On February 18 a NASA rover named ‘Perseverance’ successfully landed on Mars. Imagine the technical difficulties of leaving Earth’s atmosphere, travelling 235 million kilometers, entering the thin atmosphere of Mars, decelerating from 19,300 km/h using a parachute and gently lowering Perseverance onto the surface with a ‘sky crane’ supported by booster rockets!
The main goal of Perseverance is to find evidence of life which may have existed in the many water ways that have left their mark on the red planet. That was one reason NASA targeted what appeared to be a river delta for the landing zone.
But as much as we admire the technical achievements of landing on Mars, it raises a series of theological questions that have been brewing since Copernicus posited the heliocentric solar system in 1543. Prior to the 16th century it seemed intuitive that the earth was the center of the universe. Did not Psalm 96 declare that the “The world is firmly established; it shall never be moved”?
But in our own lifetime the view that humankind was specially created by God as the pinnacle of the universe has seemed more and more farfetched in the eyes of many.
First we discovered that the stars were simply other suns just like our own. Then the Milky Way was found to be an average sized galaxy among billions. Then astronomers told us that planets were far more numerous than we at first thought. Indeed planets in the so called ‘goldilocks zone,’ where water can exist as a liquid, are also very common. Data from the Kepler space mission of 2013 indicated that there are some 40 billion planets in the habitable zone in the Milky Way galaxy alone.
What applies to space also applies to time. We now know, for example, that the universe is billions of years old and that humankind has only emerged in the last few moments of cosmological time. As Carl Sagan put it, if the cosmic calendar was scaled to the size of a football field, all of human history would occupy the size of a human hand.
So does it really make sense to say that humans are the jewel in the crown of creation? Can the specialness of humankind be sustained in the face of eons of time and the vastness of space?
Well there is more than one way to look at this. Christians believe that the vast scale of the universe doesn’t necessarily imply that being human is insignificant and futile. The same scientists that helped us grasp the size of the universe told us that most of the universe is cold, dark and inhospitable. Most of the universe but not all. That means our precious blue-green marble suspended in space, with its 8 billion inhabitants, is special after all.
And it is precisely because we are intelligent, rational beings that we can look out at the universe and wonder and ask questions such as these. As Douglas Ottati said “We seem fashioned to appreciate it, and it seems fashioned to be appreciated by us.”
Most importantly our beliefs about who we are and our collective destiny come from scripture. Christianity affirms the dignity of every person because we are made in God’s image. At the heart of our faith is the belief that the creator of all things, came to planet earth at a particular time and place.
Jesus Christ came to the furthest reaches of the universe, to our galaxy and planet, to die on a cross, in order to gather up all his lost children. Christ declares, unmistakably, through word and sacrificial deed, the love that God has for the world. Far from being futile, Christianity is a cosmic narrative shot through with purpose and hope!