and perhaps a few totally enlightened and transformed human beings, most of us are loving and hating, living in the light and in the dark, at the same time. To mistakenly believe that to be in the light there must be no darkness in us leads us on a perilous course, humanly speaking. Every human attempt at absolute purification, sinlessness, and the utopian is marked by dissociation at best and violence at worst.
Perhaps from adolescence, I found it difficult to understand that I loved my father since I often felt so much anger at and hatred for him. I could not understand that the scriptures were not speaking of love and hate in their merely emotional sense. I interpreted my aggressive feelings as hate and ceased to be able to recognize that they were very related to my need for and love of him. My “dark” feelings led me to be wary of and to distance from him and deeper connection with him. When, with the help of another, I began to bring those feelings to awareness and to see them as an aspect of our overall relationship, I had the experience, as I voiced it at the time, of my father being returned to me, or better put, perhaps, of my returning to him.
As we were working cleaning some rooms the other day, we were listening to some music. One of the songs that was playing was John Lennon’s “Imagine.” Many will recall that one of those aspects of a world of harmony and love that Lennon calls on us to imagine is a world without religion. To be sure, this is based on a reductionistic view of religion, but there is also a truth in it. Much of what we call religion and morality has at its core a powerfully repressive and violent strain. It is a violence seen in the religious wars throughout the centuries, as well as the emotional and sexual abuse that seems far too prevalent in religious structures. Whenever we attempt to make ourselves other than or more than human we become violent. The violence can be inflicted on ourselves as we attempt a perfection that is not meant to be ours, and it can be inflicted also on others when we take it upon ourselves to attempt to purify or perfect them and the world.
In the scriptural sense, it is not a mere feeling of aggression or hatred that constitutes hating our brother or sister. In fact, it is safe to say that unless and until we integrate our feelings of moving toward and moving against others we do not truly begin to love them. This is why love, as we tend to understand it, is so fickle and fleeting. As long as we live merely out of our unconscious, we shall always confuse love with those feelings that come from another when that other is gratifying and appeasing us. We cannot in this way begin to learn how our hearts are to be formed and reformed through the vicissitudes of our affective lives as well as the changing nature of our relationships to others and theirs to us.
This is where commitment and will come in. Yesterday a friend and I were speaking about the passion and compassion that is the source of true community. Without that passion that is born out of the realization of our life as call and mission, and the compassion for others that such a call evokes in us, it is impossible to live out a communal life with diverse persons, some of which I may be drawn to by affinity and others for whom I feel no affinity. Earlier in today’s passage from 1 John we read: “This is the way we may know that we are in union with him; whoever claims to abide in him ought to walk just as he walked.” The way that Jesus walked was with the profound knowledge and understanding that our common humanity is, in fact, common. Unconsciously, and at the level of mere reaction, we like and dislike, we approve and we detest, we are attracted by and repulsed by others. The spiritual path is a way by which we do not deny that we dislike, hate, detest, and are repulsed, but rather that we face these reactions and come to know and understand them as part of us. This is how we learn to love and how we increasingly walk in the light.
Every culture values certain human dispositions and disparages and rejects others. To be accepted and respected in a cultural sense depends on the degree to which we conform our way of being to those cultural pulsations. Yet, this is always what St. Paul refers to as conforming ourselves to the present age. He writes in Romans 12:2: “Do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect. ” This directive is always applicable because it speaks to the human struggle for authenticity. Whatever the culture and situation into which we are born, we are always to varying degrees both well-formed and deformed by their directives. Because we are both unique and social, our formation in this way is always experienced as conflict and tension. Some directives of our cultures are consonant with our unique life call and some are not. In attempting to conform to those that are not, we experience inner and sometimes outer conflict. And worse, sometimes we become so self-alienated in our conforming to the demands of our social situations that we apparently cease to experience the conflict. This is the most dangerous place we can find ourselves, because we then confuse the light of our own conformity to the light of God’s life in us.
Thus, it is the very inner conflicts we find so disturbing and usually wish to dissolve that may actually be our way toward the light. The light is God’s and not ours. Paradoxically enough, we are much more apt to be living in the light when we experience our own darkness. In our arrogance, we human beings have a tendency to project our own darkness onto others. Unfortunately this tendency often seems to reach its apogee in self-identified religious persons. This is the kind of darkness, born of hatred, that 1 John describes as blinding us. Sight comes through “in-sight.” The more we realize our own complexity and ambivalence toward others, the more the scales of our blindness fall from our eyes and more light that penetrates.
We walk in the light when we live in love, but that light will show up all of who we are. Some of that picture will appeal to us and reinforce our idealized vision of ourselves. The light will also, however, reveal what seems like darkness to us. Love always requires compassion for the limits and the presumed failings of ourselves and others. This compassion springs from our desire for God as God is, and not as we would create God to be. The truth is we don’t really know in this life what is the wheat and what is the weeds. As Jesus teaches, we must allow them to grow up together and submit it all to God’s judgment at the end of time. This is why for us, as Reinhold Niebuhr wrote, the final form of love is forgiveness.
Spiritual formation is the art of the developing ability for persevering dialogue with the disclosures of one’s existence in daily life. One of the long-range aims of spiritual formation, therefore, is to prepare a person to be patiently present to him or herself as manifested in his or her life situation. This art often remains unlearned in our technological society.
Adrian van Kaam, The Art of Existential Counseling