Saturday, July 10, 2010

Saturday of 14th Week (Year II)/Memorial of the BVM on Saturday

Isaiah 6:1-8 / Matthew 10:24-33

In 1990, the spacecraft Voyager 1, having completed its work in the solar system, turned back to the Earth to photograph our world from across the gulf of 3.7 billion miles of the void of space. In this photograph, the Earth appears as a small speck, a pale blue dot from which the photograph has received its name, a mere pixel against the immensity of the universe. Inspired by this photograph, Carl Sagan, astronomer, astrophysicist, cosmologist, author and atheist, wrote a book titled after the photograph in which, among other things, he dismissed as unjustifiable hubris and irrationality the continuance of belief that the human race has some purpose in the universe, that indeed the universe is made for us, rather than to see ourselves as the tiniest motes of insignificant dust in a remote backwater of the galaxy. As he said in a commencement address in 1996:

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena ... Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves ... It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world.

On Sagan's view, the scientific sense, at once frightening and humbling, that we are in a freefall with nothing to hold us up in a universe coldly indifferent to us, our goals, our dreams and our deeds, stands in contrast to what he takes to be the religious (and thus, to him, superstitious and irrational) view of the world, viz. that the universe is small and tidy, reflecting easily our own experiences of tellurian reality, with the human race at its physical and moral center. That we live, in other words, in a universe made for us.

Yet, in this regard, Carl Sagan had gotten it all backwards. On his atheistic view, while the universe may have no ultimate purpose, nor we have any purpose within it, nonetheless our goals and actions are no less important than any other activity of any other part of the cosmos. If we feel small, we cannot surely be unimportant since there is nothing in itself important or unimportant except as we choose to deem it so.

On the other hand, it is the religious view that is in truth profoundly, even disturbingly, decentering. In the face of a majesty and glory of the living God, the prophet Isaiah can merely proclaim in dread: Woe is me, I am doomed! Behind Jesus' teaching about the worth of a sparrow or the counting of hairs upon our head, there surely lies the anxiety in his audience that in a world of divine purposes, our lives and actions are surely not center-stage, not of lasting significance, of no account to the august vision of a majestic God who guides the course of the cosmos.

Indeed, it is only from this latter perspective, only when realizing how fully we ought to expect our own lives to be of no account in a world governed and directed by God Most High, that the vision of Isaiah and Jesus' teaching about divine providence can have their full impact. Now we see the joyous news that despite what we might imagine, despite the awesome glory of God, he yet seeks out a messenger of dust and clay to bear his Word for the saving of his people and of all the peoples of the world. Despite the grandeur of God's purpose, he nonetheless cares to count the very hairs of our head.

This means that all of our affirmations and denials, all of our actions on behalf of or rebellions against the purposes of God are never insignificant. In a world where the fate of the whole cosmos turned on the simple affirmation of the Maid of Nazareth, a pale blue dot in the remote backwaters of Palestine, we cannot afford the adolescent rebellions of insisting that we make our own meaning nor the self-serving sloth of retreat, assuring ourselves that in our smallness we cannot mean anything to the grand sweep of the stellar void. Like the Virgin, like Isaiah, we have been called in our nothingness to bear the Word to the world. When God seeks a messenger, are we ready to say and believe in the world of the prophet: Here I am, Lord, send me!