“Stars Beneath Us: Finding God in the Evolving Cosmos” is about religion, science, and the book of Job. You might recall that, in response to Job’s repeated cries for justice, God takes him on a wild and woolly cosmic tour. It’s a most unexpected plot twist. In chapters 38-41 Job is drawn down to the foundations of the earth, is rocketed through the constellations, and is led to the outer limits of the living cosmos. Strange beasts, thriving in the remote places of the world, fill Job’s vision. And when it’s over Job is satisfied. God’s cosmos, in addition to being flat-out amazing, has the power to heal.
I like to think that, if the book of Job were written today, God would show Job not only the present cosmos, but would also draw his attention to outlandish and alien creatures from our deep evolutionary past.
The following is an excerpt from “Stars Beneath Us”:
In 2012 my wife took a business trip to Washington, D.C., and I went with her. We had spent three summers in the city together a number of years earlier, so we looked forward to visiting old haunts and discovering new ones. We love art, so we spent a lot of her free time in art museums. We were thrilled by Hopper, Munch, O’Keefe, and many others.
But when we walked into the National Museum of Natural History I felt happy. Walking through the old Life in the Ancient Seas exhibit put me in an expansive philosophical mood, just as it always has. Elizabeth and I started at the trilobites and worked clear around to the Tyrannosaur. We covered 500 million years of (very) prehistoric life in about an hour.
We reentered the atrium and glimpsed a new sign, over on the other side: “Nature’s Best Photography 2012.” We walked in and were blown away. We had just stepped through hundreds of millions of years of natural history and now stood eyeball-to-eyeball with nature as it stands today. The photographs were breathtaking. Words can’t do justice to the brilliant three-foot-by-four-foot images. I itch to describe the dalmatian pelicans, the proboscis monkey, the southern pig-tailed macaque, the camel thorn trees, to name but a few, but if I tried I would just embarrass myself.
To see such an exhibit as we did is to be overwhelmed, knowing that what you are seeing is a remotely tiny fraction of what there is to see now, today. And to then imagine these variations on life’s great theme—and millions more we will never see even in our imaginations—rolling back through countless forms over hundreds of millions of years, well. This is Darwin’s vision, and a happy overload it is.
Such a view is challenging because we like to think—even when it hurts us—that things are pretty much about us. I don’t mean us as individuals, but us collectively as human beings. We are the ones made in God’s image, so aren’t we pretty important? God was incarnated in a human being, not a trilobite or a macaque. Isn’t that suggestive of some kind of favorable rank order?
Job suggests not. God is with us, you and me. God knows us. God takes joy in us. But God also takes joy in reviving parched landscapes human beings will never see. God takes joy in each and every one of those oddball creatures that came and went long before we showed up, the ones who lurched through primordial swamps and flitted through Triassic skies and slithered silently across floors of oceans that no longer exist.
God so often speaks to us through things that have nothing to do with us. One of the lessons of the Gospels is that, if we want to see Jesus, we should look to the margins of human society: to the hungry, the imprisoned, the naked, and the weak. Similarly, one of the lessons of Job is that, if we want to glimpse God, we should look to the margins of creation: the remote, the impossibly tiny, the strange, the alien and inhuman.
At the museum I stood for a while in front of Jed Weingarten’s white-headed langurs. My mind relaxed, my breath became regular, and I remembered with gratitude these words of Andrew Harvey: “We are saved in the end by the things that ignore us.”
Paul Wallace teaches in the Department of Physics & Astronomy at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Ga, and is ordained in the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. He also teaches occasionally at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology and at Columbia Theological Seminary. He holds a PhD in nuclear physics from Duke University and an MDiv with a concentration in historical theology from Emory. You can find his first book, “Stars Beneath Us: Finding God in the Evolving Cosmos,” here.