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.

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