When the New Testament was written, the Earth was presumed to be the centre of a smallish sort of universe with Heaven above. Our world was the only world there was and it was flattish, perhaps convex, which would explain why ships out at sea seemed gradually to disappear from the bottom up.
hen I was born, the universe was understood to be a lot bigger than that but it has grown even further in our conception since, perhaps by a factor of trillions. I’m not up to the maths.
We had discovered a few galaxies by then. At first we thought them to be single stars, so far away that the entire span of our circuit of the sun, about 186 million miles, about 16 light minutes, made no difference to our perspective of them. They did not seem to move.
It was easier to believe in a creator god when the world was small and special.
In the last week we have been shown images from the James Webb telescope of galaxies, thousands of them, that are more than 13 billion light years away.
We can’t even say for sure that they are still there. The very concept of events out there being contemporaneous with events here is meaningless.
In Diana Athill’s autobiography, two people walking side by side look up at the stars. One responds with a sense that we down here are utterly insignificant and that belief in a God who notices us is impossible.
The other person in the story, looking at the same stars, responds in precisely the opposite way and thinks, how could you not believe in God when you see such glory.
The contemplation of the skies inspires faith in some and atheism in others.
When seven astronauts died in 1986 when their craft exploded, the US president Ronald Reagan pinched some lines from a John Gillespie Magee poem to say they had ‘slipped the surly bonds of Earth to touch the face of God’.
So the president and the poet shared the same idea that the sky, the heavens, still represented the divine, our destiny, our home.
I can’t get 13 billion light years out of my head or into it either. I get restless in the mere contemplation of it. And I don’t know how a simple Christian faith can survive that insight other than by ignoring it or refusing to believe it.
One of the questions we used to bother RE teachers with was, ‘Did Jesus also incarnate on other planets?’
Even as children, the contemplation of a near infinite universe changed the relevance of what we were taught about faith and human destiny.
As I grew older, science fiction became much more compelling than received religion.
One of the most exasperating parts of this contemplation, when you get down to it, is having to accept that we will never know, yet I needed to feed my hungry imaginings with stories of life on other planets and time travel, perhaps to fill the gap left when religion as taught to me became untenable. Dr Who meant more to me than Jesus did because he reached the parts of my thinking that the old stories couldn’t satisfy.
We know now that there might be thousands of earths in our own galaxy alone.
Some may have already destroyed themselves in nuclear wars. Some may have already cooked themselves to extinction under clouds of greenhouse gases.
Some may even have found the secret of peaceful co-existence with their neighbours.
In most, perhaps, intelligent primates may never have emerged.
Some worlds, we know, are water on the inside with an outer crust. Creatures that may have evolved in such places may never have seen the sky. Their understanding of their place in the universe may be much as ours was 2,000 years ago.
And in some worlds, according to current speculation, intelligent beings might have had a billion years more than we have had to evolve technologies beyond anything we can dream of.
But we will never reach them.
I was nine years old when Gagarin went into space. Today I read that Nasa plans a mission to explore Uranus which, if planning starts this year, will take off in 10 years from now when I am over 80 and will complete 13 years later when I am in my 90s if I make it that far.
Space exploration is a long-term science that no single lifespan can encompass.
A week after we saw the first James Webb pictures of how a small segment of the universe looked 13 billion years ago, Britain got irrefutable evidence of climate change. The sun has not got hotter or closer but we have filled the sky with gases that magnify its heat by much the same method your grand daddy used to grow tomatoes.
Lethal jellyfish, acclimatised to warm seas, are now washed up on Irish beaches.
One thing we do know from contemplating the night sky is that the universe can manage nicely without us, as it has done for 13 billion years. We are recent arrivals, an evolutionary experiment which may prove a bigger failure than the dinosaurs.
The only ones to whom our presence in this universe matters are ourselves. If there is a message from the stars it is this: we really are, in cosmic terms, negligible.
In human terms we are still all we can possibly know.
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