Is this what our own Milky Way Galaxy looks like from far away? Similar in size and design to our home galaxy, spiral galaxy NGC 3370 is about 100 million light-years away, toward the constellation Leo.
Credit: NASA, ESA, Hubble Heritage (STScI/AURA)
This article is Part One of Two in a series on the connection between the cosmos and spirituality. Check back at SPACE.com Friday (Jan. 21) for the series conclusion.
Our sun is just one small point of light in the swirl of suns that shape the disk of the Milky Way.
The galaxy's hundreds of billions of stars are strewn so widely apart, it would take a spaceship traveling at the speed of light one hundred thousand years to travel the distance. The starry wheel of the galaxy turns around a massive black hole, a point of infinite density with gravity so complete that not even light can escape.
The structure and scale of our galaxy is astonishing. But ours is just one among hundreds of billions of galaxies in the universe.
Little wonder, then, that the contemplation of the cosmos can evoke the same emotions as religious awe and reverence. According to Father Paul Pavel Gabor, an astronomer for the Vatican Observatory, this is not always a positive experience. Just as some may experience fear and trembling when contemplating God and Heaven, there are those who become similarly overwhelmed when confronted with the astronomical proportions of the heavens.
"They find it quite awe-inspiring, but in the wrong way, " Gabor notes. "When I show people pictures of the local cluster of galaxies, just to give them a sense of the scale of things, the reaction quite often is, "Oh dear. I'm completely insignificant, and I'm uncomfortable about this whole universe thing."
In Gabor's view, one way to counter this despair is to have faith in a higher power, to believe in a God that created the universe as a gesture of love.
"Faith tells you that the universe is not something to intimidate you, but it is something given to you as a gift, by somebody who wants to give you something nice, something pretty, " he says. "So looking at those astronomy pictures, you can either feel that the glass is half full, and believe that you're really being given something here, or you can feel the glass is half empty and this is just frightening and you want to hide in your little rabbit hole somewhere."
Whether you are terrified or thrilled by the grandeur of the universe, there is no disputing its elemental nature: it is the source of us all. As Carl Sagan once said, "We are made of star stuff." The chemical elements that shape the breadth of creation also form our galaxy, our planet and even the cells of our bodies. Exploring the cosmos therefore is one way to get close to a "grand creator." This notion is reflected in the final lines of John Gillespie Magee Jr.'s poem "High Flight, " which President Reagan read at the memorial service for the astronauts killed in the 1986 Challenger space shuttle tragedy:
with silent, lifting mind I've trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.
The Great Architect
Science, and particularly geometry and astronomy/astrology, was linked directly to the divine for most medieval scholars. The compass in this 13th century manuscript is a symbol of God's act of creation.
Credit: Österreichische Nationalbibliothek.
The term "cosmos" means "ordered world." For most of recorded history, humans have believed that God created the ordered universe out of chaos. This belief is still shared by a majority of people around the world today, but aspects of that faith have changed as our scientific knowledge of the cosmos has grown. For instance, Gabor's colleague, Vatican astronomer Brother Guy Consolmagno, says that while many people believe God created the universe, they think its very enormity makes it impossible for God to take any personal note of us. This mote of dust we call planet Earth is insignificantly tiny in comparison to the smallest of stars, and each of our lives lasts for the briefest of cosmic moments.
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