On a small planet circling a minor star in an insignificant
Michael lay on his back starring up into the blackness of the mountain sky.
From the position of Orion he knew it was past midnight and a tap on the dial of
his watch confirmed in a ghostly glow that it was closer to 2:00 am. Beside him,
his son, Joshua made a small sound, the collapsing thud of escaping air as he
turned over in his sleep. But for the minute crinkling of nylon from the thick
down sleeping bags, the world was silent.
His eyes were completely adjusted to the darkness and as he looked into the clear night sky, it occurred to him that he was seeing as many stars as it
is possible for a human to see at one time. He remembered reading somewhere that
this number was closer to six thousand rather than the, "millions of stars,"
poets and storytellers were so fond of claiming. Six thousand out of the
billions that comprise the universe he thought, marveling at the weakness of
He and Josh were on the fourth night of a six-day hike in the
driven up from Independence to the trailhead at
Onion Valley and were walking
south to Mount Whitney where they’d climb the
summit, on Easter Sunday. In the
afternoon they'd descend to Lone Pine and hitch a ride back to their car. It had been a good trip
so far, long days of easy hiking and comfortable talk. Their relationship was at
that sweet spot where he, as a father, had imparted all that he was capable of to
a receptive son and they were getting used to each other as friends and equals.
It was a transition that had gone remarkably smoothly and they both were
settling into their new roles happily.
Michael felt a newfound freedom lately. The responsibilities of parenthood were
slipping behind him at the same time as money and work became less of a
daily concern. He was increasingly aware of his age though, mostly in annoying
confrontations with limitations that had probably been creeping up on him for
years but which were suddenly inescapable. He blinked again at the
stars and wrinkled his eyes in an ironic grimace, if six thousand stars was the
best anyone could do, he was probably only seeing a thousand or so.
He groaned slightly at the thought, appalled at his own limitations. That
idea immediately led to another, more galling yet. If he were lucky, he might
live another fifty years, and in the entirety of his life he would have only
experienced a minute fraction of a percentage of the span of time that
represented human existence. And that figurative blink of an eye was the sum and
substance of all he had to work with in constructing his
It seemed so insignificant, and yet it represented all that he could ever
know. Somehow the immensity of the space above him was comforting, a tangible
confirmation of the disconnect between human scaled events and the crushing
brutal vastness of the universe. The miraculous arrogance of human intelligence
was its courage in facing that gap and attempting to make any sense of it all.
How can the human mind even begin to develop an intuitive feeling for the
Easter was approaching in a few days. They planned to camp at Guitar Lake
on the back side of Mount Whitney the night before and race to the summit for the
sunrise on Easter morning. Neither he nor Josh was religious in any meaningful sense. Vanessa had bullied them into attending a
Presbyterian service at Christmas or Easter on some years, but as a family, they’d more or less
ignored the topic and the practice of religion over the years. When he thought
about it at all, Michael supposed that he believed in God, as the original and
eternal creator of all life out of chaos. The paradox of life itself was a
miracle enough and the notion of a strict God who peered into our hearts and kept a ledger of our thoughts and deeds struck him as unlikely.
He had a single prayer to offer to God and that was the word,
"thanks." Anything more seemed pretentious. He didn’t believe that
anyone really talked to God. Not the Pope, not any of the Imams, or the
the Wiccans or whatever. He didn’t
doubt their sincerity but, at best, he felt that they were talking to themselves,
listening to echoes of their own minds reflecting back answers to their prayers
in a comforting voice that sounded suspiciously familiar. "Thank you for
this life," that just felt right.
The part that galled him most about the whole program was the arrogance
implicit in laying claim to God’s voice on Earth. Without exception, their answer to
the obvious question of, "How could this be," was the most maddeningly
unhelpful one: "faith, you’ve just got to believe." He’d been
reading a few pages of Dante’s epic poem each night before they went to bed
and the notion of organized rings and levels of Hell, laid out like suburban
blocks in an exclusive gated community was at once oppressive and oddly comforting. The most haunting
scene of all was the very first circle of Hell, Limbo, that is reserved
for those whose fate was sealed simply because they were born in the wrong time
or place and so, hadn’t had the opportunity to be baptized.
