It’s a brisk autumn evening. The sky is clear and the moon shines brightly, giving illumination to the back yard. About an hour earlier, we moved our telescope from a corner in the kitchen out to the deck so that the instrument could adjust to the temperature. It was now time to go out into the night and take some time to view the sky.
Ever since I was quite young, I enjoyed looking up at the night sky. The moon was particularly captivating to me. As I child, I’d get excited to see the face of the “man on the moon” looking back at me. Now, with the aid of the telescope, I’m filled with a different sense of wonder as I look at the craters, shadows, and plains on the surface of the moon. A deep silence comes over me.
The sense of awe deepens for me as the telescope is adjusted to gaze on various stars. It’s amazing that a smart phone app can be pointed to the sky to provide information about all the luminaries that are visible. While I often see the same stars from the back deck, I am struck by the thousands of light years their illumination has traveled to reach me. The vastness of the universe is beyond my ability to comprehend.
For some time, we’ve known that Earth, the only world we know, is part of a solar system of eight planets located in one of the arms of the Milky Way galaxy. There are over a million other solar systems in the Milky Way galaxy alone. NASA estimates that there are hundreds of billions of galaxies in the universe. Our home is in a far flung corner of that universe. Like it or not, in cosmic terms, we live in Podunkville – a small isolated place in one remote corner of the universe.
It’s understandable that before the advent of science ancient people thought that Earth was the center of the cosmos. Even with the best of our equipment, we still can’t chart the immensity of the universe. Some theoretical physicists suggest that our universe exists as the only one of many that exist as part of a multiverse. Some ancient peoples like the Mayans and the Chinese, came to understand that there was much more out in space than what many other humans believed. Western culture was shocked to its core when Copernicus and Galileo helped us to understand that we were not, in fact, the center around which the rest of the heavens revolved.
It has now been more than 500 years since the initial observations that led us to understand that Earth is merely one planet in the context of a much larger system. Our understanding of the complexity of that cosmic system continues to grow more and more as time passes. Yet, what has remained largely unchanged is the way in which belief systems that are part of Western culture understand the Earth and human life.
The Hebrew Scriptures convey an understanding of the Earth as a large flat plain supported by two pillars and covered by a dome. There’s something I find attractive about this metaphor because the pillars that up-hold the Earth are justice and righteousness (or right living). Indeed, it’s a wonderful image to consider. When the foundation of life is understood as the balance of equity and just living, human self-centeredness gives way to right relationships with others and the planet. But in terms of cosmology, the Earth is not a flat plan supported by pillars with a dome holding the sky in place.
The first book of the Bible, Genesis, recounts two completely different stories about the creation of life and humanity on Earth. Not only do these stories contradict each other but we know that they are not true. In fact, life emerged on Earth multiple times. Catastrophic events all but wiped out the predominant life on the planet in one era only to have it re-emerge in new forms a again and again. The era of human beings is just one of those periods of unique life.
My point is not to point out factual errors in the Bible. Frankly, there are too many for me to count. That doesn’t prevent me from understanding the Bible as a sacred story that has the power to inspire me to consider life’s mystery. Instead, my frustration is that by clinging to religious and cultural cosmologies that do not reflect what we actually know about the universe, we miss the opportunity to integrate what we know about science and to understand the powerful metaphors that emerge for human living in a new cosmology.
While I am not a cosmologist, I know that we are planetary voyagers on the edge of the universe. While there may be other life out there, we are the only life we know that is capable of consciously reflecting on the beauty and wonder of the cosmos. What does that mean for us spiritually or even theologically?
I recognize that human life is very brief. That’s true for our individual life spans as well as the number of years human beings have lived on Earth itself. Our lives pass away and are gone within the context of a cosmos that continues to evolve after billions of years. Given the brevity of life, how important is it for us to live in a way that is fully awake and mindful of each moment! We have the unique ability to savor the wonder of the universe which, as far as we know, only human beings can appreciate. To our best knowledge, we are truly unique in the universe. Our uniqueness doesn’t rest in a false belief that we are the center of the universe and that the universe was made for our use. Instead, we are unique because we can be captivated by wonder and beauty during our momentary lives before the stuff of our bodies becomes again nothing but elements of the cosmos.
I look forward to evenings on the deck with the telescope. As we approach the winter solstice, I’ll have the chance to gaze upon different stars. It is amazing to recognize that all which I see that is a great distance away is somehow part of me. In time, I will again become part of what is out there.
© 2013, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.