Stanley L. Olsen
Stanley L. Olsen

Augustana College
Sioux Falls, SD

Stanley L. Olsen
Chair of Moral Values

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Opening Convocation

Augustana College

1 Sept 1999

Homesteading in the Cosmos: Imagination and Integrity

Arlen Viste

Stanley L. Olsen Chair of Moral Values 1999-2002

Just how large is your home? This morning I invite you to join me on a journey of imagination. In the process, I hope that we can stretch the envelope a bit, and move toward a large and active view of home.

Albert Einstein once said, "I am enough of an artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world." (Brad Judy,

Perhaps there is someone here this morning whose mind tends to wander, as a voice comes from a pulpit. If so, let me give you a small task. Try to make a rough estimate of how many bricks there are in Our Savior's Lutheran Church. You can see quite a few of them in the wall of the chancel at the front of the church. Perhaps we will come back to that question in a few minutes.

My interest this morning is not only in a large view of home, but in the idea of homesteading in the cosmos. You may recall learning about the Homestead Act of 1862. This law "allowed anyone to file for a quarter-section of free land (160 acres). The land was yours at the end of five years if you had built a house on it, dug a well, broken (plowed) 10 acres, fenced a specified amount, and actually lived there. Additionally, one could claim a quarter-section of land by "timber culture" (commonly called a "tree claim"). This required that you plant and successfully cultivate 10 acres of timber." The result was that "by 1900 about 600,000 farmers had received clear title under the act to lands covering about 80 million acres." (Richard Pence,

Probably some people here this morning are descended from people who homesteaded land successfully a century ago. The Berdahl Rolvaag House, which was eventually moved to the Augustana campus from the Garretson, SD area, is symbolic of this era, although the Berdahl family technically did not homestead the land, but instead purchased it around 1872.

Of course not all homesteading was successful in surviving the five year requirement for proving the claim. For example, my Grandfather homesteaded land near Turtle Lake, North Dakota, complete with a sod house. However my Grandmother Caroline died of pneumonia on 11 Feb 1908, two days after my father's tenth birthday. Her death at the young age of 39 was a devastating blow to the family. The eight children, ranging in age from 3 months to 12 years, were scattered to the homes of many relatives and friends.

What might it mean to be homesteading in the cosmos? For some people, it may eventually be quite literal. For over 30 years now we have been sending spacecraft to the moon, planets, and comets of our solar system. We have gotten back a lot of images and information. Human beings have set foot on the moon. We will probably range more widely in the future.

If you are a careful reader of the news, you may have noticed that a month ago, cremated human remains were deposited on the moon for the first time. This was not long after the ashes of John F. Kennedy, Jr., his wife, and his sister-in-law were buried at sea. An ounce of ashes delivered to the moon were those of Eugene Shoemaker, and were carried there by the Lunar Prospector spacecraft. Gene Shoemaker, his wife Carolyn, and Donald Levy discovered the comet called Shoemaker-Levy 9, which, as they predicted, crashed into the south pole of the planet Jupiter five years ago, creating large visible marks, and quite a sensation. Shoemaker died in July 1997, in an automobile accident in Australia.

Wrapped around the capsule of Gene Shoemaker's ashes is an inscription of a passage from Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet:

    And, when he shall die,
    Take him and cut him out in little stars,
    And he will make the face of heaven so fine
    That all the world will be in love with night,
    And pay no worship to the garish sun.

Lunar Prospector was launched in January 1998, gathered a lot of data about ice at the poles of the moon, and at the end of its mission it crashed into the south pole of the moon a month ago.


More broadly, we and our ancestors have been observing the cosmos with interest for a very long time. The ancients of many cultures were close observers of the night sky. Constellations of stars were named, and planets were recognized as wanderers across the sky. Telescopes have been used for nearly 400 years to extend our reach in observing the heavens, beginning with Galileo in 1609. Over the years, telescopes and observatories have become progressively more powerful. In the last few years telescopes have been put into space: the Hubble Space Telescope in 1990, and the Chandra X-Ray Observatory which was deployed this summer by Col. Eileen Collins and her crew.


As part of the notion of homesteading in the cosmos, I encourage you to develop for yourself a large view of home, through imagination and coupled with integrity. As homesteaders we need to have a pretty good idea of where we are, and how we fit into our surroundings and environment.

