When Home is 93 Billion Light Years Around

In 2004, the Hubble space telescope completed a picture it had been taking for about four months. The result was what we now know as Hubble Deep Field. (To see this image, simply Google those words and it will be the top hit.) In the picture, seemingly countless separate galaxies are everything you see. To be specific: ten thousand of them, all inhabiting a point in space that to our naked eye is the size of a pencil tip. The fateful image, which altered the way we visualize the universe, came to be after astronomers decided to point Hubble at a tiny, seemingly empty dot in space — black, nothing discernible, totally unremarkable. Just to see what was there.

There is no other image that more fully impresses upon us — or allows us better to imagine — the scale of the universe. Ten thousand galaxies in the area of a pencil tip, including some that are so far away they appear as a bright red, cause us to think about who we are and who God is. Red shift, the phenomenon that causes an object to appear red when it is moving away from us at high speed (this is considered the Doppler effect of light), helped astronomers to calculate that a few of these galaxies were around 12 billion light years away from us. This, of course, means that the light that has traveled to us from those galaxies, allowing us to see them, has been traveling for 12 billion years. So we are only permitted to view those galaxies as they would have been 12 billion years ago; incidentally, this is the only way we know of to “look back in time.” And there is no way for us to know what those same galaxies might look like right now, provided they still exist.

But those 12 billion years mean that those particular galaxies are nearly as old as the universe itself. Astronomers quite accidentally stumbled upon the age of the universe when they noticed strange background microwave radiation unevenly distributed throughout space at a temperature of three degrees above absolute zero. The astronomers realized that this radiation was in fact the “afterglow” or “echo” of the Big Bang. The existence and character of the background radiation allowed them to calculate the age of our universe at close to 14 billion years. 14 billion years ago, the Big Bang happened. To put things in a little more perspective, the star that we call our Sun is somewhere between five and six billion years old.

To this point, astronomers have actually discovered a staggering 100 billion galaxies, and in each of those galaxies burns 100 billion stars like the Sun. The number of planets encircling 100 billion times 100 billion (10 septillion) stars is incalculable. As for the massive scale of the larger universe in which all these galaxies reside, our observable universe runs 93 billion light years in circumference.

In the ancient world, peoples of many different nations (ancient Egypt, Sumeria, Babylonia, the many small Canaanite nations, Israel, Greece, etc.) believed the gods lived in the Heavens. But they also believed that those gods were present in their temples and shrines; inhabiting more than one location simultaneously was not impossible for a deity, and temples were typically thought of as microcosmic sacred spaces that represented a connection between Heaven and Earth. Though this was widely true in many ancient cultures, in the case of Israel it is illustrated nicely in several biblical texts, perhaps most notably Isaiah 6. In this chapter, Isaiah witnesses the inside of Yahweh’s Temple, which is filled merely with the bottom hem of Yahweh’s robes as he sits on his throne. The massive figure of God extends upward through the Temple into the Heavens, where serpentine, winged flaming seraphim hover near him (the Hebrew word saraph means “to burn”).

People also gravitated toward statues and figurines of the divine, some of which could be kept in people’s houses and/or in small shrines as part of a kind of local or in-home worship. No figurines of Yahweh have been discovered — probably due to the aniconic emphasis involved with his worship — but we have found figurines of Baal, for example, and many other deities across the ancient Near East. The famous ancient Israelite “pillar figurines” found inside homes could also be meant to represent a goddess(es) of fertility, though this is not certain. My purpose in mentioning these things is to point out that people have tended always to identify God or gods as having some connection with and even some location on Earth, even in tandem with the awareness that the full home of God or gods transcended Earth into the Heavens. We have still always identified God as close to us somehow, transcendent but also immanent.

