The Starry Night, by Vincent van Gogh from the NYC MoMA
On a beautiful evening in northern Michigan, I was laying on the beach. I was surrounded by most of the people I love in this world. My daughter lay asleep on a towel. My other daughter was wrapped in the loving arms of a family member. The sun had set. The sky had done its marvelous shift from blue to red to purple. The stars were beginning to appear and slowly. Almost imperceptibly, more were making their debut. It is a scene that has been repeated since the dawn of humanity. A group of people, surrounded in love, adoring the awesome specter of a night sky.
I don’t know about the rest of my family, but I knew that I was participating in the oldest form of religious ritual. For as long as humanity has been walking, eyes have turned skyward at night. The seemingly endless chaos of stars in the sky has inspired awe and wonder a thousand generations. My little human mind started to do what little human minds do – I started to label and categorize. I remembered little snippets of my Astronomy 101 class and was able to identify the Big Dipper, the North Star, Cassiopeia. I thought to myself, “I think that might be Mars.” We strained to see satellites, and were envious of those that caught a glimpse of a shooting star. Even though my analytical mind knew that was not a shooting star, but a piece of space debris being burned in our atmosphere, my wondering mind wished I could catch a glimpse of one. I was lost in a sense of wonder and astonishment, and couldn’t help but ask myself that age-old question, “How many stars are there?” I tried in vain to count, but gave up quickly. “I wonder what that bright star is?” I wondered. “Is that a constellation?” I thought to myself.
Then someone, perhaps wondering the same things as me, pulled out their iphone. In an instant they were using it to look at the stars, and it was telling them the names of each constellation, each bright star, each planet, each galaxy and nebula. It was an amazing little app (and it was free). There, on secluded beach in the midst of my naive wonder, technology came in to save the day.
My wonder was gone. And yet, it was really gone before the iphone appeared. I know that there are more stars in the sky than I can count. Google can tell me there are between 2,000 and 6,000 on any given clear night that we can see with no aid. I know that what we can see is but a tiny speck in the greater universe. There are about 100-200 billion stars in our galaxy, and we inhabit an average galaxy. Conservative estimates say there are about 100-200 billion galaxies.
In ancient times people gazed at the stars and thought that they must be hung in the sky from a firm dome that covers the earth. There were a few odd “moving stars,” and they just increased the sense of amazement. Today we know better. We know that stars are out in a seemingly infinite thing called “space.” We know that there are more stars than we could ever name or group into neat little patterns. We know that stars are not tiny pins of light, but instead are giant gaseous nuclear reactions. We know that the stuff from which we are made – elements – are created in the great furnaces of stars, and more are made in the cataclysmic explosions that occur when stars die.
There are thousands of other mysteries that we have explained, riddles that we have unravelled, questions that we have answered. All of our progress and discovery has taken us places that seemed unfathomable only a few generations ago. In the span of 66 years humans went from Kitty Hawk to the moon. As more and more is explained, there seems to be less and less need for God. The myths of our ancestors, used to explain things like sunset and sunrise, seem like silly childhood stories. More and more people ask, “Who needs God?” Besides being the title of a wonderful book by Harold Kushner, this is a question that has been on the minds of modern people for decades.
I cannot answer that question for you. Maybe you don’t need God. I think it is perfectly possible to live a full, rich life without ever believing in God. I also believe, however, that there is something in us that yearns for more. I need God because when I look at the stars at night I see from two distinct perspectives.
When I gaze up into the stars I may, at the same time, participate in two of the most basic human instincts. I desire to name, count, label and categorize. There is a part of my humanity that makes me want to know more. It is a driving curiosity that makes me want to get a star map. I feel comfort in being able to order the seemingly chaotic universe. I feel comfort in knowing that there is not pure mystery. Discovery and advancement is a holy work. Science, knowledge, technology have given us many wonderful gifts. I am in awe of the capability of the human mind to create and of the human will to advance. Yet there is something in me that is equally human that knows that there is more up in the stars than a vast collection of hydrogen gasses and nuclear reactions.
I stop and wonder at the sheer magnitude of it all. I wonder about my own place in this vast and seemingly chaotic universe. I am drawn into a deep conviction that there is more to all of this than one life. There is more to this world than even our collective lives. While at the same time feeling dwarfed by it all, I am strengthened in knowing that I have a place in it. There is something for me here to do. I’m not exactly sure what it is, but I know that it has a lot to do with loving one another. I lay down on a beach surrounded by people I love and know that there is something powerful and real that is surrounding us. I may not be able to name it. I may never understand it, but I know it is real.
And for me, this is the beauty of being human. You can call it the analytic and artistic – the objective and subjective – the intellect and the emotion – the yin and the yang. I call it the sublime paradox of being human. It is the mystery of faith – the drive to advance, to know, and to understand, held in juxtaposition with the humility of surrender, knowing that there are some places our intellect will not be able to bring us. Ultimately it is there – the place where humanity’s drive to be more, and our humility to seek God, that is our greatest hope. It is there – between the extremes of religious fundamentalist tyranny and amoral scientific advancement – that the Kingdom of God is realized.