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Christian Sagers: It shouldn't take a moon landing to discover the divine

In this July 21, 1969 photo made available by NASA, the Apollo 11 Lunar Module ascent stage, carrying astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, approaches the Command and Service Modules for docking in lunar orbit. Astronaut Michael Collins remained with
In this July 21, 1969 photo made available by NASA, the Apollo 11 Lunar Module ascent stage, carrying astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, approaches the Command and Service Modules for docking in lunar orbit. Astronaut Michael Collins remained with the CSM in lunar orbit while the other two crewmen explored the moon's surface. In the background the Earth rises above the lunar horizon.
Michael Collins, NASA

Apollo 11 and the missions that came before tested human intelligence and determination. But for all the pride in our progress, the real success of the moon landing was compelling mankind to look up.

On May 5, 1961, the first rocket of Project Mercury fired, carrying the first American man into space. When motorists caught sight of the converted ballistic missile, they got out of their cars, fell to their knees and prayed. Who was man to think he could escape his earthly bonds?

It was the tangible start of a millennia-old desire to explore the vast unknown. For years the heavens have pulled humans toward its black waves and twinkling lights, daring scientists and philosophers to resist the invitation to discover. Fifty years ago, we took that discovery to a long-awaited conclusion.

When Apollo 11 touched down on the moon, the grainy images beamed back to 600 million earthbound onlookers boasted of human intelligence while simultaneously uncovering man’s insignificance: The nearest star beyond our sun is 25,000,000,000 miles, or 4.22 light years away. There are roughly 100 billion stars in our galaxy. The nearest major galaxy to the Milky Way is 2.537 million light years away. It took humans 10 years, hundreds of billions of dollars, and hundreds of thousands of engineers, mathematicians, test pilots and scientists to go 238,900 miles to the moon. If the distance from Earth to the sun was measured on a yardstick, we barely traveled past the 2-millimeter mark.

Congratulations.

Truthfully, we are an insecure lot. When our planet is invaded in our works of fiction, we, the earthlings — not the strangers — are the inferior lifeforms. We fear our insignificance, and behind the bravado of human achievement is a rickety framework of “what if’s.” What if we fail? What if we aren’t alone? What if there’s nothing next? What if it’s all for nothing?

But the firmament’s intimidation is matched by its capacity to inspire.

Many times I have soothed a troubling thought by looking skyward in the night. The gleam of the moon and tranquility of the darkness makes me feel small but welcomed, as if I have a place in this universe. I see not only a vast expanse but a peaceful home whose caretaker is greater than myself.

It’s an infectious feeling. Eclipse chasers thrive off of it, and some see upwards of two dozen total solar eclipses in their lifetime. One umbraphile said of his first eclipse, “This is like looking upon the eye of God.” Another says, “You get an overwhelming sense of humbleness. ... It gives us a sense of how tiny we are and yet how we're connected to the whole system.”

I can think of cheaper ways to look upon the eye of God and feel connected to the whole system — most involve genuflected meditation — but the feeling is both real and necessary for a flourishing life. Humbling ourselves before the divine is where unity takes hold.

Unfortunately, modern life has been an exhausting exercise in looking everywhere but up. Politicians look across the aisle and down at their prepared remarks. Migrants dissolve into talking points while leaders look at spreadsheets and polls. Society begs its people to acknowledge their privilege but hardly asks them to see the privilege of living on our pale blue dot and give thanks for the opportunity.

Fixing our gaze heavenward is the antidote to adversity, even in the worst of it. The year 1968 was one of those times. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy had been assassinated, war was escalating in Vietnam and riots plagued cities across the country. Yet, on that Christmas Eve, the first men to orbit the moon transmitted a gentle message to a troubled earth. “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth,” the crew of Apollo 8 started. In 10 short words they put man’s existence in humble perspective.

It shouldn’t take a moonshot to cultivate that humility. The moon shines bright almost every night. We can start by looking up at it.