This newest and most detailed photograph of Earth, part of a series released by NASA and described in the post of August 1 directly below, or here, begs for additional commentary.
And first among that commentary is this, another photograph of Earth taken in 1970 by Voyager I from an area within the rings of Saturn. Called “a pale, blue dot” by Carl Sagan, the photograph became well-known because of the late astronomer’s eloquent words about it. I do not attempt to equal, let alone surpass Sagan’s words; but the two photographs, placed together, offer us all a unique vision of place and perspective, and they demand deep, reflective,sometimes even uncomfortable thinking from each of us.
The Voyager photo must be highlighted, in order that we can even see the Earth from that distant perspective. But it is there, brilliant in its greens and blues, and accented always by the gray and white clouds of evaporated water hovering in its atmosphere, as can be seen so precisely in the newest NASA photos.
Before we could see pictures like these, beginning just fifty years ago, most humans could easily believe in the centered and seemingly supreme nature of our place in the universe. Ancient creation stories were explanations, shared through generations of families, bands, and tribes, of human origins, and all of them included references to that centrality and supremacy. Humans had the need, and still do, of making sense of themselves in the context of the environment in which they live. This skill of language, which preserves knowledge through time, makes us different from all others of the Earth’s species.
Most of us, whether we subscribe to them in faith or not, are aware of one, or maybe two creation stories. But at one time there were as many stories of human beginnings as there were the number of family tribes from which they arose. It was natural, even truthful, that the boundaries and contexts of those stories would be the natural boundaries and the environmental and cultural contexts of those who developed and transmitted them to others.
Among one tribe in India, the explanation was this: Lord Brahma the Creator, living in an emptiness filled with death and hunger, said one day, “Let me have a Self.” That Self began to grow, as large as two people embracing, and Brahma willed that a separation occur. Thus, male and female, husband and wife, was given explanation. She, ashamed of having sex with someone who had been part of her, hid her Self in the form of a cow. He, in turn, became a bull. And thus, the speciation of Earth began.
Among the descendents of those first tribes of Asian people who populated one of the Hawaiian islands, the origin story involved a rendezvous between the deep and dark caverns of the island (male) and moonless nights (female). Of that geological and meteorological union was born the coral reefs, from which all manner of sea life was subsequently born. As the ocean lapped onto the land, other animals were born- animals of the land. Finally, on the dawn of one extraordinary day, La’ila’i, a woman, and Ki’i, a man, and Kane, a god were born. It was through the three of them that all human life began.
I wonder how how stories of Creation would have emerged if those ancient peoples had had even an inkling of what we know today about the boundaries and contexts of our environment, within the context of a vast and ever expanding universe? Certainly they would not have been defined by the geographical features of the places in which the thinkers and storytellers found themselves. And certainly those stories would have all been much grander in size and scope.
Each of those Creation stories became a part of each tribes worldview. It was one element of their consciousness which helped explain to them how the world worked and how they were to function and regard themselves within that world and within their tribe. We can, only because of the new information we have gathered technologically, be amazed, even aghast, at the narrowness of those stories. It was a narrowness, which later gave rise, as human populations grew and coalesced in more urban settings and as tribes began having more frequent contact with other tribes, into nationalism, chauvinism, racism, and even patriotism.
Those ancient worldviews served their purpose in tribal contexts. But when they became institutionalized in the identity of nations, they became dangerous. And they still are. 20,000 years after Paleolithic Man first scratched pictures which would eventually evolve into language,on the walls of caves in southwestern France, we (humans) are on the brink of nuclear holocaust and human suicide.
It may be time for a more universal,less parochial, less nationalistic, more humane and shared worldview- one which encompasses not only our particular human tribe, but other tribes, other species, even the Earth itself, in the context of an always expanding, always creating universe.
How do we begin? We begin exactly as our ancient ancestors did as they sat around campfires at night and wondered, Why?, and How?, and Who? We can hold in our hands now the pictures of the Mother from whose womb we are born, and of her place. That is a place to begin anew.
And many of us acknowledge, too, the breath of the Father surrounding the Mother and all else that is. It will be incumbent upon those of who do recognize that Father, to allow that Father to be as large as he really is, and not limit his imagination and activity by the size of our own knowledge or, worse, by the worldviews of ancient peoples who were only beginning to know him.
The New Story, the New Worldview begins whenever we choose, as individuals, for it to begin. None of us alive today will hear its completion. We can only plant the seeds for its eventual fruition and hope, and pray, that there will be others in distant futures who will live and flourish within that story in ways that do not perpetuate the human suffering and fear that our worldviews have.
(Here is my former entry on Carl Sagan: A Pale Blue Dot)