As a teenager, I frequently climbed on top of my dad’s shop to look at the stars. When I looked upon a clear, unobstructed night sky, it was as if the starry hosts engulfed me. The lights making their slow dance across the heavens gave a perspective of existence that is hard to find elsewhere. It compelled me to reflect on how big God is and how truly small I am.
Due to centuries of observations, ideological struggles, and successful scientific endeavors, we know quite a bit about the starry hosts. We know that the universe is vast—that there are billions of galaxies with billions of stars and planets each. And we know that Earth rotates at about 1,000 miles per hour and revolves at a speed of 70,000 miles per hour around the sun. None of this, however, is obvious from an Earth-bound perspective.
If I were to go back in time to before the 1600s, though I would be looking at the same starry hosts, I would understand the universe differently.
In the early 1500s, a Polish astronomer developed a theory that changed the way we see the universe. The theory was so controversial that Nicolas Copernicus resisted publishing it until right before his death. What was this contestable idea? Copernicus conjectured that the sun, not Earth, was at the center of the solar system.
Before Copernicus’ theory became popular, most scientists claimed that Earth was at the center. The idea is not as silly as it seems. Even if the theory ultimately turned out to be false, ancient scientists based their ideas on many complex, reasonable explanations.
Suppose you are in the Northern Hemisphere stargazing, and you look up and see the Big Dipper. You will notice the constellation of stars making a counterclockwise, circular motion around the North Star. Night after night, this pattern stays more or less the same. In fact, you would have observed the same pattern centuries ago.
Ancient astronomers observed that not only do the predictable patterns seem immovable, but also the angular view of all points of heavenly light doesn’t change. That is, the points of light that you see stay in the same pattern as they traverse the sky. The second-century Egyptian astronomer Ptolemy (and others) pointed to this phenomenon, known as the stellar parallax, as evidence that Earth is immobile. They reasoned that if Earth were moving around another planet or star, the angular patterns of the stars would change.
Two thousand years ago, no one fathomed the vastness of the universe. The stellar parallax was easily explained when we realized the immense distance of these stars from Earth. But to the ancient world, the universe was much smaller. We didn’t even know that there were billions of galaxies until Edwin Hubble made his famous discovery in the early 20th century.
Given that many ancient astronomers thought Earth was stationary, it isn’t hard to see how Aristotle, Ptolemy, and others arrived at the conclusion that Earth was the center of the universe. The moon, sun, and stars certainly appear to move around a stationary world. Indeed, it appears as if the entire starry host circles Earth. This gave ancient observers the impression that the stars and planets are moving around a planet that is the center of not just the solar system but also the entire universe.
I’m humbled by these ancient ideas: so astute and justified, yet ultimately false. This sobers my view of reality. God’s creation is so complex that it takes centuries—and will take centuries more—to understand what is all around us.
As we learned more and more about our universe, it began to seem less likely that we would find many planets that have the conditions that make life like ours possible. You need just the right amount of gravity, electromagnetic fields, the presence of liquid water, and a litany of other factors in precise measure. But now the pendulum may be swinging the other way. NASA’s Kepler mission has recently discovered thousands of exoplanets (planets outside the solar system) orbiting other stars. Some orbit within their sun’s habitable zone, which allows favorable conditions for liquid water. But even after discoveries like Hubble’s or those of the Kepler mission, there is much that we still do not understand. Indeed, who knows what current theories and ideas about the universe will turn out to be misconceptions, lacking perspective?
If we understand the starry hosts above better than the ancients did, it isn’t because of our intellectual superiority; we simply benefit from their misunderstandings. Sometimes things seem right—even logical—until we discover that our perspective is off. The picture we thought we were looking at is actually much vaster than we imagined.
While this provides plenty of reasons for humility, it’s even more humbling to realize that the Creator is so much more complex than his creation. Isaiah tells us:
Lift up your eyes and look to the heavens: Who created all these? He who brings out the starry host one by one and calls forth each of them by name. Because of his great power and mighty strength, not one of them is missing. (40:26)
When I reflect upon the grandeur of God’s creation and the ancient’s misunderstandings, I am sobered. When I reflect upon the Creator himself and his ineffableness, I am overcome. True, God tells us much about himself in the Bible and in nature. We are given all that is necessary for salvation in Scripture. But it would be myopic to claim we can fathom the fullness of God. Our inability to comprehend the complexity of the creation should engender humility. As Anselm astutely prayed, “Lord, you are not merely that than which a greater cannot be thought; you are something greater than can be thought.”
Our idea of God, though grand, is limited. He is more beautiful than we can comprehend. He is more powerful than we understand. And if we should distrust how great he truly is, we merely need look to our limited knowledge of his work. If his work blows our minds, imagine how much greater he must be; thus the difficulty of finite creatures struggling to know the infinite. We hear faintly as creation harkens to his splendor, but what a sound!
Gazing at the stars without the aid of a high-powered telescope or modern computer, I see the sky with the naked eye much as the ancients did. And while even with this limited view the heavenly bodies baffle me, I become speechless when I realize that God is in total control of the wonders that surround me. My view is limited; his is complete.
Chad Meeks is an adjunct professor of philosophy at Colorado Christian University and Navarro College.
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