Thinking Anew – Stepping into the unknown

John Glenn: American astronaut was a devoutly religious man  who saw no conflict between his belief in God and in science.  Photograph: George Shelton/Nasa

John Glenn: American astronaut was a devoutly religious man who saw no conflict between his belief in God and in science. Photograph: George Shelton/Nasa

 

John Glenn, the American astronaut, who died recently, was by any measure a remarkable man. Following wartime service as a pilot, his journey to fame began when he signed up as a test pilot for the American space programme, and in 1962 achieved world fame when he became the first American to orbit the Earth. What is perhaps less well-known is that he was a devoutly religious man, an elder in the Presbyterian Church, who saw no conflict between his belief in God and in science. “I don’t see that I’m any less religious,” he said, “by the fact that I can appreciate the fact that science just records that we change with evolution and time, and that’s a fact. It doesn’t mean it’s less wondrous and it doesn’t mean that there can’t be some power greater than any of us that has been behind and is behind whatever is going on.”

In his later years he returned to space, and from there in an interview with ground-based journalists observed: “Looking at the Earth from this vantage point, looking at this kind of creation and to not believe in God, to me, is impossible. To see (Earth) laid out like that only strengthens my beliefs.”

Experience

Stepping into the unknown is of course part of everyday life, an important reminder as one year ends and another begins. Life is lived forward and we have no choice but to move ahead with time. From a religious perspective we can be encouraged by the story of Abraham, the father of faith, who at the beginning of his great faith adventure left his home, his land – all that was familiar – not knowing where he was going.

In his book Fear and Trembling, the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard observed: “By faith Abraham went out from the land of his fathers and became a sojourner in the land of promise. He left one thing behind, took one thing with him: he left his earthly understanding behind and took faith with him.”

Abraham’s faith was filled with potential for it rested on the promise of God. This is the direct opposite of modern secular thinking, where faith is abandoned and there is no promise beyond oneself.

Although we are still in the season of Christmas, the truth is that we are already moving on, getting back to “normal”, whatever that means. It is important to hold on to the message of Christmas as we face the future while leaving behind what the poet John Betjeman called “the sweet and silly Christmas things”.

The Hungarian writer Ladislas Boros was aware of the importance of this when he wrote in Feast of Silence: “We are not simply at the mercy of the hopeless and often bad experiences that we have in the everyday life. These do not ultimately determine what we are and what we may become. New and unexpected things can always rise up out of our lives because there is, despite all the anxiety and unhappiness that surrounds us, a hidden source of salvation in the world that can begin to flow at any time. Something that is bright and pure and not simply superstitious or wildly enthusiastic is proclaimed in this Christmas mood. It is that, despite all the evidence that exists in the world as we know it, there is a way from darkness into light: there is a light shining in the darkness of the night.”

In his poem Christmas, John Betjeman, while expressing appreciation for the traditions we associate with this joyful season, nonetheless in the final verse reminds us of what is really worth holding on to when everything else has been put away: No love that in a family dwells, / No carolling in frosty air, /Nor all the steeple-shaking bells/ Can with this single Truth compare/ That God was man in Palestine / And lives today in Bread and Wine.

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