Tom Gilson

What Shall We Make of This Glory?


I’ve just been treated to my first view of Orion and the Pleiades this year: it was the unanticipated benefit of rising early on a very clear morning. They are my favorite constellations, one of them for being so bold and distinct, the other for being so delicate and small. The whole sky is resplendent: Mars and the crescent moon are in near conjunction, the whole moon being quite visible through earthshine, and Jupiter in Gemini is so bright I thought I’d forgotten which of Orion’s stars I should track to find Sirius.

The photo here is a fairly realistic clear-sky view of Orion. It’s one of the few constellations bright and distinct enough to be visible even from cities where light pollution is rampant. Sirius, the brightest of stars as seen from earth, is just out of this photo. If the weather cooperates for you, you could find it tomorrow morning by tracking Orion’s three-starred “belt” down to the left. The Pleiades are six (some say seven) dim stars tightly clustered together, on a line up to the right from the belt stars. Jupiter this morning was on a nearly straight line up to the left from the shoulder stars, and just past it were the “Twin” Gemini stars, Castor and Pollux.

One of Orion’s shoulders is a slightly reddish star that hardly stands out at all. (Its apparent size is exaggerated in the photo.) It is Betelgeuse, and it is a red giant, the largest star that’s easily identified by amateur stargazers like me. “Largest” hardly describes it. Comparing its size to that of our sun would be almost silly: this star is bigger around than the orbits of Mercury, Venus, Earth, and even Mars. And yet from here it’s barely a dot in the sky.

If you don’t care to get up to see this magnificence, it will come around for you soon enough on a December evening, though I can’t promise you’ll find Mars and Jupiter there then.

What shall we make of this glory?

There are some among us who have called this reason to doubt the existence of God and the significance of man. We are alone in the vastness, riding along on a tiny “pale blue dot” we call Earth. We are nothing, next to the whole.

It is hard to believe it was an astronomer, Carl Sagan, who first said that. I look up in the starry sky and I see the opposite. I see sublime magnificence. I see a display of glory. I see artistry.

Guillermo Gonzalez and Jay Richards have shown how special Earth’s position is in the cosmos. We’re situated in the galactic and solar habitable zones, in the very small percentage of the volume of space where life is imaginable; and not only that, our location is uniquely ideal for spurring on science and artistry. It’s almost, one might say, as if we were placed here on purpose.

And then there are those skeptics who wonder how it makes sense for us to occupy such a small portion of such a large universe. I won’t dwell on that overlong here, as I’ve written about it before, but to me the question seems vaguely childish. It takes God to be miserly, if God exists, as if he would have difficulty justifying the investment of all that space and energy just to beautify his creation

There may be other reasons it took such a massive universe for God to do what he wanted to do: creating humans, among other things. But it seems to me that beauty alone is enough. If he did it just for humans, the angels, other possible creatures somewhere, and of course himself to enjoy, then that’s sufficient. He is a God of beauty and of joy, and the starry sky says so.

Some people read the sky as telling us we’re tiny, insignificant, nothings among the vast void. Some can read it as telling us we’re very small compared to the greatness of the Artist, and that he must love us very much to let us delight in such beauty. The latter is not only more preferable to me: it also seems much more real.

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16 thoughts on “What Shall We Make of This Glory?

  1. Actually, the Pleiades is an open star cluster consisting of hundreds of stars embedded in a nebula (gas and dust clouds), gravitationally bound together – the human eye can see the 6 or 7 brightest stars.

    They are referred to in God’s replies to Job (see Job 38:31-33 ), and while I wouldn’t claim that Job 38:31 describes the fact that the cluster is actually gravitationally bound together, as opposed to the stars of Orion, which are moving independently of each other (the cords are loosed), – it can mean simply that the stars of Orion are so visually spread out across the sky, while the Pleiades stars are all visually close together, since it is God the Creator speaking here, one can’t help but wonder, since He does know the laws of the heavens, and has set up their rule 🙂

    Just as beautiful and elegant are the mathematical descriptions of those “laws”, that is to say, the properties and dynamics of space-time, matter and energy. I realize that our mathematical descriptions are human constructs, but as Hungarian-born American physicist Eugene Wigner concludes ( see here) in a paper entitled The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences

    Let me end on a more cheerful note. The miracle of the appropriateness of the language of mathematics for the formulation of the laws of physics is a wonderful gift which we neither understand nor deserve. We should be grateful for it and hope that it will remain valid in future research and that it will extend, for better or for worse, to our pleasure, even though perhaps also to our bafflement, to wide branches of learning.

    There are also followups to Wigner’s paper (see that are worth a read.

    Again, this makes me wonder – are mathematical and abstract thinking really merely human constructs after all? As a physicist, I can understand and appreciate Wigner’s arguments in ways that a layman cannot (if you can’t do the math or apply it, you don’t really understand it – one of my best physics professors was fond of emphasizing that) – as a Christian, I can appreciate that it is the Mind of God behind this beauty, and I can worship Him with David in Psalm 19 for this gift.

