On Thursday I forgot to go outside and catch a glimpse of this month’s first (of two) full moons. But looking at some stunning lunar images that night on Facebook made me think of Kendrick Oliver’s religious history of the race for the Moon, To Touch the Face of God. It’s named for the last line of a poem by John Gillespie Magee, a Canadian pilot during World War II who “slipped the surly bonds of Earth” and neared the “high untrespassed sanctity of space,” where Magee “put out my hand, and touched the face of God.”
Most of us get no closer to the heavens than a picture of the Moon on social media. Yet even at a distance, “the heavens are telling the glory of God” (Psalm 19:1).
But according to today’s psalm, the heavens tell of God in an odd sort of way, with “no speech, nor are there words” (v 3). “There’s not a sound,” said Apollo 9 astronaut Russell Schweickart of his visit to the heavens. “There’s a silence the depth of which you’ve never experienced before.”
In election season, “no speech” sounds pretty okay to me. But when we expect creation to proclaim its Creator, silence as deep as the heavens are high can be troubling.
I think that seeming paradox is part of what inspires the work of Christian scholars. What do astronomers do if not listen for a glory that is told with no words?
Psalm 19 is a favorite of other scientists as well, since not just the heavens, but “the firmament proclaims [God’s] handiwork.” Beneath the gaze of sun and moon, the Earth itself daily “pours forth speech”… in a “voice [that] is not heard.” Yet biologists, chemists, geologists, and other scholars keen their ears to hear that voice.
And historians, too. Glorious as the physical world is, how much more glorious are the creatures made in image of the God who measured the waters and spanned the heavens (Isa 40:12)? But here, too, we listen and often hear silence. For humans use words, but often in ways that obscure the divine voice that gives a law capable of “reviving the soul” (v 7). And every historian knows that most human words have long since faded from our hearing, either because they were lost with the passage of time or — more likely — because they were never recorded.
Past or present, most of those who bear God’s image have spoken from the margins or from underfoot, groaning with the rest of Creation in voices that sound timid to the powerful and tender to God. “Yet their voice” — like that of the Earth they inhabit and the heavens above it — “goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world” (v 4). If we learn to listen to such silence, we may hear told “the glory of God.”