I hope that, by now, you’ve had the opportunity to see some of the spectacular and beautiful images that have been returned to Earth by NASA’s new James Webb Space Telescope. For this column, I have one particular such image in mind. It’s become known as “Webb’s First Deep Field,” and, although it focuses on the galaxy cluster SMACS 0723, very many other galaxies are visible in it.
We should be deeply humbled by what it depicts. The sector of the sky that it represents is a tiny one, approximately (we are told) the size of a grain of sand held at arm’s length. And yet, even within that small radius, it captures an almost uncountably rich profusion of galaxies. And how big is each one of those galaxies? Consider this: Our own Milky Way galaxy, which we have no reason to regard as anything other than typical, contains an estimated 100 billion stars. (Some estimates for the Milky Way, in fact, put the total at more than 200 billion.)
Contemplating such unfathomable vastness and enormous numbers almost irresistibly reminds us of the opening verses of the eighth psalm:
“O Lord, our Lord, how excellent is thy name in all the earth! who hast set thy glory above the heavens. . . When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained; what is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him?”
The psalmist didn’t have binoculars, let alone a high-tech deep space telescope. Simply looking at a clear night sky in the desert was enough to fill him with awe. (Perhaps we urban dwellers should get out more.) And then there’s the reaction of Moses, as it is recorded in the Pearl of Great Price. Addressing that great Israelite prophet, the Lord said:
“Look, and I will show thee the workmanship of mine hands; but not all, for my works are without end, and also my words, for they never cease. Wherefore, no man can behold all my works, except he behold all my glory; and no man can behold all my glory, and afterwards remain in the flesh on the earth.
“And it came to pass that Moses looked, and beheld the world upon which he was created; and Moses beheld the world and the ends thereof, and all the children of men which are, and which were created; of the same he greatly marveled and wondered.
“And the presence of God withdrew from Moses, that his glory was not upon Moses; and Moses was left unto himself. And as he was left unto himself, he fell unto the earth. And it came to pass that it was for the space of many hours before Moses did again receive his natural strength like unto man; and he said unto himself: Now, for this cause I know that man is nothing, which thing I never had supposed.” (Moses 1:4-5, 8-10)
The responses of Moses and the psalmist are perfectly understandable. We should indeed be subdued before the sheer expansiveness of the cosmos. “The silence of these infinite spaces terrifies me,” wrote the great seventeenth-century French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal. But there’s more to the story. Neither Psalm 8 nor Moses 1 leaves us merely overwhelmed. Neither should terrify us.
Remember the psalmist’s famous question: “What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him?” Still addressing the Lord, he immediately proceeds to answer his own question:
“For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honour. Thou madest him to have dominion over the works of thy hands; thou hast put all things under his feet: All sheep and oxen, yea, and the beasts of the field; the fowl of the air, and the fish of the sea, and whatsoever passeth through the paths of the seas. O Lord our Lord, how excellent is thy name in all the earth!” (Psalm 8:5-9)
As a matter of fact, the King James Version of Psalm 8 somewhat underplays the psalmist’s exaltation of “man.” Its description of humans as having been created “a little lower than the angels” follows the ancient renderings given in the Greek Septuagint and the Latin Vulgate. But the original Hebrew puts us “a little lower than God” or even “a little lower than the Gods” (“the elohim”).
And what of Moses? He’s been humbled into the dust by what he’s seen. But is he left there? Well, at first the Lord proceeds to show him still more:
“And it came to pass, as the voice was still speaking, Moses cast his eyes and beheld the earth, yea, even all of it; and there was not a particle of it which he did not behold, discerning it by the Spirit of God. And he beheld also the inhabitants thereof, and there was not a soul which he beheld not; and he discerned them by the Spirit of God; and their numbers were great, even numberless as the sand upon the sea shore. And he beheld many lands; and each land was called earth, and there were inhabitants on the face thereof.” (Moses 1:27-29)
Then God speaks to him, saying,
“And worlds without number have I created. . . But only an account of this earth, and the inhabitants thereof, give I unto you. For behold, there are many worlds that have passed away by the word of my power. And there are many that now stand, and innumerable are they unto man; but all things are numbered unto me, for they are mine and I know them.” (Moses 1:33, 35)
If Moses felt small and insignificant before, now he feels smaller still:
“And it came to pass that Moses spake unto the Lord, saying: Be merciful unto thy servant, O God, and tell me concerning this earth, and the inhabitants thereof, and also the heavens, and then thy servant will be content.
