Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity
“Night Lights” first appeared in the July/August 2007 issue of Touchstone.
Paul J. Cella III on Stellar Illuminations & the Mystery of Being
In the late autumn, the stunning figure of Orion rises in the southeastern sky. Last year, my children were especially eager to see Betelgeuse, the impressive red-hued star on the northeastern edge of the constellation, not least because of its amusing name, affectionately mispronounced “beetlejuice.”
Even in the center of a great city like Atlanta, bathed in artificial light, the reddish hue of this giant is perceptible. My Field Guide to the Night Sky reports that Betelgeuse really is a colossus of the cosmos: a “red supergiant” with a diameter comparable to the orbit of the planet Venus (or maybe larger than that: according to Wikipedia, its outer edges would extend to Jupiter; and then there is this comparison of volume: if our Sun were a beachball, Betelgeuse would be a large stadium).
But the aged colossus is dying. In a thousand years or so, a few moments in the life a star, it will likely explode in a spectacular supernova which, according to some astronomers, will achieve an apparent magnitude equal to a half moon or more. For several months, the holocaust of this star’s demise will be easily visible even during the day.
“Beetlejuice, Daddy! Let’s go look at Beetlejuice,” my children cry; and I am glad. A child, I think, who lives in anticipation of seeing the stars, is a child still alive to wonder.
To look upon the stars on a clear night, as your eyes make their gradual adjustment to the darkness and the little pinpricks of radiance emerge, is to be struck in a very graphic way by the astounding mystery of being. Out of darkness there is light. There is no necessity behind the existence of the stars, no matter what tangled sophistries our materialists will weave: They just are, and they might not have been.
The bare truth is that not even the most subtle science can demonstrate causality: In strict logic, it can only demonstrate sequence. Something happens and another thing follows it; that the second has so far always followed the first in no way demonstrates that it must do so again.
“If there are enough identical sequences,” Lawrence Brown once explained, “the idea of some common origin for all these identical events occurs to the mind of the observer.”
I confess that often there is more that is sympathetic in the heady astrologist who sees vast and intricate earthly causality in the movement of the stars, than in the austere materialist who would, by his sterile rationalism, drive wonder from the child-stargazer by teaching a sham causality of Fate.
I once awoke in early June from a vivid and disturbing, though instantly forgotten dream into that condition of dazed wakefulness that often lends itself to memorable mishaps. For some reason I wandered outside and looked up in the clear summer night. A wave of unforgettable emotion followed: awe, fright, alarm; for it was no longer June but nearer to November.
Bright and prominent Vega had drifted up and across the sky; Arcturus was gone, along with Jupiter, which had for some weeks hung in the full radiance of opposition near the constellation Virgo; and the famed Big Dipper had plunged beneath the trees in the northwest. I was disconcerted and oppressed by these shocking changes; my mind reeled on the verge of panic.
And then full wakefulness came, and it immediately dawned on me that dawn was near. Sheepishly, thankful that no one in the neighborhood was around to observe my fretting, I went back inside. But since then, I have often fancied that my original alarm might be the truer reaction. In my state of half-sleep, I grasped the essential and shocking precariousness of existence.
The First Grace
The Big Dipper, Ursa Major the Great Bear: He might sink with his guardian Arcturus beneath the northern horizon—and never return. Jupiter might wander off into conjunction behind the sun, and then wander off into nonentity. Orion the Hunter, and his shoulder Betelgeuse, might vanish forever. To say such things are impossible, which of course it is our instinct to say, is but the voice of faith.
We do not have access to causality in the physical world. That Betelgeuse rose last night around 7:00 P.M. (invisible behind the clouds) does not, in strict logic, demonstrate that it will rise again tonight. All the rationalism of our materialists cannot demolish, in the end, the surprise we must feel, when we have our wonder intact, at the solid fact that things are.
The schoolmen of old referred to reason as the first grace—probably because it alone makes the world intelligible. That we can see order in the world is only because we have been given a glimpse of the Source of all order.
And the great enduring sanity of the Christian philosophy was aptly summarized in the wit of Chesterton, that most intuitive of Thomists, who said, “If the morbid Renaissance intellectual is supposed to say, ‘To be or not to be—that is the question,’ then the massive medieval doctor does most certainly reply in a voice of thunder, ‘To be—that is the answer.’”
Let a man once acknowledge the mystery and miracle that things are, and he can live like a man and not a morbid intellectual; he can play with his children under stars called beetles, drink beer with reverence, and contend for what is true.
He can be still in the presence of God: He whose very Name is given to us, by the wonderful feebleness of the English language, in the being verb which in its abundance shatters all the sophistries of the materialists: I AM. •
“Night Lights” first appeared in the July/August 2007 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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