A View of the Gospel From Saturn

Published on Wednesday, September 11th, 2013

NASA

A few weeks ago, the Cassini spacecraft flew by Saturn. As it did so, it turned its cameras back toward earth and and snapped pictures of it just as the Voyager 1 space craft did so in 1990. If memory serves me correctly (which does not always do anymore) the image of the earth took about one quarter of a pixel of space on the photograph. Now Cassini-Hyguns has taken a slightly higher resolution photograph in which one can even see the moon along with the earth. But the emotional impact remains much the same.

In the 1990s, the well-known astronomer and host of the show Cosmos, nicknamed the picture taken by Voyager 1 the “Pale Blue Dot.” He later reflected on that picture in a famous commencement speech, portions of which appeared in his book by the same name. He encouraged every one to take a long hard look at that photograph and ponder the following:

“From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest.

But for us, it’s different. Look again 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.”

—Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space, 1997 reprint, 6-7.

Much of what Sagan said resonates with me…right up until the final sentence in the above quote. At that point, Sagan moved from reflecting on our geographical location within the cosmos and the history of humankind on earth to drawing a theological conclusion: namely, that there is no help for us coming from anywhere in the universe.

Now, as Christians, we need not shy away from recognizing that a sense of insignificance can be evoked by such photos. But we might  draw a completely different conclusion, namely, that such images can actually serve all the more to highlight the marvel of our significance as well as that of the earth as our home within the universe! In a sense, we have always known that the Gospel is (what theologians call) a “scandal of particularity.” In other words, it seems to be God’s very modus operandi to choose the small, the weak, and the insignificant through whom to work out his purposes.

And when God chooses the seemingly insignificant, He (as my colleague Erik put it) goes “all in.” He totally invests Himself. There is no “plan B” so to speak. God did that with Abraham and Sarah through whom he promised to bless all the nations of the earth. And God did that when He acted in a definitive way 2000 years ago by sending his Son to become incarnate as a particular Jewish man in order to rescue all of creation by means of a particular crucifixion and resurrection.

And God did all of all this on a “pale blue dot” within an ordinary run of the mill solar system residing on the edge of the one the smaller arms of the Milky Way, a spiral galaxy that itself is perhaps only one of the billions of galaxies in the universe. God not only paid special attention to this “pale blue dot” by lavishing life abundant upon it, but He then carried out the restoration of His entire creation on this particular planet.

How can this not seem incredulous and even scandalous? That some see it so is not unique to our day. The Apostle Paul observed it also in his day. Yet way of working is precisely what makes God and His work all the more astonishing—an act of surprising goodness and grace!

Now, I realize that Sagan’s point in highlighting our “aloneness” in the universe was that we need to take responsibility for how we live and how we take care of each other along with our earth home. I agree with those concerns. It is one of the reasons for which God created His human creatures. But Sagan also seems to imply that those who look to God for help or for God to rescue us may do so (or use it as an excuse) in order to abdicate our stewardship responsibility. I reject that conclusion. To look for help from God, to look for the restoration of God’s creation in Christ actually can encourage us to take care of creation. For now we do so in hope that our work is not in vain and with a positive vision of a future inaugurated by Christ to which we give witness by our work.

Photo Credits for both Photos: NASA


Extinction and the Richness of Human Life

Published on Thursday, November 29th, 2012
golden-toad

Golden Toad—Wikimedia

Sometime ago (actually quite awhile ago), I wrote a post on the meaning of extinction and how the irrevocable loss of those creatures that no longer exist diminishes the richness of life in creation. But their loss also impoverishes us as human creatures.

Aldo Leopold recognized the tragedy of this loss to us as he looked back and lamented the passing of the passenger pigeon in the early twentieth century.

“We grieve because no living man will see again the onrushing phalanx of victorious birds sweeping a path for spring across the March skies, chasing the defeated winter from all the woods and prairies…. Our grandfathers were less well-housed, well-fed, well-clothed than we are. The strivings by which they bettered their lot are also those which deprived us of pigeons. Perhaps we now grieve because we are not sure…that we have gained by the exchange. The gadgets of industry bring us more comforts than the pigeons did, but do they add to the glory of the spring?” (Leopold, Sand County Almanac, 131.)

