Where I live in the Rocky Mountains, you can see several thousand stars with the naked eye on a clear night. All of them belong to the Milky Way Galaxy, which contains more than 100 billion stars, including an average-sized one that our planet Earth orbits around—the Sun. Our galaxy has plenty of room: 26 trillion miles separate the Sun from the star nearest to it. And traveling at the speed of light, it would take you 25,000 years to reach the center of the Milky Way from our home planet, which lies out in the galaxy’s margins.
Until a century ago, astronomers believed the universe consisted of our galaxy alone. Then, in 1925, Edwin Hubble proved that one apparent cloud of dust and gas in the night sky, named Andromeda, was actually a separate galaxy. Now there were two. When NASA launched a large telescope into space for a clearer view, they appropriately named it after Hubble.
In 1995, a scientist proposed pointing the Hubble telescope at one dark spot, the size of a grain of sand, to see what lay beyond the darkness. For ten days, the telescope orbited Earth and took hundreds of long-exposure photos of that spot. The result, which has been called “the most important image ever taken,” defied all expectations. That tiny spot contained almost 3,000 galaxies!
In later years, the Hubble telescope, refurbished by astronauts, revisited the same spot with more refined equipment, and identified many more galaxies. Astronomers mapped the Deep Field, the Ultra Deep Field, the eXtreme Deep Field, and the Frontiers Field. Reaching the limits of visible light—and perhaps running out of titles for Hubble’s exploits—they recently turned the task over to a new, stronger telescope. Launched last Christmas Day, the James Webb Space Telescope will be able to detect even more galaxies through infrared cameras.
Scientists now believe that if you had unlimited vision, you could hold a sewing needle at arm’s length toward the night sky, and you would see 10,000 galaxies in the eye of the needle. Move it an inch to the left and you’d find 10,000 more. Same to the right, or no matter where else you moved it. There are approximately a trillion galaxies out there, each encompassing an average of 100 to 200 billion stars.
Five hundred years ago, philosophy and science underwent a major revolution when Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo established that the Sun did not revolve around Earth. To its shame, the church balked at accepting the new reality, famously putting Galileo on trial. Surely, the theologians argued, humans created in God’s own image must occupy a more exalted place in the universe.
In the years since, our home—this pale blue dot called Earth—has not stopped shrinking in comparative stature. Now it is exposed as a mid-sized planet orbiting a mid-rank star in one galaxy out of a trillion. How should we adapt to this humbling new reality?
Back when people assumed the universe comprised a few thousand stars, a psalmist marveled in prayer,
When I consider your heavens,
the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars,
which you have set in place,
what is mankind that you are mindful of them,
human beings that you care for them? (Psalm 8 NIV)
The question has expanded exponentially since David’s day. I try to wrap my mind around what I call “the Hubble telescope view of God.” The One who spun off a trillion galaxies, could that God possibly care about what happens on our infinitesimal planet?
Then I turn to the Book of Job, where poor, beleaguered Job turns the psalmist’s question on its head:
What is mankind that you make so much of them,
that you give them so much attention,
that you examine them every morning
and test them every moment?
Will you never look away from me,
or let me alone even for an instant? (Job 7, NIV)
Job gets a direct answer from God, who speaks to him out of a whirlwind. Job had saved up a long list of questions, but it is God who interrogates, not Job. “Brace yourself like a man,” God begins. “I will question you, and you shall answer me.”
Reading this, the longest speech by God in the Bible, I hear God saying, “Let’s compare résumés, you and me, and I’ll go first.” Frederick Buechner sums up what follows: “God doesn’t explain. He explodes. He asks Job who he thinks he is anyway. He says that to try to explain the kind of things Job wants explained would be like trying to explain Einstein to a little-neck clam.” God does not need Job’s or anyone else’s advice on how to run the universe.
Brushing aside thirty-five chapters’ worth of debates on the problem of pain, God plunges instead into a dazzling poem on the many wonders of the natural world. God points out, one by one, the works of creation that give the greatest satisfaction. In effect, God asks Job, “Would you like to run the universe for a while? Go ahead, try designing an ostrich, or a mountain goat, or even a snowflake.” God even references astronomy: “Can you bind the beautiful Pleiades? Can you loose the cords of Orion? Can you bring forth the constellations in their season…?”
Job got a closeup lesson on how puny we humans are, compared to the God of the universe, and it silenced all his doubts and complaints. I’ve never experienced anything like the travails Job endured, but when I have my own doubts, I try to remember that perspective, the Hubble telescope view of God. In the words of a Broadway musical echoing God’s speech to Job, Your Arms Too Short to Box with God.
In my less self-absorbed moments, however, I turn to a very different passage from the Bible.
In his letter to the Philippians, the apostle Paul quotes what many believe to be a hymn from the early church. In a stately, lyrical paragraph, Paul marvels that Jesus gave up all the glory of heaven to take on the form of a man—and not just a man, but a servant, one who voluntarily subjected himself to an ignominious death on a cross.
I pause, and wonder at the mystery of Incarnation. In an act of humility beyond comprehension, the God of a trillion galaxies chose to con-descend—to descend to be with—the benighted humans on this small rebellious planet, out of billions in the universe. I falter at analogies: a human becoming an ant, perhaps, or an amoeba, or even a bacterium.
Yet according to Paul, that act of condescension proved to be a rescue mission that led to the healing of something broken in the universe. The passage continues:
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father. (NIV)
We hear the roar of God at the end of the Book of Job, a voice that evokes awe and wonder more than intimacy and love. Philippians 2 gives a different slant on the Hubble telescope view. A God beyond the limits of space and time has a boundless capacity of love for his creations, no matter how small or how rebellious they might be.
As it happens, that message is best expressed not from a whirlwind, or burning bush, or smoking mountain, but rather person-to-person, by Jesus and his followers.
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