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Through a planetarium’s fisheye lens

I’m studying the constellations for the first time ever. I can now find Orion, Leo and Polaris, the North Star, forever rotating the universe (from our perspective, at least) around its axis, giving us a bird’s-eye view of infinity. And beyond.

This is all new to me. I plummeted out of high school at sixteen, uninterested in everything save the guitar solos of Jerry Garcia and the psychedelic drugs that turned those solos into a celestial experience. The Grateful Dead were all the stars I needed back then.

But now I’m in college, a decade late, working hard to put my education to good use.

For example, I recently climbed onto the steep-pitched roof of my house after an afternoon spent in my school’s planetarium, intent on finding Taurus the Bull, a handsome fellow indeed.

Well, he’s a lot bigger in the real night sky, and so beautiful compared to the fisheye projection in the planetarium that I wanted to weep (constellation-related crying was never mentioned in the syllabus).

So here I am, a graying senior doing my best not to be the weird old guy who always raises his hand and tells the class about the time he was in ‘Nam and took some shrapnel in his leg and how that makes him the authority on abstract algebra and immigration issues. Those people are out there, their wrinkled hands twitching as soon as a professor pauses for a breath.

I just want to learn. I want to read and write, think and talk, and perhaps inch my way a little closer to a life that truly reflects the absurdity and whimsy and altogether outrageousness of the kingdom of God:

You want my shirt? Well, stranger, why don’t you take my Cadillac and my cocker spaniel, too.

That’s good stuff.

The point here is that I want my education to somehow connect to my very sincere belief in an emerging kingdom and a gospel of power, peace and justice. And Astronomy 112 is doing just that.

I remember, for example, the first time my professor described how the universe spreads out in a recognizable pattern. Stars connect to star clusters connect to galaxies connect to galaxy clusters until, if we had the right vantage point, the universe would look to us something like a bowl of Honeycombs, a cereal I remember being particularly fond of when I was a kid.

And I remember wanting to raise my hand and ask him if that knowledge helped him be kinder to his wife and strangers. After all, when one understands that he or she is tinier than the tiniest speck of sand in God’s ocean of a universe, why get worked up over who’s going to take out the trash or who gets the choicest parking spot?

But that’s not to say that our particle of a planet is without its importance. The real lesson of this semester is that despite our size and relative insignificance in the great vacuum of space, God had the audacity to incarnate himself on this spinning orb and die a miserable death.

Yes, we are loved by a Creator of unlimited scope, a God-man who hung a tapestry of stars in the sky and, with Shakespearean flare, parted the curtain, entered stage left and saved our miniscule world through his sacrifice.

What wondrous love is this, indeed.

And this stunning fact gets a little clearer when looking through that fisheye lens in the planetarium.

But the planetarium can’t peel back earth’s atmosphere to see what’s inside. I wish it could. I wish the fisheye lens could sink below the clouds and show us the activity below, our cities and bridges and shopping malls, our sprawling suburbs and the ways in which we care so little for others and so desperately for ourselves.

Perhaps that would be the icing on the celestial cake. To have a program that would put our activities and pursuits on earth into the proper universal perspective. Maybe then we could not only understand the great gift we have (a planet perfectly calibrated to sustain life in a vacuum gazillions of light years big), but also the ways in which we squander that gift with our various lusts, our selfishness and greed.

Nevertheless, I’ve learned a great deal about things, and been stirred to reconsider just exactly what it means to be human, to breathe real air, to be a steward of a speck of rock orbiting a dot of sun inching closer and closer to the constellation Lyra.

Interestingly enough, Lyra represents the harp used by Orpheus to create order, to charm the wild creatures and trees and lock the courses of rivers into place.

And that harp is our trajectory, traveling at 19.7 kilometers a second toward the very mythological music that helped establish the order of things, an order that seems to be a bit out of alignment these days. Perhaps when we reach the constellation it will be too late. Maybe the discord of our systems and infrastructures, our politics and power struggles will have done us in.

Or maybe we will have learned what real stewardship means and hit the brakes on some of the more destructive paths down which we’ve been traveling.

Our current momentum has my head reeling a bit these days. And at 19.7 kilometers a second, I wonder how long we have. When my hand twitches in my next astronomy class, I might just raise it and ask. The weird old guy sitting in the front row strikes again.

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