Friday, November 30, 2012

The sense of seeing the Earth from beyond Earth

Leonardo Boff's weekly columns are available in Spanish from Servicios Koinonia and in Portuguese on his blog. Some of his older columns are available in English at

by Leonardo Boff (English translation by Rebel Girl)

The last centuries were characterized by countless discoveries: continents, native peoples, living species, galaxies, stars, the subatomic world, the original energies and finally the Higgs field, a kind of subtle fluid that permeates the universe; the virtual particles get mass and are stabilized when they touch it. But we had not yet discovered the Earth as a planet, as our Common Home. It was necessary for us to leave the Earth to see it from outside and then discover it and observe the unity between Earth and humanity.

This is the great legacy of the astronauts who had the chance to contemplate the Earth from space for the first time. They produced in us what has been called the Overview Effect, that is, "the effect of the view from above." Frank White collected beautiful testimonies from the astronauts in his book The Overview Effect (Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 1987). Reading them produces a strong impact and a great feeling of reverence in us, a true spiritual experience. Let's read some.

Astronaut James Irwin said, "The Earth reminded us of a Christmas tree ornament hanging in the blackness of space. As we got farther and farther away it diminished in size. Finally it shrank to the size of a marble, the most beautiful marble you can imagine. That living object, so beautiful and so warm, seems fragile and delicate; contemplating it changes the one who does, since you begin to appreciate God's creation and discover God's love." Another, Eugene Cernan, confessed, "I was the last man to walk on the moon in December, 1972. I stood in the blue darkness and looked in awe at Earth from the lunar surface. What I saw was almost too beautiful to grasp. There was too much logic, too much purpose to be the result of a cosmic accident. One felt, inside, forced to praise God. God must exist because He created that which I had the privilege to contemplate. Reverence and thanksgiving arise spontaneously; that's what the universe is for."

With fine intuition, Joseph P. Allen, another astronaut, observed, "With all the arguments, pro and con, for going to the Moon, no one suggested that we should do it to look at the Earth. But that may in fact be the most important reason."

Going through this unique experience, man awakens to the realization that he and Earth form a unit and that this unit is part of a larger one, the solar one, and the latter of another still greater one, the galaxy. It brings us back to the whole universe, the entire universe to the Mystery, and the Mystery to the Creator.

"From up there," astronaut Eugene Cernan observed, "you don't see the barriers of color, religion and politics that divide this world." Everything is unified into a single planet Earth. Astronaut Salman al-Saud commented, "the first day, we all pointed to our countries. The third and fourth days, we were pointing to our continents. By the fifth day, we were aware of only one Earth."

These testimonies convince us that Earth and humanity are in fact an indivisible whole. This is precisely what Isaac Asimov wrote in an article in The New York Times of October 9, 1982 on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the launch of Sputnik, which was the first to circumnavigate the Earth. The title was: "Sputnik's Legacy: Globalism". And Asimov said, "Forced into our unwilling minds has been a view that presents Earth and humanity as a single entity." The Russian Anatoly Berezovoy who was in space for 211 days said the same thing. Indeed we can not put Earth on one side and humanity on the other. We form an organic and living whole. We humans are the part of Earth that feels, thinks, loves, cares and worships.

On contemplating the present earthly globe in almost all places, the perception erupts spontaneously in us that despite all the threats of destruction we mount against Gaia, a good and beneficial future is somehow guaranteed. So much beauty and splendor can not be destroyed. The Christians would say: Earth is penetrated by the Spirit and the Cosmic Christ. Part of our humanity has already been immortalized by Jesus and is at the heart of the Trinity. God will not be completing His work on the ruins of the Earth. The Risen Lord and his Spirit are pushing evolution towards its culmination.

A modern legend embodies this belief: "There once was a Christian militant from Greenpeace who was visited in a dream by the risen Christ. Jesus invited him to walk in the garden. The militant enthusiastically agreed. After walking for a long time, admiring the biodiversity in that corner, the activist said, 'Lord, when you were walking along the roads of Palestine, you once said that one day you would come back in all your splendor and glory. Your coming is long overdue! When are you really going to come at last, Lord?' After a few moments of silence that seemed an eternity, the Lord replied, 'My dear brother, when my presence in the universe and in nature is as obvious as the light that illuminates this garden, when my presence under your skin and in your heart is as real as my presence here now, when my presence becomes flesh and blood in you to the point you do not need to think about it any more, when you are so imbued by this truth that you no longer need to question insistently as you are questioning now ... then, dear brother, these will be the signs that I've come back in all my splendor and all my glory.'"

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