A planet somewhere else in space. A planet where evolution is a reality (if you don't believe in that here).
A planet where life springs into being thanks to a collection of raw chemicals and just the right conditions, and billions of years to sort itself out.
The life springs up, eventually spreads across the entire planet and begins changing, evolving into new creatures and new plants and eventually into a species that is intelligent enough to ask questions like "why?"
Now, because life evolved on the planet, that life adapted to the climate of that planet. Whether the planet was warmer than ours or colder than ours, drier than ours or wetter than ours, whether it has an acidic atmosphere, a caustic atmosphere, or perhaps no atmosphere at all - all of that is irrelevant. Why? Because life still evolved, and that life is perfectly adapted to that environment, whatever the environment may be.
And it looks around at, what would to us certainly look like an "alien world," and it sees a world that it has adapted perfectly to. The world looks perfect for it. It is perfectly content with the environment of the world.
And it asks the question, "why?"
"Why am I here?" "Why is this world so perfect?" "Where did I come from?"
and because its science hasn't caught up, it doesn't have good answers to those questions. Instead, it looks around at the planet and sees how perfectly adapted it is to the planet and it thinks, "This planet is perfectly adapted to me."
And therein lies its first mistake.
And seeing how perfectly adapted the planet is to it, it starts to answer the other questions. Because of course, if the planet is so perfect for this creature, then it stands to reason that the planet was *made* for the creature... that is, that some external force specifically crafted the entire planet and its ecosystem for that intelligent creature... and therefore, there might be a god, and that god is clearly benevolent because it gave the creature such a beautiful and wonderful planet, full of abundant life and all the various things the creature needs to live.
And so the creature crafts a religion...
And it looks around the universe and it sees no evidence of other creatures, no planets on which other life exists, and it thinks, "how lucky I am to have a planet that just happens to exist in the habitable zone of its star; clearly, that's not just chance. This is further evidence of a divine creator."
Rather than realizing that the only reason it is able to draw such conclusions is because it sprang forth from the process of evolution, a process that only occurs on planets that have the right mixture of chemicals and temperatures and so on, and that therefore creatures capable of asking such questions will naturally occur on such planets.
If it's not immediately obvious, this is exactly what we do when we look around our planet and think that it is crafted for us. When I hear arguments like that of Tom Harrison this morning on his newest ad talking about how wonderful it is that we just "happen" to have a planet that is perfect, so clearly this is evidence of a creator, this is what I think about - no, it's not that we just "happen" to have all of these things, it's that a creature capable of asking such questions can ONLY occur on a planet with all of these things. None of this is evidence of divinity.
This leads me into the story of my adventure to see the Solar Eclipse last month...
My trip to Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons was full of some of the most awe-inspiring and beautiful things I’ve ever experienced. Among them – giant waterfalls framed by cliffs that looked almost fake in how profoundly brilliant their red and golden hues shined in the sun, and the stark contrast they gave to the white water crushing and crashing down between them, roaring so loudly that even from a mile away it nearly drowned the combined voices of the hundreds of tourists overflowing the overlooks and craning to see and get the best pictures; rapids that suddenly appeared beside the road, whipping and tumbling over a thousand jumbled messes of rocks and downed trees, battering against narrow cliff walls amidst tight turns; pools of pungent sulfuric acid bubbling and steaming up from the ground, carrying with them minerals of a thousand different colors that all turned stark white when they dried and killed everything in their path, so they created an unbelievably dead and desolate landscape while they still flowed and burped up from below the ground, the only kind of life in the area, and painted it with vibrant reds and blues and golds and greens; there were of course the geysers, belching out sulfuric gasses nearly constantly for thousands of years, and sometimes spraying hundreds of gallons of boiling water hundreds of feet into the air; there were still, serene lakes before impossibly jagged and steely mountains, grey, green, and purple, rocks jutting out in all directions; there were Moose and Buffalo that stood regally as the kings and queens of large, open grasslands, completely unconcerned by the threat of wolves, cougars, and overly zealous picture-takers.
And then there was the eclipse. It both literally and figuratively overshadowed all of the other amazing sights. There’s a lot of build-up to the eclipse – the expectations set by news stations and people who’ve seen it before, and the internal anxiety of seeing it first-hand and watching it slowly approach. For over an hour, I sat there impatiently waiting totality, periodically looking up and seeing the moon slowly crawl across the sun, until the light from the sun was a crescent, and then a sliver, and then a bright speck. Meanwhile, the world is getting slowly darker, and the temperature is dropping. As totality got close, my shadow became fuzzy; as it became imminent, I could see waves of light and dark on the ground.
