Contemplating our place in the vastness of the universe

I hope that by now you have had the opportunity to see some of the spectacular and beautiful images that have been beamed back to Earth by NASA’s new James Webb Space Telescope. For this column, I have such a particular image in mind. It has become known as “Webb’s First Deep Field” and although it focuses on galaxy cluster SMACS 0723, many, many other galaxies are visible there.

We should be deeply humbled by what he depicts. The sector of the sky it represents is tiny, about (we are told) the size of a grain of sand held at arm’s length. And yet, even within this small radius, it captures an almost incalculable profusion of galaxies. And how big are each of these galaxies? Consider this: our own galaxy, the Milky Way, which we have no reason to consider anything other than typical, contains about 100 billion stars. (Some estimates for the Milky Way, in fact, put the total at over 200 billion.)

Contemplating such unfathomable immensity and enormous numbers reminds us almost irresistibly of the opening verses of the eighth psalm:

“O Lord, our Lord, how excellent is your name in all the earth! who set your glory above the heavens. . . When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have ordained; what is man, that you remember him? and the son of man, that you visit him?

The psalmist had no binoculars, much less a high-tech space telescope. Just looking at a clear night sky in the desert was enough to fill him with awe. (Perhaps we city dwellers should get out more.) And then there is Moses’ reaction, as recorded in the Pearl of Great Price. Addressing this great Israelite prophet, the Lord said:

“Look, and I will show you the work of my hands; but not all of them, for my works are endless, and also my words, for they never cease. Therefore, no one can see all my works, except he sees all my glory; and no one can behold all my glory, and then dwell in the flesh on earth.

“And it came to pass that Moses looked and saw the world upon which he was created; and Moses saw the world and its ends, and all the children of men which are and which were created; of the same, he marveled and wondered greatly.

“And the presence of God departed from Moses, that his glory was not upon Moses; and Moses was left to himself. And as he was left to himself, he fell to the ground. And it came to pass that it was for the space of many hours before Moses received again his natural strength like that of man; and he said to himself: Now, that is why I know that man is nothing, something that I had never supposed. (Moses 1:4-5, 8-10)

The answers of Moses and the psalmist are perfectly understandable. We should indeed be overwhelmed by the sheer expansiveness of the cosmos. “The silence of these infinite spaces terrifies me,” wrote the great 17th-century French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal. But there is more to the story. Neither Psalm 8 nor Moses 1 simply leaves us overwhelmed. Neither should terrify us.

Remember the psalmist’s famous question, “What is man, that you remember him?” and the son of man, that you visit him? Still addressing the Lord, he immediately answers his own question:

“For you have made him a little lower than the angels, and you have crowned him with glory and honor. You made him ruler over the works of your hands; you have put everything under his feet: all the sheep and the oxen, yea, and the beasts of the field; the birds of the sky and the fish of the sea, and everything that passes through the paths of the seas. O Lord our Lord, how excellent is your name in all the earth! (Psalm 8:5-9)

In fact, the King James Version of Psalm 8 somewhat downplays the psalmist’s exaltation of “man.” His description of humans as having been created “a little lower than the angels” follows the ancient translations given in the Greek Septuagint and the Latin Vulgate. But the original Hebrew puts us “a little lower than God” or even “a little lower than the Gods” (“the elohim”).

And what about Moses? He was humbled in the dust by what he saw. But did he stay there? Well, first, the Lord continues to show him even more:

“And it came to pass, while the voice was still speaking, that Moses looked down and saw the earth, yea, all of it; and there was not a particle of it but he saw it, discerning it by the Spirit of God. And he also saw the inhabitants of it, and there was not a soul that he did not see; and he discerned them by the Spirit of God; and their number was great, even innumerable as the sand by the seashore. And he saw many countries; and every land was called land, and there were inhabitants upon its surface. (Moses 1:27-29)

Then God speaks to him, saying:

“And I have created worlds without number. . . But I only report to you about this land and its inhabitants. For behold, there are many worlds that have passed away by the word of my power. And there are many standing now, and they are numberless to man; but all things are counted to me, because they are mine and I know them. (Moses 1:33, 35)

If Moses felt small and insignificant before, now he feels even smaller:

“And it came to pass that Moses spake unto the Lord, saying, Have mercy on thy servant, O God, and speak unto me of this earth, and of its inhabitants, and also of the heavens, and then thy servant shall be pleased.

