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STARS IN OUR EYES
The universe has grown over the past one hundred years. That is to say, our knowledge of the universe has increased. I will offer some thoughts on what it means to live in a Cosmos much vaster than we knew.
Reading 1: Genesis 1:1-5 and 14-19
1In the beginning when God created* the heavens and the earth, 2the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God* swept over the face of the waters. 3Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light. 4And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. 5God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day…
14 And God said, ‘Let there be lights in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night; and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years, 15and let them be lights in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth.’ And it was so. 16God made the two great lights—the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night—and the stars. 17God set them in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth, 18to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness. And God saw that it was good. 19And there was evening and there was morning, the fourth day.
Reading 2: Psalm 8
1 O Lord, our Sovereign,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!
You have set your glory above the heavens.
2 Out of the mouths of babes and infants
you have founded a bulwark because of your foes,
to silence the enemy and the avenger.
3 When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars that you have established;
4 what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
mortals* that you care for them?
5 Yet you have made them a little lower than God,*
and crowned them with glory and honour.
6 You have given them dominion over the works of your hands;
you have put all things under their feet,
7 all sheep and oxen,
and also the beasts of the field,
8 the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea,
whatever passes along the paths of the seas.
9 O Lord, our Sovereign,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!
This has been a week of turmoil in places around the world: Bahrain, Libya, Yemen, Ivory Coast and others where demonstrators striving for freedom have been in the streets.
And here at home we have seen demonstrations in streets of Madison, Wisconsin where we see differing visions and beliefs about what America and about what is the outcome of the path we are now on: If states and federal government cut budgets, will that bring a new era of economic freedom and economic wealth to America saving us from bankruptcy and economic collapse; or will it bring instead a new era of gross disparities where only a few are wealthy and the majority sink into a near poverty lifestyle where they live with no safety net, with little or no access to education and health care, to food, clothing and shelter. Each side sees the other’s path as one that leads to disaster.
These are big questions, big issues, and I am tempted to speak to them. But I also believe there are times to lift our sights to other topics and I will do so today.
The Unitarian part of our Unitarian Universalist heritage includes a “holy trinity” of principles. These are reason, freedom and tolerance. I am particularly focused on reason this morning. Unitarianism is firmly embedded in the Protestant tradition which called on people to read scripture for themselves. Throughout our history most Unitarians have applied reason to scriptures, and we have generally rejected the belief that there are secret, esoteric doctrines which only a few are privy to or that some of us are not yet ready to know because we have not developed spiritually or psychologically to the level where we can handle the truth. As a rule, Unitarianism has viewed this as a pretentious stand; you have the truth and can handle it while I am not ready for it? Nonsense! We have believed in the equality of spiritual and religious capability; we have believed that revelation is ongoing and is available to all.
When I was in Divinity School I took a course in communications, where we were supposed to experiment with various methods of getting across ideas without being what our professor called “talking heads”. I arrived late one day and found my class walking single file, each person with their eyes closed and with one hand on the shoulder of the person in front of them. I joined the back of the line, putting my hand on the person’s shoulder, but did not shut my eyes. The professor moved up next to me and whispered in my ear, “Given your tradition it is appropriate for you to enter into this with your eyes wide open”.
Because of our attachment to reason we have been open to the discoveries of science even when those discoveries challenge religious truth.
And with that in mind, let us turn to the evolution of scientific thinking about the universe.
The universe as described in the book of Genesis was a view that put the Earth at the center of everything; above the earth was the dome of the sky which contained the stars, the sun and the moon. And the dome was literally a dome.
And the universe was a few thousand years old, ten thousand years at most.
In this universe, everything was created for the enjoyment of human beings. We were God’s companions and chosen life form (before being cast out of Eden). We were nearly as good as the angels—maybe even more important than angels. One extra-Biblical explanation for the fall of Satan was that Satan refused to bow down to worship Adam.
In the western world that view of the universe held until the early 1500’s when Copernicus proposed that the sun was in the center of the universe. Many religious people opposed that theory because the Bible says otherwise; can’t you read?
But the Copernican theory ultimately triumphed.
In 1918 an astronomer named Harlow Shapley determined that the galaxy was ten times larger than had been thought, and that the sun was not in the center of the galaxy, but was out towards one edge.
Within astronomy there was a discussion called “The great debate” in 1920 between Harlow Shapley and Heber Curtis. Shapley placed the sun near outer edge of galaxy, but said galaxy was most of universe, Curtis put the sun in center of galaxy, but said the Milky Way might be only one of many galaxies.
