For 2 billion Christians worldwide, Dec. 24 will always be a day for great celebration, a day for heralding the imminent birth of Jesus, the savior whose life would promise resurrection and eternal heavenly bliss.
Today, some 2,000 years after that heralded birth, Dec. 24 has taken on additional significance — from a rather different perspective.
On Dec. 24, 1968, our Apollo 8 astronauts orbiting the moon snapped the most consciousness-raising photograph ever taken, a shot that provided us all with the first view from space of our most priceless treasure, Mother Earth. This photograph is our nation’s greatest gift to humanity.
Our large brains have endowed us with a supreme sense of self-consciousness that leaves us all ever aware of our inevitable deaths. We struggle to make sense of our existence, and that struggle has, on the one hand, driven us to create immense beauty and, on the other, driven us to the depths of despair. The Apollo 8 photo takes our collective self-consciousness to a wholly new level.
For myself, as a spiritual atheist, this magnificent “Earthrise” image has been a vital source of connection and inspiration. Every time my eyes fall upon this image, I am reminded that we all live in heaven, and that the whole Earth is truly the Holy Land. But we can turn this Holy Land, if not careful, into a living hell.
In his autobiography, the astronaut Michael Massimino writes of his experience walking in space to repair the Hubble telescope:
“I stole a glimpse, and the planet below was so beautiful that I actually started getting emotional,” he tells us. “If you were in heaven, this is what you would see. This is the view from heaven … No, it’s even more beautiful than that. This is what heaven must look like — maybe this is heaven ….
“How much God our Father must love us that he gave us this home,” Mr. Massimino goes on. “He didn’t put us on Mars or Venus with nothing but rocks and frozen waste. He gave us paradise and said, ‘Live here.’”
Do we have, in Mr. Massimino’s words, a basis for building a bridge between believers and atheists? That bridge may rest on the mutual acknowledgment — and deep appreciation — of the wondrous nature of our existence and the magnificent gift of life on Earth.
Some will call this gift God’s work. Others like me will call this gift a great holy mystery. Two thousand years of human evolution have, in effect, brought us from a Dec. 24 steeped in faith to a Dec. 24 based on science — yet both fill us with wonderment and joy as we continue on our amazing journey, zooming and pirouetting around a golden sun at 67,000 miles per hour.
Believers will see us traveling at God’s speed. Spiritual atheists like me are left speechless.
Jeff Vogel (email@example.com) is a retired respiratory therapist singing for peace and justice with the New York City Labor Chorus. He lives in Sunnyside, New York.