In May 2019, over 25 alumni of the Sinai and Synapses Fellowship came together to discuss topics they were working on in their own personal or professional fields. Those conversations generated several podcasts, and this one, focusing on “Can Liturgy Be Empirically Tested?,” features Megan Cuzzolino, Kat Robison, Gawain de Leeuw, and Rachael Jackson.
This particular podcast looks at questions of how we find ourselves in the stars. When we look up at the vastness of the universe, does that make us feel very small, or does it make us feel connected to something so much larger? As we realize that we are all star dust, how does that connect to the Biblical concept of knowing that we come from dust, and we return to dust?Read Transcript
Kat Robison: Good afternoon, everyone, my name is Kat Robison, and I am a PhD candidate at the University of Alabama in Political Science, where I study the role of politics in space exploration. Today we’re going to have a conversation at the Fellowship for Sinai and Synapses about how we find ourselves in the stars. And joining me today in that conversation are Dr. Megan Cuzzolino, who is at the Harvard School of Graduate Education – Hi Megan.
Megan Cuzzolino: Hi Kat.
Kat Robison: And also Father Gawain De Leeuw, who is the Rector of St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church in White Plains, New York. Welcome, Gawain.
Gawain de Leeuw: Thank you, nice to be here.
Kat Robison: And also joining us is Rabbi Rachael Jackson, who is at the Agudas Israel Congregation in Hendersonville, North Carolina. Welcome, Rachael.
Rachael Jackson: Thank you so much, Kat.
Kat Robison: So I’m really excited to be both hosting this podcast and the conversation today, as we talk about a subject that’s very near and dear to my own heart: space exploration. I’ve been interested in space exploration for as long as I can remember. The Challenger incident, where we lost seven crew members, including teacher Christine McCullough, is very near and dear to my heart, because it happened on my first birthday. So growing up, every year on my birthday, I heard about these brave people. And I was very interested in why were they doing this, why were they going to space, and I’ve always been obsessed with the night time, which is perhaps an artifact of being a night owl. So I sort of grew up with this feeling and understanding that it was important to look to the stars, and it was important to know our place in the universe. So what I would like to have a conversation about today is “How do we, as religious professionals and as academics, how do we conceptualize what is our place in the universe, and how do we find ourselves?”
For me, this is a conversation that I’ve had many times over, in many places, in many contexts, in talking about “How do I relate my view of the universe with my religious identity and my religious belief?” And there’s one very specific incident that I can recall, after a time of sort of having some struggling, getting some pushback from members of my church about studying evolution, and believing that evolution was a real thing, and being able to say “Well, you know, am I just wrong?” and just knowing that, well, all the evidence that I have doesn’t tell me I’m wrong. The evidence that I have available to me and to investigate says that we evolved on this planet. So does that mean that God is wrong, or is it that the Church’s view of where God is, or the Church (and I mean my own specific congregation, not the Church as a whole, that’s a whole nother conversation), is that wrong? Is their conception of what God is and what God can do too small?
And I was reading in the Psalms one day – no, actually that’s not right, I think it was in Proverbs – and there is this line where it talks about God “making you from dust.” And it just really hit me, because we know, from many people who have said it many different ways, very poetically, that we are here only because of the heavy elements spewed out into the universe by the death of the first stars. So we are, quite literally, dust of the universe, and quite literally, you know, our souls and our beings are made up of stars. Which is both a sort of awe-inspiring thing to think, that you’re part of something that’s so much bigger than yourself, and such a thing that just connected me to my religion. You talk about putting an eternity in your soul, and quite literally, you know, we are Eternity. So with that, I just want to open it up to “What are your thoughts on this question about finding ourselves within the larger context of the universe in which we live?”
Gawain de Leeuw: So I think of a couple of stories. One is that when I was 11, I read this book called The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. And there’s this one scene where you’re supposed to go into some kind of box, and when you enter that box, you experience the entire universe in all its infinity. And most people go crazy, but the protagonist happens to be the one person who is able to survive this immense knowledge of what it means to be a human being in this vast cosmic universe. And when I was a child, I thought this was fascinating, learning about the immensity of the universe. And of course, that was probably a mystical experience, or a mystical understanding, which of course invites other thoughts about who God is.