In 1923 Hubble proved them both partly right, that the sun was at edge of Milky Way, but that the Milky Way was only one of many galaxies. Suddenly the universe was far vaster than anything we had known. And we know that it is expanding, literally expanding, growing out from us in all directions.
It has been just 93 years since we learned the galaxy is ten times larger than we thought, and just 89 years since we learned for certain that the universe has multitudes of galaxies. That is within the lifetime of many people on this planet.
Galaxies come in many different sizes, but many of them are composed of billions of stars. This led to speculation by extrapolation about the universe; the sun has planets, so many of those stars out there must have planets, and some of them must have living beings on them.
That is a rational extrapolation, but until recent years there was no evidence even of the first part, that other stars even had planets. Now there is.
On Feb 2, scientists working with the Kepler Telescope announced that they have identified more than 1200 possible planets outside the solar system.
While it is still only a matter of speculation that there are life forms on other planets, and still only a speculation that some of those have evolved a level of intelligence as high as or higher than ours, it becomes ever more likely that we are not alone.
Now along with all of this came two other things: knowledge about the evolution of the Earth and the universe, and knowledge about the evolution of life on Earth. We learned that the Earth and the universe are billions of years old; more than ten billion in the case of the universe, so it has grown not just in the three dimensions of extent, but also in the fourth dimension of time. The difference between ten thousand years and ten billion years is immense, and my at best 125 year lifespan seems so much less impressive and so much less important in the context of the billions of years of the universe.
And the other revelation (crushing for some) is that we now know that we are not a special creation placed somewhere between animals and angels, but we are just an evolving animal.
Why is it that after a million years of human existence this information is only being discovered now? How does it happen that in only one hundred years so much has been discovered about the universe we live in?
Well, for one thing, once information begins to flow, once the floodgates are open; it comes gushing out, and knowledge builds upon itself. Each discovery opens the door to new discoveries and knowledge grows geometrically.
But also in part that the delay in the knowledge of this information was because some information was not allowed to be disseminated; people like Galileo faced trial for saying that the earth revolved around the sun.
But is it also possible that in the eyes of some divine power we were neither spiritually nor psychologically developed to the point where we could handle the truth?
How many people in the 1800’s rejected the scientific evidence for evolution and scoffed at or attacked Darwin for his revelation that Natural Selection is the engine of evolution? How many still do?
Our human psychology has not yet caught up to our science.
Don’t we still believe that we are the special creation of God and that the universe was created for us? If you don’t think so, just watch the evening news. Or listen to what we argue about.
And I must confess that, truth be told, there are some times when I think or feel that the universe was created not for “we”, but for “me”. Sad, but true. Some of you may have had similar moments.
Science is telling us that we are not the reason for the creation of the world or of the universe; the world was not created as a plaything for us.
There are several possible paths to take with this information. One is to say that science is destroying faith in God; that if the scientific view is true, then God and the Bible are false and that cannot be. Anothere, of course, is a crushing despair; the despair that says human life and my life are of no importance, are valueless, are meaningless, are pointless.
But I reject those views; the first is a literal interpretation of the Bible that makes God too small; and the other makes us too small.
I see other truths.
For those here who are theists, who believe that there is a divine creative principle that either made or fills the universe, the fact that the Cosmos is so much greater than we knew does not in any way diminish the awesome majesty of the divine power. Instead, it reveals to us that it, too, is so much greater than we knew. The Divinity that made the Earth and the lights in the dome above was wondrous; but how much greater is the Divine power or being that can create the universe we now know?
Less than five hundred years since Copernicus shifted the sun to the center of the universe—five hundred years is nothing in the time span of humanity or the planet or the Cosmos–less than one hundred years since Harlow showed how massive the Milky Way is and Hubble showed that it is only one of billions of galaxies dancing through the universe; how much grander, how much more majestic, has the creative power become? And how much more meaningful the question of the Psalmist:
“…what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
mortals* that you care for them?”.
For all of us, theists or not, there is something especially grounding–at least for me–in knowing that I have evolved from the Earth, from the Universe; there is that within me which feels more deeply rooted in the life of this planet when I know that other life forms are not separate from me, but I am part of them, and part of all life throughout the Cosmos. It is humbling, but it is humbling in a healthy way, humbling in a way that gives me a feeling of serenity, a sense of place in the Cosmos, a sense of place in all that is.
I belong here. I do not mean by that that I belong in this pulpit or in this room; I mean I belong on this planet, in this solar system, in this galaxy, in this universe. I am part of it. I have arisen from it. It is all my home.
I thank God or the Goddess or whatever powers may be for all that is, for life, for my ability to sense and experience this life and for my ability to share it with others.
And may we express our gratitude as we sing together hymn #163.