The Webb Telescope Reveals the Universe’s Smallness and Humanity’s Weakness

When you glance at images from the Webb Telescope, like the one above, it’s hard not to feel small. When you’re able to comprehend just a glimpse of the vastness involved, it can be overwhelming.

Spinning galaxies strung across a sky teeming with light. Radiant stars shimmering like jewels. Space clouds seven light years tall.

Pondering the realities behind these images rightly evoke awe. Our expanding knowledge of the universe should expand our worship for the Creator behind it all.

We should not, however, think of ourselves as small in comparison to the outreaches of space. The wonder we feel when we see the heavens should remind us of its smallness compared to you and I.

The Smallness of Space

Image credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI

In “Dogma and the Universe,” an essay in God in the Dock collection, C.S. Lewis points out how it us humans who give the the wonders of space their wonder.

We are inveterate poets. Our imaginations awake. Instead of mere quantity, we now have a quality—the sublime. Unless this were so, the merely arithmetical greatness of the galaxy would be no more impressive than the figures in a telephone directory. It is thus, in a sense, from ourselves that the material universe derives its power to over-awe us. … Men look on the starry heavens with reverence; monkeys do not. The silence of the eternal spaces terrified Pascal, but it was the greatness of Pascal that enabled them to do so. When we are frightened by the greatness of the universe, we are (almost literally) frightened by the greatness of our shadow: for these light years and billions of centuries are mere arithmetic until the shadow of man, the poet, the maker of myths, falls upon them. I do not say we are wrong to tremble at his shadow; it is a shadow of an image of God. But if ever the vastness of matter threatens to overcross our spirits, one must remember that it is matter spiritualized which does so. To puny man, the great nebula in Andromeda owes in a sense its greatness.

C.S. Lewis, “Dogma and the Universe,” God in the Dock

In another God in the Dock essay, “Man or Rabbit?,” Lewis writes: “[T]o the Christian, individuals are more important, for they live eternally; and races, civilizations and the like, are in comparison the creatures of a day.”

Yes, we can see God’s handiwork in the glorious galaxies around our universe, but we can see His image in the people around us.

When we are frightened by the greatness of the universe, we are (almost literally) frightened by the greatness of our shadow. — @CSLewis Click To Tweet

The ordinary, common people we meet every day are more spectacular than the towering cliffs in the star nursery of the Carina Nebula. Your spouse, your neighbor, the person who cut you off in traffic, the politician you can’t stand, they will exist far longer than the Roman Civilization did and will outlast the United States.

As we all will continue to be awed by the grandeur of the pictures coming from the Webb telescope or those being transmitted back from the Curiosity Rover as it maneuvers around the surface of Mars, do not lose your awe at the pinnacle of God’s creation: humanity.

The Weakness of Humanity

Image credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI

But as we consider this fact, God created us in His image and we outshine the stars, we realize just how far we miss the mark. While we may never admit it, we can recognize greatness in ourselves, but miss it in those around us. While humanity may have realized the Earth is not the center of the universe, you and I still have trouble realizing that we don’t hold that position.

It can be easy to turn our awe from the stars and immediately turn our ire toward those around us. I ignore the creative majesty that exists in my friends and family because I’m frustrated at their forgetting to take the trash to the road or not saving the last slice of cake for when they know how much I like it.

While humanity may have realized the Earth is not the center of the universe, you and I still have trouble realizing that we don't hold that position. Click To Tweet

Our constant weakness is the ability to center ourselves in every situation, which is partly due to our downplaying others. We can note the awe-inspiring images of space because they don’t inconvenience us, but when we turn to see our annoying neighbor we downplay their brilliance because they keep parking their car too near our driveway. Stars just shine, they don’t cut us off in traffic.

We are able to see the grandeur of space, but miss it as we walk through life with all the “ordinary people” around us. In his famous sermon-turned-book, The Weight of Glory, Lewis challenges our perspective.

There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations — these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit — immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.

C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory

We marvel at space and mistreat the greater splendor sitting right next to us.

Yes, you can be impressed by the beauty and magnitude of God’s creation stretched across light years, but do not lose sight of the one thing in the entire universe that alone bears His image.