  2. And don’t get me started on Orion 🙂

    The middle star of his sword is really the Orion Nebula (see and where beyond the awesome visual beauty of the object, astronomers, using the Hubble Space Telescope, have found protostars, that is, stars in the process of forming by gravitational collapse and have not quite reached the critical point where thermonuclear fusion can start – would it not be amazing if we were treated to seeing one of these protostars ignite? (see
    It has also seen planetary systems in the making (

  3. And if gazing outward is the inspiration that Tom so well describes, gazing inwards should be equally so. If we look to ourselves we see creatures amazing in their complexities. We see humorous, empathetic, courageous, moral, creative, social, rational, idealistic, emotional, intelligent, unique, spiritual beings with free will and a self-conscious identity. In the totality of these things we are so unlike anything else it’s simply breathtaking. It’s hard for me to imagine who it is that looks out and looks in and doesn’t see a reality unimaginably greater than any confluence of atoms could create.

  4. ‘We are alone in the vastness, riding along on a tiny “pale blue dot” we call Earth. We are nothing, next to the whole.
    It is hard to believe it was an astronomer, Carl Sagan, who first said that.’

    Carl Sagan said a lot of things, among them:

    ‘Even today the most jaded city dweller can be unexpectedly moved upon encountering a clear night sky studded with thousands of twinkling stars. When it happens to me after all these years it still takes my breath away.’

    ‘When we recognize our place in an immensity of light‐years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty, and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual.’

    Given these quotes, I don’t think Sagan was a stranger to the wonder and sublime magnificence of the night sky.

    Nor do I think Sagan was dismissive of human beings as ‘tiny, insignificant, nothings’:

    ‘Every one of us is, in the cosmic perspective, precious. If a human disagrees with you, let him live. In a hundred billion galaxies, you will not find another.’

    ‘One glance at a book and you hear the voice of another person, perhaps someone dead for 1,000 years. To read is to voyage through time.’

    It’s not essential to have any specific beliefs about the origin and nature of the universe to experience and appreciate the mystery of existence.

  5. “Every one of us is, in the cosmic perspective, precious.”

    If this is true can you explain why this is true.

  6. It’s not essential to have any specific beliefs about the origin and nature of the universe to experience and appreciate the mystery of existence.

    Ah, but why do we appreciate the mystery, the grandeur, and the significance? Why does what we see in the heavens inspire some to wax poetic, others to discover and describe the regularities of the dynamics that produces what we see? What moves us to look beyond the heavens to Someone Whose Hands flung the stars into space, yet to cruel nails surrendered?

  7. Tom Gilson: ‘There is a distinction between mystery, grandeur, and significance.’

    Yes, but that’s not the point of the quotes, which were to show that Carl Sagan did not necessarily subscribe to the implied view: that because the planet is a dot in the ocean of the universe, human beings are not important.

  8. BillT: ‘“Every one of us is, in the cosmic perspective, precious.”
    If this is true can you explain why this is true.’

    I haven’t claimed that the statement is true, only that Carl Sagan believed it is the case, and that it challenges the implication that he believed human beings are of no worth.

    From the context of the quote, he may have been claiming that every human being is precious because unique in their ability to form opinions about life and meaning.

    He may also have been appealing to the notion of being a ‘child of the universe’, of the same stuff as the stars, and in that sense of no less importance than the heavenly bodies.

    However, elsewhere, Sagan has referred to the ‘indifference’ of the universe, which seems to undermine his ‘precious’ comment. But again, that’s beside the point of the quotes, which were to show that, whatever the consistency of his thoughts, Sagan believed in both the grandeur of the universe and the significance of human beings.

  9. Just saying that people are “precious” is an empty platitude unless you can explain why. Sagan wants to have it both ways. It’s shallow and thoughtless.

  10. Elizabeth: ‘Ah, but why do we appreciate the mystery, the grandeur, and the significance?’

    Because as human beings we seek knowledge and have an aesthetic sense.

    More generally, in regard to seeking knowledge we’re big-brained, self-reflective creatures who discern patterns in our environment and seek out the reasons for why things are the way they are.

    I should point out that when I use terms such as ‘mystery’, I’m referring to something like an ‘unexplained puzzle’. So, for example, from what might be called an ‘original position’ – i.e. no prior opinion – there is no obvious reason for the existence of the universe.

    In that sense both the ‘what’ and the ‘why’ of its existence can rightly be considered a mystery, that is, something that is unexplained and is a genuine puzzle, with no easy answer.

  11. To ask why we see this beauty in the universe is to skip a step; the first question is “How do we experience the beauty of the universe?”.

    Once we know how we do it the why will be obvious, so for now it is enough to know that we do see this beauty, and that the experience of yugen is one of the most important things humans can feel.

    I for one hope to drown in the sea of knowledge hanging over our heads, as my thirst will never be sated.

  12. Oisin, I’m intrigued by, “once we know how we do it the why will be obvious.” I’m inclined to agree, but I’m willing to bet I would agree for reasons very different than yours. Could you expand on this?

  13. Actually, yes, there are many, many such comments. This blog has active atheist/skeptic participation. Take a look around. Instead of just assuming, that is. Unless you want to do nothing more than reinforce your own beliefs about how things are here.

    So far, Kurt, I’m not seeing you step up to the plate along with the thinking people here. You’re still welcome to do so whenever you want. (Note the COMMENT preceding that linked one, too, please.)

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