Monsters and Gods

Nothing makes you feel quite as old as seeing a documentary where the names of the experts are unfamiliar to you because they’re too young.  So it was when I watched PBS’s Ancient Skies episode “Gods and Monsters.”  They had me at “Monsters” although I know that when paired with gods the term generally refers to Greek mythology.  This documentary had a pretty cool rendition of Marduk battling Tiamat that would’ve left many a Babylonian quaking in his or her sandals.  Ranging across the world, it showed the earliest efforts to understand astronomy, and then went on to contrast it with how the ancients nevertheless still believed in gods.  It was a striking kind of condescension, I thought.  Many scientists today still believe in a deity, although it’s no longer the fashion.

That sharp dichotomy, that either/or, bothers me a bit.  It’s not that I have a problem with science—I’ve always supported the scientific method.  No, it’s the idea that everything is explained that bothers me.  We understand so little about the universe.  Yes, we’ve made great strides over the past millennia, but we’ve not even been out of the cosmic neighborhood yet.  And I wish we could acknowledge that even on earth life is still a mystery that can only be solved with poetry as well as reason.  “Gods and Monsters” made the point that the ancients realized the explanatory value of stories.  Myths weren’t just idle constructs to pass the time.  They were ways of understanding how this universe works.  Some people take their mythology too seriously, of course, but that doesn’t mean that no stories are required to make sense of it all.

It was the inherent conflict implied between science and religion, I think, that bothered me the most.  Not everything in life comes down to an equation.  That doesn’t mean that equations are wrong, just that they’re not everything.  One of the points Ancient Skies makes is that people of bygone eras had a very sophisticated understanding of the sky.  It featured the builders of the great pyramid of Khufu, those who constructed Stonehenge, the Maya, and the Babylonians.  They all knew much of the math that would only be formulated in Europe much later.  And they all assuredly believed in gods.  It didn’t prevent them from complex thought in either architecture or astronomy.  Our modern dilemma is the razor burn left by standing before the mirror too long with Occam.  You don’t have to shave to support science.

Heavens Above

When things get bad down here we start to turn our eyes to the heavens. A couple of news stories in the past few weeks have encouraged such star gazing. We’ve read about Curiosity’s long look back over five years on Mars, and the possible discovery of planets billions of light years away. The thing about other planets is that we still haven’t learned how to live on our own without ruining it. Endless thoughtless “development” doesn’t make major religions rethink their declarations on birth control even as we destroy our arable land to make way for more shopping malls. People may starve to death but you can always count on the survivors shopping. Those who collect the money at the end always look so strangely familiar. Have I seen your portrait on some currency or other?

Curiosity has been five years on our most similar neighbor. Having long outlived its life expectancy, it seems to be a harbinger with an important message to tell us, if we were willing to listen. Mars is a beautiful wasteland. Some look at it and think it could become another earth. A little on the chilly side, perhaps, but nothing you can’t fix with fossil fuels and shopping venues. Who needs to go outdoors anyway? Amazon can deliver it right to your airlock. We can hurl disco balls into orbit and still pass legislation that strips basic human needs from large swaths of the population. Space, they say, is the final frontier.

At the same time we’re discovering our universe is chock full of planets. So much to acquire! Of course, with each new planetary discovery we have to think that maybe there’s life out there somewhere. Since Homo sapiens are the measure of all things—if you don’t believe that you haven’t been listening to the White House—we are entitled to exploit anything we can reach. It’s called capitalism, stupid! The assumption is that anything can be owned. And if flying saucers are buzzing around our military jets like metallic mosquitoes we say they can’t be from out there because the universe is for our exploitation, not for sharing. “Now I know,” Victor cries “what it’s like to be—“ as thunder covers that last bit. There are billions of galaxies out there, made up of billions of stars. Many of them have their own planets. Some surely have intelligent life. And we wonder why aliens don’t land on the White House lawn. Appropriately named, Curiosity sits on Mars and stares backward in wonder.

New Religious—Bang!

Religion, no matter what the skeptics say, gives us something to believe in. Even those who claim no religion believe in their non-religion. We can’t escape belief. It’s no surprise, then, that new religions constantly emerge. As people find new things—or events—meaningful, and they come together around the phenomenon or episode, a religion eventually emerges. Take the example of the Chelyabinsk meteorite. On February 15, 2013 a resounding explosion rocked Chelyabinsk. What was likely a former asteroid had headed for Russia (which they seem to prefer almost as much as Donald Trump) and became a meteoroid (the name for meteors while they’re still in outer space). Once it entered the earth’s atmosphere and became a meteor proper, it superheated and exploded in the sky—a phenomenon known as a bolide. For those of us who’ve experience them, bolides are unforgettable. Once the pieces of the exploded meteor hit the earth they became meteorites.

