CategoryLiving Faith

I’m a Latter-day Saint, or Mormon. I believe in God and in Jesus Christ, among other things. Here I write about what faith means to me, the journey of discipleship, scripture, and religious experience generally.

Thoughts on the History of Stars

I love Summer. Not only is it the best time for taking walks and early morning bike rides, but it’s also my favorite time for gazing at the sky–something I’ve been doing more lately. Not only are the skies clearer, but the Summer triangle (and the pointer stars in the Big Dipper) make it easy to pinpoint a variety of stars. And, well, I know the night sky in the Summer the best: Leo, Delphinius, Sagittarius, Corona Borealis, Hercules, Cepheus, Cygnus–these are just a few of my friends. Plus, this year Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, and and Venus (along with the moon) have all been bright and visible in the sky, tracing the plane of the ecliptic. And on the darker nights, when the moon is hiding and its light is gone, the ecliptic can be seen adjacent to the plane of the Milky Way, the path of billions of galactic stars.

What’s spectacular–obvious, yes, but to me, spectacular–is that these same stars, and these same planets, have been inspiring people for generations. They guided Magellan and Columbus on their navigations across the globe, in search of Asia and the other sides of the world. They guided, too, the Vikings, the Chinese, the Phonecians, the Pacific-Islanders, and countless other generations. The shapes and figures were, in part, codified by Ptolemy, and before him, probably the Babylonians and Sumerians. The individual names of stars often bear Arabic names, a nod to the significant contribution of Islamic and Arab astronomers. Somewhere in this deep past, Father Abraham, too, knew the names of the stars, exchanging knowledge with the Egyptians. And these same stars were seen by our earlier ancestors as they traveled across the earth, probably from Africa, into new worlds and new niches.

For mankind, the stars remain constant. Due to precession, there are slight movements–but for the most part, the patterns have stayed the same. But the sky looked different 50,000 years, and even more different as you travel farther back in time. Since a galactic year is 250 million years, travel back 62 million years ago–just a few million years after the KT asteroid impact the finished off the non-avian dinosaurs–and the sun will have moved a quarter-turn back around the galaxy, as will have other stars, and the sky will look entirely new. Vastly new constellations would be needed to identify stars in this alien sky.

And of course, travel back 4.603 billion years ago, and what would you find? A massive movement in a massive gas cloud, as gravity pulls light gases together until enough pressure builds to cause nuclear fusion. That fusion would light the star Sol, known to us as the sun, and inaugurate the solar system. Elements and gases would begin accreting on a disk-like plane, spinning and forming new planets, all around this new star. The star’s energy and solar winds would contribute to pushing lighter elements out toward the farther reaches of the solar system, a fact that explains the presence of solid planets closer to the sun, and the lighter, more easily “blown away” gases being sent farther out, forming the gas giants.

And travel back farther still, and you would begin to see fewer and fewer stars. You would witness the birth of Deneb, Altair, Betelgeuse, Vega, Sirius, and other stars–popping into the night sky in positions far removed from where they are today. They would look brighter or dimmer, depending on the nature of the star. All of them had beginnings. You would also see stars, long gone today, dying–and before that, living long and nuclear lives, having formed from still older stars. And as you travel back, you would see fewer and fewer elements, until eventually–before the first generation of stars begin to explode in radiant light–the only element present were hydrogen and helium, and before even those first stars, just darkness and simplicity in a universe ripe with potential.

There is more to the story, including the movement of galaxies along gravitational paths that make up the largest structures in the universe. But for the most part, it is the stars that draw my fascination, though galaxies are where most stars are born. The stars, appointed by God “for signs, and for seasons, and for days, and years” (Genesis 1:14).

And it is this that leads me to wonder still. Did God ordain the precise locations of the stars? Do they inherently have meaning, imbued by an all-wise Creator? Or do we give them meaning by naming and tracing lines in the sky? Or is the answer in the fact that God gave us imagination, and in that sense, he gave them meaning through us?

And did God ordain the precise the precise location of these stars, given for times and seasons? Or did he set the initial conditions, and let things play out–and in that sense, was he surprised? Did he intervene in the movement of matter and gas across time and space, to make a particular pattern? Or did he set the match and light the fuse that sent all of time and space into the world? Science explains the natural laws by which all things move, but it is as much an article of faith to say that a God never intervened in the processes of galactic, biological, and tectonic movement as it is to say that He did. To those who believe, “all things denote there is a God; yea, even the earth, and all things that are upon the face of it, yea, and its motion, yea, and also all the planets which move in their regular form do witness that there is a Supreme Creator.” (Alma 30:43.) To understand the natural laws, even of evolution and inheritance and mutation and natural selection, does not necessarily preclude the fact that these things, also, can testify of the wisdom of a Creator.

And if he did intervene, how? Does God reach through the quanta, the fabric of the universe? Is he a hidden order found in chaos? Does he reach through some brane, some interdimensional bulk, that some physicists theorize might be out there? Or is it through some process we still can’t begin to comprehend? Do we even have the right questions to begin to understand how God pierces the immanent with the transcendant?

I don’t know the answer to these questions. But I cherish the questions themselves. And I cherish the night sky, which grants me curiosity–a hint at the nature of reality all around me, a hint that, for me at least, begs interrogation. I’m reminded of the Emerson quote:

“If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore; and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God which had been shown! But every night come out these envoys of beauty, and light the universe with their admonishing smile.”


