What Our New Perspective on Pluto Can Teach Us About Faith

Pluto photographed by the LORRI and Ralph instruments aboard the New Horizons spacecraft.

Deep down, I’m a bit of a science nerd. I loved chemistry in junior high and high school and I stayed later for some classes to balance chemical equations. But, my love of science probably goes back to my elementary school days when I began to be fascinated with space, black holes, supernovas and our solar system. I still love looking at images of space and regularly visit the Astronomy Photo of the Day website. When Pluto was demoted to “dwarf planet” status, I along with many others, were a little bummed. However, our interest in Pluto has increased recently as the New Horizons spacecraft has begun sending back images of this dwarf planet at the outer edges of our solar system. These images have revealed a more beautiful, active and interesting neighbor than many scientists ever imagined. This surprise and wonder created by the new images of Pluto was captured in this photo taken as the first images began to come in.

New Horizons principal investigator Alan Stern (center) excited about a new image of Pluto.

There’s no photo trickery here, his eyes really are bugging out that much in excitement. Writer Corey Powell also explained the excitement at what these images are revealing in his easy to read and not-overly-sciencey article, The Eye-Popping Astonishment of Pluto. I would encourage you to read the article, even if you’re not that into this whole thing, just to get a taste of the excitement and joy that can come from scientific revelations like this.

Towards the end of the article, I was challenged by these words:

“The mysteries of Pluto are already leading science in new directions…It may sound hyperbolic, but it is fair to say that our hard-won knowledge about how planets behave has been rendered instantly obsolete–or at least revealed as woefully incomplete.”

These are often not the words we associate with science. “New directions”, “obsolete” and “incomplete” are tough words to admit. But, at the core of scientific process is a willingness to question, challenge and prove concepts. Even things believed to be laws are always up for proving and disproving. These new images of Pluto have given scientists a new understanding on a planet they thought they already had some reliable ideas about. But, not only with Pluto, these images are changing how scientists understand how planets work in general. Now that they have gotten closer to Pluto than ever before, and have better photos and information than they ever had scientists are changing and updating how they see Pluto.

Once they got closer and had a new perspective, they understood Pluto differently, they were willing to make changes.

It seems we are less willing to make these kind of changes with our faith. It’s healthy for new ideas to be met with some level of suspicion until they are proven (scientific discoveries work the same way). However, “new” ideas about the Christian faith and the Bible are often met with dismissal, anger and possibly violence.

Just ask Galileo.

Or the Anabaptists.

Or John Wycliffe or Jan Huss.

Or Rev. James Reeb, Rev. Clark Olsen, Rev. Orloff Miller and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Or the Metropolitan Community Church of Our Redeemer in Augusta, Georgia.

I get some of the suspicion and fear. Changing ideas about faith means changing our understanding of God, the Bible, salvation and our eternal destinations. Questioning, challenging or changing those ideas may feel like questioning the very heart of who we are and the foundation our communities are built upon. It’s tough, those questions are hard and change can feel painful.

But, as with the scientists who sent the New Horizons probe hurtling through 4.67 billion miles of space, the closer we get to Jesus and the more we learn about our faith, our perspective will change. With that, our understanding of God, Jesus, the Bible, our neighbors, salvation and our eternal destinations may need some updating. We can see this worked out over the 2000 year history of the Bible. One of the quickest ways to illustrate this is to look at some of Jesus’ statements in the Sermon on the Mount.

“You have heard that it was said to those who lived long ago, Don’t commit murder, and all who commit murder will be in danger of judgment. But I say to you that everyone who is angry with their brother or sister will be in danger of judgment.”
Matthew 5:21-22 (CEB)

That whole “don’t commit murder” thing was from the Ten Commandments (see Exodus 20:13), the foundational rules for the Israelite nation. Changing those would seem to go against the foundations of what it meant to follow God. Yet, here Jesus expands the instruction of the sixth commandment and makes it a heart/intention issue more than just an action issue. Jesus gives his hearers a new perspective on what it means to be God’s people, to live by God’s rules and what it looks like to follow him.

God came so close to us that he was revealed in human form through Jesus. We should expect that our perspectives about God would change.

The more we read the Bible, the more we study it, the more we learn about the history and cultures that it was written in, the closer we get to it’s words, our perspectives will change.

The more we learn about our neighbors, the more we hear their stories, the closer we get to them (as God got closer to us), the more our perspectives will change.