Image credit: NASA/ESA, public domain

Meteors are an everyday occurrence. Any time you see a shooting star—which you can do any clear night—you’ve seen one. Large, exploding meteors are rare. Shortly after the Chelyabinsk meteorite fell, according to Astro Bob, the Church of the Chelyabinsk Meteorite formed. This group did not wish for the main body of the surviving meteorite to be raised from Lake Chebarkul, where it fell. Their protests became religious as they chanted, prayed, and sang. A new, if temporary, religion was born. Astro Bob goes on to say that religions and meteorites are no strangers. Indeed, up until the Middle Ages and even a little beyond, it was believed that rocks could not fall from the sky. A meteorite, then, was a sign from either God or, well, you know who. When the impossible happens religions are quick to follow. Astro Bob’s story was written in 2013, so he doesn’t declare the fate of the Church. The meteorite was raised from the bottom of the lake in October of that year.

New Year’s Day in 1987, while I was home from seminary on break, putting a puzzle together with my brother, our house shook. A loud boom accompanied the shock wave. We ran outside to find the neighbors staring at the sky, and a few casting a wary glance toward the petroleum refinery in town. The news later that day told us a bolide had exploded nowhere very near us. We were within the shock wave, and those fortunate enough to be outside that January saw a flaming meteor in the daytime sky. I remember it well thirty years later. I already had a religion at the time (Methodism, starting to tend toward Episcopalianism) so my plate was already full. It was nevertheless a dramatic event, and when your world is literally shaken, you will naturally look for something to believe.

Hoping for Light

Although the stores have been playing Christmas music for some weeks now, it is technically Advent. I think we could all use a little Advent as days grow shorter and dark nights increase their influence over our lives. As a nation we’ve been brutalized by a minority candidate and this has become a bleak December that Poe would certainly have understood. The spinning mind occasionally falls upon George W. Bush who somehow has begun to look normal. The president who told us when America was under attack we should shop. After all, that’s what people do in December, right? We buy things to make ourselves feel better. It sure is dark outside most of the time. Advent is all about candles and light and hope.

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One of the more endearing aspects of human beings is our ability to see the positive amid negativity. Darkness is the natural state of the universe. Stars are tiny points of light in an endless cold and dark universe. Most of what’s out there has no light beyond those willing to burn bright enough for others to see. We, however, see the light of daytime as normative, slumbering away the hours of darkness. We thrive in light and the light has to be augmented by candles as we struggle against the natural darkness that would, if it could, encompass the universe. Darkness, despite its emptiness, is endlessly hungry. Advent reminds us that we must be light if we want anyone to see in the growing nighttime.

We miss this important dynamic if we leap straight from Halloween to Christmas, pausing briefly for Thanksgiving. The church has made its fair share of mistakes, but Advent wasn’t one of them. Experts tell us Jesus wan’t born in December. Christmas isn’t really a physical birthday. It’s an ancient rite concerned with the return of light to darkened skies. A fervent appeal for our colorful lights and candles to encourage the light that we know, we believe, is out there to return to us. Scientists tell us that it’s just that the earth lolls at 23 degrees on its axis and all of this is just a balancing act. That may be so. I’ve never been off the earth to check. Down here on the ground, however, the days come only reluctantly and the nights linger longer and longer. And we can choose to see darkness as our natural state, or we can ignite a candle to encourage the light to return.

The Neighborhood

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Let me send out a warm welcome to the neighborhood, I think. Not that I officially represent Earth—or anything for that matter. I’m just friendly, I guess. Now that astronomers have strong evidence that the nearest star to our own, Proxima Centauri, likely has a planet, it’s not premature to head over with a casserole. It’s not every day that a new solar system is discovered. We don’t know for sure that the planet’s there, but chances are pretty good. In reading about this discovery I learned that the orthodoxy has changed since I took astronomy in college. It seems now standard wisdom teaches that most stars likely have a least one planet. I can’t even count the stars—I usually start to trail off after I get to about ten—so I can’t imagine the number of potential planets out there. And where there are planets, there are gods.

Let me rephrase that. If there are billions and billions of planets it is very likely that there’s life out there. I know I’m racing ahead of the evidence here, but let me have my fun. If there’s life, there’s a chance, a glimmer of a chance at least, that given enough life we’ll find consciousness. I’ve always thought it was a touch arrogant on our part to assume we were the only ones out here. Perhaps it’s because the stakes are so, ahem, astronomically high we seem to be afraid to admit the possibility. We don’t really want to be alone in this cold, vast, universe after dark. Enter the gods. Conscious beings—even arrogant ones—have no trouble supposing that there is an even greater presence out there. I suspect this isn’t an earth-bound bias. I should hope that conscious life looks toward the stars with wonder, and even after they discover that there’s no lid on their planet they might still ponder what else might be out there.

