Each year during the mid-Autumn Moon festival, a pastry shop near our house in Saigon, Vietnam, would display the figure of a dancing goddess in a flowing dress who, I was told, resided on the moon. Then one year the goddess was gone, replaced by three strange creatures adorned with Christmas lights.
"Mother, are those angels?" I asked.
"No," she answered. "They're American astronauts and they've landed on the moon." That was of course the Apollo landing in 1969. Ever since then other nations have followed suit, sending satellites to hover on earth’s orbit, probes onto distant planets, and China has just last week launched a moon rover known as the Jade Rabbit to collect data.
If I had believed the goddess really did live on that silvery globe that hung outside my window at night, that mindset long ago shifted toward something else entirely.
Science, after all, dethrones all the old, known gods. The Hubble telescope and then later on the Kepler telescope -- our amazing eyes in the sky -- have found at least 150 billion galaxies, many of them still being formed. More importantly they discovered thousands of exoplanets –those that are outside the solar system—and many may even be in the habitable zone where life could very well exist. There aren't enough gods and titans in human history to name the planets in our own vast Milky Way, let alone the rest of the awesome universe. Instead, scientists use letters and numbers -- MS13 for a galaxy, NGC 3766 for a star cluster.
When Nietszche asked, "Have you not heard that God is dead?" it was a rhetorical question. Galileo, Newton, Einstein and the like revealed a universe more startling than any ancient myth could describe. The sea on which humanity now sails is infinitely more vast than that imagined by Columbus.
And yet it is my contention that science, even as it slays the old gods, does not destroy human spirituality. Quite the contrary, they reinforce each other.
Many years ago at UC Berkeley my physics professor offered his attentive students proof that God exists. He called it the Big Bang theory. Most scientists now believe that the universe began with an instant of creation some 20 billion years ago. The fragments of that formative explosion are still flying outward from the focus of that unfathomable blast.
So what triggered the original blast? Where did the energy come from that defies all known physical laws to form the universe? No one knows. Science has its limitations, after all. The ultimate source of energy remains, always, a mystery. "You may say God, if you like," the professor told his startled students, "set the ball rolling."
God set the ball rolling once again with the recent news that there’s water being discovered in Mars soil. I have to admit that the moment I heard the news, my mind went blank, so dumbstruck was I by its implications. There's a high probability of life existing out there after all, just as I had secretly hoped and, perhaps, always known.
At such a moment science and spirituality seem to mingle in a metaphysical embrace. The more science reveals, the more mysterious the revelation. Science, in other words, is at its best when it evokes, like art, the experience of wonder.
"The first step of mystical realization is the leaving of ... a defined god for an experience of transcendence, disengaging the ethnic from the elementary idea," wrote Joseph Campbell. Some Zen Buddhist monks understand this point very well. To go beyond the trappings of idolatry and reach enlightenment, they smash their Buddha statues. The true god is impersonal, unknowable, always beyond sight.
So now there’s a Jade Rabbit on the moon studying her soil, but where did my beautiful moon goddess go?
She neither lives nor dies and has no name; she has been internalized. She's the moment of wonder itself. In her presence the child still gazes, wide-eyed. Beyond her, there dances a marvelous night sky full of stars.
Andrew Lam is New America Media editor and the author of “Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora,” “East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres,” and “Birds of Paradise Lost” which recently won a Pen Oakland/Josephine Miles Literary award.