In C. S. Lewis’s The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, we meet “a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.” While in Narnia, Eustace remarks, “In our world a star is a huge ball of flaming gas.” A mysterious character named Ramandu quips, “Even in your world, my son, that is not what a star is but only what it is made of.”
That a black sky would reveal flickering pinheads of white light has been a source of wonder to everyone with a pulse. Big screen sagas like Star Wars, Star Trek, Stargate, Ad Astra (to the stars), and Interstellar (between stars) tap into this shared sense of awe. There’s a reason we use the word “stars” to describe people whose talents and performances leave us awestruck. Stars hold a kind of promise of adventure and intrigue and exploration. Nearly three millennia ago, King David, looking up, said, “The heavens declare the glory of God and the sky above proclaims his handiwork” (Ps. 19:1).
Two and a half millennia ago, Plato asked, “[What] lead[s] men to believe in the gods?” His answer was “the order of the motion of the stars.” Plato’s prodigy Aristotle asks us to imagine humanity has been trapped underground for generations, finally to emerge and look up: “When the night had darkened the lands and they should behold the whole of the sky spangled and adorned with stars; . . . most certainly they would have judged both that there exist gods and that all these marvelous works are the handiwork of the gods.”
Contrast this with how outspoken atheist and astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson interprets the starry night sky. When pressed about what meaning he can possibly find in a godless universe, a universe of mere particles in motion and humans as mere guts, he gave an answer increasingly popular among atheists:
Consider that the atoms in your body were manufactured in the cores of stars billions of years ago. Stars that exploded . . . scattering that enrichment around the galaxy. . . . And out of that enrichment forms planets, life, people. And so when you look up in the night sky, if you feel small and lonely, the knowledge that you’re connected this way to the stars, that we are not just figuratively, we are literally stardust can give you a sense of belonging in what might otherwise come across to you as a cold and heartless universe.
Well, that would certainly make the universe less cold, as the temperature in the core of a collapsing star must reach a minimum of 100 million degrees to surpass the Coulomb barrier and make nuclear fusion possible. But it’s not obvious such an account of our chemical origins makes the universe any less heartless.
None of the estimated 200 billion trillion stars in the known universe has shed a single tear at a cancer diagnosis or a miscarriage. Attributing heart or concern or care to what on Tyson’s account are nothing more than distant balls of flaming gas—and then describing humans as made of the same space dust—may sound profound and poetic, even romantic. But why should believing ourselves to be hunks of heavy elements—unfeeling, unknowing, unintended elements cooked up 40,208,000,000,000 kilometers away—bestow any real meaning or purpose to our lives?
If I emerged from a petri dish in a lab down the freeway or from a collapsing gaseous mass 10 light years away, I’m still a mere combination of elements on the periodic table. No possible combination of those two-letter symbols could possibly bestow something so basic as meaning.
Glorify the Starmaker, Not the Stars
I’m not knocking the universal feeling of awe before stars. I’m with the old hymn “How Great Thou Art”: “I see the stars. . . . Thy power throughout the universe displayed.” I’m not even knocking the impulse to look to stars for meaning. And though I question the method, I can at least understand why an atheist like Carl Sagan (Tyson’s mentor) would search for messages from space. Sagan’s Voyager Golden Record and Pioneer plaques, with greetings from and directions to earth, were affixed to spacecraft and hurled into space like prayers. I get why folks would check the papers to see what meaning the cosmos can bestow on their Leo, Virgo, or Capricorn selves.
None of the estimated 200 billion trillion stars in the known universe has shed a single tear at a cancer diagnosis or a miscarriage.
My critique is against the exploitation of stars, using their fantastical allure as a kind of emotive sleight of hand—what Francis Schaeffer called “semantic mysticism”—as a way to dodge the Starmaker and duck the meaning only he can bestow on us.
Let me put it this way. Long before the Hubble or James Webb space telescopes pierced our atmosphere and relayed jaw-dropping pictures back to us, the stars and nebulae they photographed were already beautiful and awesome. Their grandeur existed long before any human could say “ooooh” or “awwww!” in response; eons before David expressed his humble awe in Psalm 8: “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place. . . ”
The stars are beautiful and awesome not because a 200-pound mass of sophisticated space dust projected an artificial, epiphenomenal construct of beauty into the sky but because God made them that way. As the ancient psalmist sang, the heavens declare God’s glory, not their own.
Let’s not confuse signposts for the destination, windows for walls, premises for conclusions. Let our sense of awe at the stars do its proper work on our souls and not become a cop-out for avoiding their Maker. Follow the 200 billion trillion will-o’-the-wisps to their transcendent Source. That’s where real meaning is not fabricated but discovered.