This day in 1969 marked the beginning of the most extraordinary voyage in human history. The best brains in the US, billions of dollars and the remarkable courage of three men – Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins – combined in an enterprise that saw the mighty Saturn V rocket blast off from the Kennedy Space Center on its way to the moon.
For many, space flight seems to stand for the ultimate victory of human ingenuity over our earthly limitations. For thousands of years, the moon represented what was strange, changeable and mysterious. Not so much, now, for us: we've been there.
So for some, an achievement like the Apollo 11 mission is an example of humanity's greatness. Maybe we can find the answer to every problem. Maybe there are no enduring mysteries, just things we haven't found out about yet. The first man in space, Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, is widely believed to have said that he 'didn't see any god up here', though in fact he didn't say that. In any case, the moon landings, for some, became symbols of the way human beings have outgrown their need for God.
It's helpful to look at what the Bible says about the moon. When we do that, we find something completely different. In the first chapter of Genesis, God makes two 'great lights', a 'greater light' and a 'lesser light'. Why not just call them the sun and moon? Well given that the sun and moon were intimately associated with pagan deities, the writer of Genesis was keen to make the point that far from being deities they are just lights, not things to be worshipped.
Throughout the Bible there are references to the moon. There are a handful of places in the prophetic books in which the moon – with the sun and stars – are referred to symbolically, as images of approaching catastrophe ('The sun and the moon are darkened, and the stars withdraw their shining', Joel 2.10b) but most references are just to its role in marking the changing seasons.
In other words, the moon is just the moon: it's not something to be worshipped, and it doesn't really have an enormous symbolic power.
But that's not all the Bible says. For the Psalmist, the moon sparks wonder at God's power: 'When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?' (Psalm 8.3–4). The Psalmist is astonished by God's creative power, and awestruck by the fact that he still cares for his human creation. That sense of wonder still strikes Christians today: the God who created the universe loves us.
Contemplating the moon landings 50 years later, what do they say to us? We're profoundly moved by the skill, courage and dedication of the men who flew the Apollo 11 mission. But thanks to the Hubble telescope and the amazing advances in technology since then, we know far more about the universe than we did in 1969 – and we're still staggered by the infinite universe out there. We know far more, too, about the challenges we face here on earth, with its intractable conflicts, diseases, inequalities and injustices. The technological challenges of dealing with climate change dwarf the challenges of sending someone to the moon – or even to Mars. We're less likely to think about human capabilities, and perhaps more inclined to be humble about our limitations.
If we are, that's probably a good thing – especially if it drives us back to Psalm 8, and wonder at the thought that in spite of everything, God cares for us.
Author: Mark Woods, 16 July 2019 (Last updated: 5 December 2019)
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