In July, after a ten year journey, the New Horizons interplanetary space probe sent back so much data that NASA, and others, will be analyzing and learning more about Pluto for months to come. The exploration has just begun…. So far New Horizons has revealed flowing ice, impressive mountain ranges, and a surprisingly thick atmosphere on Pluto. But no “outer space aliens” …. as of yet.
The galaxy that contains our Solar System, what we have long called the Milky Way is no small thing. The Milky Way contains from 100 to 400 billion stars. Some astronomers say in fact that there are probably at least 100 billion planets in our Milky Way. Do any of them have intelligent life on them? I suspect so, but we really don’t yet know. I would love to have an “outer space alien” land in my back yard and drop in for a visit. (Then I could post the photo on Facebook!)
In many ways, our perspective on Reality is rather narrow. My astronomer friends at the University of Leuven tell me that, according to the best estimates, there are at least one hundred billion galaxies in our observable universe. (Those Leuven professors are very proud, as I am, that the Big Bang theory was proposed by a Belgian priest and professor at our University of Leuven: George Lemaitre.) Twinkle twinkle little star was just the beginning.
Years ago, my favorite poet, T. S. Eliot, wrote “We shall not cease from exploration. And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” I think that applies to galactic realities and to God as well.
I am hardly an atheist. I am an active and strongly committed Christian. Nevertheless, looking at the images sent back by New Horizons, I could ‘t help thinking that our conception of God may be terribly narrow and has been constructed too much in our own human image and likeness.
Traditionally, Jewish, Christian, and Muslim people have always understood God as a kind of heavenly superman: like a human being without human limitations. This theological projection was explained and justified by suggesting that God was so much like a human being because human beings were in fact created in God’s image. Today, however, we recognize that it was the other way around. We portrayed God in OUR image: a powerful supernatural authority, demanding our strict obedience. The heavenly headmaster.
In the Hebrew Scriptures, God defends obedient Hebrews and destroy’s their enemies. He (always a “he”) annihilates sinners and the unfaithful. The story of Noah’s Ark is the classic example. In European Christian history, believers understood that God blessed the imperialistic and colonial expansion of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. Christians declared that their colonialist domination of the underdeveloped peoples of the world was the very will of God. Under the banner of Christ, native populations — often considered inferior beings — were subjugated and converted and subjugated.
Christians don’t always pay attention to it; but our Christian tradition really does aim to help us live and walk with the mystery of God. I honor my tradition, but I don’t think my tradition defines God. I think it points me to God.
At the heart of all Reality is what we have called “God.” We are personally touched by God. I still feel personally touched by God. Although we use human poetry to describe God — God as “Mother,” or God as “Father,” God is not a person. God is at the heart of all Reality; and that means that at the heart of our own lives, we find God. I think Jesus, in a remarkable way for a man of his time, understood this very clearly. No wonder our tradition calls him Emmanuel: God With Us.
The more deeply and fully human One becomes, the more one reveals the God of life and being. And that’s the God I find revealed in Jesus Christ. We really need to reflect more and find a way to express the entire Christian experience in the language of our own days. That is the task of contemporary theologians. We need to move beyond viewing Reality in dualistc categories of “natural and supernatural” and “physical and metaphyscal.” We could also update the Nicene Creed of 325 CE with a better and more contemporary statement of Christian identity and mission.
God is at the heart of all Reality and all Reality is in process. Process philosophers and theologians, with whom I resonate, suggest that God is also in process…unlimited in possibilities. Not limited by culture, language, time, or space. God, the galaxies, and humanity are all in process.
Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.” If he could have travelled to Pluto in a shuttle like the New Horizons, I think he would have said: “Our galaxy is charged with the grandeur of God.”
Back on planet earth, it was the grandeur of God that animated Jesus of Nazareth. His challenge remains constant wherever we go: unconditional love, mercy, and compassion. A message addressed to all peoples, in all parts of our world.