As one way of trying to orient ourselves, let's go through a little exercise in powers of ten. There is a marvelous little book by that name, Powers of Ten, and a related short film. (Philip and Phylis Morrison and The Office of Charles and Ray Eames, Powers of Ten, W. H. Freeman, 1982). What the book does is to walk step by step through a series of images, each differing by one power of ten in scale or size. On an ascending scale, each step increases the breadth of the field of view by a factor of ten. On a descending scale, each step makes the field of view narrower by a factor of ten. If we play this game of imagination, starting with our own size, 13 steps up the ladder take us to the size of the solar system. Eight more steps take us to the size of our galaxy. Another five steps, or about 26 steps total, take us to the size of the entire cosmos. Starting from our size and stepping down the ladder of size, five steps take us to a white blood cell, five more steps reach the diameter of an atom, and another five steps reach the size of protons and neutrons. Some people think about still smaller sizes, such as the Planck length, 35 steps down from our own size, where the quantum nature of gravity may become noticeable. Thus something like 40 to 60 steps connect the very large cosmos with very small features within it, with our own size and our home located somewhere in the middle.


In case you have been dozing off, let's illustrate the powers of ten by returning to the task that I suggested at the beginning: how many bricks are there in this Church structure? If we start with a single brick as our beginning point, then one step up the ladder means ten bricks, one small rectangular patch. Four steps up from our single brick, we reach the number of bricks in the central panel of the chancel at the front of the church. Five or six steps up the ladder from the single brick get us to the number of bricks in the church as a whole.

Or if we think of a single human being as our starting point, then four steps up get us to the number of people at Augustana College over the last decade or two. Another four steps will approach the current number of people in the US. With two or three further steps, or ten to eleven total, we probably reach the number of people who have ever lived.

Time is one more dimension of imaginatively homesteading in the cosmos. How long is our homesteading, and how old is the cosmos? A century ago, homesteaders had to live on their homestead for five years to prove their claim, and thereby actually own their land. This is not much different from the four years of study that it takes nowadays to complete a college degree at Augustana. In proving your claim to your intellectual homestead, some of you may spend a few additional years in graduate or professional school, shaping your career so that it truly belongs to you. If we take one heartbeat as our starting point, then eight steps upward take us through the college years. Eleven steps from the single heartbeat take us back to the dawn of human civilization. And another six or seven steps take us back to the formation of the cosmos, and perhaps to the beginning of time itself. One point of all this is that I hope very much that you will take a large and imaginative view of yourself, and of making your home in the cosmos. Go out to do your homesteading in the cosmos, with imagination and integrity.

However lest we become too puffed up or self-absorbed in this regard, let me tell you an apocryphal Sherlock Holmes story, which is circulating currently on the Internet and elsewhere. One version of it goes like this.

Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson went on a camping trip. After a good meal and a bottle of wine they lay down for the night and went to sleep. Some hours later, Holmes awoke and nudged his faithful friend.

"Watson, look up at the sky and tell me what you see."

Watson replied, "I see millions and millions of stars."

"What does that tell you?"

Watson pondered for a minute. "Astronomically, it tells me that there are millions of galaxies and potentially billions of planets. Astrologically, I observe that Saturn is in Leo. Horologically, I deduce that the time is approximately a quarter past three. Theologically, I can see that God is all powerful and that we are small and insignificant. Meteorologically, I suspect that we will have a beautiful day tomorrow. What does it tell you?"

Holmes was silent for a minute, then spoke.

"Watson, someone has stolen our tent!"

( [Mark Ginsburg, UC Berkeley, slightly edited.]

Now even though I am commending homesteading the cosmos to your reflection and imagination, if someone has stolen your tent, then you need to come back down to earth and deal with that problem.

In that spirit, let's think briefly about integrity. Integrity is connected with wholeness, and with living a consistent life before God and in our community.

When my mother was a young girl, her German grandmother was often present in her home. At that time my mother's family lived on a farm outside Nashua, Iowa. Their country church was down the hill, about half a mile away. On Saturday night, the bell of the church would ring, and my great grandmother would recite, in German, the first verses from Psalm 103: Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name. Bless the Lord, O my soul, and do not forget all his benefits --

Hers was a life of integrity, lived in steady thankfulness for the Lord's blessings.

I like the language of Larry Rasmussen and Cindy Moe-Lobeda, as they speak of "Human Response: Glad, Bold, Busy Faith." They take a large view of "the whole created order -- the sociocommunal, the biophysical, and the geoplanetary." And they identify "issues of sustainability" as significant ethical issues for our times.

(Larry Rasmussen with Cynthia Moe-Lobeda, "The Reform Dynamic: Addressing New Issues in Uncertain Times," in Karen L. Bloomquist and John R. Stumme, Editors, The Promise of Lutheran Ethics, Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 1998, chapter 8.)

Perhaps your life is or will be more complex and faster-paced than my great grandmother's, though there was plenty of change and stress in her life and experience as well. But I urge you to aim to live a life of integrity, a consistent life, a life of thankful responsiveness to the needs around you.

And I hope that as you pursue your education, enjoy your life, and live out your vocation, you will be rooted and grounded in a large view of home and of your place and time in the cosmos. Be rooted also in simple gratefulness for the blessings and challenges of God, family, and companions in your life journey and in your vocation.

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