With the knowledge of the cosmos that we have today, that of a place so vast and complicated that it eludes our comprehension utterly, some of us think it time to leave behind these ancient conceptions. People understandably think that it is now ill-informed and grossly arrogant to continue thinking of ourselves as anything special, as anything on which God would spend much time. Our planet is already a tiny speck even in our own galaxy the Milky Way, and we orbit one fairly standard star amidst 100 billion such stars just in the Milky Way alone. Even leaving it at that is enough to cause us to look at ourselves a bit askance. Add consideration of what lies beyond our own galaxy — 100 billion other galaxies — and to think of ourselves as anything to attract God’s attention becomes preposterous, laughable, hubristic, or just blindly stubborn. Who are we, after all?

I understand such thoughts, and in a positive way, they are a sign of a very welcome humility after so many centuries of disproportionate human pride. But my approach is somewhat different. I do think it ridiculous to imagine that we are the only intelligent life in this vast universe; but I do not consider the certain abundance of that life to be evidence of our intrinsic insignificance. Nor do I consider the smallness of our Earth within this 93 billion-light-year-round universe to be evidence of our insignificance. If our species is small and is one among potential millions, then by extension, each and every one of those other species is also one among millions. Such species are not intrinsically more “important” than we are simply by virtue of their being not-us. The same is true for our planet, a “pale blue dot” that with distance may indeed appear as “a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam” (Carl Sagan), and eventually disappear into imperceptibility. For the same is true also of each planet orbiting any of the 10 septillion stars in the universe.

Knowledge of “our place in the universe” is a necessary corrective for exaggerated egos, and, it is to be hoped, a wondrous impetus for us to spend some time appreciating the Creator of this universe. But it is not a sentence of futility, of denigration, of lack of worth. To say that it is so would be to pronounce the same sentence on every single one of those potential millions out there beyond our galactic neighborhood. A precious thing is not any the less precious for being in the company of other precious things, any more than a single human could be deemed not precious because there are 6 billion such humans. I am not daunted in thinking of the certain abundance of life in God’s universe; I am oddly reassured and encouraged.

This is our home, as much as it is the home of 100 billion other galaxies. Even when home is 93 billion light years around, one member of the family is not any the less beloved to the Head of Household.

© Elizabeth Keck 2010

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**Much of the information regarding astronomy in this post is courtesy of PBS’ “Nova: Hunting the Edge of Space.”

Gods in High Places

New Hampshire’s Mt. Washington is 6,288 feet high — small compared to many other mountains, but the highest mountain in the Northeastern United States. Quite apart from its height, however, is the fact that its summit hosts some of the most extreme and erratic weather on Earth due to its particular position at the crossroads of several storm tracks. Until it was surpassed recently in Australia, the mountain held the world record for the strongest wind: 231 mph. Other than the primary summit building designed specifically to withstand its winds, all structures are chained to the mountain itself.

Significantly, Mt Washington was once known as Agiocochook: “Home of the Great Spirit.” This is no accident, since humans have been associating mountains with deities since the dawn of religious awareness. Mt Sinai (alternatively Mt Horeb, the name preferred by Deuteronomistic writings) is of course the most famous of these in biblically-based religions. We see major events taking place on other mountains in the Bible too, however, such as Elijah’s famous confrontation with the priests of Baal on Mt Carmel. The Temple Mount in Jerusalem is also known in the Bible as Mt Zion. While it is not terribly high, it is the highest point in Jerusalem and affords a commanding view, and was thus the obvious choice for Yahweh’s Temple.

Mt Sinai hosted the most famous theophany in the Bible, during which Moses received the Ten Commandments and (in the words of the Priestly strand of the Pentateuch) the instructions to build the Tabernacle — the portable sanctuary that would serve as the Israelites’ worship center until the construction of the Temple. In addition, the Bible is not bashful about mentioning the many “high places” (Hebrew bamot) scattered throughout the land. Although Deuteronomy in particular condemns these bamot as the worship sites of other Canaanite gods to be avoided by followers of Yahweh, their very names indicate that while they may not all have occupied mountaintops, they certainly occupied elevated land. People of all persuasions have it in common to gravitate to high ground to seek the divine.

