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There is a fundamental reason why we look at the sky with wonder and longing—for the same reason that we stand, hour after hour, gazing at the distant swell of the open ocean. There is something like an ancient wisdom, encoded and tucked away in our DNA, that knows its point of origin as surely as a salmon knows its creek. Intellectually, we may not want to return there, but the genes know, and long for their origins—their home in the salty depths. But if the seas are our immediate source, the penultimate source is certainly the heavens… The spectacular truth is—and this is something that your DNA has known all along—the very atoms of your body—the iron, calcium, phosphorus, carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, and on and on—were initially forged in long-dead stars. This is why, when you stand outside under a moonless, country sky, you feel some ineffable tugging at your innards. We are star stuff. Keep looking up. – Neil deGrasse Tyson
Every single manifestation of the myriad forms of creation is a reflection of the divine emanations, therefore the divine emanations are infinite, unlimited and illimitable. Gaze upward through immeasurable space to the majestic order of the colossal suns. These luminous bodies are numberless. Behind our solar system there are unfathomable stellar systems and above those stellar systems are the remote aggregations of the Milky Way. Extend your vision beyond the fixed stars and again you shall behold many spheres of light. In brief, the creation of the Almighty is beyond the grasp of the human intellect. – Abdu’l-Baha, Divine Philosophy, pp. 168-169.
One night when I was seven I decided to count the stars. I vowed to stay up all night, no matter how long it took, laying on the grass outside my family’s little farmhouse in Washington state, looking out into the vast universe. I had a pencil and a piece of paper. I tried. I really did. But as you might suspect, my attempt to quantify the sky turned out to be futile. At maybe three in the morning, with the immense starry, starry night rotating above me and the crickets chirping below, I finally fell asleep, exhausted by the effort. I think I had counted a few thousand stars.
Anyway, try asking an astronomer or an astrophysicist the good old “How many stars?” question some time. I have. The honest answer? “No one knows.”
An average galaxy, apparently, contains something on the order of 200 billion stars. Scientists used to think that the known universe contained about 100 billion galaxies, but a few years ago they revised their estimate upward—by 100%–to 200 billion. Oops. Then, last year, a German supercomputer did a new analysis and estimated 500 billion galaxies. Do the math. How many stars? No one has any idea, and the number, far too great to allow anyone to ever count or conceptualize, keeps expanding. As the Baha’i teachings put it, the scope of our universe is “beyond the grasp of the human intellect:”
…thy Lord hath created in these vast heavens manifold bodies without limit or number, which the minds of men can neither compute nor encompass. Souls are bewildered when they attempt to understand them and confounded by a mere glimpse of them. – Abdu’l-Baha, from a provisional translation of The Tablet of the Universe.
So what does that mean, spiritually? Can a vast and uncountable universe tell us anything significant or meaningful, beyond the common, depressing faux-wisdom that we’re all tiny insignificant specks of life? The astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson has an interesting answer:
Recognize that the very molecules that make up your body, the atoms that construct the molecules, are traceable to the crucibles that were once the centers of high mass stars that exploded their chemically rich guts into the galaxy, enriching pristine gas clouds with the chemistry of life. So that we are all connected to each other biologically, to the earth chemically and to the rest of the universe atomically. That’s kinda cool! That makes me smile and I actually feel quite large at the end of that. It’s not that we are better than the universe, we are part of the universe. We are in the universe and the universe is in us.
In the same way, Baha’is believe the enormity of the universe does have a profound message for us:
At every moment he beholdeth a wondrous world, a new creation, and goeth from astonishment to astonishment, and is lost in awe at the works of the Lord of Oneness.
Indeed, O Brother, if we ponder each created thing, we shall witness a myriad perfect wisdoms and learn a myriad new and wondrous truths…
God, the Exalted, hath placed these signs in men, to the end that philosophers may not deny the mysteries of the life beyond… For some hold to reason and deny whatever the reason comprehendeth not, and yet weak minds can never grasp the matters which we have related, but only the Supreme, Divine Intelligence can comprehend them…
All these states are to be witnessed in the Valley of Wonderment, and the traveler at every moment seeketh for more, and is not wearied. Thus the Lord of the First and the Last in setting forth the grades of contemplation, and expressing wonderment hath said: “O Lord, increase my astonishment at Thee!”
Likewise, reflect upon the perfection of man’s creation, and that all these planes and states are folded up and hidden away within him.
Dost thou reckon thyself only a puny form
Next: We are Stardust, Billion Year Old Carbon