One of the most impactful reflections on our place in the universe is Carl Sagan’s "Pale Blue Dot.” The anniversary of the iconic image of our earth as “a spec of dust” in our solar system was remembered a short time ago and addressed in a previous post on “The Catholic Astronomer.” Personally, I love the combination of Sagan’s reflections on life and our small, blue home. Yet, amid this brilliant reflection, there is one part of the pale blue dot that provides a moment of discomfort: Sagan’s bold statement that we are delusional for thinking we have a privileged place in this universe.
Now, from the standpoint of a material analysis of the world, Sagan is correct. When analyzing our material existence in relation to the rest of the universe, we make bacteria on a wet mound in a science lab look like the Milky Way galaxy. Yet, there is something that must be considered when exploring our place in the universe: We are able to understand just how small we are.
This realization reminds me of a pivotal experience from my college years. One night, while exploring the night sky with my four inch reflector on our family farm, a neighbor was out biking and dropped by to see what I was looking at. I was observing Jupiter and its moons. I let him look through my telescope and we began to talk about how Jupiter is a gas giant, a “potential star” that just didn’t have enough “juice” to switch on. We talked about how Jupiter’s moons are like a mini solar system of dynamic worlds - Io’s sulfur volcanos, the curiosity of what is under Europa’s icy crust, and so forth. We then talked about astronomical units (AU’s), light years, millions of light years, and billions of light years. At that point, my neighbor gave an overwhelmed reaction of amazement, sparked simply by looking through the small eyepiece on my telescope. He then stated, “We are so small, so insignificant… we are nothing… how can you believe in God, knowing what you know about our universe, and think that somehow we are special in this universe?” My snap response, “The fact that I can look through this telescope, realize how small we are, and how wondrous creation is strengthens my faith that there is a God who, for whatever reason, is allowing me to understanding these things.” Not bad for a college Junior taking his first “Introduction to the Solar System” class!
One of the most brilliant, short statements I have heard about our place in the universe comes from the former director of the Vatican Observatory, Fr. George Coyne, SJ. In a reflection he gave on the history of time and understanding it as a calendar year, he stated that the human person has been present on this calendar for two minutes and Jesus Christ for two second. At first this may seem to only affirm Carl Sagan’s reflection that we are delusional if we think we are significant in this world. Yet, one of the fascinating things about the two minute existence of the human person is that at this point of history, for some reason, creation is reflecting upon itself through us. This begs the question: Why?
As a Catholic Priest, the exploration of this “why” has governed my whole path of life. The journey of understanding my place in the world, as small as it is, brought me to explore who the person of Jesus Christ is in my life. In that exploration, I find it fascinating that the Incarnation, the coming into our world of the Second Person of the Trinity, did not occur like a star going supernova or the massive explosion of a singularity that has expanded into the universe as we know it. Rather, it came as a “spec of dust” in our created world - hidden in the womb of a poor Jewish woman who would have been looked at with an eye of suspicion, given the circumstance of Jesus’ conception. On the night of Jesus’ birth, the passerby might have heard Mary’s cries from the cave and perhaps a “pale blue dot” was in the sky that seemed a little out of place. Would we have been surprised if the initial response to this scene would have been to ponder how insignificant this child and his family were? Yet, to reduce Jesus to the simple origins of where he was born would have missed the great significance of who he is for the world: Lord and Savior.
My affirmation of Jesus Christ as Lord ironically brings me to the same conclusion that Carl Sagan came to as he reflected upon our material insignificance: We should treat each other with more kindness and gentleness, caring for one another and the planet we live on, because it is our home. Through the eyes of Christ, it is not the only home we will ever know, but it is the gift we are called to be good stewards of and practice true charity toward, training us to become citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven.
How do you find significance in a world that can so easily make us feel insignificant? How do you discover a sense of meaning in a world that can so easily turn us into mere bacteria on a wet mound? I find my significance through gazing upon the beauty of the night sky and the beauty of my faith in Jesus Christ. I invite you to share your thoughts on how we can discover our significance amid the beauty of this wondrous universe.