Sunday, November 28, 2010

Advent and the Eclipse of God

1. Exiling the Stars

Just a few weeks ago, on a crisp Maine night, I saw the vast panoply of the sky again after living for many years without the sense of awe it always inspires. Where I live, the night sky is eclipsed by the haze of urban light pollution, so that only the most intense stars are able to assert themselves.

We humans have expanded without limit. There are too many of us here; besides that, our momentous busyness needs the perpetual blare of man-made light. The night sky seems to us such a small thing to forfeit, to forget.

But that night, as if for the first time, I noted again the almost three-dimensional impression which is created by the brightest stars, which seem to stand out boldly in front of the velvet-black depths of space, so close in their sparkle it almost seems as if one might touch them.

Cosmic Awe

I didn’t choose to feel awe; it thrust itself upon me, standing out there in the chilly night, mouth literally agape at the gauzy stretch of the Milky Way as it marches across the sky. Once again, I was so small, so utterly insignificant in the vastness of the universe, but at the same moment belonged profoundly to it all—exactly what Albert Einstein called “cosmic religious feeling.”

Is it a pure coincidence that atheism is most prevalent where the full panoply of the night sky cannot be seen? Does such disbelief arise more from disenchantment with ancient dogma or from a host of non-theological factors—like the banishment of the night sky?

We are a species hard-wired for awe, and perhaps without it the soul—our deepest self—shrivels, leaving only that little segment of the brain we call “rationality” stranded, high and dry, like a small island perpetually overrun by a shopping mall. Now I don’t imagine that the night sky is some simplistic proof of the existence of God, but I do recognize that something in me goes to sleep when I don’t see the gossamer trail of the Milky Way at night.

Self-imposed Exile?

One of the traditional Advent themes is Exile: O come, o come Immanuel, and ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lowly exile here. The holy Story tells us we “fell” from Paradise into an exile not only from God but from the very “face” of the creation itself. (See Genesis 2-4)

How many are the ways, I wondered, that our lifestyle itself—our distraction-saturated, muzak-charged, craving-driven lifestyle—eclipses what Gerard Manley Hopkins called the “dearest freshness deep down things” and exiles us from the astonishing thereness of a world charged with awe? Our ransom from this exile is, I suspect, as close as the night sky.

If we could but see it.

To follow: In a series of five or six Advent postings I plan to explore some of the non-theological factors for the eclipse of God in ‘advanced’ societies, as well as Christ as the symbol and embodiment of deliverance from this world-alienated state.


  1. Bob:

    Wonderful! And I look forward to the ensuing series.

    Except awe is a property of you - not of the night sky.

    Situated as you were in Maine, the awesomeness of the night sky appeared impossible to deny.

    The one thing we can do, when fleeing heaven's hound, is blank it out.

    But there are things that grab us by the scruff of the neck and demand that we attend. Like the mountains of Switzerland where I spent several years just above the eastern end of Lake Geneva. We had a magnificent view of the Dents du Midi from our Chalet window, with Mt. Blanc in the distance. Honestly, it took my breath away.

    Not that none ignore the "Attention!" I picked up a hitch hiker one day. I remarked how beautiful the mountains were. The young man replied, "Oh, I don't use such aesthetic terms to describe the result of the random processes of nature!"

    I have often thought of that young man since. How impoverished he was (then). Perhaps by now grace has broken through the armor of the Enlightenment and he now can see what was so plain then and now - Yes, I was gobsmacked! Of course! There are times when being gobsmacked is the only appropriate - indeed, reasonable - thing to be!

    Mack Harrell
    West Orange, NJ

  2. Wonderful! When I go on retreat, one of the pleasures is being able to see more stars than I can in the city. Although there is more light there than in the area of Maine where you were, it still always has a profound affect. I have sometimes blogged about nature, myself, and how contact with nature interacts with my relationship to God, but not yet about sky and stars. Thank you for your lovely words, that bring the lost sky back to me.