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In Defense of Darkness

Posted By Amy Cannon On October 6, 2009 @ 11:59 pm In Creation Care,Culture,Technology | 4 Comments

It is no real surprise that one of the primary metaphors in Scripture for the dominion of sin and evil ruled over by Satan is that of Darkness. We are diurnal creatures, light-loving and day-inhabiting. We have colloquially marked the development of culture by harnessing fire, defining anthropological success as the ability to ward off the threatening, all-encompassing unknown of night. Darkness evokes the unfathomable — deep sea and deep space. To be so closely hemmed in by the unknown and unnavigable is a psychological challenge as well as physical one. It makes complete sense, then, that the more developed a place is, the brighter it is at night.

America still echoes with the pioneering spirit with which we imagine our forbearersĀ to have carved out from hostile nature a homestead — by clearing land, raising roofs, and stoking fires to keep away predators, cold, and encroaching darkness. It was a strange shift when, still embattled by the Nature that had so long threatened and surrounded us, we found that we had surrounded and were threatening it. Environmentalism is in some ways a desperate backpedalingĀ from the inertia that has kept us blazing trails when there is no real wilderness left. Darkness is unique in that it imposes the sort of disorientation of an untracked waste in even a familiar environment. This is perhaps why we have been less conscious about preserving it than we have other imperturbable and inaccessible things; it continues to be threatening in a way forest and wild animals no longer are, ever-ready to blanket the familiar with the unnavigable, should a fuse overload or a battery die.

National Geographic reports [1] on the relatively recent attention paid to light pollution and its effects:

In most cities the sky looks as though it has been emptied of stars, leaving behind a vacant haze that mirrors our fear of the dark and resembles the urban glow of dystopian science fiction. We’ve grown so used to this pervasive orange haze that the original glory of an unlit night-dark enough for the planet Venus to throw shadows on Earth-is wholly beyond our experience, beyond memory almost.

National Geographic catalogues the sweeping implications of artificial illumination of the night sky on noctural creatures. Birds migrate too early, or are fatally attracted to bright lights while migrating; newly hatched sea turtles crawl toward the city lights rather than to the reflective ocean; new studies are just beginning to measure how humans are physically affected by our artificial lengthening of day. “At least one new study has suggested a direct correlation between higher rates of breast cancer in women and the nighttime brightness of their neighborhoods.”

It would take only “simple changes in lighting design and installation” in our cities to radically reduce the light pollution that wastes energy and obscures the night sky by directing it upward. Besides the problematic biological impact of the vanishing darkness of our night sky, are there other reasons we should care to work for change? An unobstructed view of the stars, of course, is an experience the majority of the developing world has never had. This is an encapsulation of the sort of tragedy we unknowingly inflict on ourselves: we have cut off avenues to experiences of the sublime and transcendent in order to more securely situate ourselves in the comfortable.

But what of darkness itself? Though darkness is often descriptive in Scripture of the sort of deeds done at night, things antithetical to the searing truth-telling light of God’s Revelation, darkness may also be seen as divine. It veils in mystery what is undeniably there, but which cannot now be fully known; in this sense, anyone walking in a dark room has “faith [as...] the evidence of things not seen.” God has spoken from a thick darkness, as well as a burning bush; and it was His Spirit who brooded over the darkness of the unformed world. Although God is revealed in the world, there is another sense in which “clouds and thick darkness surround him.” He has hidden himself from the world, or in it. Perhaps, then, there is a theological reason for us to perserve darkness: it speaks compellingly of hard-to-remember truths about our God who not only speaks out from Holy Mountains, but covers us with his hand as he passes by, sheilding us from his unbearable glory by his impenetrable darkness. ‘


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[1] National Geographic reports: http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2008/11/light-pollution/klinkenborg-text/3

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