The second image that I have is – as an Episcopalian, we have Ash Wednesday, which is a time where the priest reminds people of their mortality by, you know, taking their thumb and smudging a sign of the cross on people’s forehead. And it always strikes me that that’s one of the few rituals that both atheists and religious people can gather around, because essentially what the priest is saying is that “You’re going to die. You’re going to die, you’re made of dust, you’re not going to be here forever, so that’s just the way it is.” Now, there’s more to it than that, no doubt, but I think of, one, the challenge of seeing ourselves as part of the universe, which I think is a difficult idea to get around, but then the reality that, of course, we are made of stuff and things that we don’t always describe very well. So those are very real images, or those are very real things for me. And I will say that as a pastor, watching Star Trek (laughter) is usually a really good opportunity to get good metaphors or even stories that resonate with people, because number one, people watch those serials, and that’s where they actually interact and try to seek out meaning in their own lives.And in addition, lastly, good science fiction novels, I do think, bring both religion and science together.
So those are some of the things I think about when addressing this question.
Kat Robison: Ok, so, who would like to pick up next off of the thought of Star Trek and religion and science?
Rachael Jackson: Ok, so one of the pieces that I look towards in our Jewish tradition is stories and tales, and where we can find them in the rich tradition. And in this way, one of the pieces, when we’re talking about both mortality and what we’re made out of – we’re all made of stardust. There is a story that comes from Rabbi Simcha Bonam, a couple hundred years ago, who would carry two pieces of paper. On one piece of paper he would say “For my sake the world was created” and on the other slip of paper he would say “I am but dust and ashes.” He would then put each piece of paper in a different pocket and carry them on his person. And when he needed to, he would reach into his pocket to see what he needed to navigate the day, whether that was humility, or taking up space. And I think that’s part of our navigation when we look at the awe of the space worlds, whether that’s through Star Trek – which, I happen to be a huge Star Trek lover, very much a huge Star Trek lover. And I think there is so much power in that pop culture specifically. Because it removes all of the barriers that we ourselves in the 21st century have put up, that we’re able to to look at the awe and other pieces… I’ve lost my train of thought.
Kat Robison: That’s totally okay. I think when talking about awe, I want to turn to Megan, because this is an area in which she has a lot of expertise.
Megan Cuzzolino: Sure, so one of the things that this is making me think of is a psychological mechanism that’s referred to in the literature as “small self”. So this comes from Paul Piff, who is a researcher at UC Irvine, and he and colleagues have been looking at the impact of the experience of awe on people’s prosocial tendencies. So in lab studies, they have found that priming people to feel awe leads to this sense of not just feeling small, but feeling part of something larger than the self. And not only does this create a perceptive shift, but also the inclination to behave towards that collective in constructive or prosocial ways. So you feel this sense of “I’m part of something bigger, and I have to protect it.”
And this is intriguing to me, as a science educator who’s really interested in the ways that we can teach science through this lens of “What do these concepts mean for me as an individual on this planet, or in this cosmos?” And something that I’ve found through my research is that the behavioral piece is actually hard to get to. So we can get to this place of feeling small, feeling part of something larger, but taking away from that any sense of “What does that mean for me in the day to day about how I live my life?” is a lot harder. And this is true for both the adolescents that I spend a lot of time time with, as well as professional scientists who I interviewed, who were ready to get to that perspective shift a lot easier than they could get to the day-to-day implications for behavioral choices.
So one of the things that I wonder about, because I think about this idea of finding ourselves in the stars, is what are the takeaways for us in this contemplation? Is it really a philosophical stance that we’re taking? Or are there more pragmatic implications for having this sense of yourself as part of the universe, and what does that mean, or what should it mean, for how we actually live our lives?
Kat Robison: I really like that question, because it brings back sort of two threads, this idea of Star Trek – and I think of Star Trek versus Star Wars. What future are we looking at? Because I’m a political scientist, and I study space exploration, and I study space policy. So I’m interested in “What does that look like politically?” You know, we wouldn’t be in space if not for politics and the Cold War. And we stayed there for mainly political reasons – yes, space exploration is very important, but there’s a very real argument to be made for the importance of space to economies and to the democratic peace around the world, in terms of military security. So I think of this in terms of like, when we consider the stars – and Megan, you said something about protecting the “something bigger.” And so you know, full disclosure, my first crush ever as a 7-year-old was Jean-Luc Picard, so, you know. (laughs) I do have a deep and abiding love for Star Trek, but when you ask the public about space exploration, a lot of them have a vision of the future of space that aligns with Star Trek, that aligns with this idea that there’s other people out there, other intelligent life out there, and that it’s important to protect the ability to explore the unknown and discover the new, and that that’s a responsibility that should be protected and even fought for.