The Prophetic Perfect

I’ve just begun Adam Miller’s An Early Resurrection. Before I even got into Adam’s actual words, I had to pause while reading this recommendation from another author:

When a prophet’s trust in God’s future promise was so sure that he lived as if it had already been fulfilled, a special Hebrew verb tense known as the prophetic perfect was used…

I love, love, love this. The idea behind the prophetic perfect was introduced to me years ago by LeGrand Baker, an LDS writer who argues here that one crucial aspect of faith is a “functional “hope… That is, taking the covenant at full value and acting or living as though the terms of the covenant were already fulfilled.” Again, in simple terms: we live as if we’ve already been judged and found worthy.

An obvious question here is: what does a disciple’s life look like, living in the “prophetic perfect?” What does it look to “live as if [God’s promises have] already been fulfilled”? (Words that come to mind: confident, hopeful, optimistic.) Adam Miller’s book tackles exactly these questions, and I can’t wait to read on!

Between Contentment and Ambition

What is it called, when a man’s found balance between being content–and wanting more?

This is the question I’ve been asking myself lately, both professionally and personally: what is an appropriate ambition? Whenever I spend time in the classics, I’m always reminded–be grateful for what you have. Life’s short, there’s a lot you can’t control, and–well, I’ll let the Roman poet Horace take over:

… You’ve got to be well if you want
To enjoy the things you own. If you life is governed
By cravings for what you lack, or else by fear
Of losing what you have, then what you have,
Your house and your possessions, give you as much
Pleasure as a picture gives a blind man…

… The avaricious man always feels poor;
Set limits to what your desires make you long for;
When his neighbor grows fat the covetous man grows thin.
The worst Sicilian tyrant couldn’t invent
A torment worse than envy…

(Epistles, i.2)

There’s a lot of wisdom here. Be glad for what you have. “Enjoy the things you own.” And of course, I know that. But it’s also obvious that it’s possible to enjoy what you have too much. There’s a balance–and on the other end lies ambition.

There’s a tendency, reading the Ancients (and even many Moderns), to hear that wealth and power and fame are all bad. And with all of that, it might seem that ambition of every kind can be “bad.” But a careful reading show that Horace, at least, still has ambitions for something:

And if you’re able to learn to do without
Anxiety’s chilling effect, you’ll be able to follow
The lead of wisdom up to the highest reaches.

Horace said he wanted wisdom, and history shows that he wanted, too, to be accepted and revered as a great poet. In other words, ambition wasn’t all bad. Ambition for fame, along with professional achievement as well as my own family legacy–that is alright for me to have, as long as it’s not to excess.

So e shouldn’t have too little or too much ambition. Too little ambition–that’s slovenly indifference–and we shouldn’t have too much ambition–that’s, well, I can’t think of a better word for it than excessive ambition, or over-reaching resolve. (It’s what ruined everything from the Roman republic to modern souls, like the people running Enron or Bernie Madoff.)

Now, whatever the state is called, of being perfectly balanced between contentment and excessive ambition, it is an Aristotelian virtue. It’s a virtue with too vices. Courage is a good example: too little, and you’re a coward, and too much, and you’re rash.

So, here’s my question: what is the middle point called? And as a creative as well as a human being, what does it look like?

I’m not going to belabor the point, but two things come to mind. First, I don’t think it’s bad to be ambitious in our careers. Writing this blog is, in part, an attempt to hone my thinking and, yes, showcase it as well. I want to design good things, and I want to be known for being a strong UX designer, capable in several domains. I think the danger lies in letting our careers and professional ambitions ruin the other dimensions of a good life, insofar as they’re present: marriage and family, recreation and leisure, emotional and physical health. I think balance is essential to being not just a great worker (creative work is hard if you’re exhausted or your family life’s falling apart), but also to being a great human being. In other words, desired rightly, professional success, accomplishment and even wealth can–along with wisdom and the other “classic” goods–can be worthy ambitions. We just have to find the balance, and remember which goals are most important.

My second point is about what to call this balance of ambition. There is a term I like, a term that has admittedly religious overtones: divine discontent. This was used by a leader in my church, Neal Maxwell, in a 1976 address to church members:

We can distinguish more clearly between divine discontent and the devil’s dissonance, between dissatisfaction with self and disdain for self. We need the first and must shun the second, remembering that when conscience calls to us from the next ridge, it is not solely to scold but also to beckon…

Perhaps divine discontent is too religious a word to cover every kind of ambition. Maxwell is talking about ambition on the moral, character-forming front, but we can also feel a desire to improve our professional work, our net wealth, our notoriety, our knowledge in a particular domain, or our relationships. Maybe “righteous discontent?” “Tempered ambition?” Neither do quite as well for me as divine content, which has the benefit of a poetic, memorable phrasing.

There are still questions to ask and answer, but I’ve reached this conclusion: whatever lies between contentment and ambition, it’s real, and whichever way I’ve steered too far, I need to correct. How this reflects in my professional life is still, for me, up in the air–am I ambitious enough? Am I after the right things?

Creatively and morally, these are important questions, because I’m convinced that finding the sweet spot between satisfaction and ambition allow me to make my best work–not overburdened by “anxiety’s chilling effect,” nor under-burdened and incapable of making anything at all for lack of drive.

© 2019 Bryan Sebesta

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