Jupiter, Failed Stars and the Spiritual Condition

We’re excited to present a little piece of interstellar theology from someone who actually knows […]

Mockingbird / 7.17.11

We’re excited to present a little piece of interstellar theology from someone who actually knows something about it, Michael Belote of the excellent Reboot Christianity blog:

Earlier today, my wife mentioned hearing that Jupiter was a “failed” star. She asked me, perhaps unwisely, to elaborate. It’s actually a pretty interesting point, one which I think has a spiritual dimension that I will go into shortly. But you may have to sit through a little bit of science before I draw the spiritual connection.

So the existing theory about how stars form is as follows: in certain parts of the universe there are clouds of interstellar gas. We see them all the time through the Hubble and other telescopes. Knowing the laws of gravitation and gas behavior well, we can predict what will happen in any gas cloud given enough time. For any gas cloud, you see, there are two mathematical considerations: the gravitational potential energy and the gas pressure. The gas cloud particles tend to fall inward due to their mutual gravitational attraction—that is, gravity wants to pull them toward each other and collapse the cloud to a central core point. As the volume of gas collapses, however, it begins to heat up and want to expand—this creates the internal gas pressure.

Very roughly speaking, there are two basic scenarios. If the gas cloud is not massive enough to overcome the internal pressure, then the cloud cannot collapse far enough to ignite. It becomes a failed star—either a gas giant like Jupiter, or a brown dwarf.

In scenario two, the mass is high enough that gravitational attraction overcomes the gas pressures and the gases collapse. If the cloud collapses far enough, it reaches equilibrium: the gas pressures and gravitational forces equal out. When this happens, the trapped internal thermal energy grows hotter and hotter until it creates fusion reactions among the hydrogen, and bam—you get a star. The star burns bright and powerful and hot, throughout its entire life.

Don’t think being a sun is fun and games. A star cannibalizes itself and will certainly burn out and die—it’s a foregone conclusion. At its genesis, the sun’s inward pull was so strong that eventually its own raw material caught itself on fire, and it will burn off its own material until it runs out and dies.

Maybe rather than saying Jupiter was a failed star, we should say Sol is a failed planet! When “winning” involves burning off your raw materials until you die, maybe failure is the superior option.

But in regards to the question my wife asked, yes—Jupiter is a failed star. It is more than twice as massive as all other planets in the solar system combined, and is close to the same density as the Sun. But it just wasn’t quite massive enough to overcome the internal gas pressure and collapse into an ignited star. (In fact, many people don’t realize that Jupiter’s internal gases would seem to generate more heat that the Sun, if you lived on the moon Europa).

So what has this to do with our spiritual condition?

Consider your soul as a competition between two different forces. Your natural core wants to do nothing but look inward. You want to worry only about yourself. This is a sort of spiritual gravity—it simply wants to collapse inward, caring more and more about you and you alone. All the material of your life will naturally tend toward self-orientation. But through God’s grace in Christ, however, there is another force: God’s Spirit, inexorably pushing out. That internal part of all of us knows that there is something else, something more.

Just as in stellar formation, there are two possible outcomes. If mere selfish sinfulness reigns, and people continually look inward and inward and inward, then eventually they will ignite. We have the capacity to consume the material of our lives and our very selves by a relentless capacity to appropriate all parts of our lives for self-fulfillment and self-justification. Many of our gifted raw materials will be burned off throughout this life, until we are literally burnt out.

On the other hand, the Spirit’s pressure is continually pushing out from within us. It alone can overcome our selfish inwardness and keep us from self-igniting. It is comfortable, it does not feel natural: but then it is never comfortable when He pushes us to the size that He desires. The main thrust of the human predicament involves getting out of God’s way, since even our best desires can tend toward narcissistic self-oreintation. When we cease to worry and are still, on those rare occasions when we “allow” God work to His will, we receive a reprieve from our own burdensome inwardness.

The key point for Christians is realizing that our only real power and agency is the gravitational power—the inward force. The harder we try, the more inward-focused we become. Too often this is even true spiritually: the more we aim at piety, the more we become judgmental; the more we aim at religious acceptance, the more we tend to put on a mask to gain human approval. These things might seem “good” on the surface, but all they do is increase that inward gravitational spiral toward self-ignition.

So like Jupiter, our “work” at being holy often makes us smaller, more self-oriented, and closer to self-ignition; indeed, the harder we work at it, the faster we implode. Instead, we can try and limit our often-narcissistic drive toward self-improvement or self-actualization, just forgetting about it and allowing God to work His will.