On Gravity and Mystery

Several months ago I had a dream that I was flying through space. I may have been in a space ship, or I may have just been hyper aware of the earth’s orbit around the sun. But it seemed to me that I was on my own, suspended in the midst of a void, flying at an incredible velocity. I could see a distant source of light, which I knew to be the sun, and I knew that I was in orbit around the sun millions of miles away from it. The whole situation felt terribly precarious. What was it that kept me in orbit around the sun? Gravity? How could gravity—how could anything—act over such a large distance? What if its grip slipped suddenly? There seemed to be such a thin thread that kept me from hurdling off into the cold void of space, away from this light source that was keeping me in place.

When I woke up I was frightened, mostly because I knew that this dream was not too far off from reality. I’m not alone in space, but the world we inhabit is flying through space at about 18 miles per second around a distant source of light, warmth, and energy. Gravity, and gravity alone, acts over a distance of 92 million miles to keep our planet traveling around the sun, over and over, year after year, 4.5 billion times and counting. It is the thin thread that keeps us from flying off into empty space.

Since that dream I’ve wondered why it was so hard for me to trust that thin thread—to believe gravity was acting on me as I flew through space. After all, gravity has held the solar system together for billions of years. It has a pretty good track record. So far as we know, it doesn’t just turn on and off arbitrarily. I think the reason I was so worried in my dream is that this particular experience of gravity was so different from my usual experience of it. I don’t experience gravity as something that keeps me in orbit around a star. I experience it as the thing that keeps my feet on the ground, that makes certain things heavier than others, that prevents me from dunking a basketball. But gravity does both. It pulls bodies toward one another, and whether it limits my vertical jump or keeps Neptune in orbit depends only on the masses involved and the velocities of those masses.

As I’ve thought about this dream I had, it made me realize that the universe God has created is so much bigger than what we experience every day. Our typical experiences in life are just a small cross-section of what God has made. It makes me think anew of some of the Psalms, which praise God as the creator of all that is and marvel that God takes any thought at all of humankind, who are here today and gone tomorrow like the grass of the field. The authors of those Psalms seem to recognize intuitively—maybe through nights gazing up at the stars—that they live in the midst of a universe that is much, much bigger than they are.

It also made me think of how our faith expressions are so often earth-bound. The Old Testament describes God’s appearance accompanied by earthquakes, fire, and thunder—phenomena that are naturally associated with our home planet. In Genesis, the first humans are created and placed in a garden, have responsibility to till the soil, and receive nourishment from the fruit of trees that grow from the ground. Our sacraments of baptism and communion come from the stuff of the earth—water from springs and rivers, bread and wine from the fruit of the soil. And yet the universe we inhabit extend far, far beyond the earthly experiences these expressions of our faith draw upon. Consider water, for example. The stuff with which we baptize does not only exist in rivers, lakes, and oceans. It can be found in comets or the subsurface oceans of Jupiter’s moon Europa or many other places in space.

By calling attention to this fact—that the created universe surpasses our typical expressions of religion—I don’t mean to diminish the Christian faith. Quite the opposite, actually. Christians recognize that our practices of faith like prayer, Scripture reading, worship, and the sacraments are the surface of a deep mystery, a window into a spiritual reality too profound for words. Yet I see now that they are also a window into a physical mystery that is far deeper than we recognize. We baptize with material that exists throughout our known universe, which may even give life to other beings on other worlds. It makes me marvel all the more that God would ordain this material, water, to bless us, wash away our sins, to unite us with Christ in death and resurrection. If even the physical reality of baptism stretches beyond what we see and know, how much more does the spiritual grace it signifies surpass what we can imagine.

The God we worship is both infinite and near to us. God is the creator of water in comets and in rain. God is the author of gravity that holds galaxies together and holds my feet on the ground. With the psalmists I will marvel at the greatness of God and the mystery of the universe, and at God’s care for earthly creatures like me.

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