Singing About Space: Space In Hymns by Peter G. Bush

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Peter G. Bush - Westwood Presbyterian Church, Winnipeg



While the conflict between science and religion is well documented there has over the last sixty years been a growing collection of hymns (songs) written to be sung in Christian churches which exhibit a sophisticated understanding of space. As well, hymns about space flight have been penned. In few contexts do “ordinary” people get to sing about space or space flight, church surprisingly is one such place. Whether the hymns are providing accurate portrayals of science’s description of space or discussing the ethical implications of space flight, the authors hope that awe at the magnificence of space will be among the responses evoked from the hymns’ singers. Awe in the face of the elegance and beauty of space is transformative for individuals and communities.

Keywords: Hymns; Awe; Ethical Issues Space Travel; Science and Religion

1. Introduction

The conflict between science and religion is well documented in both scholarly work and popular culture. Maybe most infamously, for those interested in space, in the conflict between the Pope and Galileo. The last sixty years have seen theologians seeking to reframe the conflict in less antagonist terms, arguing both religion and science have something to learn from the other (eg. Polkinghorne [13], Hoezee [8]). But the question remains: has that reframing impacted the thinking of regular church attendees? A complete answer to such a question is beyond the scope of this paper, but a partial answer is sought in studying hymns written over the last sixty years to be sung in church. Hymns are an expression of popular religious commitment and belief.

Given this conference is about space the focus was further narrowed to examine hymns of the last two generations which reference space, spatial bodies, and space travel. Over fifty hymns were identified through internet-based hymn indices, hymnbook concordances, and reading through the hymns of recent hymn writers.

Some hymns contained a single line referring to space, others made extended references to space.

Hymn writers are using sophisticated language about space referring not only to the objects in space but also how those objects interact. Some hymns deal with space flight, sounding a warning about the ethical implications of “invading” space. Other hymns are more sanguine about the benefits of space flight. A handful of hymns take on directly the question of science and religion.

Whether hymns are making use of science’s description of space, or discussing the ethical implications of space flight, one of the hopes of the hymns’ writers is that awe at the magnificence of space would be among the responses evoked in the hymns’ singers. Keltner and his research colleagues suggest anything drawing forth an awe response from individuals is good for those experiencing awe and for the wider community [12].

2. The Body

Why pay attention to these hymns? Hymns have a unique place in the life of the Christian church. Hymns, as often noted, become the theological expression of the people who attend church in a way that a sermon may not. As hymns are sung by the people of the church, the congregation, the words and phrasing of the hymn being linked to music become embedded in the mind and emotion of the singers. A line or even phrase may be remembered for years, even though the parishioner cannot remember where the line came from. A preacher’s words in a sermon are heard once and then are gone, a hymn may be sung numerous times becoming an expression of the congregation’s spiritual and theological understanding.

Hymn writers come from a variety of backgrounds. Some are clergy people with extensive theological training who have officially standing in their denomination; but far more often hymn writers are un-ordained persons with limited theological training. This second group, committed to the life of the church and enjoying singing, are gifted at turning a phrase and writing poetry. These lay people put to music the thoughts, understandings, and worldview of ordinary church attendees.

Hymns become a barometer of what people in pews are thinking and feeling. Hymns written by ordinary church attendees which resonate with church goers are sung frequently becoming rooted in the psyche and shaping the working theology of those singing the hymns. Thus the study of hymns provides a grassroots vantage point from which to understand the conversation, and potential conflict, between science and religion.

This paper examines only hymns written in English to be sung in Christian churches. Two challenges confront our exploration of these hymns. The first is a research question. While the tools exist to identify a significant number of hymns referencing space, it is virtually impossible to know how many times these hymns are sung in churches across the English speaking world. While databases exist indicating how many hymnbooks contain a given hymn, there is no way to know how often a given hymn is sung. Further, the internet and LCD projectors have rendered hymnbooks largely redundant, making hymnbook databases largely unhelpful in determining how well-known a given hymn is.

