A pale blue dot

In this season of remembering many of us are looking at our lives and the world with a greater degree of perspective. This is the time of year when we literally re-member by gathering up the scattered associations of lives past and present. Through the celebrations and commemorations of All Saints’, All Souls’, Armistice Day and Remembrance Sunday, we are challenged to focus on the human and divine aspects of God’s creation in terms of our family, our society and our nationhood.

But, in recent weeks, I have been able to see the world from a different perspective, not just from ‘my point of view’ but from a place 4 billion miles from the earth! I attended an evening with Professor Brian Cox (with a thousand others) and was enthralled by the science of space exploration. I would like to add that I was also in full admiration of his enthusiasm for his subject, the mathematical modelling and the boundaries of physics and cosmology that he and his colleagues were intent on stretching. At the heart of the evening, the professor sat down and simply read from one of his heroes and mentors, the cosmologist, Carl Sagan. Cox called up an image on his screen which looked somewhat less spectacular than the colourful star scenes that had previously lit up the auditorium. This image displayed a dry, crusty landscape in the foreground, that of Mars. In the dark distance of space, a tiny spec of light appears, a blue dot, which is the planet earth. It is this image and this perspective of earth which inspired Sagan to write these words:

Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there–on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known. (Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot, 1994)

The Milky Way is the galaxy that contains our Solar System. A 2016 study estimated that the observable universe contained ten times that number or 2 trillion galaxies!
The Milky Way is the galaxy that contains our Solar System. A 2016 study estimated that the observable universe contained ten times that number or 2 trillion galaxies!

I wonder if we too might look at the world, at this time of remembrance, and see how much bigger God is. We tend to reduce God to our level, restrict God to our limitations, confine God to our known experience. Theology has a great deal to learn from scientific study. It is my belief that science has got a lot to learn from theological exploration and discovery too. One who kept his perspective on both disciplines was a Belgian priest-astronomer, Monsignor Georges Lemaître. It was Mgr Lemaître who first proposed the Big Bang theory, he worked alongside Albert Einstein, and is known as “the father of modern cosmology”. So, let us celebrate the penetrating perspective which we hold through our faith and experience as Christians. Most importantly, let’s use that perspective to proclaim the wonder of God’s creativity.

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Author: Gavin Knight

The Revd Gavin Knight has been the Vicar of St Michael & All Angels, Summertown in the Oxford Diocese since September 2011. After serving his title at St Alphege, Solihull, Gavin became parish priest of St Andrew's Fulham Fields in London. He moved to Wales in 2005 becoming Chaplain to Monmouth School. He is married to Jo, a clinical psychologist, and they have three sons.