It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. It was the age of
wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the each of belief, it was
the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of
darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.
Hard to believe Charles Dickens (1812-1870) wrote those lines in his novel, A Tale of Two Cities, published in 1859. It reads like something that could be written in any one of our daily newspapers. There is something strikingly similar about our present situation and the time in which Dickens tells his story. Dickens chose the conditions in France which led to the French Revolution (1789-1799) and what has been named the Reign of Terror, a period of calamitous upheaval among the people of France who struggled to find a balance of power in the dynamics of freedom and responsibility, of suppression and recognition of peoples in all the varied strata of human society.
Those epiphanies of what it means to be human being and to live out the grandeur of life in all its multi-fold moments -- these occurrences of such kairotic moments do not come frequently with full force. But they do come and probably more frequently than we take note of "seeing" them. "Seeing" depends upon perception but also upon being conscious of what we are "seeing" and the possible meaning of what we are "seeing."
Three instances come to mind. The first goes back 388 centuries to Galileo's confrontation with the Church authorities who would not look through his telescope. The leaders feared what they might see if they actually studied the relation of the earth and sun. The Church's geocentric view was based not upon the scientific study of the sky and the dynamism of the earth's movement. Religious orthodoxy determined what belief was acceptable, and scriptures were thought to teach that the sun revolved the earth which was planted by God in the center of the universe and was unmovable (1 Chronicles 16:30; Psalm 96:16; Psalm 104:5; Eccleseiastes 1:5).
Given such a world-view as ordained by the Creator, heliocentrism was condemned as heresy, and anyone who taught otherwise could be put to death or tortured as a heretic. So, when Galileo (1564-1642) said basically, "see for yourself," the ecclesiastical authorities refused. They refused to look through Galileo's telescope. Keep in mind also that this ideological "blindness" came 90 years after the Polish astronomer, Nicholas Copernicus, had already described the movement of the earth around the sun in his book "On the Revolution of the Celestial Spheres," published in 1543, and also banned by the Church.
The Church's theologians not only wouldn't "see" what the science of their day was pointing to, they could not see that their scripture was/is not a book of science but a sacred story of the human soul's longing for depth, meaning, moral guidance, and hope in the face of life's tragedies. The frightening situation Galileo faced was the age-old dilemma that haunts us today: the failure of persons to "see" when their perceptions are stuck within a world-view shaped by an ideology arising from centuries of distrust and fear of persons who differ in race, gender, belief system, skin color, and place of origin.
Which brings me to my second instance when not "seeing" creates a crisis -- this one not between an individual as with Galileo and Church authorities. My second example is what happens when a society itself becomes fractured into opposing groups. This is what we saw on January 6, 2021, when the US Capitol was attacked by hundreds of individuals, resulting in the destruction of property, the death of five persons, and the invasion of private, revered spaces by rioters who threatened to kill elected governmental officials.
The attack in daylight was observed by people around the world. In fact, the number of people who saw the attacks is staggering. There seemed to be no effort to conceal the hideous action. Rather, rioters posed for pictures and appeared to relish being seen within the inner chambers of our nation's Capitol where government business is conducted without the glaring spotlight of public viewing. So, yes, what many of us saw was disturbing to the core of our being.
But now we are contending with people who did not "see." They looked but did not "see;" they even experienced looking directly into the face of violence themselves, but they did not "see;" they witnessed the criminal acts of breaking doors and windows, of individuals beaten with flag poles, but they did not "see." Not only did the domestic terrorists seem not to "see." Now we hear people in leadership positions, persons who were present, claim not to "see" what happened.
Galileo's Church authorities who threatened him with torture and death did not "see." They wouldn't look into Galileo's telescope. The domestic terrorists and their protectors did not "see." It is not a telescope into which they could have looked. They did look. They looked into the screen of those media outlets that perpetuate misinformation and inflammatory conspiracy theories. They looked and looked but do not "see."
Finally, let me describe another observation which was seen but maybe not "seen." Indulge me here with a lightness of perspective that might help us to "see" something important in this troubled time, perhaps something for you to ponder when you cannot sleep late at night.
Here it is. On October 19, 2017, the telescope on the Hawaiian island of Maui picked up an object in the sky estimated to be around a quarter mile wide with a length of five times its width, shaped somewhat like a cigar. It sped across the sky leaving astronomers stumbling through their minds in a less-than-graceful pathway of unchartered explanations. Some considered the object to be a different kind of comet, which might possibly explain the brightness of the object tumbling through space, arriving from the direction of the star Vega, and passing out of our solar system. This very strange object was named "Oumuamua," which means "scout" in Hawaiian.
Oumuamua remains a mystery to this day. But now comes Avi Loeb, Professor of Science at Harvard. Loeb and his assistant Shmuel Bialy published a paper in which they made a case for considering Oumuamua as an object of alien technology.
Now Loeb has stated his case in more detail with the publication of Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth. Loeb is nothing if not bold in his conclusions of what he takes to be the sighting of Oumuamua and what it might represent: the presence of intelligent life beyond our galaxy. "It would be arrogant to assume we are alone," he says.
In any case, I make no claim for or against Loeb's conclusions. But for the sake of this blog and my topic, I side with Loeb in affirming the value of paying attention to what we "see." The world has grown stale and turned in on itself. The life of the adventurous imagination, of mythic wonder, and the possibilities that continue to call to us from the frontiers of our mind -- all of this assists us in "seeing" how grand it is to be alive.
When the ecclesiastical authorities insisted that Galileo refute his statement that the earth moves around the sun, Galileo relented and settled for his sentence of house arrest the remainder of his life. However, It is reported that as he relented he muttered, "But, still, it moves."
(See also Dennis Overbye, "Did An Alien Life-Form Do a Drive-By of Our Solar System in 2017?" in The New York Times, January 28, 2021.)