Star Sightings!

Hiking by ourselves in the California High Sierras, my husband John and I camped far above timberline, beside a still, pristine lake, surrounded by heavy boulders in lieu of mountain pine. That evening we ate big golden trout, unwary and easily caught, for our dinner.

As my father and I had done when I was a child, John and I slept tent free, open to the night around us. Rain came infrequently in September in the Sierras. We preferred to sleep only in downy sleeping bags, our vision unfettered by a covering of canvas. In this place, far above civilization, out of reach of star-dimming light, on a moonless, clear night, the sky seemed embodied with stars and galaxies.

Wikimedia VISTA's_infrared_view_of_the_Orion_Nebula
Orion Nebula    Credit: ESO/J. Emerson/Vista   

Knowing better, I extended my arm, wanting to touch them, caress them. Thousands of stars—some shining pure light, others shimmering—painted the black sky with gleaming dots of white.

We were on the edge of the world, high above the level places, where the atmosphere thinned and the night was black and the stars were the prime attraction.

Glorious stars like those we saw that night bear witness to their Creator. I had learned this on an earlier star sighting. On a dry, clear night, perfect for looking at a brilliantly lit, star-studded sky, as my father and I stopped our car on the verge of Interstate 10 and stepped through a row of eucalyptus trees to view the sky, I first encountered the stars capacity to inspire awe.

As I described in another post, that night glowing stars peppered the heavens to the borders of my vision. The Milky Way blazed in transcendent glory. As I looked at that brilliantly lit night sky I sensed a living presence, bigger than myself, or my father, or even the expanse of stars that filled the sky. It was a pressing presence, a voice of a different kind, so clear that I have never forgotten it. I never want to.

We often looked for stars when I was a child. Through a telescope, set up on our asphalt driveway, we picked out one constellations after the other. Camping high on Mount Baldy in the San Bernardino Mountains, we watched stars traverse the sky with our naked eyes.

These experiences tell me that stars are more than the sum of the luminous gasses of which they are composed. They are more than beautiful glowing dots in the sky. They have a voice of their own and they cry out in praise of their Creator.

“The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands” (Psalm 19:1).

Scientists say that at least a third of all the people in the world cannot see the stars at night now, because of light pollution. Many more people—as many as two thirds of all who live in the United States–see only a few stars, indistinctly.

Most of us forget even to look up. We have successfully blinded ourselves to the grandeur of the night sky that boundlessly bears witness to its Creator.

Light pollution hurts other creatures as well as ourselves. Bright city lights can confuse migrating birds, causing them to fly over cities until they die of exhaustion. Light from developments on beaches and nearby cities can scare sea turtles off from nesting.

We can do something about light pollution, if we make it a priority. Bending lights downward, rather than upward on city roads would be a start. It would cost us something. But I believe removing light pollution, like other environmental measures, will be worth the cost.

Instead of maximizing profit, those placed here to tend the earth should be minimizing the harmful impact we have on the planet, ridding ourselves of human pride, and letting the earth serve the needs of all its inhabitants, plants and animals. The land, water, air, and even the atmosphere above us are all affected by human activity. We have far to go to tend this planet as we should. I want those stars to speak as loudly to future generations as they have done to me through star sightings

By doing so, we may remove an impediment that we have created between ourselves and the voices of incalculable galaxies declaring the glory of God.

Full photo credit: Wikimedia. Taken 10 February, 2010. ESO/J. Emerson/Vista  http://www.eso.org/public/images/eso1006a/

 

Sanctuary and Science

wikimedia stars maxresdefault
Wikimedia.org

Abruptly my father stopped the car, pulling to the side of the road where Holt Boulevard, which runs through my home town of Ontario, California, merges into Interstate 10. It was a dry, clear night—perfect for looking at a brilliantly lit, star-studded sky.

We parked our Volkswagen bug on the verge, climbed out of the car, and made our way through a line of towering, sparsely limbed eucalyptus trees that framed the roadway.

