From Psalm 8
When I look at your heavens,
the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars that you have established;
What are human beings that you are mindful of them,
mortals that you care for them?
And yet. . .
Paul Wallace, a scientist and theologian, wrote an intriguing book in 2015 that explores some of the connections between science, theology, and philosophy—Stars Beneath Us: Finding God in the Evolving Cosmos (Fortress Press). In the book’s introduction, he recalls his “opening spiel” to an introductory astronomy course he teaches.
Under a dark and transparent atmosphere, with an unobstructed horizon and healthy vision, one can see at most about 3,000 stars. And if we were to remove our home planet from under our feet we would see 3,000 more, for a total of 6,000. . .Paul Wallace
A student in his class was horrified by this news. Why? “It’s just that you said there are stars under my feet, and I had never really thought of it like that before. Wow!”
The concept made me pause in my reading of the book.
The spherical Earth is surrounded on all sides by stars.Paul Wallace
I don’t often stop to encounter in a visceral way just how expansive the cosmos is. The stars beneath my feet are not tangible to me because they are outside of my daily window of awareness.
I am grateful to Wallace for inviting me to stop for a moment and consider this. A 2013 essay in The Atlantic gives even greater detail about what we can see in our sky.
So, then: Back to you, you tiny little human, standing on the surface of your tiny little planet in your tiny little corner of the universe. How many of those septillion stars are actually visible to you? An extremely, yep, tiny little percentage. There are only about 5,000 stars visible to the naked, average, human eye, MinutePhysics points out. And, because the Earth itself gets in the way, you can only see about a half of those from where you stand.Megan Garber, “How Many Stars Are There in the Sky?”
I hope that on this Earth Day, in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, many of us will pause, notice the gifts of our cosmos, and offer a word of gratitude. The pandemic has altered much about the way we live our lives, but it has not changed the stars. In fact, we may be able to see them now with even greater clarity than ever before.
What can we see with the naked eye—the eye that is gazing with more vulnerability than usual and with greater honesty? And what does that gaze—that beholding of God’s beauty—stir us to be and do beneath our part of the sky?
“See? That’s the Big Dipper.
And the Little Dipper is over there.”
We watched the night sky together, Dad and I.
I longed to see what he saw—
Stories in the stars. Fiery folktales of
kings, queens and chameleons;
a lizard, a lynx, and a lion.
Celestial chronicles scripted onto
a black velvet picture book.
I longed to read the stars where
a deranged dragonfish hurtles
toward the earth from two million
miles away. What cosmic superhero
will rise to the challenge? I asked
my dad as he tucked me and
my beagle Hunter into our bed:
“And what is a ‘lesser dog’ by the way?”
Still the astronomical plot eludes
me. Eludes us—if we are wise to
perceive: star-storying? A singular distillation
of collective imagination. Parabolic patterns
premised on where our lives are planted.
Forever made mystical, magical even,
by remembering—when on a clear night
we think we can see forever? The star
so blazing brilliant to our naked eye
burned out yesterday, and always—always—
half the sky is hidden away beneath our feet.