Thought for the Day - Rev Dr Michael Banner - 09/01/2013
NASA’s Kepler space observatory announced yesterday that according to their latest findings, there are very many earth-like planets in our galaxy – planets of about the same size as ours, and in about the same orbit around their stars as the Earth is in orbit around the sun. The measurements involved and the interpretation of the resulting data are both tricky – but since the estimated number of these ‘very many’ planets is said to be 17 billion, we can allow for possible miscounting and still be seriously impressed, even over-awed, by the number of these possible other Earths.
In 1600 Giordano Bruno was burnt at the stake in Rome. He had been denounced to the Inquisition on many counts; his complex trial had lasted eight years; and the exact cause of his final condemnation is a matter of dispute. But his controversial speculations included the thought that the sun was really a star, and that the universe contained an infinite number of solar systems, with an infinite number of planets like ours. To some this seemed a challenge to Christian faith. So, 400 years later, when his speculations have been given a firmer basis – even if 17 billion is somewhat short of infinity – the challenge may seem to have returned with avengeance.
Looking out into a universe with billions of planets, I certainly experience a sort of existential vertigo. It is a bit like standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon, but whereas the vast space of the Grand Canyon makes me feel physically small, the vast and unfathomable universe makes me feel metaphysically insignificant. But is this experience of insignificance the end of religion or its beginning?
One of the great poetic books of the Old Testament, the book of Job, imagines Job encountering a God whose lesson to him is given in a long series of questions regarding the wonders and mysteries of the universe. Tell me this or that, God is imagined as asking – Where are the foundations of the earth fastened? Who fixed its cornerstone? Do you know the ordinances of the heavens? Job’s existential vertigo – his sense of his insignificance - induced by these unanswerable questions, does not however, turn him away from God, but back towards him in prayer and worship.
Whenever I hear speculation about other planets and whether they harbour intelligent life, I find myself speculating as to whether intelligent life, visiting this planet, would judge us to be intelligent beings. As we squander resources, natural and human; as inequality and injustice and violence waste not just things but lives – we should surely wonder whether we would pass or fail any extra-terrestrial intelligence test. And if we were to fail, it would surely be because in so many of our dealings, the self assumes an importance it can never realistically bear. Existential vertigo may disorientate us for a while; but in fact it is not a threat to religion, but the very basis for directing our lives towards what really matters and exhibiting some real intelligence.