Readings: Psalm 19:1-4 and “On the Departure of the Voyager Disks from the Solar System,” by Tim Wolfe.
Probably everyone here has heard the “Starfish Story”:
“A man was walking on the beach one day and noticed a boy who was picking up a starfish and throwing it in the ocean. He asked the boy, ‘Why are you throwing starfish into the ocean?’ The boy answered, ‘The tide stranded them. If I don’t throw them in the water before the sun comes up, they’ll die.’ The man said, ‘You’ll never throw them all back, there are too many. You can’t possibly make a difference.’ The boy picked up another starfish. As he threw it back into the sea, he said, ‘It made a difference for that one.'”
It’s a story with a very good point: you can’t make a difference for everyone in need, but you can make a difference for some. It reminds me of a line from the rabbinic text Pirke Avot: “You are not obligated to complete the work but neither are you free to abandon it.” That is, just because you cannot finish a task doesn’t mean you are released from doing it. The process of the healing of the world is a daunting task, but it is the task of each of us, all the same.
As I say, a story with a good point. But this past week I finally read Loren Eiseley’s original essay, “The Star Thrower,” and it is much more nuanced and complex than the parable-version above would lead one to believe.
Eiseley wrote the essay at a time when he was trying to come to grips with the death of his mother, who was a difficult woman. Immersed in the sciences and trying to escape his personal pain, Eiseley took refuge in an extreme form of detachment and distance from the world, convincing himself that it was scientific detachment, necessary and right and, in some sense, mature. He describes it as feeling like a glaring, spotlight-like eye in an empty skull. It is a detachment that views everything through the lens of death. When Eiseley meets the star thrower, he asks him if the man collects the sea creatures. “Only like this,” the man replies, “and only for the living.” Eiseley responds, out of his despair, “death is the only successful collector.” Yet after he leaves the man, he looks back: “[I] saw him toss another star, skimming it skillfully far out over the ravening and tumultuous water. For a moment, in the changing light, the sower appeared magnified, as though casting larger stars upon some greater sea. He had, at any rate, the posture of a god.”
Yet death and that terrible detachment intervene again to push Eiseley to despair, and to see the star thrower as merely foolish, a man, who doesn’t know what he’s up against.
For Eiseley, ironically, it was a Christian teaching that broke him out of his apathy and depression; ironically, because it was his disagreement with a biblical passage that impelled him to come to grips with his native love of, and attachment to, life. Lying on his bed, swamped by depression, he thinks of the verse from the First Letter of John: “Do not love the world, or the things that are of the world.” Now we could discuss the actual intentions of this text, but for Eiseley it had an urgent and powerful effect: he immediately thought, “But I do love the world . . . I love its small ones . . . the bird, singing, which flies and falls and is not seen again.” This affirmation seems at first like he’s been torn away from his scientific heritage, but he realizes it is “not a rift but a joining: the expression of love projected beyond the species boundary by a creature born of Darwinian struggle.” In other words, it is precisely his solidarity with other species, his compassion as a frail animal for other frail animals, despite their differences, which opens the ability to love. It is a recognition of the battering a body can take in this world, a recognition he has because of his scientific training, that impels him to seek out the star thrower again, to join him, to envision other star throwers coming after them. Eiseley’s story is not so much a simple parable about doing the little we can to relieve suffering in the world—as meritorious as that is—as it is a paean to boundary-crossing love, to an affirmation of life. It is a love song to love itself, deeply spiritual despite being entirely non-religious, framed in the language and worldview of science.
There is a very apt critique that atheists sometimes make of theists: people who believe in an interventionist God, a God who influences and even directly affects human affairs, tend to expect that God to do all the influencing and affecting. That is, we theists can become complacent, especially when we are comfortable and content. We forget that everything in our tradition tells us over and over again that God, and God’s compassion and justice, are to be models of our compassion and justice, that the way of Christ and the saints is God’s way of intervening, caring, actively loving. As Jesus says in Matthew’s Gospel, whoever cares for the needy cares for Christ, and whoever ignores the needy ignores Christ. Not only that, but those who help others do so out of their overflowing love, not out of a sense of duty to God. They have an impulse to connection, to justice, to mercy.
Perhaps it was that very impulse that led to the making of the Voyager disks. The Voyager mission was and remains a miracle of scientific spirituality, of what Eiseley refers to as “love projected beyond the species boundary”: the scientific, largely atheist-inspired, impulse towards connection, welcome, and peace. Carl Sagan, himself a spiritual atheist if there ever was one, said, “The spacecraft will be encountered and the record played only if there are advanced space-faring civilizations in interstellar space. But the launching of this ‘bottle’ into the cosmic ‘ocean’ says something very hopeful about life on this planet.”
Sagan also described the pictures of Earth that emerged from the Voyager probes as a pale blue dot. If you google “pale blue dot” you’ll see pictures of what look like colored bands in the depth of space. Along one of those bands is a tiny, pale blue dot, exactly as described, only so bright! Sagan said:
“That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever lived, lived out their lives. The aggregate of all our joys and sufferings, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilizations, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every hopeful child, every mother and father, every inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every superstar, every supreme leader, every saint and sinner in the history of our species, lived there – on a mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam. . . . To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”
Sagan probably didn’t realize he sounded a lot like another spiritual genius, the mystic Julian of Norwich. Six hundred years before Sagan, she wrote:
“[The Lord] also showed me a little thing, the size of a hazelnut, lying in the palm of my hand. It seemed to me as round as a ball. I gazed at it and thought, ‘What can this be?’ The answer came thus, ‘It is everything that is made.’ I marveled how this could be, for it was so small it seemed it might fall suddenly into nothingness. Then I heard the answer, ‘It lasts, and ever shall last, because God loves it. All things have their being in this way by the grace of God.’ ”
We 21st century believers might say, by the grace of God, and by the faithful work of humanity. Learning our lessons from both science and our religious tradition, we know what damage we humans have done to this pale blue dot, tiny as a hazelnut. And yet, as Saints Carl and Julian point out, it contains everyone we have ever loved, and countless more we might love if we knew them. Let our love be an active love, an outreaching of love beyond the boundaries of race, class, religion, even species, a deep solidarity of life with life.