Friday, September 4, 2009

Astronomy and Orthodoxy: metaphors for each other?

The dome of the oldest observatory in the Lick Observatory complex
Telescope at Lick Observatory

The Temple of Vision

I recently took my five year old son on a day trip to a celebrated local observatory. Before we left, I showed an aerial photograph of the facility and its seven telescopes to his two year old sister. She pondered it for a moment, and then said, "We've been to that church!"

After I related the above anecdote to a friend, he quipped, "You Orthodox and your domes!"

His point was more insightful than he realized.

Light takes time to get to our eyes. When we scientists peer up into the night sky with sensitive equipment, we are looking backwards in time. The farther away the object of our focus, the farther back in time we are observing. The intent is to create ever-clearer images of objects farther and farther away. By doing so, we get ever closer to witnessing the first moments of the existence of the universe, to answering many questions about origins and mechanics, and to articulating new questions from occasional mysterious and unexpected data.

As it turns out, a dome is a common and convenient housing for the sorts of equipment that perform these observations.

The dome of the oldest observatory in the Lick Observatory complex
The Pantokrator of the Cathedral of the Ascension,
Oakland, CA

The Dome of Eternity

Traditional Orthodox architecture follows a coincidentally similar pattern. When we enter a typical Orthodox church, our gaze is drawn up toward a depiction common in Orthodox architecture. At the apex of the dome, we see the image of the Pantokrator, literally "the all-creating," or the One Who Created All. In a sense, this image could be seen as a depiction of a particular instant, that moment just after creation when the Creator decreed that Creation was "good," and offered it the sign His blessing.

But there is a deeper meaning to this image. Icons are never intended to be depictions of an instant, like photographs are. They are timeless. We are seeing a depiction not of the appearance, but of the character and intent of this Creator, and of the love that He offers. We are, in a mystical sense, looking beyond the instant of creation, past it, before it, to see the character of the Divine.

Is it possible, I wonder, that the first modern astronomers were inspired by what they pondered in worship, and desired to perceive with their eyes what they could vaguely begin to comprehend in their minds and hearts--the immensity of Creation? Actually, it is quite likely that there is a relationship between the two. They might possibly be inseparable. Without religion, would our scientific hunger be as strong as it is? For me, I say "no."

When our eyes are lifted up in Orthodox worship, we are doing what our eyes can never do in an observatory. We are looking before the before. We are peering past time.

We find a window into an incomprehensible eternity.


The docents of the observatory offer a short lecture every hour on the history of the oldest telescope in the facility. I found it quite fascinating.

My five year old's attention span was not quite so well-developed. After a few moments, he whispered that he wanted to leave.

I've never heard him do that in church.


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