Friday, November 4, 2011

Darkness

Darkness is not as easy to come by as it once was. At least not the literal kind. When I grew up on a small farm in central Alberta the nights were truly dark. Most people turned off all lights on their farm when they went to bed. There were very few sodium or mercury vapour lights in the area. The cities were smaller and did not give off as much light pollution. The night skies were spectacular. I remember standing in the yard and being awestruck by the immensity of the Milky Way. In one swath across the sky I could see thousands of distant stars all at once. I imagined what it would be like to travel to a distant star or some exotic planet. I learned the names of a few constellations and stars and loved to watch for them in the sky: Ursa Major, Ursa Minor, Orion, Cassiopeia, Polaris. Each had wonderful names that rolled off the tongue and allowed me to dream of places far, far away. I soon learned that the Big Dipper (Ursa Major) and the Little Dipper (Ursa Minor) could help me find direction. As long as I could see these stars, and the North Star (Polaris) to which they pointed, I could always know north, and by inference, south, east, and west. With this knowledge I would surely be able to find my way home.


Orion was a favourite constellation. Noticing this collection of stars but not knowing it by name, I had given it my own moniker: "The Scotty Dog." Years later in high school a science teacher brought in his photos of his favourite constellations and I discovered that my little scotch terrier in the sky was actually Orion The Hunter, with bow, arrow, and a belt of three stars. I would stare out the window of the car at Orion as our family drove home from town. I would try to imagine how long it had taken the light of those stars to reach my eyes. By the time I was fifteen I knew that light from even the closest stars had to travel many years to reach earth. Light that I was seeing shining from the centre star of Orion's belt had left that star over 1300 years before I sat in my parents' car watching it twinkle in the night sky. It was almost impossible to understand this and it filled me with awe and pointed me to God. As I gazed out the window my mind was filled with questions. Why was there so much space out there? What were those distant stars and planets like? Was there life on any of those planets? Could there be intelligent life that was looking back at me and wondering if there was life "out there?" What was the significance to how people gave names to collections of stars? I must confess, today, when I look up at Orion it still looks like "The Scotty Dog" to me.


Today, most of us see stars very infrequently. Even at a distance of many miles from the nearest city, the light pollution from urban centres destroys our ability to see all but the brightest stars which makes constellations very difficult to discern. For hundreds and thousands of years humans have looked up at these stars and wondered what they meant. Ours is one of the first generations to actually know the composition of a star and where it is in the universe. We are also one of the first generations to live most of the time not seeing the stars. Many go along without contemplating the immensity of space because they so rarely see the stars. Whole generations of children have grown up in cities in which they can only see one or two stars at a time. They may never know the awe of the Milky Way or the beauty of the aurora borealis or think about the vast distances of space. Could this be one of the reasons why faith in a creator God is waning?

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