Holy Moments with Neil DeGrasse Tyson

The nerd in me couldn’t wait.

Neil deGrasse Tyson was relaunching Cosmos: A Space-Time Odyssey!

True enough, I threw a few temper tantrums on my father when I was a kid and he forced me to watch the original series, featuring Carl Sagan, on a *gasp* weekend.  But I am a book nerd raised by educators (one of whom was a science teacher) in a devoted Star Trek family.  How could I resist the allure of learning by traveling is a spaceship?  A spaceship of the imagination, no less?  A spaceship that could go anywhere in space and time… like Dr. Who’s TARDIS?
So, as a kid, I learned to love Cosmos.  As an adult, the kid in me couldn’t wait for the Cosmos relaunch.
But what I didn’t expect was to find myself encountering God with each episode.
I have to wait until Monday to watch the episode that debuted the day before.  As a pastor, I am pretty busy on Sunday–thank heavens for new technology, though, that allows me to watch television when my crazy schedule allows.  And every Monday, I stuff the dog’s Kong Toy with peanut butter to keep her occupied, flop into my recliner, and fire up the ol’ Roku so that I can see where Neil is taking us this week.
Neil deGrasse Tyson is only interested in science since that’s what he does for a living and what the show is about–so he has never even tried to explain the complexities of God and the myriad of theologies that have arisen.  That’s my job, actually… and I’m sort of glad Neil doesn’t try to step on my toes that way.
And yet, in the past two episodes, in the Spaceship of the Imagination, I have seen God.  Clearly.  And without question.
Last week, it was when Neil explained how light travels and said:

“If the universe were only 6,500 years old, how could we see the light from anything more distant than the Crab Nebula?  We couldn’t.  There wouldn’t have been enough time for the light to get to Earth from anywhere farther away than 6,500 light years in any direction.  That’s just enough time for light to travel a tiny portion of our Milky Way galaxy.  To believe in a universe as young as 6,000 or 7,000 years old is to extinguish the light from all the other hundred billion galaxies in the observable universe.”–Neil deGrasse Tyson in the episode, A Sky Full of Ghosts

As I watched the stunning visual of the light of the universe being extinguished beyond the 6,500 light year mark and then returning in a breathtaking glow, I couldn’t help but think of those opening verses of the Gospel of John:

“What came into being through the Word was life, and the life was the light for all people.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness doesn’t extinguish the light.” –John 1:4-5, CEB

I knew the moment I heard Neil’s explanation that there would be backlash from those who subscribe to Creationist beliefs.  And I also knew that he would be celebrated by those who find Creationism to be pseudoscience.  But on Monday afternoons, when I’m unwinding from a long week and preparing for another one, I’m not interested in the public debates out there, though I have my (very strong) opinions.

Mondays are meant to be debate-free days for this preacher.  The rest of the week is filled with controversy and debate and argument and vitriol (yes, preachers are exposed to vitriol sometimes).  On any given day I’m asked for input, opinions, and thoughts on any number of subjects–some I try to walk a middle line on–but no matter what I say or do, some people will applaud while others will be outraged.  And when it comes to those issues in which I feel God is calling me out of my middle-line safety zone and expecting me to speak more boldly, I can guarantee some people will be furious with me.  Preachers know all too well that freedom of speech does not mean freedom from the consequences of our speech.  So we need a day of rest–a day in which we bow out of the spotlight, step away from the debates, put our thoughts and opinions on hold, and let God lead us where God will.

Mondays are quiet days.  Sometimes I don’t speak to another soul all day long.  It’s just me and God, if possible.  (And the dog and cat…)

Even though I seek encounters with God on Mondays, I can’t tell you how shocked I was to find God in Cosmos–just waiting for me right where God knows I can always be found–feeding my insatiable curiosity.

God was there, in that map of the stars, illuminating those millions–billions–of tiny dots into infinity, reminding me that regardless of how big and menacing this world can sometimes seem, it is but a speck in the grand scheme of things.  It is so miniscule in God’s hands.  As the Psalm writer once said, “What are human beings that you think about them; what are human beings that you pay attention to them?”  (Psalm 8:4, CEB)

We are so small, and God is so big… and yet, here we are.  Living, breathing, gazing up at the same stars our ancestor once stared at and the same ones that our descendants will gaze at long after we have been buried.  All of this in the universe–all the distant planets and stars, all the things we can’t understand, all the things we do understand, and all the things we do not yet even know about–and God is taking the time to meet me amongst the stars in the Spaceship of the Imagination to ignite my sense of awe and wonder.

This past Sunday, in the episode Hiding in the Light, Neil was teaching us about light when he explained how the dark lines in a light spectrum are used by astrophysicists to unravel the mysteries of the universe (you’ll have to watch the episode for a more scientific explanation than that–Neil deGrasse Tyson doesn’t step on my toes as a teacher and preacher of theology, and I won’t step on his toes as an educator of astrophysics–not that I even could!)  At the conclusion of his teaching, after explaining what he knew and conceding to what he doesn’t know, he said:

“Show me the spectrum of anything, whether here on Earth or a distant star; I’ll tell you what it’s made of.”

Just like that–God had met me again.  Right where God knew I could be found.

I’ve always wondered how astrophysicists could gaze through a telescope and know are in the stars, far beyond our reach.  It seems every time I turn around, NASA is releasing information about some new star or comet or planet–and I find myself wondering, “How do they know that?”

And there it was–right there in the distant light, traveling billions and trillions of miles over millions and billions of years, and in that light there are the secrets of creation.  Some might think I’m crazy, but where Neil deGrasse Tyson and his colleagues see a sort of bar code that reveals the matter of distant objects, I see the fingerprints of God.

In the end, I can’t help but feel Neil and I are seeing the same thing.  We just have two very different ways of explaining it and understanding it.  That’s why we need each other.  The mysteries of this grand universe are diverse and beyond our comprehension–but as we set our minds to unraveling them, we can’t help but encounter God and the divine mysteries that reach beyond our sense and touch our souls.

Growing up with a science teacher, I always had a respect for the scientific method and never looked at theories like the Big Bang or evolution as limiting God or making God smaller.  My father was also a man of faith who would teach us about the rocks we picked up off the ground, or the rings of the tree he had just cut down, or the stars in the sky–and the awe of what was at work behind the science, at the force that set the laws of physics into motion–it was always there.

The more I think about it, I shouldn’t have been so surprised to have God meet me in that place where the Spaceship of the Imagination had brought me–to that place where my curiosity was seeking both knowledge and mystery–because those are the places where I have always found God.


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