God, the universe, and my iPhone

Posted Oct 10, 2011 | New Media Project

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By Eric Elnes, guest blogger


Can you speak to God on a cell phone? Frankly, I've never tried, but last summer God spoke to me on my iPhone.

Okay, so God didn't exactly speak, but what I experienced was definitely a "thin place" moment in which the reality of God's presence pierced my foggy consciousness and ignited both my imagination and my awareness. The experience reminds me that for all the headaches, frustrations, and even dangers that technological advancement presents, it may occasionally bring transformation.

On the seventh day of a writing retreat at a rustic cabin tucked beside a lake on the southern Oregon Coast last July, I shut my laptop down around midnight and went to bed. At 3 am I was awakened with a jolt by the sound of my wife, Melanie, calling insistently, "Eric!" I sat straight up, searched for her beside me, then realized I'd been dreaming. Melanie was back in Omaha.

Wiping the sand from my eyes, my vision came into focus on a reddish orb glowing faintly in the night sky outside my bedroom window. This was the same dot of light that Melanie and I had stared at for years while standing on the lakeshore of this very cabin during family vacations. We had always assumed it was Mars. But now, gazing at it from its 3 am location in the sky, doubt slowly crept in.

Sleepily, I reached for my iPhone, pressing the "home" button firmly. A soft glow made me squint as the phone awoke from its own slumber. Brushing through two screens of applications, I found Star Walk and opened it.

Holding the phone toward the bedroom window, a map quickly materialized, showing the entire night sky in front of me. Dead center was the red orb that had roused my curiosity. Touching my finger to it locked the screen in place and a target appeared around my fingertip. Double clicking the target magnified the screen several times, revealing that what I was looking at was not, in fact, Mars, but Star HR 7790, part of the constellation Pavo.

Hitting the "i" button filled half the screen with an image of HR 7790, the other half with its astronomical biography. According to Star Walk, HR 7790 is also known as "Peacock":

“[The name Peacock] was assigned to the star by Her Majesty's Nautical Almanac Office in the late 1930s during the creation of The Air Almanac, a navigational almanac for the Royal Air Force. Of the fifty-seven stars included in the new almanac, two had no classical names ... The RAF insisted that all of the stars must have names, so new names were invented. Alpha Pavonis was named Peacock....”

What really stood out was Peacock's distance form earth: 178.8 light years. Of course, compared to other stars, Peacock is practically a next-door neighbor. Yet, lying back down in bed that night, I started doing some mental math. "Let's see, light travels at 186,000 miles per second. I wonder how many seconds there are in a year?" A quick Google search on the iPhone revealed the answer: 31,556,926. I punched these numbers into the phone's calculator to figure the mileage between Peacock and Earth: 31,556,926 x 186,000 x 178.8. The answer came back with 15 zeros!

I thought to myself, "How is it that I, a mere mortal, can be aware of an object over a thousand trillion miles away? I have a hard enough time remembering where I've placed my glasses!"

I remembered that the Andromeda Galaxy, which is the furthest galaxy we can observe with the naked eye, is 2.5 million light years from us—and Andromeda is considered part of the Local Group of galaxies! Punching Andromeda's distance into my calculator produced a result with 19 zeros after it (Andromeda is 15 quintillion miles away, give or take a few trillion).

That's when the thought hit me, almost like it had been whispered in my ear:

If the existence of something so incomprehensibly far away as the Peacock star and Andromeda Galaxy could register in humanity's highly limited and imperfect consciousness, then imagine what God must be aware of!

Seen from one angle, technology has increased our awareness of the size of the universe so greatly that for the first time in human history, many openly wonder how God could possibly be aware of us, if God exists at all. We find it hard to conceive of how God could be anything more than a vague, unconscious "life energy," or perhaps a Divine Watchmaker who set up the world long ago and left us to pursue other projects.

Yet seen from another angle—like the one provided by Star Walk—we now have the tools to be more aware than ever of how expansive consciousness can be. If we are aware of the existence of an object 15 quintillion miles away, and we can even circumnavigate the globe based on our coordinates taken from an object a thousand trillion miles away, what might that tell us about God? If nothing else, it tells me that this God who has entered our consciousness may not only be as distant as the farthest star but is as close as our next breath. Perhaps God can even speak to us on an iPhone. Maybe even a Blackberry.

Eric Elnes
Eric Elnes is the Senior Minister of Countryside Community Church in Omaha, Nebraska, one of the case studies of the New Media Project. He also serves as Executive Director of OnFaithOnline.tv and host of Darkwood Brew. He holds a Ph.D. in Biblical Studies from Princeton Theological Seminary ('97) and is the author of The Phoenix Affirmations: A New Vision for the Future of Christian Faith, and Asphalt Jesus.

The New Media Project is a research project helping religious leaders become theologically savvy about technology. To request permission to repost this content, please contact newmediaproject@cts.edu.

1 Comment

  1. 1 Welter and Waste 31 Jan
    How many light years is 15 quintillion miles. You are able to observe that star's distant past many years into its future. When that star goes out we wont know it for millions of years. But God knows it's alpha and omega yet is nevertheless mindful of us. Keep your iPhone fully charged

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