Earthbound

Major news outlets have been raving over Interstellar, the new Christopher Nolan film. I’ve not seen it yet, and it hasn’t had the same kind of hype that Noah received earlier this year. It isn’t, after all, biblical. Still, the reviews for the movie borrow liberally from religious language. One of the obvious reasons is that the vastness, the incomprehensibility—I think I’m safe to say it here—the impossibility of space, almost demand such language. Ironically, it is considered unsophisticated to say similar things of religion, that fall-back for those of weak intellects who, well, believe the impossible. Whether science or religion, we are faced, when we look at interpretations of reality, with something we barely comprehend. Even by conservative measures, on the scale of the universe, we are somewhere around the level of a sub-atomic particle to an earth-sized universe. And yet, with great confidence, indeed, at times arrogance, we claim that we have it all figured out. God? Not possible. Science, less than a millennium old? We’ve got it all figured out. And we haven’t even stepped beyond our own satellite yet.

Having grown up in a rural setting, I was used to seeing stars at night. From a young age astronomy fascinated me. My high school, built during the era around Sputnik, had a working planetarium (and this was not an affluent community). I took astronomy as a junior elective and ran into my teacher at a weekend retreat for lay preachers. A man of science who looked at the universe and came away with wonder. On clear winter nights, away from the light pollution that has become my daily bread here in the orbit of New York City, I would shiver and look upward, knowing that I was reaching both the limits of what the earthbound could see, but also infinity at the same time. The vastness of space still weakens my knees. Even more than my age does naturally.

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In at least one of the many interviews, Nolan admits to having been influenced by 2001: A Space Odyssey. It was the genesis of the believable space movies, giving Star Wars a jump start and we’ve been exploring deep space in our celluloid fantasies ever since. The constant in all of this is the humility of humanity. “Humility” derives from Latin humilis, literally, “on the ground.” It is no accident when the concept of divinity began to emerge that the human, or perhaps porto-human, gaze was cast upward. The gods, whatever else they might be, weren’t down here with us. They have access to up there. And even a scientist can get away with calling the sky “the heavens.” This journey of Interstellar began long before Kubrick, and we are flocking in numbers to see what the latest rendition might be. Wonder might just be what the doctor calls for on a dark night, when the hope of humanity could use a little humility.

4 responses to “Earthbound

  1. Some of the divinities were “up there”, in particular the masculine sky gods. But lots of divinities, especially the earth goddesses, were always down here with us. Grounded, as it were.

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    • Very good, EnonZ. I quite agree. The original impetus to worship, however, I believe was celestial. Eventually the idea of earth spirits was added. This is, of course, conjecture since we have no written records from that early. It’s just my sense of things.

      Thanks for the comment!

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  2. Steve,
    My sense of things is the opposite. We don’t have written records for the original impetus to worship, but we do have the archaeological record. I find it telling that the subjects of the early cave art are people and animals, not celestial objects.

    It’s also interesting to note that the Greek gods did not live in the sky or above the sky, but on the earth. They might gather on Mount Olympus, a high place, but not the sky.

    My feeling is that the original impetus to worship was grounded in the mysteries of life and death, of fertility and generation, of water, rocks, plants and animals. It was a much later development in religious sensibility to put divinity above and beyond the earthly realm.

    David Abram argues in ‘The Spell of the Sensuous’ that it was the invention of written language that allowed us to disconnect or attempt to disconnect ourselves from the living world, including religiously.

    The bit about the Greek gods was brought to my attention by an essay, ‘Which Way to Heave?’. I think you might find the author’s take on the transcendental impulse interesting:

    http://thearchdruidreport.blogspot.com/2013/09/which-way-to-heaven.html

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    • Very interesting–I’ll have to give this more thought. In some ways it comes down to the priority of immanence or transcendence. Where did earliest people find gods?

      I had always supposed it was directed skyward: cosmic mountains, such as Olympus (and its West Asian counterparts) were often an attempt to describe where sky met earth, and since mountain climbing was not a recreational sport in those days, it was difficult to say whether gods actually lived there or not.

      That’s an interesting point about representational art. I’ll ponder this further…

      Thanks!

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