Sunday, February 9, 2020

It's full of stars.

yabadene belkacem | CC0 | Pixabay
I'm in taking an online course related to Paganism. It's being taught by John Beckett, a Druid priest who blogs on the Patheos Pagan channel. The class is called "Building a New Myth: Scientific, Animist, and Polytheist Foundations for the Future."

Come back here! It's not as weird as it sounds!

Did you notice the word "scientific" in there? You may be surprised to learn that unlike followers of certain other religions, Pagans have no trouble with science. Paganism is, after all, a nature religion (broadly speaking), and science defines -- or attempts to define -- things that happen in the natural world. We're good with that. Honest.

What we don't have, unlike those other religions, is a book of mythology that everyone adheres to. And here I'm using mythology not in the popular sense of myths being lies, but in the formal sense of myths being stories that underpin a religious or cultural tradition. Pagans don't have a shared mythology. Celtic Reconstructionists have Irish myths and the Mabinogion, Asatruar have the Eddas, and so on -- but we don't have one single book that tells us how to live. So the intent of the course I'm taking is to help each of us develop our own personal mythos, which we can then use as a touchstone for ethical behavior.

With me so far? Okay. So last week's module was about astronomy, among other things. For homework, we were encouraged to find an app that uses a phone's camera to pick out stars in the sky, even if they're not visible, and then go outside, observe the sky for a little while, and write our impressions of the experience. I really liked what I wrote, so I'm sharing an edited version with you.

La Casa Cantwell is in a very urban area. (Feel free to refer to my Facebook post earlier today of photos of our neighborhood.) Light pollution here is so bad that we regularly play the "Is that a star or an airplane?" game. About the only heavenly body we can reliably see is the moon. So the phone app was a revelation -- all those stars we can't see from here! No wonder modern humans tend to think of ourselves as the only thing that matters in the universe; we look up and see a vast blankness where the ancients saw billions of stars.

Although maybe it's not just modern folks. People in Galileo's time didn't have any problem believing themselves the center of the universe either, despite their lack of light pollution. Of course, they didn't know -- or didn't believe, or couldn't imagine -- that each star they saw was a sun, maybe with orbiting planets that were home to other forms of life.

Which brings me back to our modern world, in which we can imagine such a thing, but still we have trouble wrapping our brains around the vastness of space. Science posits that the universe began in a Big Bang, and we are still rushing away from that explosion. But what was before the Big Bang? Where did the matter that exploded -- the stuff in that infinitely dense point -- come from? What if the matter that makes up our universe has always existed?

"What's at the edge of our galaxy?" is a similar question. Does our galaxy have an edge? What is it like? Is it impenetrable or permeable? And if there is in fact an edge or boundary, what's on the other side? More galaxy? ("Moar galaxieeeee!") Or maybe -- shudder -- nothing at all? Or maybe -- bigger shudder -- it has always been here and will always be here.

Humans are linear thinkers, and our science demands a beginning point and an end point. Some of those other religions also require a beginning point and an end point. I'm thinking of one in particular, where God begins the world two different ways in Genesis (look it up) and ends it with an apocalypse in Revelations.

Modern Pagans haven't bothered with developing creation myths like the ones in Genesis. I think that's because our concept of time is different. We think of it as not linear, but as a wheel that keeps turning. We're okay with believing that the stuff of our universe was always here.

But back to science: It ain't perfect. Let's face it, the scientific method is useless for determining how the universe began. We cannot create an experiment to replicate the Big Bang -- we simply don't know enough about the variables that existed then. And what if the Big Bang is followed by a Big Squish, in which the universe snaps back like a rubber band to that singular point?

We don't know. Nobody knows. We're all just guessing.

So we make up stories about how it all went down. Or we write a poem. Or we create a myth. When faced with unanswerable questions, it's the best we can do.

These moments of bloggy wonder have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell.

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