Most people today would have trouble replicating Galileo's ages-old feat, even with modern telescopes -- not because the stars and planets are dimmer, but because the Earth has become much brighter. In an article in The New Yorker titled The Dark Side, David Owen notes that a person standing on the observation deck of the Empire State Building in New York City on a cloudless night today "would be unable to discern much more than the moon, the brighter planets, and a handful of very bright stars -- less than one per cent of what Galileo would have been able to see without a telescope."
Thoughts about Galileo, and about how our view of the heavens has changed over the past 400 years, came to mind during Earth Hour last month when millions of people around the globe turned off unnecessary lights. In Canada, 258 communities signed up to show their concern about climate change; worldwide, over 4,000 cities and towns in 88 countries participated in the event.
Earth Hour also got me thinking about the role light plays in religion. Almost all religions use it as metaphor for knowledge, wisdom, justice and other spiritual ideals and goals. Conversely, darkness has most often been a common metaphor for evil.
Since the world's major religions originated before electricity, it's easy to see why light and dark were such important concepts -- there was so little light back then, and the dark was so encompassing. The idea of God as light, piercing and dispersing darkness, would have been immediately understood and appreciated by all.
Today, that image is much less meaningful. If we want light, we simply flick on a switch. We can experience illumination 24 hours a day, if we want -- something that would have been very difficult, if not impossible, for most people not very long ago. As a result, we fail to see light as something special, or even miraculous; it has become just another commonplace commodity that we take for granted.
If anything, we have too much light these days. The many lights from buildings, street lights, cars and other sources in large parts of the developed world have created a condition called skyglow, the dome of light that appears over major cities and washes out the night sky. This light pollution, as astronomers call it, means that those who study the skies have to go farther and farther afield to find places dark enough to permit decent stargazing. To see skies like Galileo knew, you would have to travel to the Australian Outback or the mountains of Peru.
Does this mean that light is no longer a useful metaphor for God or religious understanding? Of course not. But it may have lost some of its power and meaning today.
At the same time, just as Earth Hour helped us appreciate the dark, if only for a short time, maybe this is the time for religious people to see darkness in a new way.
How so? Just as skyglow prevents us from seeing the stars today, maybe too much activity prevents us from seeing the things that really matter -- relationships, family, friends, and God as well.
Maybe the problem is too much information, particularly the steady, relentless and depressing drone of bad news in so much of the media. Maybe we could use more times of darkness from the news to rest and calm our bodies, minds and souls.
Or maybe we need to go digitally dark by turning off our BlackBerries and cellphones and avoiding email. A good book, a walk in the park, or even some time of silent meditation could help us see things we have missed in life, or are in danger of missing.
Almost 30 years ago, I laid on my back on a hill in rural Greece and looked up at the night sky. I was amazed -- I had never seen so many stars before. No wonder, I thought to myself, that the ancient Greeks spent so much time detailing and mapping the constellations; they could actually see them.
More recently, I remember driving in rural Nicaragua on a pitch-black night. Far off in the distance, I could see a single, solitary light of a farmhouse; in Managua, that country's capital city, it would have been lost, one dim light among many. But there, alone, it stood out brightly and beckoned, a single gash against the darkness.
Through both experiences, and through some trying personal circumstances, I have come to appreciate the dark in a whole new way. Sometimes it is only in great darkness that we can fully see the light.