Cosmos and Parables: A visit with Carl Sagan and Octavia Butler

Earth, from Cassini
Earth, as seen from Saturn. Courtesy of the Cassini spacecraft.

Looking around, it’s as if the world is coming back to life as it greens around the edges, and the air is finally warm enough that I can hang up that winter jacket. Yes, it looks like it finally happened — spring has arrived. Ahhh, Spring. That time of year when we remember how everything we see, and feel, taste, smell, and hear is billions of years old.

What. You don’t do that? How do you do it?

I suppose I have Carl Sagan to blame. I was eleven when my parents introduced me to Sagan and his TV show, Cosmos. It probably fit between nights dotted with Wild Kingdom or Nova, but Cosmos was … different. There was this scientist, as comforting as Mr Rogers, with this great accent, and he talked about space in a way that I had never heard before. What he taught me was that space was big. Really big. Unimaginably big. Maybe even frighteningly big. But here was this man, in his turtlenecks and his calm and beautiful voice, soothing me past the vastness of it all. Inviting me. Little me. To see, maybe for the very first time, my world. Its mysteries and its terrors. Its past, present and future. And to see it as but one of an uncountable and endless parade of other worlds embedded in a drama that was unspeakably old. It was Sagan that first explained where it was that I – and everyone – came from. He said that everything I saw, heard, tasted, smelled, and touched was made out of things that were created somewhere else. Sagan said “The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies, were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of star stuff.”

This was my first lesson in theology.

Who are we? How did we get here? Where are we going? Three fundamental questions. Questions that, as the theologian Paul Tillich said, are of the ultimate concern. Tillich also says that asking these questions is the job of the theologian. So, today, we’re going to take him up on that, play theologian, and talk about ultimate things. Great, big, ultimate things.

What better way than to start with trivia.

Maybe you’ve heard the news that Uranus probably smells like rotten eggs, but did you know that the planet is also tipped over almost completely sideways? It spins like this. [Demonstrate]. Did you know that? I didn’t. Have I mentioned that I love doing research for sermons?

Did you know that Mars has a volcano three times taller than Mount Everest? Was that an easy one?

Did you know that Mercury is shrinking?

Did you know that there is water-ice all over the solar system?

Did you know that since 1995, we’ve found 2,400 additional comets in our solar system?

Did you know that Neptune radiates more heat than it receives from the sun?

Did you know that that there’s an asteroid, over 120 miles in diameter, that’s 90% iron? That’s about 30 billion-billion tons.

And that there’s another asteroid with 90 million tons of platinum sitting in its core?

But imagining things is one thing. In the last few years, we’ve been gifted with the ability to do more than just imagine.

The New Horizons spacecraft sent back some of the first and certainly some of the best images of our outermost family traveler. [3 images of Pluto]

The Juno spacecraft has been in orbit around Jupiter for almost two years, collecting data on how much water is “on” the planet, mapping the gravitational and magnetic fields, and studying the atmosphere. This month, Juno sent back some incredible photos of the central cyclone sitting at Jupiter’s North Pole, and the eight massive cyclones that surround it. Each of those cyclones is larger than the distance between New York City and Los Angeles. [3 images of Jupiter]

The Cassini spacecraft, which so very recently vanished into the storms of Saturn, survived a 20-year mission to explore the ringed world and its moons, including Titan, a moon that some believe may be the best location in our solar system, outside of Earth, for the existence of life. [3 images of Saturn].

NASA rovers on MARS gave us similar images. Unfortunately, our current administration chose last week to scrap 10 years of NASA’s planning and development for a similar mission to our moon, so those photos will have to wait a bit longer. I’m going to try really hard to not read too much into that.

But it’s this last photo that I want to linger on. This is Earth. Our pale blue dot, a mote, suspended on a sunbeam. In the 28 years since the Voyager 1 photograph Carl Sagan famously referenced, very few photos I’ve seen have captured me quite as thoroughly as this one. Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. The only home we’ve ever known. And as far as family photos go, it’s a pretty good one.

This photo, and ones like it, are where I find perspective. I don’t mean that this is an exercise in feeling our mortality or wild irrelevancy, though that kind of humility is not always a bad thing. Rather, this reminds us that something amazing is just around the corner.

How about you? Do images like this inspire you? Maybe you’re feeling the pull to do some climate justice work? There is an urge in this moment to go there. To see our blue boat home and worry about the fragility of our ecosystem and how troubling it is that NASA’s newly appointed chief is a climate-science denier.

But I hope you’ll forgive me if I save that for a future sermon, in part because it deserves its own time and in part because today I want to go somewhere a bit different. Today, I want to invite you to consider the words of Neil deGrasse Tyson, when he says that “We are all connected; To each other, biologically. To the earth, chemically. To the rest of the universe, atomically.” Maybe it’s my classwork, but this idea sounds very like the Buddhist concept of “the dependent co-arising of all things”. Western theologians have called this radical interdependence. Unitarian Universalists might hear our Seventh Principle, the one that asks us to respect the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part. That is, when I look at the planets and stars, I start thinking of theology.

But not just the kind of theology that is about acting justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly before the awesomeness of the Cosmos. There is that, sure, but there’s also an invitation there. An invitation to realize that you, too, are stardust, million-year-old carbon. To realize, paraphrasing Carl Sagan, that creating an apple pie from scratch requires creating the universe first. To see that, when we look out at the night sky, that which sprawls before us in its unfathomable immensity is both our parents, where we come from, and our children, where we will one day return.

Our bodies, our world, all of the worlds, all are part of the body of Cosmos. Don’t we owe it to our parents to at least and at last touch their faces? To acknowledge their gifts to us? To revel in their glory? To learn their secrets? To visit their graves?