Stepping from beneath the tree coverage, we looked up. I gazed in awe.

Glowing stars crowded the sky. They peppered the heavens to the borders of my vision. The Milky Way blazed in transcendent glory.

And as I looked at that brilliantly lit night sky I sensed a living presence, bigger than myself, or my father, or even the expanse of stars that filled the sky. It was a pressing presence, a voice of a different kind, so clear that I cannot forget it to this day.

“The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands” (Psalm 19:1).

This encounter was my first inkling of faith. To me, creation became the sanctuary where faith became incarnate. As faith became incarnate through creation, creation became something to respect and care for.

photo by jeremy-thomas-on unsplash.com99326
By Jeremy Thomas on unsplash.com

A few months ago, I heard two stories arising from science that added to my awareness of the sublimity of creation and of the challenges humans face in protecting it.

During NPR’s Ted Talk hour, historian David Christian described the amazing confluence of events that occurred with the big bang and led to the emergence of the human species. Our species, he explained, is unique among all others in our ability to create language “so powerful and so precise that we can share what we learn with such precision that it can accumulate in the collective memory. And that means it can outlast the individuals.” He calls this “collective learning,” and says this learning enables us to transform our environment in ways far beyond the abilities of all other species.

But Christian reminded his audience that this ability also creates dangers, for us and the entire planet. “Collective learning,” he argued, is a “powerful force, and it’s not clear that we humans are in charge of it.” He noted that some of our weapons could destroy the entire biosphere, and our rapid burning of fossil fuels may alter the conditions under which humans have flourished over the last ten thousand years. Our story, he argued, which shows us how special it was that we arrived as we did, also suggests that we should stop focusing on our differences—family, tribal, national, cultural, religious—and concentrate instead on our similarities as a unique species on earth in a vast universe.

Earlier that day, though, I read another story that explains, at least in part, why we don’t.

In The Book of Joy, which records a conversation by the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, “narrator” Douglas Abrams (yes, a book by a Buddhist, Christian, and Jew) mentioned a discovery from neuroscience. Neuroscientists have learned that humans have three deep, evolutionary “innate (and often unconscious)” goals or drives. One of them is to cooperate.

Sounds good. But…

They also discovered that we have been “hardwired to cooperate with and be kind to those who look like our caregivers.” Meaning we cooperate with those we think of as in our “group,” and we are wary of or less likely to cooperate with those we consider outside our group.

Our dilemma lies between the big picture and the small one.

The big picture:

Seen from a religious point of view, a real being exists behind this amazing creation. Creation speaks; it gives voice to its creator and beckons us through what has been made. It is a sanctuary pointing us to a living God. How can we not cooperate to protect this precious planet, which is a means by which our creator reveals himself to us?

Seen from a scientific point of view, we are a rare outcome of eight billion years of evolution, a fantastically complex species at the far corner of a vast universe. How can we not unite around our similarities as a species, our interconnectedness within this limited biosphere, and use our unique abilities to protect this fragile planet that is our home?

Behold, they agree!

But… the small picture:

The religious view: We sin. We think of ourselves first and struggle to “love our neighbor as ourselves.” We look out for ourselves and our groups before we look out for others, because we are self-centered and self-loving.

The scientific view: Our individual hardwiring makes us more interested in cooperating with our tiny group—our family, tribe, social class, nation, or religious affiliation–than with the whole of our unique species.

Fundamentally, and remarkably, they still agree.

We are one species, but we fail to love others. We are one, but we distrust others.

 

beach sky mine 16425716_10208380737260892_1771238825627494920_nWe are one, though; we are interconnected to all the creatures on this planet, and even to the fabric of the universe, however you understand that fabric.

We need to stand in awe of this biosphere, this interconnected world, this amazing universe, made, I would like to suggest, by a remarkable God in a very big bang.

For the sake of our planet, we who were given responsibility to nurture the earth, we who are uniquely gifted to pass on information to the generations who come after us, need to set our minds to stand with the big picture. And resist the little one.