The second challenge is philosophical/theological. Most of hymn writers discussed in this paper believe in a creator who made the universe. While not espousing a “young earth”, they would affirm a creator, God, was intimately involved in the universe coming into being. However the hymns show little interest in explaining how creation took place, instead spending significant time praising the beauty and awe-inspiring results of the creator’s work.

3. Results And Discussion

Three themes were observed in the study of hymn texts. First, the hymns exhibit a sophistication in their description of space and the ways in which space works. Second, some hymns address space flight, thinking largely about ethical implications of space travel. Third, a few hymns address the conflict between science and religion.

3.1 Increasingly Sophisticated Language about Space

Humanity has been fascinated by the stars since the beginning of our existence. Stars appear in the Biblical narrative from the creation account in Genesis 1 through to the star that guided the Magi to find the newborn king in Bethlehem’s manger. Christian hymns have noted the stars as well, including “Star of wonder, star of light, star with royal beauty bright” from “We Three Kings”.

Over the last sixty years hymns have continued to express wonder, awe, and praise at the immensity and elegance of space but with increasingly sophisticated language about space. Brian Wren writes about “the blazing of a comet” [17], “oceans of galaxies” [17] and “star-cloud” [16]. Jeffrey Rowthorn invites praise of “the bold designs of farthest space” [3]. While Shirley Erena Murray notes “the galaxies spinning in space.” [11] Herman Stuempfle highlights, “Stars and planets flung in orbit, galaxies that swirl in space.” [3] The dynamism, immensity, and mystery of space are hymned. Canadian Margaret Clarkson praised the “Lord of the limitless reaches of space…Lord of the infinite eons of time” [4].

R.B.Y. Scott reflected on the smallness of humanity and planet humanity inhabits, “on this earth whirling amid the suns of space.” [3] The awareness of the presence of other planets, other worlds, in the universe, appears a number of times in Timothy Dudley-Smith’s hymnody: “all worlds” [6]; “all heavens” [6]; and “worlds without number” [5].

The growing sophistication of language used to describe the awe and wonder of the universe has been coupled with the introduction of scientific concepts and understandings into hymn texts. Thomas Troeger writes, “suns around which planets turn” [14], refuting older cosmologies affirmed by the church in the past. Fred Pratt Green opens a conversation about the how of creation, “How wonderful this world of Thine, A fragment of a fiery sun, How lovely and how small!” [7] The earth is God’s (affirming the work of a creator) yet the earth has broken from the sun (an allusion to a process other than a traditional understanding of creation). Brian Wren attempts putting into poetry the complexity of energy in the world when he writes, “Thank you, God, for priceless energy – stored in each atom, gathered from the sun.” [16] In attempting to embed the description of a scientific process in a hymn text Wren demonstrates an interest in science often believed to be missing from religious circles.

The praise and wonder articulated in these hymns are neatly summed up by Brian Wren’s lines, “God of the sparrow, God of the whale, God of the swirling stars/How does the creature say Awe/How does the creature say Praise?” [3] Few places exist where human beings collectively express their wonder and awe at the beauty, immensity, and elegance of the universe. These hymn writers have provided songs with which human beings can voice their praise for the wonder of the universe and the church provides a place where that collective awe can be expressed.

3.2 Hymns about Space Travel

The exploration of space with both unpersoned and personed rockets and satellites has drawn the attention of hymn writers. Catherine Campbell’s widely published, 1967 hymn, was one of the first to do this. The hymn’s opening stanza notes the creativity evident in the universe, highlighting the inventiveness of human beings: “God, who stretched the spangled heavens infinite in time and place,/Flung the suns in burning radiance through the silent fields of space,/We, your children in your likeness, share inventive powers with you./ Great Creator, still creating, show us what we yet may do.”[1] The hymn then lists examples of this inventiveness. The third stanza includes space travel as an example, reading: “We have ventured worlds undreamed of since the childhood of our race;/Known the ecstasy of winging through the untraveled realms of space;/Probed the secrets of the atom, yielding unimagined power,/Facing us with life’s destruction or our most triumphant hour.” [1] Humanity has reached a new level in being able to do what no previous generation has done, travel through “the silent fields of space.” The ecstasy of space flight is juxtaposed with the ability to destroy life through atomic war, both the result of human inventiveness. The final stanza ends with the plea, “Great Creator, give us guidance till our goals and yours are one.” [1] Human inventiveness confronts humanity with a deep challenge, the ability to destroy this “green and ordered earth” or to experience even greater triumphs in exploring beyond earth.

