Monday, October 29, 2007

A philosophical look on the impact of environment on religion

The Luminous Dusk (Finding God in the Deep, Still Places)
Author: Dale C. Allison Jr.
Publisher: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company
Pages: 178

In The Luminous Dusk, Dale Allison Jr. throws “modest light upon some current conditions that most of us seldom consider.” He points out that though we may be products of our environment, we help make that environment. “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.”

In his introduction, which by itself is worth the price of the book, Allison seeks to account for the modern tendency to disbelieve in God. He argues convincingly that our “seeming secularization correlates directly with a growing physical separation from the so-called natural world.” We have moved indoors, and the more that we have done so, the less some of us have been inclined to believe.

Our disconnect from the natural world has produced a corresponding loss of wonder. The wonder that our ancestors felt at the lights of the heavens has been replaced by a host of artificial images.

Our insulation from nature has made us more self-sufficient and less dependent on God. In the past people were more vulnerable to the elements and often equated them with God. Now it seems that only cataclysmic elements are able to break into our world. Even then we tend to look for help from others more than we do from God.

Allison’s point is not that experience of the natural world generates faith. “But surely it can encourage a psychological orientation favorable to some brands of religious faith; and this suggests the correlative possibility that reduced experience of the natural world might do just the opposite.”

My sister, who happens to be a Christian, was approached some years ago by a local newspaper on a question that the paper was putting to local residents. I can’t recall the exact question, but the gist of her answer was that she thought people needed to spend more time outside. As I read Allison’s introduction I thought of my sister’s comment. Here is the theological basis for what my sister knew to be true. Being indoors and being exposed to a host of artificial environments and images of our own creating has changed us. Allison makes the case that we have suffered for it.

As I read this book, I felt like I was sitting at the feet of a scholar of Christian and classic literature, who was sharing riches from his storehouse of knowledge. In reading books by Christian authors, it’s not often that I feel a sense of wonder being rekindled within me, but I found it here in unfamiliar subjects, intellectual honesty and scholarly analysis. The impression that the author is not jumping to preconceived conclusions on a topic is refreshing.

Allison delves deeply in a philosophical way into a number of subjects. This includes the impact of technology on religion, a treatise on light and dark and its implication on finding God, and the impact of artificial environments on the imagination. There is also a profound lament on diminished Bible reading. Happily, the end of books is not approaching. One chapter deals with the need for role models rather than celebrities so that we become more than we are rather than just being content to mirror the culture.

The theme that runs through the book, including the last section that touches on prayer, is a shutting out of sensory overload and the many distractions that compete for our attention. If we shut out the lights of this world and the fires of our own making, we can find God in the dark. It’s hard to argue against the notion that the darkness of stillness and silence is conducive to experiencing God. This is what many of our forefathers discovered and Allison eloquently encourages us along the same lines.
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