"Sore grief assail’d my heart at hearing this, for well I knew
suspended in that Limbo many a soul of mighty worth."
Alighieri, Divina Commedia, Canto IV
Michael shook his head slowly at the thought and rubbed his
eyes. How could a God who was at once so magnificent and powerful as to create this
vast and beautiful universe, also be bothered to record the pettiest of
human foibles with a relentless efficiency that would make an IRS auditor
jealous? There were so many ways to go to Hell that Michael concluded we’d all
end up there one way or the other.
And worst of all, you had to swallow the thing whole or not at all. Faith,
the ultimate retort for believers. It all comes down to faith, and if you don’t
have it, then you are to be pitied by the congregation, but held outside the
dialog. If you don’t have the faith, then there must be a defect in your soul
and, literally, God help you because we can’t.
Michael found Easter to be a spooky holiday. The juxtaposition of chocolate
bunnies, plastic grass, colored eggs and the crucifixion, had always felt
vaguely macabre, much worse somehow then even the grubby commercialism
surrounding Christmas. The sadness and brutality of the Easter story overwhelmed
him and the joy and hope that he was supposed to find in the Resurrection hinged
on believing that there was a resurrection and he didn’t. If Jesus Christ was the literal son of God, and he died for our sins,
and the only way into heaven was to accept him as your personal
savior, then Dante was right and most of the humans who had ever, or would ever live were
going straight to Hell. How could anyone actually believe that?
In the language of mathematics, Jesus would be a Singularity, an event
so immense in scale that it literally affects all matter in the Universe. The
Big Bang in other words. And how likely was it really, that a human being who
lived for less than thirty years on this tiny dust speck of a planet on the edge
of a minor galaxy in a corner of the Universe was the singularity?
Michael remembered once walking down a long spiraling ramp at the Rose Planetarium
in New York. The ramp was constructed to depict the scale of astronomical time. The
very top of
the ramp represented the Big Bang, about 14 billion years ago, and as you walked
down, the events leading to the present day were noted along the hand railing.
After the big bang, nothing at all happens for a depressingly long time, then
galaxies begin to form, suns fire up and planets start their spinning orbits. In
the last couple of feet, at the bottom of the ramp, life appears on
Earth. In a
tiny slice, the thickness of
a human hair, at the bottom end of the walkway, humanity begins.
The odds against Jesus, or Muhammad, or Joseph Smith or any other religious
prophet being a singularity are infinitesimally small. Consider the short lifetime
of one person divided by the 14 billion years since the universe began. You get
pretty much the same answer for the probability
that this one life was utterly unique among the many billions of other human beings
who have ever lived. It gets worse yet when you consider our tiny planet as the home town
the singularity rather than the uncountable other prospects out there in the vastness of
space. These are probabilities that are orders of
magnitude too small to have a name.
It’s difficult to imagine that a singularity has occurred
at all considering how essentially little has really changed about humanity
throughout our history. You’d expect a huge discontinuity, a
wipeout or something. Instead, despite the Internet and Armani Suits and a
few trips to the Moon, we're still pretty much the same basic contentious
territorial hominid we've always been.
Perhaps it’s true Michael thought, blinking his eyes as a shooting
star streaked across the sky. If it was, he didn’t feel it, not
intellectually, or spiritually. He didn’t even think that he wanted it to be
true emotionally. It would seem like such a betrayal to all the people and
places that would never be touched by it. Despite the continued outpouring of
missionary zeal, Dante’s first circle of Hell would be pretty damned
crowded by the end of time.
Joshua began to snore softly, like an irritated rebuke to Michael’s
thoughts, and Michael felt his eyes growing heavy against the cool mountain air.
Tomorrow they’d walk and as the sun rose on Easter morning, they’d stand on
top of the mountain and share in the grandeur for a moment before starting down
"Thanks," Michael whispered to the stars, "Thanks