My primary Saturday Evening Post focus is to try to fathom the meaning of our contemporary life as we experience it as we cope with the complexities in our daily lives. And quite sensibly the daily coping is challenging enough, and we are not inclined to spend much time sorting out our thoughts on the bigger stage of the fate of the earth. But at some level we are all subconsciously, if not consciously, aware that we are all subjects of a much larger cosmic drama. And like our response to all good drama, as noted in the International iconic face of theater that includes both the laughter and the tears, we are embraced by the grip of both tragedy and joy.
All this is to introduce a very moving account of the impact of seeing earth from outer space for the first time and being deeply moved by the poignant perspective of the planet itself as a primary life force. Perhaps you also heard the NPR piece about Star Trek actor William Shatner’s opportunity to be a real space traveler on one of Bezo’s rockets. In his NPR interview Shatner movingly describes how he unexpectedly burst into tears while looking out at the earth swirling so alone and vulnerable in the wide expanse of the cosmos.* When he figured out why he had such a deeply emotional response he concluded it was out of a sense of grief. Instead of seeing a limitless expanse of land and resources from an earthbound perspective, Shatner saw the earth - experienced it - as the finite, exposed creation it also is. And it turns out his deeply emotional response was not unusual and in fact is very common among many astronauts when they first view the combined beautify and vulnerability of earth from from their space capsule. The emotional response to first seeing the earth from space is called the “overview effect,” the realization of the paradox of both earth's powerful life force and that it is also seen to be vulnerably and fatally threatened.
I see a strong parallel between the astronaut’s “overview effect” and the angst of the Hebrew prophets when they reported from an equivalent transcendent perspective, often with deep sadness and grief, about seeing their world being endangered by injustice and neglect and a betrayal of the covenant of life force God offers humankind. And the prophetic response was to call the people back to right living, to not exploit the poor, and “to act justify, love mercy, and walk humbly” before their God.
I have not read Shatner’s book Boldly Go where he wrote about his response to the "overview effect," so I don’t know how much hope he offers out of his response to his feeling of grief when first seeing the earth from outer space. But what I did take from listening to the interview is that he would proclaim a warning similar to the prophets about the vulnerability facing humanity and the earth because we have failed to honor and reverence the amazing life force the earth offers us.
Some time ago I was privileged to hear a memorable lecture by Sharon Parks, who many of you know as a former resident of Whidbey. She said there were two prominent icons of our present age. One was the beautiful image of the earth that evokes the “overview effect” of awe and a sense of compassion when we pause to honor it. And the other is the mushroom cloud of the atomic bomb that evokes such a sadness and despair each time we contemplate it. We live in the dramatic gap between those two representative icons.
Take a moment to look more closely as the image of the earth above. Can you imagine actually seeing the earth real time in adjacent space from your orbiting capsule? And can you image why it would likely move you to tears? At heart, of course, the “overview effect” is essentially an expression of profound love. And as we would be moved to tears of grief if we were to be in the presence of anyone or anything we deeply love that feels endangered, it is understandable we would be moved to some level of sadness and grief to see our beloved earth in danger. But how are we to respond?
I think William Shatner’s response to both the majesty and vulnerability of the earth only confirms the word of prophets. From a transcendent perspective of profound love for life to a world that has betrayed its promise, its covenant, comes a word of warning: injustice will ultimately be held accountable. Our planetary fate ultimately depends on our capacity to respond to the profound love experienced by the “overview effect” reported by the astronauts. But the possibility humanity has the capacity to yet perceive - and respond to - a comparable sense of love for life, for each other, and for the icon of life force our little blue planet represents, is part of the covenant that I believe God still offers to humankind. May it be embraced.
*The Shatner NPR interview can be seen at https://www.npr.org/2022/10/23/1130482740/william-shatner-jeff-bezos-space-travel-overview-effect