Yale Daily News

On Tuesday evening, Elizabeth Bruenig, a journalist and staff writer for The Atlantic, gave the Yale Divinity School’s annual Sorensen lecture. 

Bruenig’s lecture, titled “In Praise of Shadows,” was given to YDS students and faculty and discussed the value in mystery and ambiguity. Bruenig was introduced by YDS associate professor John Pittard, who specializes in epistemology and the philosophy of religion. In her talk, Bruenig made a case for “declining particular knowledge, for leaving some things shrouded in shadow  — not for immediate and strictly contemporary political reasons, but in hopes for a much broader sociopolitical renewal,” she said in a YDS press release preceding the talk.

At The Atlantic, Bruenig “works at the intersection of politics, religion, and culture,” according to the YDS press release. In addition to The Atlantic, her work has also appeared in The Washington Post and The New York Times. Bruenig describes herself as “a chronicler of the human condition.”

Starting off her lecture, Bruenig pointed out that the general public has become “increasingly intolerant of ambiguity.” She said that mystery and uncertainty is currently perceived as something to overcome, or a hassle.

“I think we go through cultural periods where [ambiguity and uncertainty] are considered more and less valuable, morally speaking, and that we happen to be in a moment where they’re not considered very valuable at all,” Bruenig wrote in an email to the News. “And I think that causes people to potentially miss out on some important aspects of reality, and to misperceive certain truths and sources of beauty in the world.”

Bruenig then projected Damien Hirst’s art installation “Some Comfort Gained from the Acceptance of the Inherent Lies in Everything.” The art piece displays 12 glass tanks at a distance from one another, each encasing a particular slice of a cut-up bull and cow. 

Bruenig suggested that in this clinical, dissecting perspective, many important aspects of the creatures and their living condition are lost, including the relationships they have with one another.

“Surely if there were some enduring meaning to whatever bond we imagine existing between them, it would be visible here under our glass, in the bright white light of the gallery, where all is revealed,” Bruenig said. “But there’s nothing there. Just two animals which, by the point of bisection, are virtually indistinguishable from one another, and why would one bother to distinguish them anyhow?” 

Bruenig further explained another, contemporary phenomenon which society has deprived of mystery. She pointed to pornography, describing it being “the most literal form, I think, of the totalizing, rationalizing, revealing tendency.” 

In pornography, the sexual experience is displayed in a “third-person phantom presence,” revealed by clinally bright lights, Bruenig said. Watching the experience through this medium is far different from the experience itself, and it therefore is a perfect example of when a “mutilated and defaced form of the thing deprived of mystery becomes its de facto reality,” she said.

Associate research scholar Ryan McAnnally-Linz said the lecture may have greater effects on the Divinity School community at large.

“I would imagine Bruenig’s lecture is an invitation to renewed appreciation for the abiding mystery that each of us is,” McAnnally-Linz told the News. “It’s an opportunity to reconsider how we view one another quite concretely, how we look at each other and seek to know each other and how we relate to the ineradicable ambiguities of our lives.”

The Yale Divinity School was established in 1822. 

Alex used to cover all things the Divinity School. Now, she serves as Weekend Editor. She's a junior in Trumbull majoring in English.