No one mistakes me for a scientist. Even fewer people mistake me for an astrophysicist.
And so, as I waded through last week’s news and images from the remarkable achievement that is the James Webb telescope, I had nothing but a handful of high school trips to the planetarium and a deep love of all things science fiction with which to ground this rather groundbreaking information.
“The mirror was how big? Taller than my house?”
“And it unfolded in space? Like origami? I can’t even get our mirror to stay on the wall!”
“And now we can see what? The beginning of the universe? So, time travel?”
“And it cost how much? And took how long to complete?”
“And there were 344 single points of failure?” *Googles ‘single points of failure’* “Oh, wow! Good for them!”
Those were just a few of the questions my wife and I stumbled over as we listened to a podcast all about the Webb telescope. We were amazed. Astounded. Awe-inspired.
And clearly, we weren’t the only ones.
I hope you take a moment to look at some of the images that Webb produced. And I hope you also take a moment to read up on the telescope – its history and potential – from a source that is exponentially more articulate in the ways of science, astronomy and the universe than I am.
But for this moment, right here and now, just stop to pause in wonder.
The images that the world got to glimpse last week show us something new and incredible of God’s great universe. We see a bit of God’s grandeur, of God’s creative love, of the vastness of who this God of our universe is. We see a God of beauty, a God who balances orders and chaos, a God who draws us ever deeper into God’s self and God’s creation.
And that very same God is still just as concerned with your toothache, your anxiety over tomorrow’s meeting, your desire to make some meaningful mark on your own little patch of universe: the nitty-gritty, day-to-day of you.
That’s our God of the universe.
In an interview with Vatican News, Br. Guy Consolmagno, SJ, the director of the Vatican Observatory, said that these images “are a necessary food for the human spirit” because “we all have this curiosity about who we are, how we fit into this universe, what’s out there, what’s beautiful… It’s what makes us human.
“This is God’s creation being revealed to us, and in it we can see both his astonishing power and his love of beauty.”
At the same time, I’m struck by the fact that it’s not just something new of God we glimpse in these images. We see God’s Spirit at work in us: God’s people. For as vast and wondrous as God’s universe is, it clearly has no trouble existing without our nosy telescopes poking around.
And yet, God desires that we go deeper; God desires that we draw ever nearer to Godself, God’s creation. The sheer capability, imagination and perseverance of members of our human family to continue sinking more deeply into God’s creation is remarkable. That ingenuity is what led to the Webb telescope, to the images we saw, to all the new discoveries and insights that will follow as a result.
God invites our curiosity, our seeking. God continues to welcome us into that unfolding universe of love and beauty.
To me, that’s what the Webb telescope means for our faith. It’s tempting – and, at times, easier – to bury our heads, temper our curiosity and assume – perhaps even hope! – that we have nothing more to learn of God and God’s universe. Our faith becomes rigid. Rather than respond in curiosity, we lash out in anger and fear at those who would show us something new of our great God.
And so, perhaps, the lesson of Webb for each of us – scientists and non-scientists alike – is to continue to turn to our world, turn to our neighbor with curiosity, with wonder, with awe at all that we do not yet know – and to do so without fear.
Perhaps then we’ll be surprised and inspired by the beauty we find right here in our own lives, on our own little patch of universe.
Eric A. Clayton is the author of Cannonball Moments: Telling Your Story, Deepening Your Faith (Loyola Press) and the deputy director of communications at the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States. His essays on spirituality, parenting and pop culture have appeared in America Magazine, National Catholic Reporter, Busted Halo and more, and he is a regular contributor to Give Us This Day and IgnatianSpirituality.com. His fiction has been published by Dark Hare Press, Erato Magazine and, forthcoming, by Medusa Tales Magazine. He lives in Baltimore, MD with his wife, two young daughters and their cat, Sebastian. Follow Eric’s writing at ericclaytonwrites.com.