Dale Allison Jr. speculates in The Luminous Dusk: Finding God in the Deep, Still Places on wonder, and the impact of its loss. He gets there by observing a shift over time in the way people interpret and respond to major events such as natural disasters or even human-inspired catastrophes. Where once people would assume some fault in their relationship with God or the gods, they now assume some fault in God himself, if he exists: “Before 1700, misfortune made people doubt firstly themselves, not God and the Christian faith. Obviously, much depends on our prior inclinations. My question then is, What accounts for prior inclinations? In particular, what accounts for the medieval tendency to believe, or for the modern tendency to disbelieve?” (p.6-7) Just so we don’t get sidetracked, let’s imagine he’s using “modern” in its non-technical form to mean “today” despite the apparent reference to pre-modernity or post-medieval times, and despite the later reference to “us moderns.” I don’t consider myself “a modern” but perhaps the ongoing shift is the appropriate context for these observations… but we’re not getting sidetracked. Allison notes there can be no one answer, and goes on to consider possibilities, beginning with the concept of wonder, which is what I want to major on here.
Socrates, according to Plato in the Theatetus, maintained that philosophy has no foundation other than the feeling of wonder. Aristotle later concurred, and in so doing went on to instance, as the chief objects of wonder, the moon, the sun, and the stars. Now it could also be said that religion, like philosophy, begins with wonder, or at least that religion without wonder is dead. This observation presents us with our problem.
In the past, the stars over our heads have nurtured human wonder as much as anything else, or perhaps more than anything else. The impact upon the collective psyche of the tiny sparkles overhead, together with the sun and moon, would be hard to overestimate, although this fact is hard for us moderns to appreciate fully. Our traditional mythologies, our poetry, our fiction — all are filled with stories about the heavenly bodies, which have been from the beginning a preoccupation of the human mind….
Why? What explains our long-standing obsession with the lights above us? The stark beauty of the heavens is obviously part of the reason. But more important is the stars’ endless ability to fascinate: they are things always beyond our grasp, things we can see but never touch. All we can do — or rather, all we were able to do until recent times — is tell stories, and wonder….
Today, however, awareness of the sky and its lights is much less a part of our everyday consciousness. Most people are asleep when the sun comes up and inside a building when it sets; and when they do venture outside at night, there are too many artificial lights for them to see stars. In my experience, people in the city rarely satisfy their sparse curiousity about the heavens by raising their eyes. Instead they visit a planetarium….
…As the stars belong less and less to our direct experience, our very hearts are made different from the hearts of those who came before us. Not only have our shelters and omnipresent lights permitted us fewer moments of wonder under the stars; they have also surely fostered a diminishment in our collective ability to wonder. Despite our ignoring the fact, the retreat of the stars has not been trivial.
What does religion lose? For one thing, it loses its best illustration of the concept of transcendence; for the stars are the one irrefutable proof (and, in the past, the one constant reminder) that there are things of whose existence we may know but whose nature ever escapes our knowledge. For another, the stars, as Aristotle affirmed, and as Kant later agreed, are the strongest natural stimuli to wonder, and wonder nurtures religious feelings and reflections.
(p.7-8) Now, I’ve just dipped my toes into The Luminous Dusk so far, but am expecting more good stuff. When it arrived in a shipment of several books that week, my wife and I both gravitated to it. Great title, and subtitle, they just draw you in right away. This quote is actually from the introduction — I haven’t even gotten to chapter one yet, but already it sets me a-thinkin’. Firstly, about my own fascination with the stars. I grew up in a town of less than 10,000 people where a walk of about a block or less would put me on the edge of a farmer’s field, and there were many trips to the farm to visit grandparents. When I eventually left that town a couple of years after finishing high school to attend college some years back, I just happened to pick one that rises from the landscape south of Winnipeg. Not quite the bald prairie, but the horizon was rather distant and the skies remained as expansive as those of my youth. People tend to look at the vast prairie and consider it boring… and, truth be told, I think that about most of Saskatchewan. Manitoba at its flattest parts at least sports a relatively lush collection of trees. But those of us who bemoan the absence of mountains and oceans are really tending to look at and list what isn’t there. Manitoba has thousands of lakes, including some of North America’s largest after the Great Lakes, and a desert, and boreal forest, and tundra in the north, and mountains, and rivers, and prairie, and trees, and beautiful Canadian Shield country. And God, the Aurora Borealis…
Despite the fact that every place on earth has natural wonders of its own, we tend to look past it all and criticize the prairie for not being a mountain, the moss for not being a vine, the bird for not being a deer.
It’s taken me years, though, to realize the importance of the one thing that is always there, ubiquitous and largely unnoticed: the sky. Oh, everyplace has sky… but anyplace that can glory in its mountainous scenery knows nothing of the sky that I grew up beneath. The ocean is vast, and people who grew up on its shores often have difficulty living inland, away from the vastness of the ocean… but I have a few friends from the maritimes who now live landlocked in Winnipeg. One of them, when asked if he missed it, missed the ocean, answered — shockingly — “No.” Not because the ocean lacked beauty in his mind, or any sort of pull or attraction, but because, as he explained, here he has the sky… like the ocean, an endless expanse of blue.
