Bleached Religion…Hyperpolarized Church

The following is a thought from my daughter Teryl Berg, in response to a post called "Great Big Mercy". 

It stands on its own as an insight into the perennial human preoccupation with light and darkness. 

TerylAhhh…the well-established antithesis between darkness and light.  At the risk of over-extending this metaphor, I’d like to be a darkness advocate for a minute.  (I always feel bad for the underdog.)  Alright, so I understand the generally accepted viewpoint of light as being life-giving and clarifying.  I can even relate to the religious extension of light as good and righteous.  However, after taking a few biology courses I sometimes get the feeling that darkness is being misrepresented, or at least not sufficiently appreciated.  As just one example, let’s look at the process of vision.  It seems appropriate, considering this is all a matter of perception anyways.

Vision is actually accomplished by the brain’s interpretation of sensory input from the eyes.  Our eyes are equipped with photoreceptors in the form of rods, for night vision, and cones, for vision in bright light.  The light-absorbing ability of these molecules is determined by the response of the retinal + protein configuration when exposed to light.

For example, rhodopsin (the rod configuration) undergoes a conformational change, when it absorbs light.  This change causes retinal to detach from the opsin (protein), in a process referred to as “bleaching,” rendering the photoreceptor inactive.  Bright light keeps rhodopsin bleached and unresponsive.  This is the cause of the familiar experience of temporary blindness when walking into a dark building after being outside on a sunny afternoon.  Initially your rods cannot perceive the faint light and it takes a few minutes of darkness for your bleached rods to become fully responsive again.

So why the biology lesson?  Well, I think there could be an interesting parallel between our physical vision and religious vision.  I often feel as though there is too much emphasis on the differences between dark and light (in the metaphorical sense) and not enough celebration of the delicate and necessary balance between them.  To continue the vision analogy, yes, light is essential.  Without light our photoreceptors would remain inactivated and we would be left groping in the dark.  But…paradoxically we can also be blinded by an overexposure to light, so that we lose our clarity in dimly lit situations.

Under intense light our rods become hyperpolarized and incapable of communicating with the brain. The synapse is inactive and no chemicals can be released.  Basically, darkness is required to depolarize the rod cells and reestablish that connection.  Similarly the church can become hyperpolarized, incapable of connecting to real life situations.  Those who are overexposed lose the ability to see beauty in the shadows or understand the subtlety of silhouettes.  Even colors begin to lose their distinction if the light is too intense.

I think that sometimes religion bleaches our perception to the point of sensory numbness.  We are left with a limited and washed-out vision that does not allow us to derive joy from sensory experience.  Perhaps, at times, it might be better to feel carefully in the darkness than to walk blindly in the light. 

Gwendolyn MacEwen says it best in her poem, "The Shadow-Maker."

My legs surround your black, wrestle it

As the flames of day wrestle night

And everywhere you paint the necessary shadows

On my flesh and darken the fibers of my nerve;

Without these shadows I would be

In air one wave of ruinous light

And night with many mouths would close

Around my infinite and sterile curve.


  1. Teryl, thank you. Your comment that sometimes “it might be better to feel carefully in the darkness than to walk blindly in the light” kind of describes a place I’ve gone to throughout my Christian experience. Actually, I’m there now – feeling safer in the dark than in the bright, white light of organized religion. But do you have any biological insights that might bring me back to balance? Seems in my dark outlook everywhere I look the dazzling light of certainty hurts my eyes – for instance, there’s this morning’s Journal article about the big divide between liberal and conservative Christians on same sex marriage. The article describes the willingness of our evangelical leaders – Dobson, Colson, Warren – to write off a whole group of people because of their superior “understanding” of Scripture. But isn’t it somewhere in the gospels that if you can’t love your brother who stands flesh and blood in front of you that you can’t love a God who is unseen. That, to me, says something about the mix of light and darkness. Too bad we get the orderliness of love mixed up so often, from either perspective.

  2. In biological terms, all things strive for balance. The very life work of our cells is to maintain homeostasis. In the physical realm, our environment dictates the adjustments that will restore balance. Let’s say that our thoughts are the spiritual environment of our soul. Theoretically we should be able to create an optimal environment. Unfortunately that’s about as easy as controlling the weather. The problem is that, even if every individual attained balance, we would still feel imbalanced against one another. First of all, balance for one person is absolute chaos for another. Secondly, balance requires tension; it actually demands a certain level of chaos. Equilibrium is dynamic, it is constantly shifting and modifying. If it becomes static or stagnant then its not balance. Just an interesting side comment: Did you realize that reactions only occur when there is an imbalance. I mean it’s obvious when you think about it, but neither anabolic nor catabolic reactions could occur without an imbalance of product. If we want to grow, build or create anything there has to be an excess of something. And likewise for destruction. Both of these processes must occur within our cells to maintain an overall homeostasis.

    In terms of the liberal and conservative disputes over same sex marriage…well, it would be nice if the tension could be used constructively for once. Maybe that’s just wishful thinking, but then again, thoughts create a spiritual environment. I guess what I’m saying is that balance is not always as easy as mixing black and white and ending up with grey. Returning to the vision analogy, sometimes periods of darkness are essential in order to restore homeostasis. Of course the point of those dark times is to prepare us to receive light again in order to see. Sometimes it just takes a lot of adjusting (and over-adjusting) before we’re able to find the right contrast to provide optimum perception. Who knows, maybe your particular imbalance will be the catalyst for constructive progress.

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