Saturday, March 29, 2014

Earth Hour, or Welcome to the Dark Side

Today, March 25, 2017, is Earth Hour. It reminded me of a column I wrote a few years ago on the occasion of this worldwide event—about how the problem today isn't too much light, but not enough darkness, and how that might affect the popularity of light as a spiritual metaphor.

In 1610, the famed Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei published a book about the stars and planets he observed in the sky above Padua. 

Although his homemade telescope was less powerful than most beginners’ telescopes sold today, he made some remarkable discoveries about the moon, planets and the Milky Way.

Most people today would have trouble replicating Galileo’s ages-old feat, even with modern telescopes—not because the stars and planets are dimmer, but because the earth has become much brighter.

In an article in The New Yorker titled The Dark Side, David Owen notes that a person standing on the observation deck of the Empire State Building in New York City on a cloudless night could not repeat that feat.

A person today “would be unable to discern much more than the moon, the brighter planets, and a handful of very bright stars—less than one per cent of what Galileo would have been able to see without a telescope.”

Thoughts about Galileo, and about how our view of the heavens has changed over the past 400 years, come to mind this month during Earth Hour. That’s when millions of people around the globe turned off unnecessary lights.

Earth Hour also got me thinking about the role light plays in religion. Almost all religions use it as metaphor for knowledge, wisdom, justice and other spiritual ideals and goals.

Darkness, on the other hand, has most often been a common metaphor for evil.

Since the world’s major religions originated before electricity, it’s easy to see why light and dark were such important concepts—there was so little light back then.  The idea of God as light, piercing and dispersing darkness, would have been immediately understood and appreciated by all.

Today, that image is much less meaningful. If we want light, we simply flick on a switch. We can experience illumination 24 hours a day, if we want—something that would have been very difficult, if not impossible, for most people not very long ago. 

The result? We fail to see light as something special, or even miraculous; it has become just another commonplace commodity that we take for granted.

If anything, we have too much light these days. The many lights from buildings, streetlights, cars and other sources in large parts of the developed world has created a condition called skyglow, the dome of light that appears over major cities and washes out the night sky.

This light pollution, as astronomers call it, means that those who study the skies have to go further and further afield to find places are dark enough to permit decent stargazing.

To see skies like Galileo knew, you would have to travel to the Australian outback or the mountains of Peru.

Does this mean that light is no longer a useful metaphor for God or religious understanding? No. But it may have lost some of its power and meaning today. What’s so special about light if you can have it whenever you want it?

Maybe what we need today is a greater appreciation for something we have so little of—darkness. Maybe instead of looking for God in the light, we need to seek out the dark. Maybe that’s where God can more readily be found.

Through something like Earth Hour, maybe we can appreciate the dark in a whole new way. Perhaps it is only in great darkness that we can fully see the light.

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