Thought for the Day - Rev Lucy Winkett - 16/10/2012
There are some pictures that define a generation; and while Felix Baumgartner might not achieve the status of Neil Armstrong, the footage of him stepping off a ledge 24 miles above the earth on Sunday is breathtaking.
There are some features of his achievement that are emblematic of our time. The scientific research needed to do this is frontier breaking, and may well have implications for the work of astronauts in the future. And the fact that the attempt was broadcast live on the internet, watched by countless people around the world in real time made the unique journey of this individual one that was shared with the planet.
Other aspects of this challenge are timeless; the audacity of the thing – to go where no one has gone before is analogous to the explorers of our own planet; the ones who have climbed higher, dived deeper, gone faster than anyone else. But it seems to me that human ventures into space carry an added implication for all of us; that of perspective. Astronauts have spoken of the beauty of the blue planet earth and have talked about feeling that it is home. Felix Baumgartner, as he stepped off the ledge said “I’m going home now” and spoke of his feelings, not so much of triumph as he stood apart from the world, but of humility, seeing the earth before him. One of the scientists in the expert support team was heard to say too as he began to fall that “the angels will take care of you”.
For centuries, religious imagery was limited by the extent of human imagination; it still is of course. For a long time, God was on a throne above us attended by a kind of ecclesiastical civil service, mirroring an earthly court and government. Our modern theological imagination is challenged and enlarged by space exploration to envisage a presence, an underpinning energy that relates to our new knowledge, that the universe is expanding and accelerating as it expands. We live in a dynamic and mysterious context of dark matter and dark energy. Travelling away from the earth and looking back at our home planet gives us a new and defining perspective on the possibility of God and of life itself. But I was struck that Felix Baumgartner’s thoughts were of people that he loved just as he was about to jump. This illustrates something about our religious sensibilities too. For Christians, imagining God awesome and overwhelming, with the capacity to create the world is not remote but curiously intimate, not inaccessible but close. It’s a paradox that religion expresses well: even when we feel the furthest we have ever been from one another and from our home, we remain closer than we know.