Let’s suppose there are other creatures out there with other gods. When the meeting takes place we’ll need to have that discussion. You know the one I mean. We’ll need to ask whose deity is really real. Is it yours or is it ours? Hopefully we’ll enter into this with an open mind. I suspect it will depend on who’s in the White House, and all the other big houses, at the time. There are certainly those who claim their own almighty brooks no rivals. If it turns out that we can’t agree, I hope it doesn’t come to blows. There will always be other planets to explore, and maybe even new orthodoxies to accept. It’s an infinite universe, after all.

Digging to Look up

Ancient technology is a growing field of interest. A couple years back I gave a talk about ancient technology at a local Steampunk convention. The smallish audience that attended had lots of questions about how ancient people accomplished marvels such as the Antikythera Mechanism, or even the pyramids of Egypt. As new discoveries continue to show, our antique forebears had access to knowledge we have always assumed to be beyond them. An article in Gizmodo tells the story of how Matthieu Ossendrijver, an astroarchaeologist (and hey, this was simply not a job description I ever found in a college catalog, for the record!) at Humboldt University, has been studying an Akkadian clay tablet (the article doesn’t specify which one, beyond “text A”) that demonstrates that the Babylonians understood one of the principles that led to calculus. Tracking the movement of Jupiter, the Babylonian priests knew that measuring the area under a curve could provide the distance traveled by an object. This principle, in the annals of science, wasn’t discovered until about 1350, C.E. Babylonians knew it over a thousand years earlier.

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Although we marvel at the engineering of the ancients, we tend to think of them as superstitious. After all, they believed in gods and things like that. As Maddie Stone points out in her article, however, priests were also astronomers. Believing that messages from the gods existed among the stars, peoples of ancient times kept careful track of the heavens. Apart from romantic couples looking for time alone, how many people spend an evening under the stars, looking up at a universe that is so much larger than the internet that it can actually made you shudder? There is a wonder out there that can’t be replicated electronically. People knew that the sky and the gods somehow belonged together, and they knew this millennia ago.

Given that many of us hold doctorates in reading ancient, dead languages (too many, perhaps), you’d think all the clay tablets found would’ve been read, catalogued, and neatly stacked away by now. This is far from the truth. Tens of thousands of tablets were excavated back in the days before archaeology became an endangered practice in places like Iraq and Syria. Crates full of these tablets were shipped to museums and few have been transcribed, let alone translated. There is ancient knowledge stored away among the receipts and chronicles and myths of people who lived in the cradle of civilization, and now that information remains buried in museum basements because it is deemed not worth the money spent to provide jobs for those who can read them. As is often the case, however, when we are willing to listen to others, even long dead, we are amazed at what we can discover.

Meet the Neighbors

I was called “moon boy” and was otherwise taunted in ways I care not to share. As a child I openly spoke about my fascination of life in space and was ridiculed in the way children specialize in executing humility. So it was with great appreciation, but not much surprise, that I read that water had been discovered on Mars. Where there’s water, there’s likely life. I won’t say “I told you so.” Life, although I know I’m being premature—I’m a moon boy after all—has been one of the many tools in the God-of-the-gaps bag. God-of-the-gaps thinking is where a religion, in the light of scientific explanation, backs and fills by saying only God could do x, y, or z. The weather used to be a gap, but meteorology and fluid dynamics have started to explain many of the things that happen in the atmosphere. But life—life! Life was something only God could do, and it was only here on earth. Mind the gap.

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No, we’ve not yet discovered life on Mars. Those who spend every hour of their waking days combing at incredible magnification the photographs coming from Mars have suggested life forms. Some of them, I must admit, have been very intriguing. The official stance, however, has been that Mars is too cold for life because, as any trekkie knows, life has to be as we know it. I would venture to say that life will be announced on Mars before too long. Astronomers and astro-biologists are a cautious lot, but I think that life is probably a lot more common than we’ve been led to believe. And I have to believe that we’re not the most intelligent species possible. How else can we explain what’s happening in the run up to the Republican Convention? E.T. may not live on Mars, but somebody else might.

Often I ponder how strange our geocentrism is. Copernicus and Galileo more or less proved that we’re not the center of the universe. Reluctantly the church let go of that fiction, but scientists, in some measure, have held onto it. We are the only planet with life. Life on our planet is the most advanced that it is anywhere. And because we know that nothing travels faster than light there’s no possibility that life elsewhere has ever found its way here. To claim otherwise is to face a scientific inquisition. Water on Mars? Yes! This is a new chapter not in the history of the universe, but in appropriate humility in the face of the unknown. Take it from the moon boy—there’s a lot more yet to be discovered.