Like much of America on Monday, my attention was blissfully diverted from national events and into the sky. The BioLogos offices in Grand Rapids, MI, were only in the 75 percent darkness zone, but still my coworkers and I were treated to a goosebump-inducing show in the early afternoon. For much of the rest of the day, I was glued to NASA’s live-stream of the eclipse, largely focused on the path of total darkness across the US. I caught the segment filmed in Charleston, South Carolina, where a crowd of excited spectators clapped, shouted, and cheered as the day turned to night. I found tears in my eyes after the sun reappeared.
It’s a funny thing, how a large shadow can produce such an extraordinary experience for so many. The sun and moon are ever-present companions for humans; they bring us day and night, light and darkness. But when all of these separations collapse into each other for a brief moment, the result is breathtaking and even enlightening.
At the moment when the eclipse first appeared in Oregon, a solar scientist was being interviewed on NASA’s live-stream. As the sun’s light dimmed, her words broke off into monosyllabic utterances of joy and amazement. Here was an individual who had likely spent decades studying our nearest star, with a mind full of scientific terms I will never begin to understand, reduced to childlike expressions of awe. The interviewer joined in her reverent silence, remarking after the event that it was a “spiritual” experience. NASA isn’t known for using the word “spiritual” in their broadcasts, but I sensed it was used in absence of a better alternative.
All this made me wonder if the breathtaking majesty of nature is perhaps the best argument against efforts to reduce the world to just matter and energy. After all, an eclipse is “just” a large shadow produced by two cosmic objects. Why all the fuss? The same could be said of the Grand Canyon (just a large gash in the ground) or Mount Everest (just a giant pile of dirt, rocks, and ice) or the Northern Lights (just collisions between electrically charged particles in the atmosphere) or any other awe-inspiring natural display. It’s all just atoms bouncing around, why get excited? And yet we can’t help but have our breath taken away by nature’s glory. It’s as natural as breathing, for atheists and Christians and Jews and Muslims and everybody else—all alike. It points inexorably to something bigger than ourselves.
The magic of an eclipse—a decidedly extraordinary event—is how it makes us aware of the glory and majesty of the ordinary. Perhaps the everyday condition for most of us—even Christians—is to wear spiritual “eclipse glasses,” unable to handle the brilliance of the world around us. Maybe, in an ironic twist, a moment like an eclipse just gives an opportunity to take the glasses off and take in a fuller glimpse of this beauty.
A moment like this disrupts our experience of the world in welcome ways. It reminds the Christian to see God’s creative power in all things, even those science can study and measure and predict. It dares the atheist to think bigger than the flat and boring world of materialism. And best of all, it gets us all out of the trenches of our various conflicts and divisions and lifts our gaze towards something higher and better.