Now I live in the city… and I have done so for the past 18½ years. For the first several years we lived right downtown in the thick of things, but we’ve been ‘burb-dwellers lo these past 13½ years. All of our kids’ lives, and then some. And over that time, I’ve had a slowly growing longing to be under the stars again. I’ve spoken of it with increasing frequency in recent years, but still I haven’t been able to grasp or explain how deep the longing goes. In the suburbs, often as we bid friends farewell in the driveway at the end of an evening, my wife will point out the stars to me from our doorstep, or at other times from the back patio… but it isn’t the same. I know it, and deep down, she does too. Light pollution from lampstands at the edge of concrete streets and driveways leading past unnaturally lush manicured lawns to stucco-covered homes. The sky doesn’t look right to me. I see stars, but a pittance of what I know is really there. The stars I used to see.
As I read Dale Allison’s connection of wonder with the starry skies, I’m starting to think that this growing longing isn’t merely nostalgia, or preference, or even anything as noble as deep a appreciation of natural beauty. Perhaps it’s far deeper, and not so easy to explain — a yearning of the soul. My kids really enjoy going to the planetarium, and have since they were, what, four years old? Five? Something’s wrong, and my heart has an inexplicable sadness because of it. Unlike some summers, this year I had no time away from the city, no days at a stretch outdoors beyond the back yard. Some years I’ve had that, and forgotten to stop and spend time staring heavenward… but it was always there, filling my soul with its expansive presence by some kind of spiritual osmosis. I didn’t realize this until last week when I looked at the website for the retreat space where the Missional Order gathering sponsored by Allelon is taking place in a couple of weeks. I looked at the photo gallery and something stirred deep in my soul… alerting me in an instant of realization that I had not had any time away from the city this year. It was an acute yearning this time. Something churned in the depths.
I feel torn. I love the city, and missionally-speaking, it’s where the people are. “Back in the day,” I attended Urbana ’87, where the theme was “Should I Not Be Concerned?” — taken from the closing verse of Jonah, where God tells the prophet, “Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well. Should I not be concerned about that great city?” But in the city, I’m slowly choking. The city countermands the spiritual awakening of nature’s beckoning. I know that I’m choking, and as I spend more time writing and digging for inner forms of creativity locked away inside, I am coming to see how important the countermeasures are for me. This realization is a rare knowledge, something arcane. The city and nature are at spiritual cross-purposes.
This is only the mid-point of my essay, but even so, let’s open it up for discussion. Part two is already written, but I’ll save it for tomorrow — I think there’s already a fair bit here to chew on. Have you felt a yearning for nature, for creation? Do you recognize it in yourself, whether it’s a great or a small yearning? If you disagree, how do you see nature and city in harmony, or if you accept my statement that nature and the city are in conflict, how do you think this is so, naturally or spiritually? The essay resumes tomorrow with my thoughts on that one.
Update: continue on to Part Two…
How timely–I say that because I was out to walk before sunrise on Sunday, which I usually do Sunday mornings before going to church later. While walking, I became aware of an intensely bright star. I kept gazing at it, feeling the wonder about which you write. I saw it again this morning with the same reaction.
While in college in Kentucky 40 years ago, I got to hear John Jacob Niles speak and also sing his Christmas song, “I Wonder as I Wander.” That Christmas Eve and for nearly every one since 1967, I try to get outside to gaze at the stars, if they are visible, and to wonder a bit. Even living now in suburbia, as you do, I still find that star gazing time one of my most meaningful Christmas rituals.
Yes, I recognize that yearning, and try to pay attention to it as much as I can. As I’ve been on a journey out of church-as-we-know-it over the past few years, I find natural settings are the best places to connect with God. For me, a gentle walk with my binoculars and a couple of cooperative birds leads me back to that place of wonder. The book looks great, look forward to hearing more.
I’m most of the way through that book and it is a really fruitful read.
For me, urban life does not mean a disconnection from nature. A big part of why that is comes from a commitment to being a pedestrian and from a love of urban parks. That said, I do miss seeing a big, wide open night sky.
But, I wonder what the alternative is. The spiritual reality of urban living is that you are surrounded by “what man has made.” However, the countryside is seldom much more “natural” especially in places like the UK, where centuries of farming have radically altered the landscape.
One of my favorite topics – the sense of awe of wonder. We need transcending events to disconnect from the mundane and remind us of infinity. We so easily forget. Gazing into a deep night sky can saturate us with a sense of God’s overwhelming presence, and remind us that human intellect is infinitesimally small against the endless reality which opens before us.
James Gardner, writing in “The Selfish Biocosm,” quotes from one of Isaac Newton’s journals: “I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay undiscovered before me.”
It’s one reason (among many) we retreated to the mountains some 15 years ago, and never looked back. Sacramento’s lights are 50 miles away, and our night sky is blazing.
Pastor M, that’s a great tradition — it even ties into the Christmas star, not that it needs any special tie other than wonder itself.
Maria, I hear you! It’s fall in my neck of the woods, and the Canada Geese stop for a rest about a block over from our house. We’ve had a couple of warm days, so I got in a bit of extra hammock-time I didn’t expect, and listened to the geese honking as they flew low overhead, taking off from their rest stop. Incredible journey they make, taking turns leading the “V” shape to break the wind for those behind them… another “fingerprint” of God, if you will.
Fernando, you do better than I perhaps, but you’re right, there shouldn’t need to be a complete disconnect — it’s just a bit harder for some of us to maintain. In most areas the countryside is changing too, as you say. I’m very fortunate that I’m not too far from areas that if not pristine are only minimally disturbed.
John, I love it. One of these days I’m going to come visit you, and hit you up for a glass of wine to sip beneath the stars.
As I mentioned I wrote this as a longer essay and spit it up — I’m going to go and publish part 2 now…