Culture At Large

Humbled by Pluto

Branson Parler

After traveling 3.6 billion miles, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft came within 7,700 miles of Pluto last week, sending us close-up images of that dwarf planet for the first time. The pictures shed new, surprising insight, including huge mountains likely made of water ice. There were also no impact craters on the surface of Pluto, indicating that the surface is (relatively) young. Another surprise was that Charon, Pluto’s largest moon, is not geologically dead, but still active.

The entire New Horizons mission is mind-boggling to me, in its scope and findings. I can hardly wrap my mind around the notion of traveling 3.6 billion miles. I can’t comprehend that scale. But it’s amazing to see the pictures and feel the thrill of new knowledge that comes with this space exploration.

Even as new bits of knowledge come streaming in, though, it reminds us of just how much we don’t know. More than before, certainly, but we now have images that will draw forth new speculation about how those mountains formed or when and how Pluto and Charon formed.

The New Horizons mission brings to mind an ancient text that reflected on this sort of limited knowledge: the Book of Job. Faced with the problem of suffering, the mystery of God’s providence and the need to trust God, the text climaxes with a litany of questions about creation, all of which expose the limits of human understanding. The intricacies of weather patterns, the obscurities of the animal kingdom, the wildness of the wilderness - all these conspire with the sovereign God to try to teach us something we’ve struggled to learn from the beginning: to accept our place and our limits as creatures who image God but who are not God.

The New Horizons mission recalls an ancient text that reflected on limited knowledge: the Book of Job.

And just when we’re tempted, millennia after Job, to think that we’ve figured out everything there is to know about this world, Pluto keeps us humble by reminding us that God’s questions in Job could go on. And on and on and on. There’s so much we don’t know about Pluto, and it’s just one planet in one solar system in one galaxy in the universe. How many other planets are out there? In the ballpark of 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000.

Does this mean that we can’t ask questions of God? Struggle with understanding God’s ways? Feel like Job’s comforters (and ours) are less than helpful? No - we can. What Job and God share, against most of Job’s interlocutors, is the sense that what is happening in Job’s life is not easily understood. There is not a simple moral calculus we can appeal to whenever something good or bad happens. Life is a mystery. Creation is a mystery. And if the amazing, expansive, awe-inspiring creation goes beyond what we can think or imagine, how much more the Creator!

So when life and faith seem inexplicable, confusing or different than we think they should be, perhaps we should stop and reflect on Pluto. There is much we can know but much that we cannot. Our limits remain. The mystery continues. And somewhere thousands of miles past Pluto, New Horizons sails on.

Topics: Culture At Large, Science & Technology, Science, Cosmology, Theology & The Church, The Bible