A number of hymn writers have picked up on this tension, noting the wisdom needed in the exploration and more particularly the use of space. Herbert O’Driscoll lists the challenges facing humanity, “In the maelstrom of the nations, in the journey into space,/In the clashes of generations, in the hungering for grace,/In our agony and glory, we are called to newer ways.” [3] International struggles, generational conflict, and the “journey into space” all require new thinking for they carry the possibility of a destructive end. Caryl Micklem wrote humanity “turning spaceward shuns knowledge incomplete, fevered to explore.” [2] Such hasty, unreflective action leads humanity to “moulding rockets, gun” which turns “creation sour.” [2] Fears about the weaponization of space is stated most bluntly in the Iona Community’s hymn built on the seven “days” of Genesis 1. The stanza for the fourth day, when space is populated with moon and stars, reads: “We met you, God, on Thursday in the stars and sun,/Where skill and will and science found a race to run./We built our space invaders to threaten all we knew/And almost missed the voice which called, “I’ve chosen you.”” [10] The first two lines express optimism, meeting the divine among the stars by joining the sun in running its race. The tone changes in the third line: humanity has built “invaders” of space, “invaders” which in turn “threaten” the continuation of humanity. “Invasion” suggests taking what belongs to another and the colonization of what is wrongly taken.

Not all hymn writers have sounded warnings about space travel. Jane Parker Huber declares seeing the earth from the vantage point of outer space opens human beings to a new self-understanding. She writes: “When, in awe of God’s creation, we view earth from outer space,/This mysterious, floating marble, strewn with clouds and bathed in grace!/How can we not pause in wonder, seeing earth as one and whole,/Then, confessing our divisions, make earth’s healing our prime goal.” [9] From outer space the earth is a singularity without division. From that vantage point any attempt to divide or to harm the earth seems foolish, even immoral. Huber ends her hymn proposing seeing the world from such a vantage point inviting the end of wars and a commitment to heeding the call to “Love each other!” [9] Space travel has given humanity an opportunity to see the earth and themselves in a new light and to act accordingly.

Space travel, just as the observation of space, provides human beings with an opportunity to experience awe. Astronauts such as Chris Hadfield have suggested seeing earth against the vastness of space evokes wonder. Even those writers who raise concerns about space travel invite human beings to humility in the face of the elegance and beauty of space. For these writers it is in fact awe in the face of space’s magnificence which they hope will cause human beings to be circumspect in their use of space.

3.3 The Conflict between Science and Religion

Behind all of these hymns lies the conversation between science and religion and how the two interact. Herbert Frederick Brokering brings the two together without any hint of tension in his lines: “Earth and all stars, loud rushing planets, sing to our God a new song!/Classrooms and labs, loud boiling test tubes, sing to our God a new song!/Knowledge and truth, loud sounding wisdom, sing to our God a new song!” [3] Science and religion mix seamlessly in the search for knowledge, truth, and wisdom.

Fred Pratt Green is not as sanguine about relationship between science and religion, proposing each has its proper place. Science may have insights into the workings of the universe, but by itself cannot offer explanations regarding sense and meaning. Pratt writes: “Solar systems, void of meaning, freeze the spirit into stone;/Always our researches lead us to the ultimate Unknown;/Faith must die, or come full circle to its source in God alone.” [7] Again, “So shall scientists acclaim you [God]/Seeing cause where some see chance;/Trusting in their dark researches/That your universe makes sense.” These two selections suggest there is a clear division of roles between science and religion with science unable to offer anything more than information. Meaning, as in purpose, is the purview of religion (faith).

