One crystal-clear night during a recent family camping trip in the Colorado Rockies, my 4-year-old tilted his head back, gazed up at the sky and did something every kid tries sooner or later. He attempted to count the stars. He made it to nine before he gave up.
It was a valiant effort (for a 4-year-old). But in a recent blog post previewing David Blatner’s new book, Spectrums, NPR science correspondent Robert Krulwich tells us what we all knew already: my son fell far short of counting the actual number of stars. Just how far? Krulwich reports that when you look up on a clear, starry night, the average person will see several thousand stars. That’s impressive, but the number pales when compared to what you can see with a little extra help - say a Hubble telescope and a calculator. With these aids, the number of stars in the observable universe jumps to an astounding 70 thousand million, million, million. By Krulwich’s math, this means that there are several times as many stars in the observable universe as there are grains of sand on the Earth (a number a group of bored researchers at the University of Hawaii recently estimated to be around seven quintillion, five hundred quadrillion, according to Krulwich).
Spectrums contains other astounding figures and comparisons. (Did you know that there are as many molecules in just 10 drops of water as there are stars in the universe?) The numbers leave Krulwich’s head spinning. He concludes that in the physical world around us, there is a vastness - a “biggitude,” as Blatner describes it - that is beyond our ability to comprehend.
I suspect that the same is true of the heart of God.
By Krulwich’s math, this means that there are several times as many stars in the observable universe as there are grains of sand on the Earth.
Theologian Richard Mouw once wrote that we must decide “whether our theology is based on the idea of a ‘stingy God’ or a ‘generous God.’” Mouw confesses that his own branch of the Christian tradition, which I share (Reformed Calvinism), is often portrayed as believing in a God who reserves his grace for a select few; a God who is “rather stingy in dispensing his saving mercies.”
There’s an old joke which demonstrates Mouw’s point. In the joke, Peter is giving some newly arrived saint a tour of heaven. First, he takes the man past a church full of whooping worshipers. “That’s where the Pentecostals worship,” says Peter. The man gives an appreciative nod and they keep walking. A few minutes later, Peter points to a mighty cathedral with towering spires and glittering stained glass. The man gazes up in wide-eyed wonder. “That there,” says Peter, “that’s where the Catholics worship.” They begin to walk again and eventually another church building comes into view. Suddenly, Peter begins to tiptoe. He puts a finger to his mouth and shushes the man. “Now you have to be very quiet” he whispers. “That’s where the (insert your own denomination here) folks worship. They think they are the only ones here!”
It’s easy for me to draw lines separating the “insiders” from the “outsiders” in the kingdom of God. Those boundaries are often more stingy than generous. But then I remember the promise God made to Abraham: “I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars of the sky and as the sand on the seashore.” I think of Abraham craning his neck, staring up at the night sky - of the thousands of stars he could see. But I also think of what he could not see - those millions and millions and millions of stars that can only be seen by the Hubble telescope, and by God. And I realize that there is a vastness, a “biggitude,” of the heart of God that was far beyond Abraham’s ability to comprehend.
And far beyond mine, too.
What Do You Think?
- What other Biblical analogies still wow us today?
- Do you find the “biggitude” of God comforting or overwhelming?