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