The Small Pale Blue Dot
Recently, I had the privilege of attending an inspirational talk by a seminary president entitled, “The Pale Blue Dot.” It had to do with an intriguing photo taken by NASA’s Cassini-Huygens spacecraft in 2013, which captured Saturn’s rings and Earth in the same frame. Earth appeared as a small, pale blue dot in the universe. Thus, for all Earth’s greatness, we were challenged to be impressed by its comparative smallness in relation to other aspects of the universe. The photo is available here.
The Hypergiant Red Star: “Big Dog”
After showing us this photo of Earth, we were informed about one of the largest stars in the universe, VY Canis Majoris (aka “Big Dog”). See the following dramatization of this size difference between Earth and this star here. The whole point of the discussion of Earth as a small, pale blue dot, in comparison to one of the largest and brightest stars in the universe, was to challenge us to think of our own smallness in comparison to the greatness of God. Think Small!?
Thinking Small: Our Smallness & God’s Greatness
Hot on the heels of this inspirational talk, my wife and I decided to read James L. Kugel’s classic work on the Psalms: The Great Poems of the Bible: A Reader’s Companion with New Translations. Interestingly, the similar theme of our own smallness in comparison to the greatness of God, expressed in the cosmic terms of Psalm 104, was Kugel’s wondrous starting place! The fresh translation below is his, and the rest of this post is an explanatory paraphrase of his first chapter.
Bless the LORD, O My Soul – O LORD My God, You are Very Great.
[At the creation:]
Clothed in glory and honor, You wrapped Yourself in light.
Then You put up the sky like a tent and covered it over with water.
The clouds You took as Your chariot and rode off on the wings of the wind.
The winds themselves You made messengers, and flames of fire Your servants.
In the comments that follow his translation of the entire Psalm, Kugel highlights “a certain swirling momentum” that was acquired at the start of the 20th century by the previous two hundred years’ accumulation of doubts about the existence of God. However, he then observes that nowhere in early Israelite history, as presented in the Scriptures, is the existence of God ever questioned. On the contrary, he observes that God’s being and fundamental nature seem to be wholly assumed, a fact so well-known as to require no further elaboration. He goes so far as to note that even the worst blasphemers of the time, whether persons from the foreign nations or renegade Israelites, never include the assertion that God does not exist. Hence, one may have questioned God’s justice or any number of other matters, such as whether God was blind to the “suffering of innocent people,” but one never questioned God’s existence. Kugel rightly emphasizes that one may have gone so far as to say “Curse your God and die,” but never, “It seems you were wrong about God after all – God cannot exist if all this can happen to you.”
Are We Just Smarter and Less Naïve Than Earlier Peoples?
Today, it is commonplace to not only question but to deny the existence of God. Kugel rightly asserts that it is most natural for people to explain the difference between today’s view of things and that of earlier civilizations, by saying that in earlier times people simply didn’t know this or that fact that we now know. Or, they might say that in earlier times people were under this or that misapprehension, from which we have now happily freed ourselves. However, while there may be an element of truth in such explanations, Kugel rightly contends that we ought to be prepared to consider the exact opposite hypothesis as well. That is to say, we must consider the fact that no matter how much ‘progress’ has apparently been made over the intervening centuries, they have also led us to ‘lose’ an important way of seeing that existed in earlier times. Kugel doesn’t just mean the loss of a point of view, but the loss of an ability to clearly see things that were once very obvious, such as our own smallness in comparison to the greatness of God.
Our Own Smallness and the Greatness of God
Today’s way of thinking is, in fact, strikingly different from Biblical thinking, which clearly understands our own smallness in comparison to God’s greatness. Biblical thinking, first and foremost, cannot conceive of humanity without reference to humanity’s Creator, God. It cannot conceive of humanity without some idea of how humanity and the rest of the “little creatures down here” fit into the much larger cosmos. As Kugel emphasizes, this is especially true of the Biblical conception of humanity’s own capacities. They only go so far, and require a reference point beyond humanity itself to the larger cosmos and the Creator of the cosmos. Psalm 104, like other Psalms, is essentially concerned with providing this very perspective.
Thinking Small of Ourselves and Big of God
“SINCE GOD IS VERY BIG, humanity is very small.” “What lies beyond human capacity or human reckoning is not simply part of some undefined wasteland; it is all actively part of a coherent space controlled by, defined by, God.” We humans possess only a small portion of understanding of the total coherent body of things known by God! Biblical humanity was always fundamentally small, when glimpsed from a cosmic and divine perspective. “This radical sense of smallness is crucial”; it is the very foundation of the religious consciousness of a great many Psalms and other Biblical writings. To see ourselves in this manner may appear peculiar to some today, even offensively reductionist, but God’s grandeur is only profoundly seen when we stop seeing ourselves and our capacities as so big. The loss of this kind of Biblical thinking and seeing over the centuries is BIG!
The graphic associated with this post was chosen to represent this loss. The small ‘golden’ marble in the graphic is heavier than the large silver ball on the seesaw. What’s wrong with this picture? The same thing that is wrong with thinking or seeing ourselves as big, and God as small or nonexistent! To quote an idiom from earlier times, we have become “too big for our own britches.” This idiom expresses the fact that much of humanity has become conceited, having an exaggerated and aggrandized sense of our own importance and capacities.
The Very Big God Exalts Humanity Above All “Little Things” with Glory and Honor
Interestingly, while Biblical thinking affirms the smallness of humanity and the greatness of God, it simultaneously emphasizes how God exalts humanity above all of creation with glory and honor! To make this point, Kugel cites Psalm 8:4-6 (this is my modified translation).
When I see the heavens that Your fingers have fashioned, the moon and stars You have made:
What is a human that You should call them to mind, a human being that You should take note of them?
Yet You have made humanity almost God, crowned humanity with glory and honor
You set humanity over Your other creations, and put all of them in subjection under humanity’s feet
The time has come for God’s people to be restored to the Biblical way of thinking and seeing. When it comes to us: Think small! When it comes to God: Think BIG! In turn, we find that God has exalted humanity with glory and honor to be coregents over his creation! This is countercultural thinking to be sure, but as Kugel rightly emphasizes: “it is always wise at least to consider the question of who, in any given circumstance, might be wearing the green spectacles.”
Henri Louis Goulet