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Finding God in Looking Up

The following quotations are from Philip Yancey’s book, “Finding God in Unexpected Places” published in 1997.

 

I have been thinking about the universe lately. The whole thing. After reading some of astronomer Chet Raymo’s elegiac prose (Starry Nights, The Soul of the Night), I have been craning my neck upward at odd angles when I encounter a pool of darkness. Living in Chicago, though, I mostly saw the moon, Venus, and the jets’ flight path into O’Hare Field, and must take Raymo’s word for what lies beyond.

Learning about the universe does little for earthly self-esteem. Our sun, powerful enough to turn white skin bronze and to coax oxygen from every plant on earth, ranks fairly low by galactic standards. If the giant star Antares were positioned where our sun is—--93 million miles away—--the earth would be inside it! And our sun and Antares represent just 2 of 500 billion stars that swim around in the vast, forlorn space of the Milky Way. A dime held out at arm’s length would block 15 million stars from view, if our eyes could see with that power.

From our hemisphere, only one other galaxy, Andromeda, is large enough and close enough (a mere 2 million light-years away) to see with the naked eye. It showed up on star charts long before the invention of the telescope, and until recently no one could know that the little blob of light marked the presence of another galaxy, one twice the size of the Milky Way and home to half a trillion stars. Or that these next-door neighbors were but 2 of 100 billion galaxies likewise swarming with stars.

One reason the night sky stays dark despite the presence of so many luminous bodies is that all the galaxies are hurtling away from each other with astonishing speed. Tomorrow, some galaxies will be 30 million miles farther away from us. In the time it takes to type this sentence, they’ll have receded another 5,100 miles.

 

I saw the Milky Way in full glory once, while visiting a refugee camp in Somalia, just below the equator. Our galaxy stretched across the canopy of darkness like a highway paved with diamond dust. Since that night, when I lay with warm sand at my back far from the nearest streetlight, the sky has never seemed as empty and the earth never as large.

I had spent all day interviewing relief workers about the megadisaster of the moment. Kurdistan, Rwanda, Sudan, Ethiopia—--place names change, but the spectacle of suffering has a dreary sameness: mothers with shriveled, milkless breasts, babies crying and dying, fathers foraging for firewood in a treeless terrain.

After three days of hearing tales of human misery, I could not lift my sights beyond that refugee camp situated in an obscure corner of an obscure country on the Horn of Africa. Until I saw the Milky Way. It abruptly reminded me that the present moment did not comprise all of life. History would go on. Tribes, governments, and whole civilizations may rise and fall, trailing disaster in their wake, but I dared not confine my field of vision to the scenes of suffering around me. I needed to look up, to the stars.

“Can you bind the beautiful Pleiades? Can you loose the cords of Orion? Can you bring forth the constellations in their seasons or lead out the Bear with its cubs? Do you know the laws of the heavens? Can you set up God’s dominion over the earth?” These questions God asked a man named Job who, obsessed with his own great pain, had confined his vision to the borders of his itchy skin. Remarkably, God’s reminder seemed to help Job. His skin still itched, but Job got a glimpse of other matters God must attend to in a universe of 100 billion galaxies.

To me, God’s speech in the book of Job conveys a tone of gruffness. But perhaps that is its most important message: the Lord of the universe has a right to gruffness when assailed by one tiny human being, notwithing the merits of his complaint. We descendants of Job dare not lose sight of The Big Picture, a sight best glimpsed on moonless, starry nights.

You can almost mark the advancement of a people by noting their interest in stargazing. Each great civilization of the past—-Inca, Moghul, Chinese, Egyptian, Greek, Renaissance European—--made major breakthroughs in astronomy. There is an irony at work in human history: One by one, civilizations gain the capacity to fathom their own insignificance, then fail to recognize that fact and fade away.

What about us, we launchers of the Viking and Apollo spacecrafts, we makers of the orbiting Hubble observatory and the Very Large Array radio telescopes strewn over thirty-nine miles of New Mexico desert? Do our achievements make us more, or less, humble? More, or less, worshipful?

About the same time I read Chet Raymo, I went to see a film taken by a Space Shuttle crew with a special format Omnimax camera. The lightning storms impressed me most. Viewed from space, lightning flashes on and off in a random pattern of beauty, illuminating cloud cover several hundred miles wide at a burst It flares, spreads across an expanse, glows, then pales. Most eerily, it makes no sound.

I was struck by the huge difference perspective makes. On earth, families huddled indoors, cars hid under highway overpasses, animals cowered in the forest, children cried out in the night. Transformers sparked, creeks flooded, dogs howled. But from space we saw only a soft, pleasant glow, enlarging then retreating, an ocean tide of light.

Chet Raymo, who sleeps in the day and stares upward at night, lives with a constant sense of wonder, a by-product of observing the universe. He describes how the receding galaxies point back to a Big Bang of creation in which all the matter of the universe came into existence in a giant explosion that lasted one second. He acknowledges the unimaginable odds against anything good coming out of such an explosion by chance:

If, one second after the Big Bang, the ratio of the density of the universe to its expansion rate had differed from its assumed value by only one part in 1O15 (that’s 1 followed by fifteen zeros), the universe would have either quickly collapsed upon it self or ballooned so rapidly that stars and galaxies could not have condensed from the primal matter. .. . If all the grains of sand on all the beaches of the Earth were possible universes—--that is, universes consistent with the laws of physics as we know them—--and only one of those grains of sand were a universe that allowed for the existence of intelligent life, then that one grain of sand is the universe we inhabit.

 

After reading Chet Raymo, I turned to a passage I had marked long ago in the extraordinary book Alone, Commander Richard Byrd’s account of a six-month sojourn of solitude in Antarctica near the South Pole. Byrd often found himself looking up; all other landscape was blank white. Living farther south than any human being, he witnessed things in the sky—--such as refraction phenomena that shot bands of color through the sun’s core—--visible to no one else on earth.

After one chilly afternoon stroll (it was 890 below zero in the season of perpetual night), Byrd sat down and wrote about what he had seen stargazing during many such walks.

The conviction came that rhythm was too orderly; too harmonious, too perfect to be a product of blind chance—--that therefore, there must be purpose in the whole and that man was part of that whole and not an accidental offshoot. It was a feeling that transcended reason; that went to the heart of man’s despair and found it groundless. The universe was a cosmos, not a chaos; man was as rightfully a part of that cosmos as were the day, and night.

 

It takes great effort, and considerable faith, to keep The Big Picture in mind. In some ways it makes me feel utterly insignificant, in some ways eternally significant. If the God who engineered creation with such precision professes some whit of interest in what takes place on this speck of a planet, the least I can do is wander away from the streetlights more often, and look up. (21-25)

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