Few hymn writers have included space and scientific reference in their hymns as much as has Thomas Troeger. In a directly addressing the challenge of science and religion. Troeger writes: “Like stars positioned far apart across the skies of night,/Too often science, faith and art are points of single light/Whose powers do not congregate to burn the dark away/But shining lone and isolate ignore each other’s ray.” [15] Using the simile of single stars on their own, Troeger bemoans the inability of science, religion, and art to bring together their unique abilities in common cause. The second stanza notes “science, prayer, and art” all exist in God’s “expansive heart.” These three find their roots in God who holds them together. In the third stanza Troeger returns to the simile that opened the hymn: “Grant us a mind more like your mind, as ample as the skies/Where truth that we have yet to find will help new thoughts arise,/Where all the single lights that burn combine their angled rays/Till by their gathered light we learn to give you thanks and praise.” [15] Troeger hopes for a time when new patterns will develop in which religion, science and art join to offer deeper insight into the mysteries of the universe, both scientific and religious.

The coming together of science and religion in common cause is still in the future, but in writing about the challenge hymn writers have given congregations the ability to sing about the question and maybe gain new insight into possible ways forward.

4. Conclusion

Dacher Keltner and his colleagues write: “Awe arises in evanescent experiences. Looking up at the starry expanse of the night sky. Gazing out across the blue vastness of the ocean….Our investigation indicates that awe, although often fleeting and hard to describe, serves a vital social function. By diminishing the emphasis on the individual self, awe may encourage people to forego strict self-interest to improve the welfare of others.” [12] The hymns discussed in this paper seek to turn their singers towards the stars and the beauty of space – either literally or in their minds. Such a turning has the goal of eliciting awe and wonder from the singer at the magnificence of space. Such an effort is good for not just the singer but for the wider community. These hymns thus play an important social function.

The seventeenth century writer Paul Gerhardt in extraordinarily prescient lines wrote in an evening hymn: “Now all the heavenly splendor breaks forth in starlight Tender from myriad worlds unknown; And we, this marvel seeing, forget our selfish being For joy of beauty not our own.” [1] The beauty of space evokes from us awe and joy at a beauty not our own. These hymns help us to sing that awe.


  • [1] Hymnbook. New York: The Church Pension Fund, 1985. 1070 pp.
  • [2] New Church Praise. Edinburgh: The Saint Andrew Press, 1975. 223 pp.
  • [3] Voices United. Toronto: The United Church Publishing House, 1996. 1078 pp.
  • [4] Margaret Clarkson, A Singing Heart. Carol Stream, IL: Hope Publishing Co., 1982. 208 pp.
  • [5] Timothy Dudley-Smith, A Voice of Singing. Carol Stream, IL: Hope Publishing Co., 1993. 96 pp.
  • [6] Songs of Deliverance. Carol Stream, IL: Hope Publishing Co., 1988. 72 pp.
  • [7] Fred Pratt Green, The Hymns and Ballads of Fred Pratt Green. Carol Stream, IL: Hope Pub. Co.,1982. 268 pp.
  • [8] Scott Hoezee, Proclaim the Wonder: Engaging Science on Sunday. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 2003. 238 pp.
  • [9] Jane Parker Huber, Singing in Celebration. Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1996. 112 pp.
  • [10] Iona Community, Heaven Shall Not Wait. Glasgow: Wild Good Publications, 1987. 144 pp.
  • [11] Shirley Erena Murray, In Every Corner Sing. Carol Stream, IL: Hope Publishing Co., 1992. 32 pp.
  • [12] Paul K. Piff, Pia Dietze, Matthew Feinberg, Daniel M. Stancato, and Dacher Keltner, “Awe, the Small Self, and Prosocial Behavior,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol. 108, no. 6, pp. 883-899, 2015.
  • [13] John Polkinghorne, Quantum Physics and Theology: An Unexpected Kinship. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2007. 112 pp.
  • [14] Thomas H. Troeger, Borrowed Light. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994. 260 pp.
  • [15] Above the Moon Earth Rises. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002. 120 pp.
  • [16] Brian Wren, Faith Looking Forward. Carol Stream, IL: Hope Publishing Co., 1983. 92 pp.
  • [17] New Beginnings. Carol Stream, IL: Hope Publishing Co., 1993. 92 pp.