The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries
Quite a few years ago, my brother and I spent three days on a leisurely canoe trip down the Colorado River near the Colorado-Utah border.
We drifted with the current and took walks to explore slick-rock canyons. We camped beside the river under crystal-clear skies on moonless nights far away from city lights. And spread over us were the stars in all of their glory.
We were both caught up in an experience of awe and wonder. The ancient geology of stone layers sculpted by wind and water touched our spirits by day. At night, it was impossible to look up at the canopy of stars and not be moved.
Our few days away from the modern world provided many contrasts to our normal lives. We were pulled into a delightfully different pace and perspective.
One of those evenings, my brother offered a profound insight that expanded from our personal experience into a social awareness. He raised the idea that the biggest change that we modern humans have had in our experience of the world has not come through computers and the Internet. It has not come from automobiles and airplanes. It comes from the fact that we don't see the stars.
Up until 100 years ago, almost every person on this planet would see, on a regular basis, the sort of stars that we saw that night. But now, in our urban, electrified, polluted world, such a view is a rare experience.
It is not just that many people today have missed out on a beautiful sight. The fact that we don't see the stars has warped our collective sense of identity.
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Psalm 8 is a hymn of praise. It starts by singing of the power and glory of God in nature:
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
That awe is a universal experience when confronted with the stars. Of course, the psalm goes on from there ...
Yet you have made them a little lower than God,
(Because "dominion" is a challenging theme in environmental theology, I feel a need to point out that the word appears in only two Bible passages about humans and the rest of creation -- the end of the Genesis 1 creation story, and this Psalm. Both come from the same priestly theology. There are far more passages in scripture which describe other, less controlling roles for humanity.)
The psalm talks of the duality of our human experience. We know ourselves both as infinitesimally small and overwhelmingly powerful. It has been said that the Bible affirms the simultaneous magnificence and triviality of the individual human being. Both experiences are true. And theologically, neither can be addressed correctly without remembering the other side.
Under the stars, we can remember both sides of the equation. But as my brother pointed out, most people now don't see the stars. Most people now don't have that awe-inspiring sense of being infinitesimal and trivial. We only see ourselves as powerful and important, "crowned with glory and honor."
Without a regular view of the stars -- or some similar gut-level experience -- our sense of self gets out of balance. Our relationship with God, God's creation, and other people becomes distorted.
What used to be an everyday occurrence now has to be an intentional spiritual discipline. Many of us need to schedule a trip away from the lights so that we can look deeply into the sky. We need to make a special effort if we want to see more than the 100 brightest stars. We need to make an appointment for an encounter with God.
Our lives, personally and collectively, are kept in better balance when that stunning insight of God's majesty can break in at unexpected moments. When the breath can be knocked out of you by a casual glance at the sky as you're walking into the house after work. When the question, "what are human beings that you are mindful of them?" hits us as we are feeling most proud of ourselves.
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Light pollution is a spiritual problem for humans. It can be a survival issue for wildlife.
Many species have biological cycles regulated by the patterns of day and night. Bright lights through the night disrupt these deeply engrained cycles of life. As one outspoken scientist put it, "To assume that other living organisms on this planet are just going to 'adapt' to our newly created lighting schedules for commercial convenience is apathetically ignorant and insane."
Insects are attracted to artificial lights, "like a moth to a flame." Some fly directly into the light source and die. Others may circle near the light all night long, and be unable to feed or reproduce. Birds, too, are disoriented by the illumination from office buildings, communication towers, or the constant lights blazing around oil drilling operations.
Not only is the light washing across the sky damaging to our spirits and to wildlife, it is an unnecessary waste of energy. Properly designed light fixtures, as well as sensible actions to turn off lights, can dramatically reduce light pollution and save energy.
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Dark Sky Week is an annual opportunity (in April) to raise awareness about light pollution.
Some states and communities are enacting laws to control light pollution. They are insisting that street lights and signs on buildings be designed so that the illumination goes where it is needed, and not into the sky.
Working for legislation that controls light pollution is a perfect way for a congregation to bring together spirituality, environmental commitments, and political advocacy. Contact your city council members and state legislators, and pressure them to take the lead in bringing back the beauty of dark skies.
Previous versions of this message were distributed on 11/1/2002 and 5/11/2007.
Eco-Justice Ministries * 400 S Williams St, Denver, CO 80209 * Home Page: www.eco-justice.org
Eco-Justice Ministries ended all programming on July 31, 2020. This site is an archive of writings and resources.
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