One of my pet peeves is language that says the Sun moves around Earth. Words carry meaning, and if we reinforce long-disproven concepts, we stay stuck in centuries past — scientifically, socially, and religiously.
What follows will offer some alternatives — and, I hope, some food for thought and reflection. Before reading, think for a minute about how you would describe what is pictured here:
Here’s how Marilynne Robinson has her protagonist describe it in her Pulitzer-prize-winning novel Gilead:
“This morning a splendid dawn passed over our house on its way to Kansas. This morning Kansas rolled out of its sleep into a sunlight grandly announced, proclaimed throughout heaven — one more of the very finite number of days that this old prairie has been called Kansas, or Iowa. But it has all been one day, that first day. Light is constant, we just turn over in it. So every day is in fact the selfsame evening and morning.”
Wow! Your reaction to that?
Here’s what I wrote years ago, in “Matins,” (Matins):
Slowly, slowly (or so it seems) Earth rotates,
revealing a brilliant, blinding star
so distant that its million multiples
of Earth’s size seem
a solitary shining footlight on the horizon.
While we’re remembering that our sun-star neither rises nor sets, try these last ten lines of Katy Didden’s poem ”Before Edison Invented Lights” (in The Glacier’s Wake) [Painting by Mary Southward, CSJ]:
When you sleep with your face to the sky
the stars are not so much above
as around you. Stare long enough
and you begin to feel
you could lift your body off the earth
and hover in the black night
on the web of your awe
at a billion suns
everything you’re made of yearns.”
Wow, again! And why does everything we’re made of yearn for the suns? Curt Stager answers in Your Atomic Self, from the chapter “Fires of Life”:
“To look into the night sky is to survey distant gardens in which the elements of life are ripening, and your body is a composite harvest from these cosmic fields. Throughout history, people have spoken of the earth as our mother and the sun as our father … In an atomic sense, however, it would be more accurate to think of the earth and the sun as our siblings, because they both formed from the same star debris as the elements of life within us. Earth is indeed a kind of surrogate mother to us in that our bodies are derived from it, but we exist today only because our true celestial star mothers died long ago.”
Neil de Grasse Tyson echoes that reality: “The spectacular truth encoded in your DNA is that the very atoms of your body were initially forged in long-dead stars. This is why, when we look at the sky with wonder and longing, we feel some ineffable tugging at our innards. We are star stuff.”
Language and Worldviews
As for changing language, Stager writes “Simply replacing the word “sun” with “star” can change your sense of what this sylvan scene actually is. Lie flat on your back on the warm wood of a dock, and it may further dispel the normal illusion that the great fireball is “up there in the sky” instead of “right over there beside us in space.” Something about being horizontal and seeing the sun-star before you rather than above your head makes it easier to sense the absence of supporting pedestals or cables and therefore to realize that the brilliant, life-sustaining heart of our solar system floats in emptiness as it directs the trembling of your atoms from millions of miles away.”
It’s easy — though sloppy — to perpetuate a faulty philosophy by using words that belong to an obsolete flat-earth worldview. It can be disorienting to realize that we are one planet orbiting one of the billions of suns in our galaxy, and that our galaxy is one among billions. It almost hurts to get one’s head around the truth of where we are! But, to quote Stager again:
“The task that we face now is … to more closely attune our worldviews to the fascinating reality that Earth-orbiting telescopes, atom-probing microscopes, and other complex inventions have only recently uncovered for us. … How amazing to exist at all and how important it is, as our numbers and know-how increase, that we and our descendants develop such awareness as best we can.”
Language, Worldviews, and Believers
Is it important for believers? Ask St. Thomas Aquinas, who wrote: “A mistake about creation will lead to a mistake about God.” Ask Fr. Sean McDonagh: “We must continually learn from science, evolve our theology, and humbly situate ourselves in the wider Creation story.”
What have you learned from science about our place and our meaning in the cosmos — including our role in caring for our precious common home? Replies welcome!
Note: Christians who wish to ponder Light this Advent, alone or with others, might consider using Advent 2016: In Praise of Light: advent-2016.