Not only do we lose the glory of spring, but might it also be that we lose gradually the capacity to wonder at its glory when it no longer exists to evoke such wonder. In the end, we adjust and settle for a diminished world. Now, I’m not willing to go back to an era before toilets and refrigeration, but Leopold’s words do give me pause about the price we pay (realizing it or not) for those conveniences and whether or not they had to come at such cost.

Leopold was not alone in expressing the impact upon us at the loss of an entire species. An editorial in the Christian Science Monitor, “On Cranes and Culture,” reflected on how the whooping cranes teetered on the precipice of extinction in 1954.

“There are twenty-six whooping cranes left in the world, says the National Audubon Society, two of them in captivity. And the Society appeals to sportsmen to save these great man-high birds from extinction by sparing them as they migrate from northern Canada to their winter refuge. Well, so what? The dodo bird and the passenger pigeon are already extinct. So, almost, are the trumpeter swan and the heath hen. And civilization seems to survive.

But does it, wholly? Can a society, whether through sheer wantonness or callous neglect permit the extinction of something beautiful or grand in nature without risking the extinction of something beautiful or grand in its own character? And the American society does have a consciences about such things.

Some millions of Americans will hope, we are sure, that the whooping cranes are spared for their own sake. And we have an idea that most of them will at least sense, also, that each of these beautiful birds, as it flies southward, carries a Yellowstone or Quetico-Superior Wilderness [a Canadian park] between its great wings.” “On Cranes and Culture,” Christian Science Monitor (September 17, 1954): 22.

Fortunately, Whooping cranes are still with us today with nearly 400 remain in the wild. But their situation remains precarious. But the comment that we lose something in our moral character when we push an entire species to extinction is made even more pointed by Holmes Rolston III who stated, “each species made extinct is forever slain.”1

The observations above caught my attention because they raise questions about what constitutes the good life, the life lived fully, the life lived richly. A diminished sense of wonder and a dulled moral conscience might reflect another more fundamental loss for us. Might we be impoverished by the extinction of species because we were created not only to inhabit a world teeming with other living creatures of every kind, but to rejoice in the gift of life that they share with us? That affinity for life—all life—is part of what it means for us to be human creatures. As such, it reflects God’s own love for life. Thus might it not be that the richness of human life consists—at least in part—in the joy of being members of a creation that teems with life, flourishing life, extravagant life, noisy life, beautiful life, all kinds of life?

1. Holmes Rolston III, Environmental Ethics: Duties and Values to the Natural World (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1988), 158.

Check out this interactive map of species that have either gone extinct or are endangered.

This post is a revision of material found in Charles P. Arand and Erik Herrmann, “Attending to the Beauty of the Creation and the New Creation,” Concordia Journal 38(Fall 2012):313-331


The 6th Day

Published on Tuesday, April 3rd, 2012

6th-day2One of my students who has an interest in the early church thought he had run across an indication that there were times when the early church fathers preached/lectured on the days of creation during Holy Week. Now whether or not they did so, I don’t know for sure. But as I reflected on the idea, it suggested some intriguing connections. It provides a way of pulling together the original creation and the new creation as it focuses on the central role of God’s human creatures in both instances.

Consider this: on the 6th day of the week, God created his human creatures; on the 6th day of the week, Jesus (the Creator incarnate) dies for his human creatures. God’s human creatures were not content to remain creatures. They wanted to rise above and transcend their creatureliness. They wanted to be like God. Yet in that very moment, when they overreached, they fell. And when they fell, they dragged down with them the entire creation into violence, death, and decay. And then we come to Holy Week. The sixth day, the day on which the God had made his human creatures, now becomes the day that the Son (through whom all things were made) now suffers and dies as a human creature. Jesus dies and endures God’s judgment upon his human creatures. And creation fell apart: the earth quaked, the sky darkened.

The parallels continue. In Genesis, after God finished creating, He rested on the seventh day and delighted in all that he had made. And now on the seventh day, after Jesus declared on the cross that “it was finished,” Jesus rested in the tomb. This time he rested not from his work of creation, but from his work of rescuing creation. And then the new beginning. On the first day of the week he arose bodily from the dead. Again, consider the connections. God began his work of creation on the first day. He now ushers in the new creation on the first day of the week—first for humans and then for the rest of creation.  And so Sunday becomes the first day of the new creation or the 8th day of creation—a point illustrated by the shape of many of our baptismal fonts. And so where the fall of the entire creation began, there the restoration of the entire creation begins (namely, with us, God’s human creatures).


