A reflection based on Psalm 8.
I was 9 years old when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. It kicked off a fascination in space travel that stayed with me throughout my teens. I devoured science fiction books; I joined the Royal Astronomical Society and peered at distant planets through backyard telescopes; I took pictures of subsequent moon landings off the television with my first camera. I was enraptured by it all.
It wasn’t until years later that I began to wonder at the motives behind the space race, or whether the monies that Americans devoted to this odyssey might have been spent in better ways. As an adolescent, it was adventure and wonder and beauty that grabbed me.
In retrospect, I have a lot more sympathy with the people who look at the extent of poverty in the USA and wonder whether life would have been different for millions if the monies invested in space exploration had been invested in schools or health care instead. I wonder now why it was so important to go to the stars when people were losing their homes for lack of resources to pay doctors. Was beating the Russians to the moon worth the cost?
How we set our social priorities, and who benefits, are really important questions, and even though 9-year-olds seldom ask them, the rest of us ought to.
But in the midst of asking the hard social questions, it would be a real shame if we lost sight of wonder. The universe is wondrous. The immensity of the distances, the beauty of the stars, the astonishing and unending variety of colours and worlds and possibilities, legitimately draw our spirits heavenwards and invite us to contemplate our place in creation.
Thousands of years ago, the psalmist gazed at the stars and asked “what are human beings, that you are mindful of them?” and then added with no little trace of wonder, “yet you have made us a little less than Gods.” Astonishing!
The Apollo 8 astronauts, circling the moon on Christmas Eve 1968 read the Genesis Creation story back to Earth, as a way to articulate their awe at what they were seeing. Their iconic picture of the Earth rising above the surface of the moon continues to remind all of humanity how fragile our planet is, and how insignificant human divisions seem when you realize what we all share. Some have called that photo the beginning of the environmental movement.
Rabbi Abraham Heschel said “To pray is to take notice of the wonder, to regain a sense of the mystery that animates all beings, the divine margin in all attainments. Prayer is our humble answer to the inconceivable surprise of living. It is all we can offer in return for the mystery by which we live.” (cited here)
When we live in the midst of that kind of wonder, we can’t help but ask all the questions of meaning as well. What is life for? How does our striving connect to the greatness of what God has made? How are our neighbours faring on this awesome journey through the universe? Raising our eyes to the wonder of the heavens should connect us to all of creation, and call compassion, generosity, and justice from our hearts. The hard social questions are even more urgent when we ask them in light of the awe and beauty which are gifted to each human being on Earth. Who are we to hoard what was given freely for all?
We stand in awe of all the God has made, and ponder how to respond to the inconceivable surprise of living.
— The Rev. Stephen Fetter is the minister at Forest Hill United Church, an intercultural congregation in Toronto. He’s also the coordinator of United-in-Learning, the General Council’s online continuing education program.