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The Dark Knight of the Soul: weaning and the problem of divine withdrawal

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If God loves us and so desires union with us, why is it that so many, who once felt close to God and who have subsequently done nothing to precipitate separation from him, now experience only his absence? A metaphor which has been used repeatedly to answer this question is that separation from God is a kind of spiritual weaning process in which God uses the experience of his absence in order to bring about maturation and greater union with him. After discussing the use of this metaphor in Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling and John of Cross's poem The Dark Night of the Soul, I discuss the question of how someone's absence could be good for their maturation. I argue that separation has an important role to play in deepening relationships of love – drawing on research in de-adaptation in the psychological and sociological literature, I argue that in order for there to be a union of love, there must be an experience of both dependence and independence. This position can explain why God allows people who engage in the spiritual life to suffer the pain of separation from him.


Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)73-90
JournalReligious Studies
Issue number1
Early online date21 Dec 2016
StatePublished - Mar 2018

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