But if you look at the way that we’re acting in space, in terms of like, “Where are we heading next, with the proposal of a Space Force, with military satellite tests that are destroying satellites in space?” Well, where we’re heading may actually look more like Star Wars. And that, to me, brings up these questions of what you’re saying. Your question is: What are the takeaways when we look to the universe? What are we learning, and what are we learning from that? And then also, how do we help people understand it in a way that promotes a peaceful and secure future for every person on this planet, and maybe eventually, in the future, on others?
Rachael Jackson: So I love that you brought in both Star Trek and Star Wars, it’s a very common debate among people who enjoy both of those, or just one of them. And I, in a very simplistic way, have categorized Star Trek as a utopian future and Star Wars as a dystopian future. And when I look at other movies – other pop culture – which I think, I’m not saying that pop culture as a – I’m not being pejorative about it, I think it teaches us a lot about society. Many of the movies and other references to America – excuse me, not America – many of the other references to Earth, and other intelligent beings coming to Earth, are in a negative way. However, the thread that most of them have is that the Earth population comes together. So they’re still utopian in the sense that we are actually all going to eventually get along as a planet, fighting this other force.
Gawain de Leeuw: Independence Day.
Rachael Jackson: Independence Day. Men in Black. Any Will Smith movie that deals with space (laughter).
Kat Robison: It’s all interesting, because it perpetuates the us-versus-them that has built the nations that we live in. And so if we take nationalism out into the world, if we keep going in that direction, our space exploration future is going to be more Star Wars or Independence Day or, you know, Men in Black, or any other big movie – Avengers, in some ways. You know, it’s the big – sorry, we won’t spoil you here, we promise we won’t talk about it.
But there is a very sort of almost militaristic bit, that we see our push forward into space collectively, in pop culture, as something that’s going to be militaristic. And even in the Star Trek world, it’s still a military union. Obviously they’re doing exploration, but every episode has conflict. And so there’s this idea that is within space exploration, that also is within our religious literature, of conflict necessary for peace, or for the pushing forward into new boundaries. And so that brings me to this question: in talking about finding ourselves in the stars, what does it mean that when we create and think and dream about finding ourselves, that we’re bringing conflict along?
Gawain de Leeuw: So I think it’s probably impossible to actually get rid of conflict, because the way human identity is structured is not only to structure itself around people who are similar, but also to identify yourself in contrast with other people. So it’s hard to have one without the other. I think that the way I interpret scripture is that there is an invitation to at least remember that God is not responsible for the divisions, but rather these are aspects of the human heart. At least that’s where I interpret the tradition I inherit. This is not to deny that there is a difference, and that those things are going to be part of whatever civilization we create.
Now, I do think that it’s helpful to remember that the experience of awe is experienced through space, or through things that are grand. It’s also experienced in… military parades, or anything that conveys a degree of size and power, even. And those, you can look at those events as maybe derivative of that sense of awe. I mean, think of a cathedral. Now, a cathedral is a confined space, but by being a confined space, it actually allows for a measured interpretation of the cosmos. And so you have cathedrals like St. Mary the Virgin, which is over here, with stars at the very top of the ceiling. Or even at Grand Central Terminal, you have stars as well. And those convey at least a sense of space, just maybe slightly in miniature.
So this sense of awe, which maybe we are better able to understand through science now because we understand the cosmos differently – we’ve always had, to some extent, just the recognition of the patterns of the sun and the moon, for example, or even the seasons, which I guess the sun and the moon are definitely part of, right. Our experience of nature on this planet is how we’ve experienced the cosmos. But I think of, especially, that one image that the world had when we first went into outer space, of the big blue Earth –
Kat Robison: Earthrise, yeah.
Gawain de Leeuw: – Earthrise, and how that has really shaped at least one period of world consciousness. And I think that is kind of a utopian aspiration that I think may symbolize something like the roots of a global faith, Gaia or however. Granted, this is all going to be very complicated in how it plays out, but surely, as we are trying to save our planet, it’s those images that are going to be really important for us. And it’s that wonder which I hope can bring us together to do the work we need to do.
Kat Robison: Astronauts often talk about the “Overview Effect,” how being in space, when [you] see the Earth as a whole, you don’t see borders, and then that shifts your perspective. My favorite series of books, they’re by Diane Duane, they’re called “The Young Wizards.” And [the characters] often go to the moon to think of things, like when they need to just, like, work through a problem, or think of something. And there’s this little part she puts in, which I love – she says, “In the future, every elected official will be taken to the moon to see Earth from space before they’re sworn in, so they understand what it is that they’re swearing to protect.” And so when you talk about that, that sort of brings up those thoughts for me.