“And the Lord God spake unto Moses, saying: The heavens, they are many, and they cannot be numbered unto man; but they are numbered unto me, for they are mine. And as one earth shall pass away, and the heavens thereof, even so shall another come; and there is no end to my works, neither to my words.” (Moses 1:37-38)
But then, immediately after Moses has been shown at least a portion of the literally incomprehensible scope of the universe, he is taught a truth that, if anything, is even more astonishing and unexpected than that: “For behold, this is my work and my glory—to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.” (Moses 1:39)
There is a tension here between two seemingly opposed ideas: God holds dominion over a universe that dwarfs us, and yet he cares about us. Both ideas are true, and both sides of this tension must be kept firmly in mind, to avoid arrogance on the one hand and despair on the other. We have no grounds for pride, but we must also remember that—and by whom—we are valued: “For God so loved the world,” says John 3:16, “that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” “Are not five sparrows sold for two farthings, and not one of them is forgotten before God? But even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not therefore: ye are of more value than many sparrows.” (Luke 12:6-7) “Remember the worth of souls is great in the sight of God; for, behold, the Lord your Redeemer suffered death in the flesh; wherefore he suffered the pain of all men, that all men might repent and come unto him.” (Doctrine and Covenants 18:10-11
This is a paradox that lies at the very heart of Christianity. The prologue of the gospel of John, for example, begins on a level of cosmic grandeur:
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.” (John 1:1-3)
But then it notes that “the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). In other words, the Creator, the second person of the Godhead, assumed a physical body in first-century Palestine and, subjected to hunger and fatigue and pain, trudged its hot, dusty paths and its rocky hills much like any other mortal. He came as our Redeemer, to save us.
The breathtaking contrast between God’s incomprehensible majesty and his concern for each and every one of us is beautifully illustrated in one of the greatest chapters in all of scripture, Moses 7. It astonished Enoch, and it should astonish us, too:
“And it came to pass that the God of heaven looked upon the residue of the people, and he wept; and Enoch bore record of it, saying: How is it that the heavens weep, and shed forth their tears as the rain upon the mountains? And Enoch said unto the Lord: How is it that thou canst weep, seeing thou art holy, and from all eternity to all eternity? And were it possible that man could number the particles of the earth, yea, millions of earths like this, it would not be a beginning to the number of thy creations; and thy curtains are stretched out still . . . [H]ow is it thou canst weep?
“The Lord said unto Enoch: Behold these thy brethren; they are the workmanship of mine own hands, and I gave unto them their knowledge, in the day I created them; and in the Garden of Eden, gave I unto man his agency; and unto thy brethren have I said, and also given commandment, that they should love one another, and that they should choose me, their Father; but behold, they are without affection, and they hate their own blood . . . and among all the workmanship of mine hands there has not been so great wickedness as among thy brethren. But behold, their sins shall be upon the heads of their fathers; Satan shall be their father, and misery shall be their doom; and the whole heavens shall weep over them, even all the workmanship of mine hands; wherefore should not the heavens weep, seeing these shall suffer?” (Moses 7:28-33, 36-37)
Curiously, a pagan text from the fourth-third century before Christ, found on an Orphic gold plate at Petelia, in southern Italy, captures something of the self-understanding that we should possess: “I am a child of Earth and starry Heaven,” it reads, “but my race is of Heaven (alone).”
For believers, the night sky and the images sent to us from the Webb Space Telescope should be humbling, but not crushing. They afford us an occasion for contemplation and worship. As Doctrine and Covenants 88:42-43, 45-47, reminds us, God
“hath given a law unto all things, by which they move in their times and their seasons; and their courses are fixed, even the courses of the heavens and the earth, which comprehend the earth and all the planets. . . . The earth rolls upon her wings, and the sun giveth his light by day, and the moon giveth her light by night, and the stars also give their light, as they roll upon their wings in their glory, in the midst of the power of God.
“Unto what shall I liken these kingdoms, that ye may understand? Behold, all these are kingdoms, and any man who hath seen any or the least of these hath seen God moving in his majesty and power.”
Photos from the James Webb Space Telescope can be found at https://www.nasa.gov/webbfirstimages. For the specific SMACS 0723 photo mentioned above, see “NASA’s Webb Delivers Deepest Infrared Image of Universe Yet” (https://www.nasa.gov/image-feature/goddard/2022/nasa-s-webb-delivers-deepest-infrared-image-of-universe-yet). The King James text of Psalm 8 was memorably set to music by the late American composer Howard Hanson: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nZO8nrNno9Y)