“And the Lord God spake unto Moses, saying, The heavens are many, and they cannot be numbered to man; but they are reckoned to me, for they are mine. And as one earth shall pass away, and its heavens, so another shall come; and there is no end to my works, nor to my words. (Moses 1:37-38)

But then, immediately after Moses is shown at least a portion of the literally incomprehensible expanse of the universe, he is taught a truth which, on the contrary, is even more astonishing and unexpected than this: “For behold, this is my work and my glory – to bring about the immortality and eternal life of man. (Moses 1:39)

There is a tension here between two seemingly opposing ideas: God holds dominion over a universe that eclipses us, yet he cares about us. Both ideas are true, and both sides of this tension must be kept firmly in mind, to avoid arrogance on one side and desperation on the other. We have no cause for pride, but we must also remember that we are appreciated, and by whom: “For God so loved the world,” says John 3:16, “that he gave his only begotten Son , that whoever believes in him shall not perish, but have everlasting life. “Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies, and not one of them is forgotten before God? But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid: you are worth more than many sparrows. (Luke 12:6-7) “Remember that the value of souls is great in the sight of God; for behold, the Lord your Redeemer suffered death in the flesh; therefore he suffered the pain of all men, that all men would repent and come to him. (Doctrine and Covenants 18:10-11

It is a paradox that is at the very heart of Christianity. The prologue to the Gospel of John, for example, begins at a level of cosmic grandeur:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. It was the same in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and nothing that has been done has been done without him. (John 1:1-3)

But then he notes that “the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). In other words, the Creator, the second person of the Godhead, took a physical body in first century Palestine and, subject to hunger, fatigue and pain, walked its hot and dusty paths and its rocky hills like any other mortal. He came as our Redeemer, to save us.

The stunning contrast between the incomprehensible majesty of God and his concern for each of us is beautifully illustrated in one of the greatest chapters of all scripture, Moses 7. It amazed Enoch, and it should astonish us too:

“And it came to pass that the God of heaven looked upon the remnant of the people, and he wept; and Enoch gave an account of it, saying, How is it that the heavens weep and shed their tears like rain on the mountains? And Enoch said to the Lord, How is it that you can weep, since you are holy, and from all eternity to all eternity? And if it were possible that man could count the particles of the earth, yes, millions of earths like this, that would not be the beginning of the number of your creations; and your curtains are still drawn. . . [H]How can you cry?

The Lord said to Enoch: Behold your brethren; they are the work of my own hands, and I gave them their knowledge the day I created them; and in the garden of Eden I gave man his free will; and I said to your brethren, and I also gave the commandment, that they love one another, and choose me, their Father; but behold, they are without affection, and they hate their own blood. . . and among all the work of my hands there has not been so much wickedness as among your brothers. But behold, their sins shall be upon the heads of their fathers; Satan will be their father, and misery will be their downfall; and all the heavens will weep over them, even all the work of my hands; why should not the heavens weep, seeing that these would suffer? (Moses 7:28-33, 36-37)

Curiously, a pagan text from the 4th-3rd century BC, found on an Orphic gold plate in Petelia, southern Italy, captures something of the self-understanding we should possess:I am a child of Earth and Starry Sky,” he says, “but my race is of Heaven (alone).”

For believers, the night sky and the images sent to us by the Webb Space Telescope should be humbling, but not overwhelming. They offer us an opportunity for contemplation and worship. As Doctrine and Covenants 88:42-43, 45-47 reminds us, God

“has given to all things a law by which they move in their time and in their seasons; and their courses are fixed, even the courses of the heavens and the earth, which include the earth and all the planets. . . . The earth rolls on her wings, and the sun gives her light by day, and the moon gives her light by night, and the stars also give their light, as they roll on their wings in their glory, in the midst of power of God.

“To what shall I compare these kingdoms, that you may understand? Behold, these are all kingdoms, and every man that has seen one or the least of them has seen God working in his majesty and power.

**

Photos from the James Webb Space Telescope are available at https://www.nasa.gov/webbfirstimages. For the specific SMACS 0723 photo mentioned above, see “NASA’s Webb Delivers Deepest Infrared Image of Universe Yet” (https://www.nasa.gov/image-feature/goddard/2022/nasa-s-webb-delivers- deepest-infrared-image-of-the-universe-yet). The King James text of Psalm 8 was memorably set to music by the late American composer Howard Hanson: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nZO8nrNno9Y)

About Johnnie Gross

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