When the New Testament was written, the earth was assumed to be the center of a small universe with heaven above. Our world was the only world there was, and it was flat, perhaps convex, which would explain why ships on the high seas seemed to gradually disappear from bottom to top.
When I was born the universe was thought to be much larger, but since then it has grown even more in our imagination, perhaps by a factor of trillions. I’m not good at math.
By then we had discovered a few galaxies. At first we thought they were individual stars so distant that the full span of our solar circle, about 186 million miles, about 16 light-minutes, made no difference to our perspective. They didn’t seem to move.
It was easier to believe in a Creator God when the world was small and special.
For the past week we have been shown images from the James Webb Telescope of galaxies, thousands of galaxies more than 13 billion light-years away.
We can’t even say for sure if they’re still there. The mere concept of events out there contemporaneous with events here is meaningless.
In Diana Athill’s autobiography, two people walking side by side look up at the stars. One responds with a feeling that we are utterly insignificant down here and that belief in a God noticing us is impossible.
The other person in the story, gazing at the same stars, reacts in exactly the opposite way, thinking how could one not believe in God when one sees such glory.
The contemplation of heaven inspires faith in some and atheism in others.
When seven astronauts died when their spacecraft exploded in 1986, US President Ronald Reagan truncated a few lines from a poem by John Gillespie Magee to say that they “broke the sullen bonds of the earth to touch the face of God.” .
So the president and the poet shared the same idea that the sky, the heavens, still represented the divine, our destiny, our home.
I can’t get 13 billion light years out of my head or in either. I get restless just thinking about it. And I don’t know how a simple Christian faith can survive this insight except by ignoring it or refusing to believe it.
One of the questions we RE teachers often asked was, ‘Has Jesus incarnated on other planets?’
Even as children, the contemplation of a nearly infinite universe changed the relevance of what we were taught about faith and human destiny.
As I got older, science fiction became much more compelling than conventional religion.
One of the most annoying parts of this contemplation is getting down to business, having to accept that we’ll never know, but I had to feed my hungry imaginations with stories about life on other planets and time travel, maybe to fill the gap, left behind when the religion I was taught became untenable. dr Who meant more to me than Jesus because he reached the parts of my mind that the old stories couldn’t satisfy.
We now know that there could be thousands of Earths in our own galaxy alone.
Some may have already self-destructed in nuclear wars. Some may have already cooked themselves to extinction under clouds of greenhouse gases.
Some may even have discovered the secret of living peacefully with their neighbors.
Intelligent primates may never have appeared in most of them.
Some worlds, as we know, are water on the inside with a crust on the outside. Creatures that evolved in such places may never have seen the sky. Their understanding of their place in the universe may be similar to ours 2,000 years ago.
And in some worlds, according to current speculation, intelligent beings might have had a billion years longer than we do to develop technologies beyond anything we can dream of.
But we will never reach them.
I was nine years old when Gagarin went into space. Today I read that Nasa is planning a mission to explore Uranus which, if planning begins this year, will launch in 10 years when I’m in my 80s and be completed 13 years later when I’m in my 90’s if I make it this far.
Space exploration is a long-term science that cannot span a single lifespan.
A week after we saw James Webb’s first images showing what a small slice of the universe looked like 13 billion years ago, Britain received irrefutable evidence of climate change. The sun isn’t hotter or getting closer, but we’ve filled the sky with gases that amplify its heat the same way your grandfather grew tomatoes.
Deadly jellyfish that have adapted to warm seas are now washing up on Irish beaches.
One thing we know from looking at the night sky is that the universe can do just fine without us, as it has for 13 billion years. We are newcomers, an evolutionary experiment that may prove a bigger failure than the dinosaurs.
The only ones who care about our presence in this universe are ourselves. If there’s a message from the stars, it’s this: We really are cosmically negligible.
In human terms, we are still all we can know.
https://www.independent.ie/news/why-our-place-in-the-universe-has-never-been-smaller-41850478.html Why our place in the universe has never been smaller