And then the light from the sun disappeared, and I could see nothing through my eclipse glasses, so I took them off.
Never before have I been that completely floored by a natural sight. When the Sun is covered by the Moon completely, it turns into a ring of stunningly brilliant silver light. The Sun’s corona is visible, shooting out from the Sun in hundreds of millions of miles in either direction, appearing like wispy strands of gossamer silk that spread outward or loop back in on themselves. There are also bright specks of red along the surface of the ring, million-mile-long flares of fusion fire that appear as mere flecks of red along the ring. The stars come out, and even Mercury becomes visible.
The description does not do it justice. People who see a total eclipse often describe it as life-changing, especially in the immediate aftermath of it. At our viewing post, the reactions ranged from stunned silence to non-stop peals of joy and amazement, with one young woman in tears and unable to stop herself from talking and screaming about how beautiful it was.
In my younger days, such sights were clear signs of God’s grace and beauty, and how much He loved us to provide such beauty for us. When someone I spoke with mentioned the same viewpoint after the eclipse, I was suddenly shocked to realize this was no longer the approach I took. Now, I see the science behind it all – why the Sun appears as the way it does, why strong acids bubble up from below the ground, why rivers carve out such amazing channels, and why, as creatures who evolved in a world of such things, we think all of these things had to be created just for us rather than realizing we were created just for the universe.
That was the takeaway of a gentleman I talked to shortly after, who was still in awe of it and said that he couldn’t understand how people could see such a sight and not believe in God. I smiled and agreed, knowing full well how they could.
That isn’t to say I didn’t witness God’s presence and God’s power, I just didn’t see it directly in the eclipse, as amazing as it was.
Instead, I got to thinking about why the eclipse is significant. On the entire planet, only people in a narrow swath of land got to experience totality, but people outside of that path had their own unique experiences – a sun that was partly covered but never reached totality, leaving perhaps just a small sliver of sunlight, or a large crescent – or, perhaps they never saw anything different at all. Witnessing totality was entirely dependent upon the individual human beings who sought it out.
But every second of every day, there’s totality somewhere. Seldom on Earth, but beyond the Earth, there are points where the Earth, the Moon, Venus, and every other planet block out the sunlight and an observer in that exact spot could see the sun blocked and witness its corona alone, brilliant amidst the stars.
The significance of this is entirely predicated upon the human perspective. It is important and unique only because it offers us a chance to witness something common amongst the stars, but uncommon for us here. It is important only because we witness it, and it is our subjective experience that makes it important.
This also makes it important because we can see how it affects others; that is, knowing that it is important for humans, I paid attention to other humans. I spent much of the eclipse itself, and the days before and after, carefully observing humanity.
And what I saw was intriguing and profound. The emotions that the eclipse brought out – the feeling of galactic insignificance, the awe, and the happiness that it triggered in the hearts of all who observed it was exciting to see. Whether it was the girl who we met from Yucaipa, California, who was fairly excited beforehand but when she saw totality she started laughing and shouting about how unbelievable it was while tears streamed down her face; her boyfriend, who talked about trying to figure out how to get to Antarctica for the next one; the man who raced like mad to get ahead of a rainstorm just to find a tiny window of clear sky through which he and his family could watch, and who was just ecstatic that they had made it, that he had been able to provide that opportunity for them; the aforementioned man who was moved by a spirit of worship for God as he watched through a telescope; or the hundreds and hundreds of people I encountered in passing who were simply nice.
And there was plenty of opportunity for the whole thing to unravel. The traffic after the eclipse was some of the worst I’ve ever seen. The line of cars waiting to get into the city of Jackson was over 5 miles long, and not moving at all. Getting into and out of Yellowstone required similar lines. The streets of Jackson were crowded well beyond capacity, as were the viewing platforms of both national parks, leaving no legal places to park. Despite all of this, people stayed nice, they kept smiling and talking to anyone and everyone who would share the time, and they waved people in ahead of them in their long line of traffic, whenever another car approached.
It was as though witnessing such an event brought everyone together. Everyone wanted to talk about it, even while walking around awesome natural wonders in the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone – they not only wanted to share their own experiences, they wanted to hear the stories of others who had experienced it. Like people talking about 9/11 or any number of natural disasters and catastrophes, it made people need each other again, made people realize that they were not alone, that they were all in this world together.
That is where I saw God in all of this – in the love that people experienced for one another, however brief. I’ve seen it again in our response to the hurricane, though it is much easier to embrace and appreciate in the face of something as beautiful as the eclipse. Such love is truly awesome to behold, and I hope we can find many more eclipses and many fewer hurricanes in which to see it.