When I walk the dog on a winter night, the stars overhead gleam and glitter like sequins on a ball gown. Their brilliance is not dimmed by street lights, or by processions of car headlights brushing the darkness off a highway.
The stars make me feel humble. I think of the traditional line from Psalm 8: “What is man, that thou art mindful of him?”
I tilt my head back and trace the paths of the stars. The great arc of the Big Dipper’s handle. The two stars in its bucket that point to Polaris, the North Star. Cassiopea lounging on the Milky Way, the hem of her robe trailing down towards the diamond bracelet cluster of the Pleiades…
And it’s all… utter….. self-delusion……..
The Big Dipper does not point at the North Star. If we could line up behind those two stars, they’d probably point into some vast abyss in space, nowhere near Polaris. The stars of the handle do not form an arc.
Except from one viewpoint, this insignificant planet we call Earth.
The stars we see today are not even in the same places they were 30 centuries ago, when the first star charts were created.
We haven’t learned a thing from Copernicus and Galileo 400 years ago. We still think of ourselves as the centre of the universe. We still believe that everything revolves around us.
Not if you ask that question directly, of course. We would all affirm that we live on a small rocky planet in a solar system circling around a relatively small star on the outskirts of a minor galaxy that’s drifting through a fabric of space-time warped by gravity.
But we still think that the stars are set in their places for our benefit.
The nearest star is Alpha Centauri, about 4.4 light years away. The most distant single star we can see is Deneb, about 4,000 light years away. The most distant object visible to naked eye is probably the Andromeda galaxy, an estimated 2.5 million light years away.
We have no way of knowing if Andromeda—or Alpha Centauri, for that matter—still exists. Andromeda could have exploded into a supernova—or collapsed into a black hole—two million years ago. And we wouldn’t know about it for another 500,000 years—if human beings survive that long.
I doubt if Andromeda will care whether we do or don’t. Especially since it would take 2.5 million years for Andromedans to discover that we exist.
Yet we believe that stars that may not even be there anymore were arranged so we could interpret their patterns to create a daily horoscope?
Only an utterly ego-centric species could convince itself that the universe came into being so that we could look out at it from one isolated perspective.
Psalm 8 goes on to contradict its earlier humility. It tells God (in the wording of the 1611 King James version), “Yet Thou hast made him a little lower than the angels…”
I’m not sure God deserves that credit. We made ourselves a little lower than the angels. We’d probably make ourselves greater than the angels, if we thought we could get away with it.