On February 14, 1990, NASA commanded Voyager I, its primary mission completed, to turn its camera around and begin taking pictures of where it had been. From four billion miles away, a unique picture of Earth was captured.
Earth shows up in this photo only as “a pale blue dot,” and that is how the astronomer Carl Sagan spoke of it during a commencement address in 1996, and how the photo remains known. It appears grainy because it is being seen through the rings of Saturn.
One reaction to the photo by many people is the feeling of insignificance that it gives them. The perspective of four billion miles is so very different from the perspective we see the Earth from daily, as we walk, sit, and lie upon it, that it can be jarring, even alarming to confront a more distant and objective perspective. But I think that is a wrong reaction; just as I think it is wrong for us to hold too high an opinion of our significance.
It was not at all difficult before the invention of telescopes to consider ourselves as Masters of the Universe. The first telescopes were put together in the early 1600s. And at that time, the popular belief was that the sky and everything in it rotated around the Earth, and that all of those stars and the moon were pretty much of equal distances from the earth. A literal reading of Genesis was still easy.
In 1610, Galileo began messing with old preconceptions, by publishing a paper on the moons of Jupiter, in which he described a sun-centered solar system. This was regarded as blasphemous by the Church, and Galileo was put under house arrest for the rest of life. (John Paul II, almost 400 years later, apologized for this action.)
The Gemini and Apollo flights, and the Voyager, Hubble, and Cassini telescopes are forcing all of us, including the most stubborn of church members, to adapt to new perspectives about Earth’s place in the universe. It need not be a time of (as my Grandma would call such events) conniption fits. It is simply- for me- a matter of realizing that no matter how uncomfortable it may be, we cannot keep God small. We cannot contain God in a book, a chapel, or even the visible sky. It is up to us to keep up with God, not vice versa.
It is not a reason to feel threatened at all to believe that God is in the dust at the edges of the universe, and also in our hearts. It is not the end of Christendom to believe that there is more to know about God than the Old and New Testaments reveal. No picture of the heavens, no matter how awe-inspiring and curiosity-provoking it may be, is worth a conniption fit.
Here is Carl Sagan himself, reading his essay on “The Pale Blue Dot.” I believe it is among the loveliest of modern prose:
I’m thinking also: “..look up, and lift up your heads; for your redemption draws near.”(Luke 21:28b)