BBC Radio 4’s Sunday Worship: Space Week

 Olivia Rathbone

Photo by NASA

The Revd Prof David Wilkinson gave a sermon at the Chapel of the Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich, London, as part of BBC Radio 4’s Sunday Worship service during World Space Week, on Sunday 8th October.

A couple of years ago I was part of a very unusual panel discussion. The Ignatius Forum was held in the national Cathedral in Washington DC and on the panel were some interesting folk. Amazon boss and occasional astronaut Jeff Bezos was there. He was joined by Avril Haynes, the director of American national intelligence, the CIA and all that. There was Senator Bill Nelson, the head of NASA, although he had to join by video because of a launch in Florida. Then Harvard astrophysicist Professor Avi Loeb who had a fly on the wall documentary crew with him. And there was me… far above my paygrade.

We were there to discuss ‘Our Future in Space’. The discussion ranged from the ethics of space tourism to mining other planets and moons in the solar system. We talked about the US Government’s investigation into Unidentified Aerial Phenomenon or what we used to call UFOs, and the possible existence of extra-terrestrial intelligence. And we discovered that we had all grown up as fans as Star Trek, dreaming of the possibility of ‘to boldly go where no-one has gone before’.

Although my background is research in theoretical astrophysics, I had been invited because these days I am a theologian. I was initially surprised to be invited, but our future in space raises some of the big questions which have always been part of human curiosity and wonder.

As the author of Psalm 8 looked at the myriad of stars unhindered by the modern phenomenon of street lighting, the vastness of the universe led not only to worship of the amazing God who had made the billions of stars simply through the work of God’s fingers, but also, in the midst of this, the question of ‘what are human beings?’. It was the central question of our discussion in Washington – as Star Trek in the character of Mr Spock explored what it means to be human, that if we discover aliens then what does this mean for any sense of the specialness of humanity, and what right have we to use the resources of other planets for our own long term future?

The answer of the psalmist is to point not to the fact that we are central to the Universe, but that God in his love has given us the gift of intimate relationship with Godself and also given us responsibility for the nonhuman world, to use it wisely and for the glory of God.

For me, science is a gift to be used to explore and work with the natural world. As the great astronomer Kepler said, ‘Science is thinking God’s thoughts after him’. In my own work on star formation and the evolution of galaxies, the beauty and intelligibility of the laws of physics filled me with awe and flowed through into worship of the creator God.

The place of our panel discussion was also significant. In the national Cathedral in Washington DC there is a stained-glass window called the space window. In its centre is a vacuum bubble of glass, within which is a piece of Moon rock. This piece of the Moon was presented to the Cathedral by Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins. Here in the midst of the Cathedral was an affirmation of science as a source of inspiration and worship.

So, during this World Space Week I want to affirm the scientific curiosity embodied at the Royal Observatory here in Greenwich as something given by God, and as each generation discovers new possibilities in space – whether it be analysing the returned sample from the asteroid Bennu or this week’s images from the James Webb Space Telescope – we need to use that knowledge and technology wisely for the good of all.

This Space Week is in the year of the 300th anniversary of the death of Christopher Wren, who in his own time also combined astronomy and cathedrals, designing the Royal Observatory here in Greenwich.  In 1657, when Wren was only 25, he was appointed Professor of Astronomy at Gresham College in London. He developed telescopes to investigate Saturn and met with a group of scientists regularly for discussion, which would give rise to the Royal Society in 1662. He built a model of the Moon which was kept by King Charles II.

It was only later that he switched his mathematical and engineering interests away from astronomy to architecture. His greatest building was St Paul’s Cathedral, but he also built Royal palaces and 52 churches after the Great Fire of London. Perhaps his imaginative architecture for places of worship had been stimulated by his exploration of the universe. ‘When I look at the heavens… what are human beings?’

When Buzz Aldrin touched down on the Moon in 1969 with Neil Armstrong, he also held exploration together with worship. He asked for a moment of radio silence, then opened little plastic packages which contained bread and wine. Later he described the moment, ‘I poured wine into the chalice my parish had given me. In one-sixth gravity of the moon, the wine curled slowly and gracefully up the cup… Just before I partook of the elements, I read the words which I had chosen to indicate our trust that as Man probes into space, we are in fact acting in Christ.  I read, ‘I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me, and I in him, will bear much fruit; for you can do nothing without me’.

Even in what Aldrin would describe as the magnificent desolation of the Moon, he saw in bread and wine the answer to the question of the psalmist of ‘what are human beings?’. The life, death and bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ is the assurance of God’s love for every human being and the affirmation of God’s commitment to the physicality of the universe.  Both human beings and the stars matter to God and because of that the exploration and use of space is a God-given vocation to be celebrated by the Church.



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