One of the best nature/science documentaries I’ve seen is National Geographic’s “One Strange Rock.” Narrated by actor Will Smith, it reflects on the marvels of our planet as seen through the eyes of astronauts.
If you see all ten episodes, you will never view life on this amazing, mysterious rock of ours as you had before.
I was particularly struck by a comment made by astronaut Chris Hadfield. Waxing philosophical in the final show, he said that “one of the biggest changes I noticed within myself from flying in outer space was that the difference between ‘us’ and ‘them’ disappeared.” He noted that when you repeatedly orbit the earth in 92 minutes, you begin seeing the earth as “one shared place.”
I imagine what he’s getting at is that, given the big empty of space, all we have is each other. When you look at this beautiful planet from 200 miles up, eclipsed against the dark void, then the distinction of tribe, class, clan, nation, race, gender diminishes with each round trip. In its place grows the realization that we are all, together, simply earthlings.
The Astronaut Psalmist
Occasionally you find this perspective in the Bible. Without benefit of the International Space Station, a Hebrew songwriter penned Psalm 148.
He imagines the highest heavens, the sun and the moon, then every aspect of the created order. The duty of everything? Simply to give thanks for being created. When he finally comes to people, he concludes with this exhortation:
Do the same, you young men—young women too! You who are old together with you who are young! Let all of these praise the LORD’s name because only God’s name is high over all. Only God’s majesty is over earth and heaven. (Psalm 148:12-13, CEB)
There you have it. No distinctions. You young men…oh yes, you young women, too. You old people…oh yes, you young people, too. Everyone give thanks to God! Why? Because everything, everyone reflects God’s majesty. They are all equally beautiful because God equally created them from the dust of the ground.
Perhaps it’s time that we honor the earthiness that makes each of us humans as distinct from each other as a hummingbird is from a bald eagle.
We are, indeed, EARTHlings. We are each born from the stuff of the planet. Our DNA proscribes the limited outlook each of us has and there’s nothing we can do about it. What’s more, our huge brain, evolved to keep us alive, seeks out ideas and storylines that fit our personalities. (As Voltaire said, “The human brain is a complex organ with the wonderful power of enabling man to find reasons for continuing to believe whatever it is that he wants to believe.”)
The result is that every one of us 7 billion plus humans sees life differently and tells different stories. We simply can’t help ourselves.
Our spirituality reflects this uniqueness.
Each of us will view God through our own narrow lens. Our earth-bound humanity roots us in this unseen bias. When some of us are “born again,” it’s still our physical birth into this world that will greatly determine our spiritual trajectory. You might be a “new creation,” but only in terms of overcoming some of your more egregious weaknesses. You’re still an EARTHling, and will always bear that dependency.
Jesus, Space Man
Jesus opened our eyes to a larger world.
He had a way of re-framing what people said to him. It was as if he came from outer space. The late Henri Nouwen noted that sometimes people would ask the Master a question from a human stand point, and Jesus would answer from a higher outlook. The response would shake the person’s assumptions and push them to thinking in a broader way.
His interaction with Nicodemus, in John 3, is a famous example. Each time the Pharisee said something, Jesus answered with something that blew his mind. How can you be born again? You must be born of water and the Spirit.
Another example is his Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5-7. You can imagine some of it came from questions he anticipated, a few of which were:
What about murder? If you’re angry you murder.
What about adultery? If you lust you commit adultery.
What about enemies? Love and pray for them.
In other words, Jesus helped people see life from a higher vantage point, the 200-miles-up one. His perspective pushed people past letter-of-the-law differences and caused them to see the larger will of the Creator. Don’t judge. Forgive. Believe the best. Welcome strangers. Be just. Focus on the big stuff of love and not the little stuff of law.
If someone had heard him teaching like this, they very well could have concluded that,
I REALLY DON’T KNOW WHAT I’M TALKING ABOUT, DO I?
Each of us occasionally needs to ask ourselves this question, just to keep us honest. It’s a humbling experience, especially whenever you may find yourself wanting to act as God’s mouthpiece and gavel.
Affirming Belief, Affirming Unity
None of this, of course, is to say that we abdicate our beliefs.
I am a Christian. I love Jesus. I believe he is the Son of God because he points me to a way of living and loving that connects me to the Creator and the created. He gives me hope. The Bible introduced him to me and forever I’m in its debt. I will interpret the Bible through the eyes of Jesus, since he’s a lot smarter than any of my seminary profs.
Admittedly, and without apology, this is all from my perspective. It gives life meaning and substance and sweetness.
I just need to make sure it’s all dosed with a humility that will enable me to grow. What can my fellow earthbound travelers teach me?
Atheist, agnostic, Pentecostal. Jew, Muslim, Hindu. LGBTQ. White and non-white. Upper, middle, and lower classes. First world, second world, third world. Everyone is born courtesy of the God of Psalm 148. Each can be my teacher. Indeed, if I can’t say I can learn from them, then I am no more than a poor imitator of Jesus’ Pharisees, who hid behind the law and were afraid to live and love fully, as Jesus had invited.
Ongoing repentance will bring us back to encouraging diversity and respecting plurality, which are the fruits of honesty and humility. You discover how tasty those fruits are when, after confessing I REALLY DON’T KNOW WHAT I’M TALKING ABOUT, you add a much-needed corollary:
AND THAT’S WHY I NEED YOU.
In this way, what we’ve learned from space will come true on earth.