In the Canaanite culture that included the northern coastal city of Ugarit (modern Ras Shamra), ancient and largely intact myths — such as the text scholars call “The Baal Cycle” — record the role of Mt Zaphon, the mountain of the gods. Zaphon means North both in Ugaritic and biblical Hebrew. Here dwelt not only Baal but many others, including his sister the fiery Anat, who braved confrontation with the frightful sea god Yamm, their half-brother, after he had initially defeated Baal in battle; Astarte who like Venus was the Evening Star; Asherah who was initially the consort of El, the High God, the Father God. El (which is simply a word meaning “God” both in Ugaritic and in biblical Hebrew) was the elder God and the head of the divine council, depicted in Ugaritic texts as an old man with long white hair and beard — and a sometimes formidable appetite for banquets, goddesses, and strong drink. In the Bible, Yahweh shared many characteristics of El — though not the propensity for carousing. Notably in Daniel 7, Yahweh appears as the Ancient of Days (Aramaic ‘atiq yomin) with the same flowing white hair and beard.

In ancient Greece, which for various reasons is more familiar to modern Western minds, the mountain of the gods was Mt Olympus, where gods such as Zeus, Hella, Aphrodite, Eros, Aries, Athena, Hermes, and numerous others regularly feasted, fought, and observed the affairs of humans.

My husband’s mother hails from Maui, and several years ago in homage to that family connection — and this had nothing to do with the paradise that is Maui itself, of course — we decided to visit that island on vacation. The central landmark of Maui is the 10,000 ft dormant volcano Haleakala, which in Hawai’ian means “House of the Sun” and which dominates the island. The ancient spiritual connection with this mountain is obvious. One is immediately drawn to it after landing on the island, and the volcanic craters at the summit host innumerable visitors each year — all of whom leave changed for the experience. The goddess of the Hawai’ian volcanoes is Pele (PAY-lay). Is it any surprise that these volcanic mountains are the dwelling-place of a deity?

We also went to Aruba years ago, and at one point stood atop a high cliff overlooking the rough side of the ocean at the north of the island. We were buffeted by constant wind, but returned twice. It was a mystical, beautiful, haunting yet welcoming kind of place. Austere landscape strewn with cacti, rocks, and sand, empty of the many visitors enjoying the calmer southeastern side of the island, it was a place where you felt you could almost hear the divine in the wind. Indeed nearly all you could hear was the wind, and the pounding Atlantic surf nearby, which no swimmer could dare brave. We saw a wild donkey there — not too far away, just a glimpse, wandering amongst the cacti. It might sound surprising — but in that place, it was not at all hard to imagine that wild donkey as some local spirit, connected to that land, mystical or magical in nature, ephemeral. No experience has duplicated that place. And lest I neglect to mention… A Catholic chapel inhabited that place. Our Lady of Alto Vista (High View in Spanish), originally built in the 1800s. Clearly we were not the only ones to have felt an uncanny sense of the divine there.

I could go on. Mt Cadillac the highest point in Acadia National Park, Maine — at the gusty top of which we stood at 10pm one clear August night, staring up at Mars hovering just next to one of the star-studded arms of the Milky Way. That, too, was an experience that has not been duplicated. The low mountains in Scotland, to which mossy Nordic grass and mists cling. But I don’t need to go on. Humans are drawn to high places as places to encounter — or at least to feel, to sense — the divine. What is this awareness we have? A gravitation toward places physically larger than ourselves as a natural way to reach something cosmically larger than ourselves?

In this space age, where we see awe-inspiring photos from Hubble on an almost daily basis, we are keenly aware that Earth’s mountains are not the largest places to which we can go to seek the divine. But for most of us, they are still the closest we can get. And so we go to them, and we keep going.

© Elizabeth Keck 2010