The Luminous Dusk: Finding God in the Deep, Still Places
reviewed by Robert W. Grano
Our convictions, however much they may be thought of as the conclusions of arguments, are often heavily indebted to environmental factors we fail to perceive because we are too close to them,” Dale C. Allison, Jr., writes in a revised and expanded version of his 1995 book The Silence of Angels. One of the factors we do not see provides his somewhat surprising thesis: Modern man’s separation from nature is a cause of secularization, rather than merely a symptom or result of it.
Allison, who teaches New Testament and Early Christianity at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, points to “an obvious yet often overlooked connection: Seeming secularization correlates directly with a growing physical separation from the so-called natural world. In other words, the more we have moved indoors, the less some of us have been inclined to believe.”
One way in which this separation has diminished our ability to believe is through the growing absence of a sense of wonder before the natural world. Our forbears saw the world as full of both wonderful and terrifying mysteries, but scientific and technological advances have attenuated the wonder and assuaged the terror. They give us less reason to appeal to or depend on a divinity.
For example, we now have almost universal control over darkness and light, thus changing one aspect of our sense of wonder, the fear of darkness. Allison, quoting St. Cyril of Jerusalem, notes that in a certain sense devotion is dependent on darkness:
Light is a good thing, but it can also be a hindrance to the life of faith, in that it enables us to perceive more readily the distractions around us (which is one reason most of us pray with our eyes closed). The words from Isaiah, “I am the God who made the light and created the darkness,” are “an invitation to enter the shadows, in the hope of discovering what Cyril called that ‘night whose darkness is daylight.’ . . . God hides in the darkness, so to the darkness we must go.”
The contemporary ubiquity of noise and the corresponding absence of silence that has resulted is also bad for piety: “The entirety of the Christian tradition is here seconded by the rest of the world’s sundry religions, which with one voice advise that faith without silence is dead.”
Silence, therefore, must be specifically sought out and cultivated. “The point for us is that silence is, in the Christian tradition, a virtue, and it is embodied by God. Does this not become for us an imperative—God’s silence is our example?”
Allison goes on to examine asceticism, prayer, Scripture reading, and the example of the saints in the light of his observations about nature, wonder, darkness, and silence. These varied discussions are linked together by the author’s critique of modernity in its negative aspects.
Some, no doubt, would dismiss this critique as nostalgic, or as a sort of educated sentimentalism. They would be wrong. The Luminous Dusk is ultimately a demonstration of the value of tradition against what C. S. Lewis called chronological snobbery.
We know that just because an object is old, dusty, and timeworn doesn’t mean that it has no value. How much more so for certain ideas? They only appear old and dusty because they have been neglected.
“The opposite of tradition has no name,” says Allison. “Yet we know what it is. It is a life lived only in the present, which is necessarily an uninformed life, formed by whatever happens by. . . . It is a life not measured against the past, and so unexamined, a life not worth living.”
The opposite of this unexamined life is one of paradox: We seek silence in order to hear the voice of God, and we enter the darkness, his “dusk,” to be illumined.
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