St. Thomas Church Newsletter January 2001
Stars of Wonder Christmas Eve.
The cold bit my cheeks; smoke from the village chimneys rose straight up into the frosty air. Over the rooftops, Orion's belt hung vertically: a brilliant setting of three diamonds against deep blue velvet, reminding me of another star in the East, two thousand years ago.
This lovely winter sky also recalled a summer night in 1972. A college friend, who had spent almost his entire life in Queens, was visiting me in rural upstate New York. Late at night, we walked through the damp grass down to the lake, the stillness broken only by the occasional chug of a bullfrog or the soft splash of a fish rising for a nocturnal insect. Reaching the shore, we looked up. It was a night of astonishing beauty: moonless, the sky ablaze with thousands and thousands of stars, each one reflected in the perfect dark mirror of the lake. My friend was stunned. "Incredible," he said at last. "It's just like the planetarium!"
This fall I smiled, remembering that remark, as I waited for the planetarium show to begin at New York City's new Rose Center for Earth and Space, a towering glass cube on one side of the American Museum of Natural History. Inside the cube, glowing blue at night, is a gigantic sphere. Within the sphere is the new Hayden Planetarium, capable of simulating a view of the universe not just from earth, but from any point in known space.
In the domed amphitheater inside the sphere, the lights dimmed, space music played, school groups hushed their chatter. The floor opened, and the star projector, a strange, huge, stainless steel object studded with lenses, rose slowly in the center. The room went black. Suddenly, the dome above us was filled with stars: clearer, brighter, and more numerous than I had ever seen. The narrator began: "In ancient times, when darkness was lit only by campfires, the sky looked like this every night. From the earliest days of human existence, people have looked up at the night sky -- and wondered what it was."
The planetarium show began looking upward from earth, and then moved outward into space. Through the windows of our virtual starship we watched a changing night sky, as we flew past the moon and the planets, through our home galaxy, the Milky Way, and out into the farther reaches of the universe, even visiting a nebula where stars were being born in a fiery gaseous factory. All the while, "home" receded until even the Milky Way itself was just a tiny dot of light, like one insignificant, barely visible star in our own night sky. We learned what astronomy has discovered about the starry origins of our own sun, the earth, and even the elements that make up our own bodies. "We are star stuff," concluded the narrator, quoting Carl Sagan.
When the lights came up, the room remained quiet. People slowly filed out with far-away, dazed expressions, as if trying to process the reality-bending journey they had just taken. The world, and the sky, would never look quite the same.
Leaving the planetarium, I thought about the huge distance we've traveled since the time of Abraham and Sarah, when people really did lie beneath the night sky pondering "what is this?" Now, science and technology are probing every boundary, from the infinitesimal human genetic code to the immensity of the universe. What happens to that most human capacity, wonder, as mystery is unraveled? What happens - to God?
Along with others, we entered the lower part of the sphere, past a sign saying: "Enter Here for the Big Bang Experience". Again, the circular room was dark, and we looked over a railing into a black hole: a void. As a narrator intoned a warning about sudden loud noises and began her explanation, the room began to shake, and with a huge explosive "bang", matter and light seemed to rush out of the void beneath our feet. The five-minute demonstration ended. People looked at one another, perplexed, and went out shaking their heads. Our flight through the universe had been amazing, but believable. But the Big Bang...had fizzled.
It seems to me that our minds cannot really grasp infinity, nor can they fully penetrate the mystery of beginnings and endings. The Big Bang, now a nearly universally accepted scientific theory, rests on the observable fact that everything in the universe is expanding outward, rushing away from an unknown point of origin. The theory also rests - maddeningly for agnostic scientists -- on a moment of ultimate creation.
The closer we get to apparent ultimate scientific truth, the more it recedes just beyond our grasp, like a star reached for by a child. New, unforeseen horizons of wonder open up -- and we are forced to return, once more, to the realm of image, story, and symbolism.
Biblical scholar Helmut Thielicke wrote: "The purpose of creation stories is to show what it means for me and my life that God is there at the beginning and at the end, and that everything that happens in the world -my little life with its cares and its joys, and also the history of the world at large extending from stone-age man to the atomic era - that all of this is, so to speak, a discourse enclosed, upheld, and guarded by the breath of God."
Wonder and curiosity are at the core of our humanity; they are part of our inheritance as children of God. Like eager children, we will always plunge forward, toward the unknown. And the mind of God will race ever ahead of us, his breath visible in the frosty air, laughing with delight.
Beth Adams (c) 2001