The author of the Hebrews talks about developing in faith like a baby moving on from different forms of food:

Everyone who lives on milk is not used to the word of righteousness, because they are babies. But solid food is for the mature, whose senses are trained by practice to distinguish between good and evil
Hebrews 5:13-14 (CEB)

I don’t know any adults who still claim to regularly drink breast milk as a part of their diet. The same is true of our faith. As we grow and mature in our faith, there are things that we may have leave behind to continue to grow and develop. That does not mean those things, ideas and beliefs weren’t important. Nobody would say the scientists hated Earth because they sent a probe 4.67 billion miles away from Earth to get a closer look and a deeper understanding of Pluto. Just as the scientists needed to launch away from Earth to get a new perspective on Pluto, we need those first ideas about our faith to launch us towards the new perspectives. There are better, greater, deeper, sharper and more beautiful understandings to be had about the Christian faith than the “milk” we enjoyed when we first believed. It is healthy to be suspicious and test out ideas to see how true and sound they are (see 1 John 4:1 or Acts 17:11). But, there is no reason to fear and even less reason to lash out in anger, hatred or violence.

You might be surprised and what you discover.

Jesus is not Evel Knievel

Jesus definitely stared death in the face, but he didn’t do it from the seat of a motorcycle.

My family has been attending a new church recently which has been a really great experience so far. Last Sunday the pastor started his sermon by talking about Evel Knievel’s failed attempt to jump the Snake River canyon. The sermon then progressed into a fairly standard discussion about the “canyon” of separation between man and God caused by our own sin and selfishness. While we will often try to jump over the canyon (ala Evel Knievel) we will ultimately fail. The point of the sermon was that Jesus, standing in the gap (so to speak) as the High Priest, acted as bridge builder who helped span the canyon between humanity and God. Our calling, as a kingdom of priests is to follow Jesus, stand in the gap, and help people cross to the other side and stand in the gap as well (see Revelation 1:6). If I’m honest, I’m a little tired of the canyon image. I guess it feels too trite to me, kind of like the classic “Four Spiritual Laws” tracts. But, this message (which I generally thought was great) got me thinking about another popular way to understand Jesus.

Sometimes I think we see Jesus like Evel Knievel. A daredevil of sorts who impressed us with his tricks and did things that none of us could ever do. It’s almost like some read the Gospels as if there is a, “Do not try this at home” disclaimer at the bottom of the page. We may feel that Jesus “jumped the canyon” because no one else could and we worship him simply because he did what no one else could do. Most of the things he said and did are not possible for the rest of us simply because of who Jesus is.

If you haven’t already guessed from the title of this post, I think that is a horrible way to see Jesus. While I’m tired of the canyon image, I was a fan of understanding Jesus as someone who stands in the gap and invites his followers to stand in the gap as well. Jesus did not see himself as setting an unattainable goal. Instead, Jesus was very clear that his followers would be empowered as he was and were encouraged to make disciples like he did.

“I’ve received all authority in heaven and on earth. Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything that I’ve commanded you. Look, I myself will be with you every day until the end of this present age.”
Matthew 28:17-20 (CEB)

Beyond that, Jesus told Peter to get out of the boat. He did not say, “Don’t bother Peter, this is Son of God stuff. You wouldn’t understand.” Jesus invited Peter out on the water and Peter accepted the invitation because he knew that following Jesus meant more than assenting to his teachings. Following Jesus meant doing whatever Jesus did.

Walking on water.

Healing the sick.

Feeding the multitudes.

Forgiving sins.

Dying.

Rising from the dead.

This is eventually what turned the disciples from simple fishermen, tax collectors, rebels and bickering brothers into men and women who stared power and death in the face for the sake of the Gospel.

“Leaders of the people and elders, are we being examined today because something good was done for a sick person, a good deed that healed him? If so, then you and all the people of Israel need to know that this man stands healthy before you because of the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene—whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead. This Jesus is the stone you builders rejected; he has become the cornerstone! Salvation can be found in no one else. Throughout the whole world, no other name has been given among humans through which we must be saved.”
Acts 4:8-12 (CEB)

Peter did not tell the man, “Sorry, Jesus is gone…everything will get better when he comes back.” No, Peter healed the man because that’s what Jesus did. God fulfilled his promise to Israel (and the world) through Jesus and now Peter and the rest of the disciples were faithfully embodying that fulfillment.

Jesus is not Evel Knievel, jumping over canyons we would never be able to jump.

Jesus bridges the gap between God and man so that everyone can cross. Jesus stands in the gap so that we, standing on his shoulders, might stand in the gap to bring others across as well. What Jesus has done, he invites the Church to do as well.