James Cameron’s Deep Sea Dive

Published on Monday, March 26th, 2012
mariana-trench

Wiki Commons

I remember growing up and watching the Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau. Between that and reading the adventures of Tom Swift Jr. and His Jetmarine, I became fascinated by adventures related to the exploration of the oceans and the discovery of new creatures and their habitats.

That sense was rekindled this past weekend as James Cameron made a record setting dive down to Challenger Deep, the deepest point of the ocean in the Mariana Trench—nearly seven miles below the surface of the ocean. He did so in a one man submarine of his own design that could also accommodate 3-D cameras for videography. It looks really cool. National Geographic has put together a nice site of the entire expedition. Part of the goal was to search for life, to discover what fish or other creatures might live at such depths and that have never before been seen.

I have often wondered if the commission to care for the creation and to name our fellow creatures (Genesis 1-2) required as a prerequisite, the exploration, discovery, and delight in the wonder of God’s creation. That is, we must first receive it as a gift that testifies of God’s glory and goodness.

Coincidentally with Cameron’s dive, I’ve been reading Jacques Cousteau’s The Human, the Orchid, and the Octopus: Exploring and Conserving Our Natural World (Bloomsbury, 2007). A Roman Catholic, he has a chapter in the book entitled, “The Holy Scriptures and the Environment.” The book is fascinating as a first hand reflection by Cousteau on his life of exploration. As he described his drive to explore, he made a comment that I like quite a bit, “We never attempted to decipher the meaning of life; we wanted only to testify to the miracle of life” [italics added] (p. 39).


Whooping Cranes & Drought

Published on Monday, March 12th, 2012
wc-blue-crab2

Photo: Alan Murphy

The gulf coast of Texas is quickly becoming one of my favorite places to visit in February. My wife likes the warmer weather, we both like the whooping cranes.

The stretch of coastline from Aransas National Wildlife Refuge to Rockport provides the winter home for the only naturally migrating flock of whooping cranes in the world. Their summer home lies some 2500 miles away in Wood Buffalo National Park located in Northern Alberta. This flock teetered on the brink of extinction in 1941-42. Only 16 birds made it to Aransas that winter. Their numbers have slowly climbed up to nearly 300. The most recent estimate puts that number at approximately 245 cranes.

Last year, many of the cranes were relatively easy to see close up. A boat ride on the Skimmer piloted by Captain Tommy Moore brought one within hundreds of feet of cranes along the edges of the peninsula. This year, we could see them but not as many and not as close up. The cranes are more dispersed largely due to the extreme drought that Texas endured this past year. That means less fresh water from the Guadalupe River basin.

Wolfberry

Wolfberries

Less fresh water means higher salinity levels and that means, fewer blue crabs for the cranes—their most important food source during the winter and vital for their trip north and successful breeding season. The cranes have had to expand their range in search of other food such as wolfberries.

The refuge has also been carrying out prescribed burns of thousands of acres in order to clear out underbrush so that the cranes can eat the roasted acorns.

Still it was great to see them again. Many people come in order to check them off on their birder’s “life list.” But there’s more to just seeing them as isolated creatures, as one more species added to our tabulation of the total number of species we’ve personally identified. What makes seeing the whooping cranes in Aransas special is that it provides a chance to see them in their habitat.

aransas

Aransas National Wildlife Refuge

As Aldo Leopold noted in his “Marshland Elegy,” cranes and marshes belong together. Each is incomplete without the other. In a similar vein, Wendell Berry also observes how places shape creatures, and more importantly, how each particular place shapes each individual creature (Life is a Miracle, Citizenship Papers). And thousands of years ago, Psalm 104 also observed how God made suitable habitations for each creature and how each creature was uniquely made for life in that habitat. And so in Aransas, they fit one another, the whooping cranes and the gulf coast wetlands.

Addendum: in addition to the naturally migrating western flock, an eastern migratory flock from Wisconsin to Florida has only been recently established since about 2001 by the Whooping Crane Easter Partnership (WCEP) in conjunction with the International Crane Foundation and Operation Migration.