The exploration of space is a foregone conclusion – we are going. This is happening. And I say that even as I acknowledge that there are a great many people, perhaps even a great many of you, that cringe at the very thought. Those that say we are not ready, that we cannot manage our own planet’s resources, how could we possibly manage those of any other planet. That we have no right. That if we do go anywhere, that we will definitely screw it up, just like we’ve screwed up Earth. That we don’t deserve to go anywhere until and unless we have fixed our home, first.

I want to acknowledge all of that, but I also want to suggest that such worries echo a kind of Provincialism. That it bears more than a passing familiarity to the idea that we should hunker down within our borders, either pointlessly polishing our silverware on the one hand or helpfully feeding our poor on the other, but either way, that we ought to spend American money on America and American citizens before we spend any on anyone else. More broadly, that until and unless all of our human errors and oversights and oppressions have been completely addressed and eradicated, until then, we humans have no business looking to our neighboring planets much less the stars.

I understand the temptation, and while I personally feel that this approach is both self-contradictory and self-defeating, I know that arguments of political theory feel a little toothless when you’re hungry, and your neighbor is hurting, and your water is full of lead. I hear that, too. But that doesn’t make isolationism a good idea.

In 1993, African-American novelist Octavia Butler published Parable of the Sower. In that novel, economic and environmental mismanagement led to the partial collapse of the social order in the United States. Into that gap, an unlikely public servant stepped, one promising an inward turn, one that reflected the values of our Founders, one that spoke the language of Faith, one that championed home over neighbor, one who inspired a great many others to organize, a leader that egged on division, that refused to disavow those that used his inspiration to lash out against those that were different, a leader that promised in his campaign for President to “Make America Great Again.” Again, that novel was written in 1993.

What Butler imagined then was a United States that had lost its way, not because it’s ideals were invalid or that it’s people were corrupt. She imagined a United States that simply wasn’t able to save itself from the demons of capitalism, of alienation, of existential dread. What that imagined country lacked, her protagonist theorized, was a theology that reflected their lived experience. So, she invented one. “Change is the one unavoidable, irresistible, ongoing reality of the universe,” she said. “That makes Change just another word for God.” The goal, then is to not wait for change to happen to you, but to become an agent of change. To Shape the change. And since God is change, that means shaping God. Which sounds very empowering, but … that wasn’t quite enough. Because, Butler argued, it is “a sweet and powerful positive obsession that blunts pain, diverts rage, and engages each of us in the greatest, the most intense of our chosen struggles.” That is, her theology needed a vision. A goal. A positive obsession. Something for people to orient toward, to perhaps organize around, to reach for, to dream about. Something that cut across race, or class, or nationality. Her answer? “The Destiny of humanity is to take root among the stars.”

If you’re now raising your eyebrows, let me remind you that this isa science fiction novel. But even with that said, I wonder if there isn’t a bit more we can lean into. I like to think that Butler’s vision echoes what we heard from Cara, quoting President Kennedy, who said: “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills….” According to Butler, and to Kennedy, this is what the stars offer us.

Now as far as I know, Butler did not talk about the New Horizons, Cassini, or Juno missions. But I think she’d have agreed that exploration invites us to open a very particular door. That through that door could be a future for humanity, both collectively andcollaboratively – first exploring, then, taking root among the stars.

Through that door, we would still carry all of our foibles, and all of our flaws. A lofty goal is not going to change that about us. And we cannot go to the stars to can avoid dealing with racism, sexism, parochialism, nationalism, capitalism, or speciesism. But neither do we AVOID going to the stars because we have yet to finish the work of racism, sexism, parochialism, nationalism, capitalism, or speciesism. No. The invitation is not to do one OR the other, but to do BOTH. And I wonder if there is any other way to do this work. For example, I wonder if a “Political Other” — who apparently will not respond to anything else — might respond to a “positive obsession” of unified human purpose. Not because it was right, or because it was good, or because it was easy, but precisely because it was hard. And that in the doing of that hard thing, in working collaboratively to achieve an almost impossibly complicated goal, some new understanding might then arise. Team building works this way. Give a group of individuals a task. The doing of that task builds commonality and creates solidarity. And this is what Liberation Theology teaches us. That we can act ourselves into a new way of believing. And if there was ever a context where humans of different stripes had more in common than they had in difference, it’s on a rocket heading to another planet.

Two weeks ago, a SpaceX rocket launched TESS, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, to start decoding which of our extra-solar planetary neighbors might be ready for friendly visit. This summer, Osiris-Rex will land on an asteroid, dig out some samples, and bring them back to Earth. And in a few years, we’ll see the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope, which can collect 6.5x the light of the Hubble Space Telescope allowing us to see deeper into space than ever before. Maybe we will finally learn if there really is an ancient alien megastructure orbiting Tabby’s Star, 1,300 light years away, or maybe we’ll finally find some other answer to the riddle of Fermi’s Paradox – are we really alone in the universe? And in the next 20 years, both NASA and SpaceX plan to land human beings on Mars.

Interesting times. Exciting times.

So today, yes, I’m asking you to dream a little bigger than usual. I’m asking you to gaze just a bit farther. Because — what if it is true, that we are, each of us, shapers of change, agents of ultimacy? If that invitation makes you nervous, I ask you to hear the words of author Marianne Williamson, who reminds us that “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small doesn’t serve the world. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

So, what is it that is within YOU? It’s a worthy question. An ultimate question. And your life? That is your map in your search for an answer. And who are we that can do these things? Who are we to dare to dream this big, dare to sail on a sea of stars, dare to touch the face of God? Who are we NOT to? As Carl Sagan us that “The cosmos [itself] is within us. We are made of star-stuff. We are a way for the universe to know itself. And somewhere, out there, something incredible is waiting to be known.”

May we be so bold.

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