When I look at your heavens...what are human beings that you are mindful of them?
If you want to get your life into perspective, think of someone who is worse off than you are, or watch Theo's Sparklekids DVD, then look at the stars in the night sky. As an alternative, drive down Swartdam Road past all the shanties and poverty, before you admire the awesome beauty of Walker Bay from the windows of Harbour Rock restaurant. To visit a shanty or to look into the heavens may be at opposite ends of the "getting your life into perspective" spectrum, but they complement each other and have a similar effect. They bring us down to earth with a bump. Today we are not forgetting the poor or suffering, or driving down Swartdam Road past shanties, but we are going star gazing in Sutherland where Isobel and I, along with her sister Elsie and brother-in-law Ron Steel, went last Thursday.
Several of you have already been to Sutherland, so you will know the way and what awaits you at the end of the road. From Hermanus you travel to Worcester, join the N1 and head to Matjiesfontein, that quaint colonial throw-back in the middle of nowhere famous for its hotel and Olive Schreiner's home. We stopped for a brief visit and discovered the remarkable museum in the old railway station. There you can see a mass of Victorian artefacts made and used by our grand and great grand-parents' generations. We marvelled at their ingenuity and craftsmanship with limited technology by today's standards, but were thankful that technology has improved since then. That, too, gave us some perspective on life, especially looking at the dentist's chair and the tools of his trade. After Matjiesfontein we drove north, deeper into the Karoo, on an excellent road with little traffic, a few isolated farms, and lots of sheep. After several hours we began the steep climb to the plateaux on which Sutherland is located, making it the coldest town in the country in winter and one of the hottest in summer. Then we caught a glimpse of SALT (South African Large Telescope) in the distance and knew that we were reaching our destination.
SALT along with its adjacent observatories is located 15 kms outside Sutherland on the highest section of the plateaux. After a good introduction at the information centre and a visit to another telescopes , we went to SALT. But we never saw any stars, it was, after all, day time, but even if it was night we could not have seen the stars through these gigantic instruments that explore the universe. Long gone are the days when professional astronomers gazed through telescopes; now everything is reflected onto giant mirrors that track the night sky and send a stream of data to computers. So instead of seeing stars, we marvelled at the amazing advances in technology since our ancestors made the crude artefacts we had seen in Matjiesfontein.
Night time came. It was now much colder, about 5 degrees, as we arrived at Sterland, a private observatory run by a passionate amateur astronomer, Jurg Wagener. Now we could see Mars and the constellations in the southern sky through the lens of his powerful telescope as we stood outside in the pitch-darkness beneath a magnificent display of stars. Human technology, impressive as it was both at SALT and Sterland, paled into insignificance before such grandeur -- and so did we! "When I look at your heavens...what are human beings?" asked the Psalmist. Well, yes, but did we not make SALT and this fine telescope through which we were observing the night sky? And did we not this same week land a camera on a comet in distant space after tracking it for ten years at speeds and with an accuracy that boggles the mind? There is no need to downplay human achievements. But there is every reason to get things into perspective. Our planet earth is just a minute speck in this vast cosmic ocean that stretches far beyond our sight, far beyond even the capacity of even SALT, and certainly beyond what the Psalmist or even our grandparents imagined. Where in the world is this universe, with its galaxies, and the universes beyond our own? And who are we, fragile specks alive on this equally fragile planet earth for such a brief moment in time?
But then the Psalmist makes an astounding statement of faith. Star gazing not only cuts us down to size, but at the same time gives us a significance that defies all analysis, a value that even our technology cannot give. "What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?" Of course, we might take a different tack and say that given the immensity of the universe, we are simply insignificant, here today and gone tomorrow. That's the atheist option. But the Psalmist thinks otherwise. Insignificant as we may seem and cold and indifferent as the universe appears, there is a compassion, a caring at the heart of the universe that gives us significance and value as human beings. This caring mystery we name God, inadequate as that word may be, is the good news proclaimed by Jesus. "Look at the birds of the air...are you not of more value than they?” "You have given us glory and honour," exclaims the Psalmist in amazement, we are just a little lower than the angels!
Of course, we are also dust, star dust as it happens. And, of course, Jesus not only gives value to us humans, he also brings down the mighty who think too much of themselves and oppress the poor. But Jesus was not in the business of reducing us to worms as some preachers have done down the centuries. He was in the business of enabling us to appreciate our worth as human beings and so also appreciate the worth of others as well.
There are in fact, two alternatives, two perspectives on life and it makes a huge difference to us which one we choose. The universe is either ultimately meaningless, or it is meaningful. It is either simply dark matter, or it is a mystery that cares. We are either of no significance, or we have significance as human beings. Christian faith makes the latter choice. Human beings matter. At the heart of the universe there is a compassion, a caring love that is life-giving and sustaining. And because that is so, to be in tune with the universe means being compassionate and caring ourselves -- for others and for the earth we inhabit. This universe may be a mystery far beyond our grasp, yet we know that without compassion and caring for others everything falls apart. The starry sky above and the moral law within us belong inseparably together as the philosopher Immanuel Kant put it. Star gazing and compassionate concern for our fellow humans, especially those who suffer or are in need, belong together. And both change our perspective on life, on the worth of being human, our own worth and that of others, including especially those who think they are worthless because that is how they are treated. "What are human beings...that you care for us?" A question we need to ask each day and each night as we look at the plight of those worse off than we are, or turn our eyes to gaze at the heavens.
John de Gruchy
Volmoed 20 November 2014