Rachael Jackson: And I was hearing both the conflict that you were asking about, as well as what you were just saying, and I think conflict is a part of human nature, which is why in all pop culture and literature, conflict is how we express ourselves and the goal of the conflict is to come to a communication where we recognize, respect and find gratitude in that which we are not. So as we define “Who am I?”, by saying who I am, I am also either subtly or overtly saying, “And I am not this other thing.” And that, when we’re looking in the stars, has that connotation, which I think is part of the problem. What am I, if there are all of these billions and trillions of other worlds out there… what am I?
Megan Cuzzolino: Something that this is making me think about is that the origins of awe, from an evolutionary perspective, are actually thought to be rooted in this conflict or social hierarchy. So, theorists believe that the reason that we have awe as an emotion is because there is a need to feel some sort of respect or reverence toward those more powerful than us, in order for social groups to form and function. So if everybody is on equal ground, there’s no one who can rise up and be a leader. So it actually – there’s this idea that our most primordial experiences of awe were actually in these social situations, where it was actually meant to differentiate or create hierarchies in social groups. So, I think this idea that we can experience awe in contexts beyond nature is very true, and often is about this sense of distinguishing ourselves from others in a way that creates levels or hierarchies. So I think that this tribalistic tendency that humans have is very tied up in notions of power and scale, and I think the more we look at ourselves as a human race extending outward into space, the context in which those distinctions may arise will change, but that dynamic will persist.
Kat Robison: One thing about the – you know, conflict isn’t always bad. Conflict is good. And often we say like, “Oh, I want to avoid conflict,” but when you think about looking out into the universe – and perhaps your worldview is different from the Big Bang, you know – but that’s going to produce a conflict that’s going to make you examine your faith, examine evidence that you see. And in today’s environment, I think the ability to be in conflict in the way you think is very important.
And I think conflict is very important in terms of spirituality. Within multiple religions, this idea of spiritual conflict – the term jihad has been co-opted and turned into something that it’s not, and in [Western] culture we think of jihad as “terrorism,” but in actuality within Islam, jihad is the spiritual battle that you have with yourself as you’re working out your faith. And so this idea that conflict within faith is something that produces greater faith, and greater understanding, is one that I think we can see within space exploration. All of us around the world saw the images of Pluto, especially when you see that Pluto has a “heart.” And what that did, to have such clear images of the planet for the first time – and then Pluto went and turned our complete understanding of planetary geology on its head, because we thought you couldn’t have active geology on a planet without tidal forces. Well, there’s no tidal forces on Pluto, but it has active geology. So there is a conflict. And even the conflict over “What is Pluto’s classification, is Pluto a planet, or a dwarf planet, or something else?” And these conflicts produce greater discovery, both in the spiritual context but also in science and in space exploration. Having a conflict and having a way that you know this is the way something is, and then you send a probe there, or you go and search for the answers, and that is not the way something is – it’s a really amazing thing, I think.
Rachael Jackson: I think you’re absolutely right. And I’m certainly of the Pluto generation, where we had it, and then we didn’t have it, and now we’re questioning “Do we have it or do we not have it,” you know, and “How many planets do we have?” And I’m of the nine-planet generation. And so there’s a soft spot for me in that way. But what we’re also looking at nowadays, I believe it was M-87 (I might have the number a little bit off), the very first physical photographic evidence of a black hole that we have been struggling for over 100 years – do they exist, don’t they exist? The majority of scientists recently have said “Yes, they exist, we recognize them,” but now the rest of us can say “Isn’t this amazing, now I see it, and what is it telling me? And is it spherical, is it…?“
All of this data that we can do, because as human beings, the majority of us use our eyes as direct links to our hearts, frankly. And I believe that by being able to use that space exploration and see something, or to bring in one other example, the very first time that the Hubble telescope was pointed to what they thought was black space, just completely empty space, and they said “You know what, we’re just going to point it here and leave it there and see what happens,” right, the deep field exploration, and it turns out millions more galaxies appeared. And just allowing us to give ourselves that permission to find, and say, “Ok, so I saw this conflict, now let me use my curiosity to look into it.”
