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.
I’m curious: what do you think of Augustine? Augustine of Hippo was an odd blend of saint and sinner. I don’t mean “saint” in the sense of being so designated by the Roman Catholic Church, but in the sense of having reputable and progressive ideas. For example, Augustine argued that science, such as it existed in his day, had to be taken into account when understanding Christianity. If the Bible’s account of creation didn’t match what we knew of the world, then literalism had to go—that kind of thing. This was quite liberal for someone in the fourth-to-fifth centuries. He believed in reason, to an extent. The sinner side of the equation goes beyond his Manichean days, however. The sins I’m referring to are his dangerous and long-lasting theological assumptions that’ve helped to hold back civilization throughout history.
It was Augustine, for example, who gave us the idea of original sin being involved in sexual reproduction. The church has always been cagey on why we should reproduce when the second coming is right around the corner, but Augustine declared that from our very conception (which he couldn’t understand scientifically) we were tainted with sin. But that’s not the particular sin to which I’m referring. Augustine also spread the persistent idea that curiosity itself was a sin. Christianity, in his view, was a “need to know” religion, and curiosity about the natural world could lead to uncomfortable answers. He held this in tension with his belief that we should accept what science teaches, but there were many questions, he decided, we simply shouldn’t ask.
Religions have often come to this crux. Science has a strong explanatory track record. Religion is frequently based on old texts, written in an age when science was but an infant. As the power of rationality grew, the role of miracles shrank. Over time the proof of theological structures began to crumble. And since life was all about correct theology, those edifices had to be shored up against the onslaughts of reason. If this sounds hopelessly outdated, I’ll have to confess that many of my students at Nashotah House believed reason was tainted by original sin. Augustine had the answers they believed; somehow rationality had stopped with him. Human curiosity, Augustine felt, was a sin. All questions should’ve ended with his arguments. It’s this kind of theological bravado that gets us into the mess we find ourselves in today. Voting blocs that never question what their religious leader tells them. Never curious enough to ask “Why?” Augustine was a brilliant man, in many respects. He was also a sinner of the highest degree.
In Sunday’s paper a story from the Los Angeles Times reported that Voyager 1, now 35 years old (and a technological grandfather, considering how quickly technology develops), is poised to leave the solar system. It is the first mechanical device, at least designed and launched from earth, that will do so. The spacecraft, billions of miles away, sends signals that take 17 hours to reach earth. It is boldly going where no man [sic] has gone before. The vastness of open space was one of the initial challenges to the traditional theology that had developed in an unbroken sequence from the time of the Bible down to the days of Copernicus and Galileo. Nobody was sure what was out there, but certainly Heaven had to be somewhere and God was clearly above us, so, in a marriage of convenience, God reigned in the unexplored sky. Voyager 1 bears a gold-plated plaque that attempts to describe who and where we are. Sent into the neighborhood where God used to live, Voyager was announcing that we were ready for celestial guests.
Many scientists don’t take seriously the idea that we’ve already been visited. The internet, however, has become a great clearinghouse for those intrigued by extraterrestrial life. I found a website this weekend that had located at least three different life-forms in just one of the Mars rover Curiosity’s pictures. We are lonely without heavily denizens. Stephen Hawking famously warned, a couple years back, that if they’re there, they’re probably not friendly. His paradigm, however, was based on earth psychology. Most of us know how far to trust that!
The fact is, we’ve been beaming our existence into space since the invention of the radio. Our electronic signals are, according to physics, pretty close to eternal. Electromagnetic waves just keep going and going, putting all manner of Energizer bunnies to shame. Long before Voyager 1 reaches the cusp of the solar system, our light and sound show has been announcing that this is where the godless party is and has been for over a century. Voyager 1 is far less than a needle in the cosmic haystack. It is more akin to a molecule or an atom. Will it find God out there? I highly doubt it. Nevertheless, when I went out to get the newspaper before dawn this morning, I spent an extra few moments looking at the stars and wondering.
The early morning sky has been putting on a beautiful, celestial waltz this week as the crescent moon, Venus and Jupiter swing close then part along the ecliptic. On such days it is easy to see how ancient people would have attributed motive and intentionality to the solar system—there’s definitely something going on up there. Then we get the images from the Mars rover Curiosity, showing us ourselves, lost in space. One of the truly iconic photographs from the last century was the earthrise taken from the moon. Until that moment it was difficult to conceive that we really were spinning through space, unattached to any biblical pillars with an affixed firmament above. Now we are looking at ourselves from a distance of some 225 million kilometers, and our troubles have never seemed less significant, our god never smaller. We are the eyes in our own sky—or, more impressive yet—the eyes from some other planet’s skies. I can’t see how this would fail to have religious implications.
Is this real life, or just fantasy?
Religion often involves introspection—looking at oneself from the outside, or from another perspective. Our religious ancestors, who had no way to assess what the planets were with their conceptual framework, generally assumed them to be alive. Some cultures called them gods, others creatures, but their movement in the sky is often lost on modern people who only occasionally glance at the sky, when their smartphone is taking a little too long to download something. How sobering it is to consider that we are one of those bright dots when seen from Martian eyes. (Unfortunately I’ve been unable to confirm the stunning image that’s been circulating on the Internet claiming to be from Curiosity.) Ancient religions, by necessity, are geocentric. The earth is all they knew. Of course, religions have grown increasingly defensive as new realities have been discovered; even the Book of Mormon was written before the planet Neptune was decisively named and claimed. Changing worldviews is never easy.
From NASA’s photo library
Religion is often a coping mechanism to keep us grounded. Many concepts of divinity are celestially based—pointing to some divine realm in the sky. That is the perspective of an earthling. Once in space, what direction is God? We find that our up and down, near and far, are only relative terms. What the means is that increased knowledge forces further reflection on religious beliefs. We can’t stand still and let the universe revolve around us like an obsolete firmament. Religion must engage reality to remain relevant. And right now reality is rolling across the surface of Mars, looking homeward with alien eyes. How small our steeples and cathedrals look from our solar system sibling’s perspective.