Magazine article The Christian Century

American Soundings

Magazine article The Christian Century

American Soundings

Article excerpt

Autumn arrives September 22 (in the Northern Hemisphere). If you are like me, you depart reluctantly from summer, the season of light. Fall carries intimations of death--leaves dry and shrivel, grass bleaches corpse-pale, insects perish, squirrels batten down their nests and fatten up for a long season of lethargy. If spring is the season of fecundity and new life, summer is the season when that life is at its blazing, buzzing zenith. And fall is the season of diminishment, of paring down and drawing back, of recognizing the mortality of all living things.

If this were all that's to be said for fall, it might be just something to be savored by depressives. But assume another angle of observation. In the nascent, struggling light of a September dawn, we are not as distant from the returning shadows of dusk as we are at the start of one of those seemingly unending July days. A summer day's hot light can be relentless--why else do we spend so much summertime hunting shade? Fall is the season of soft light and gentle shadows.

And there is much to be said for soft light and shadows. As the philosopher of science Michel Serres comments, "A certain light, strong and focused, dazzles the eye, whereas placing an object in light and shadow allows us to see it. Actually, we always see in this way, in the light and shadow of the real atmosphere. The pure light of the sun would burn our eyes, and we would die of cold in the darkness."

We children of the Enlightenment, Serres worries, tend to focus on the knowledge that comes from intense light, exposing everything to maximal scrutiny. I would add that we can assume as much not only in rarefied philosophy, but in the everydayness of the "reality" TV shows that seek to expose even the most intimate secrets to public view. We can assume as much in our ongoing efforts to smash all taboos, reveal all mysteries, break down every puzzle into a problem to be solved. Serres says the ancients recognized a second kind of knowledge, one that remembers that some things must be kept in the shadows so they can be conserved. "To wrench something from the shadows is often to destroy it.... Everything has its price, even clarity."

It may be one thing for a philosopher to praise shadows, but can the theologian? …

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