Thursday, March 8, 2007
Look Toward Heaven and Count the Stars, If You Are Able to Count Them, Part 2
The word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision, "Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great." But Abram said, "O Lord GOD, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?" And Abram said, "You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir." But the word of the LORD came to him, "This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir." He brought him outside and said, "Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them." Then he said to him, "So shall your descendants be." And he believed the LORD; and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness. (Genesis 15:1-4)
I live in a world which has obscured its universe. Unlike Abram, when I go out at night and look toward the stars, I am very well able to count them. As the Tower of Babel once dared the heights of heaven, now the lights of San Francisco, San Jose, Fremont, Oakland, Berkeley, Richmond, Vallejo, Santa Rosa and San Rafael raise the cry of human pride. A recent article in “Discover” magazine states: “electric light turns night into day around the globe. In the first world atlas of artificial night-sky brightness, released in 2001 by the Italian astronomer Pierantonio Cinzano and based on high-resolution satellite data, the heavily developed urban corridors of Japan, Western Europe, and the United States blaze like amusement parks. We flood the heavens with so much artificial light that nearly two-thirds of the world's people can no longer see the Milky Way. On a clear, dark night far from light-polluted skies, roughly 2,500 celestial points of light can be discerned by the naked eye. For people living in the suburbs of New York, that number dwindles to 250; residents of Manhattan are lucky to see 15. Moreover, as the stars fade from view, a growing body of research suggests that excessive exposure to artificial night light can alter basic biological rhythms in animals, change predator-prey relationships, and even trigger deadly hormonal imbalances in humans.”(1 To that, some might say, good! God called us to be the light of the world and look what a job we have done. The light shines in the darkness, says the prologue to the Gospel of John, and the darkness will not prevail against it. The miracle of electricity has banished the very night! But is this really what God intended, or are we just being full of ourselves again?
Darkness represents a dual mystery. We speak of the darkness of ignorance, the blindness of those who lack the proper insights, the dark corners from which the thief and the murderer spring. But that is only because as a species we have come to privilege our eyes above all other senses. Sight is the distancing sense, the measuring sense, the sense that sets me apart from you. People are judged by their image. The other senses are far less objectifying. Touch brings us together. Smell evokes memory. We smell the blossoms of spring and the decay of death, the perfume of our beloved’s approach. It is said that hearing takes us straight to the heart, that music alone can express feeling directly. I hear you approach before I see you. Taste literally merges me with the world and reminds me that I do not nourish myself. There is a sixth sense as well, though our world rarely acknowledges it, that beautiful, mysterious and just as innate sense of intuition. Intuition guides me to the place where the other senses all combine. Intuition tells me when you need me. Intuition gives me the words on my morning dog walk that I will need to speak with you many hours later. Intuition is where I pray with you. Intuition is where I most clearly hear God, but God is able to appear just as easily through any of the other senses, if we I but relax them and give them godward. The senses that are not sight often do better in darkness where vision cannot distract them; my blind friends have taught me that very well. By the way, the tyranny of sight has made itself known in the fact that 75% of blind people remain unemployed in a world made one sided by vision.
Thus the other side of the dual mystery of darkness. It is only from the darkness of ignorance that I am able to learn. It is only in darkness that I may flee from the interrogator’s terrible beam. It is in darkness that I dream. It is in darkness that a seed opens and stretches and begins its journey through the earth. A child is conceived in darkness and carried in the dark warmth of the womb for nine months.
If you think that God is proud of our neons and our arc lights, of the relentless carbonization of our atmosphere, consider, for a moment, the star of Bethlehem. Had it shone in today’s night sky, the wise men would probably have missed it.
1) A photo-mosaic released by NASA in 2000 reveals the extent of artificial-light pollution around the world. The image incorporates data collected by low-orbiting satellites between October 1994 and March 1995, on nights when moonlight was low. Italian astronomer Pierantonio Cinzano estimates that the level of artificial night-sky brightness increases in Europe and the United States at an annual rate of 5 to 10 percent.
Photograph: Data courtesy of Marc Imhoff/NASA GSFC and Christopher Elvidge/NOAA NGDC. Image by Craig Mayhew and Robert Simmon/NASA GSFC. Discover, Vol. 24 No. 07, July 2003