Carl Sagan, Paltry Icons And Image Bearers

The Milky Way by Sathish J
The Milky Way by Sathish J
Creation has a way of making you feel small, doesn’t it? Last Sunday I was preaching on Psalm 8 and this fact hit me again. Compared to this universe, I am really pretty minuscule.

There are around 400 billion stars in our galaxy alone… give or take a few billion! Just last week scientists claimed to have mapped the universe to within 1% accuracy and believe they have counted over 1.2 million galaxies. 1.2 million x 400 billion. Do the maths… That’s a lot of noughts.

How tiny does that make you feel?

Light travels pretty quickly. In fact, it moves so fast it could orbit the earth 7.4 times every second. Imagine light setting off at that kind of speed in a straight line. One light year – the distance light travels in a year – is about 5.9 trillion miles. If you tried to walk a light year at an average pace of 20 minutes per mile, without stopping for food, rest or any other comfort break, it would take you 225 million years to complete your journey – and who’s got time for that? The average pair of shoes lasts 500 miles, which means you’d get through 11.8 billion pairs on your journey and the average adult burns 80 calories a mile so you’d need about 2 trillion energy bars to keep you going!

In short, don’t bother…

To give you an idea of distances, the sun is less than a light year away. A lot less. In fact, it takes light 8 minutes and 19 seconds to travel the distance from the Sun to the Earth. So if you set off on your light year journey you would reach the sun relatively quickly and then you’d be a bit disappointed after that because the next closest star to the sun is Proxima Centauri, which is 4.22 light years away from the sun. And in the grand scheme of things, 4.22 light years isn’t even very far, since scientists believe they have mapped the universe up to 6 billion light years away.

How astonishingly minute does that make you feel?

No wonder the Psalmist, observing creation, is staggered that given how minuscule mankind is and how little of God’s world we occupy, He is mindful of us. He even cares about us.

‘When I consider your heavens,
    the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars,
    which you have set in place,
what is mankind that you are mindful of them,
    human beings that you care for them?’ (Psalm 8:3-4)

Over Christmas Channel 4 aired the first episode of Bear’s Wild Weekends, in which Stephen Fry spent a weekend hanging out of helicopters and climbing down waterfalls with Bear Grylls. And there was a beautiful moment on a mountaintop where the two of them shared their views on life and faith. Surrounded by astonishing scenery, Stephen Fry, a self-confessed Atheist, commented:

“I suppose there’s a danger of getting very pretentious when you’re in a vast landscape like this, because it does make you think. All the imponderable questions come tumbling into your mind don’t they?”

They do indeed. The Universe has a way of making you feel really very small and provoking the kinds of questions we spend much of our lives suppressing: is there something more?

In The Varieties of Scientific Experience, The Astronomer Carl Sagan wrote,

‘Many religions have attempted to make statues of their gods very large, and the idea, I suppose, is to make us feel small. But if that’s their purpose, they can keep their paltry icons. We need only look up if we wish to feel small. It’s after an exercise such as this that many people conclude that the religious sensibility is inevitable.’

He’s right. We don’t need paltry icons to tell us how small we are. Just look up. Observe the stars. See how many you can count. That ought to do it. And it’s no great leap from beholding the hugeness of creation to questioning whether there might be a Creator? But hold that thought…

David continues:

‘What is mankind that you are mindful of them,
    human beings that you care for them?
You have made them a little lower than the angels
    and crowned them with glory and honour.
You made them rulers over the works of your hands;
    you put everything under their feet:
all flocks and herds,
    and the animals of the wild,
the birds in the sky,
    and the fish in the sea,
all that swim the paths of the seas.’ (Psalm 8:3-8)

As if it weren’t mind-blowing enough that God cares for us, the Psalmist begins to reflect on the nature of God’s relationship to mankind and he finds himself returning to the creation mandate:

‘God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” (Genesis 1:27-28)

Mankind – male and female – was created with a purpose, to rule over Creation: to subdue the parts of this world that cause clutter and disorder, and to bring out the good in it. Genesis describes mankind being made in God’s image. In His likeness. Hence crowned with glory and honour. That word ‘image’ means a whole host of things, but at the least it means this – we were made to be like God in our care for and cultivation of this world. To bring order and beauty out of it, as if we were doing the very curating role that God Himself might do.

Again, hold that thought, and pop back to the Carl Sagan quote for a moment. Religions often make statues to remind us how small we are. But if that’s their purpose, they can keep their paltry icons! One word in that quote particularly leapt out to me. ‘Icon’.

An icon is something that points beyond itself to a greater spiritual reality, with the express purpose of helping you to perceive that reality as it truly is and worship as a result. The church tradition of which I’m part doesn’t typically have much space for iconography. It’s not something I’ve ever found especially helpful, truth be told. But in various settings over the years I’ve heard people be extremely negative about icons, calling them a form of idolatry. Well, I’m not so sure… In his recent book Playing God, Andy Crouch helpfully delineates between icon and idol thus:

‘An icon is an image freighted with divine significance […] Like an idol, an icon is an image that claims to present ultimate truth. But unlike an idol, an icon tells the truth about ultimate reality.’

What does this have to do with Psalm 8? The Psalm doesn’t use the word icon, after all. Well, icon is a Greek word (eikōn) which means this: ‘image’.

So in a sense Sagan’s right – if the purpose of icons is remind us how small we are, they’re of relatively little value. Look up – the heavens should do the trick! But if we observe creation as David does, with reverence and childlike awe, it should also remind us this: we are icons. We areHis icon; made in His image.

And perhaps, just perhaps, as we play our image-bearing role – cultivating creation as we were designed to – people might look at us as icons and indeed look beyond us to the spiritual reality to which our lives point. And perhaps they may join us in worship of the Creator.

Rule like an image bearer. Live like an icon.

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