Gawain de Leeuw: I think, for me, one of the challenges is thinking about “How do I bring this into my congregation, into this community, and how do I pray it?”, right. So in the liturgy we have something called the Gloria, and it essentially is “Glory to God in the highest and peace to his people on Earth,” right. So to me, that prayer could be constructed as a cosmic prayer. And in parts of the liturgy also, you do have some physical symbols. And I’m thinking, in particular, the candle that we light at the Easter Vigil. And that, to me, signifies almost the cosmic Christ, or even this sense of being or essence. And granted, this is very peculiar to my own tradition. But that idea of the light being lit is almost analogous to the creation of the universe, the Big Bang. And that becomes a way of bringing in this universe – this universal, this cosmos, into a reality in our particular context on this small planet. In fact, one of the traditional prayers in the Book of Common Prayer is “creator of the universe ,and earth our island home,” acknowledging that this is – we’re part of this grander expanse, a universe of many universes, and that we still inhabit this one corner, and that it matters. So I’m always curious to know about that, because I want to enhance the sense of wonder.
When I first became part of this Fellowship, it was because I had written a little essay on the sense of religion and scientific practice, and that maybe certain scientific practices, whether it be creating a taxonomy or a list, discerning between what is or what isn’t, putting things into groups, things like wonder, awe, all those things, were also religious and spiritual practices as well. So, in that way…
Kat Robison: Megan, did you have any last thoughts before we wrap up?
Megan Cuzzolino: Yeah, I guess I was just thinking about the aspect of novelty, or the continuing to push forward, that we’ve been talking about. So we talked about Earthrise, which was 50 years ago at this point, the Apollo 8 mission, through all the discoveries in space we’ve had since then, up to the most recent black hole image that we’re seeing. And the way that those images lose their novelty as they become more ubiquitous. So the Overview Effect, as Kat was talking about, doesn’t go away. Astronauts who are on the Space Station now still report having that experience, that visceral experience, of seeing Earth from space. But for those of us who just see that blue marble in a postcard, we’re used to it. And so it doesn’t have the same impact as it did in the late 60’s, when people were seeing it for the first time, and it was coinciding with Silent Spring, and the EPA was being formed. And so I think that we need this imperative, to keep discovering, and keep pushing, and keep having these new images to inspire us, is really important, because the things that were generating that sense of awe half a century ago are commonplace now. And so I think continuing to discover, and then expose the broader public to those discoveries in a way that people can make meaning and react, is really important.
Rachael Jackson: If I can respond to that as well, Megan, one of the places that I can see where faith can do something in those ways is to take something which we feel is novelty – especially in our culture, we’re always looking for that new, for that novel – “Oh, that’s Earthrise, I’ve seen it a million times,” is for faith – for many faiths and cultures, we love ritual. That is – actually I shouldn’t say faith cultures. Really, just people love rituals. We have birthday parties for a reason. There’s so many, and each of us has it in our families and ourselves and our various communities. And I think that’s where we can continue promoting awe in that which was, rather than the novelty piece. So while I don’t necessarily believe in the literalism that the sun was created on the fourth day, a Wednesday. In the Jewish tradition there is this idea that it was created on a Wednesday and at such and such space, you know, location in the sky. And because we lose a quarter day each year and we make that up with a leap year, in Judaism there is a blessing said over the sun every 28 years.
We have all seen the sun every day, over and over, unless you live in someplace gray which, I’m sorry. Outside of that, it’s become just routine, but to say “No, I’m going to take this time out, and only once every 28 years will I get to say this blessing,” which is amazing, it forces us to reevaluate what we have been seeing in a new light. And I think that’s where the faith traditions can really help our science traditions.
Kat Robison: Absolutely, I agree. And I’ve loved the direction of this conversation and the sort of talking about faith in science, and conflict in space. For me, I have that image that I go back to. There’s this image of the stars from Jupiter, and every time I’m like “Things are going a little rough,” I just know, like, well, I live in a universe where I know what the stars look like from Jupiter. Which is mind-boggling, just that we are in a place where we can beam pictures back from space and get them. And will we have human-made spacecraft who are now beyond the solar system? And that sense of awe that that engenders is just something that’s like – I can keep going for the next day, because it’s so inspiring.
And so for me, that’s where I find myself in the stars. And I hope that other people are able to do that as well. And I want to say thank you again Megan for for joining us, and also to Gawain, thank you for joining us, and thank you to Rachael as well. And also, to all of you listeners, thank you for joining us for this conversation, and if you would like to know more, please check out Sinai and Synapses Fellowship on the web, as well as listen to other conversations we’ve had with Fellows on these topics, or explore other resources. Have a wonderful afternoon.