Sorry about That, Chief

What’s worth $20,000? An apology. That figure may require some adjustment for inflation, but back in the days when I was taking conflict management training it was right. Our teachers informed us that court decision costs were lowered by $20,000 when a client apologized. I’m sorry, but I don’t see that money should be necessary for an apology. Nevertheless, in a world motivated by money, this is a factor to keep in mind. With some of the very late apologies that have come out in recent years (the church apologizing to Galileo, and to the “witches” executed in the Middle Ages) comes the realization that too late is, perhaps, better than never. Often in cases such as these, a religious bravado just can’t back down. Doctrine is doctrine and you can’t change it without losing face. This doesn’t just impact large bodies like the Vatican, either. Lots of religious groups have apologies that they could, and should, make.

Grove City College is a small school. It has, from reports I see, become more conservative than it was when I was a student there. One suspects there may have been some apologies due over the years. I was surprised, however, to find GCC mentioned in the Christian Century. A former professor at my alma mater was fired for refusing to register for the draft in World War II, according to the story. Howard Pew, chair of Sun Oil (and the board at Grove City) accused him of being a communist. Now, over half a century later, the former president of the college delivered an apology to his door. That’s a nice gesture. Former faculty are generally, in my experience, shoved far from mind. We don’t like to treat those who educate too well, some times.

Photo by "the Enlightenment"

Photo by “the Enlightenment”

For the unapologetic professor, the greatest sense of satisfaction comes not from humbled administrators, but from grateful students. On very great occasions I still hear from some of mine. It makes up for some of the pitfalls along the way of an academic life. Teaching religion, naturally, puts you in some company that you might not expect. Of all anathema topics, teaching about being decent to other people earns you the most rancor. So it is, unfortunately frequently the case among our educational institutions. Pew, whose shadow still loomed large over campus in my undergraduate days, never personally apologized. Those with plenty of money to spare seldom do. $20,000 is not too much to pay to feel completely justified in taking another person’s livelihood away. We can only hope for a better educated future.

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.

The Fall

“Herr, es ist Zeit. Der Sommer war sehr gross,” go the opening words of Rainer Maria Rilke’s 1902 poem, “Herbsttag.” Autumn day. “Lord,” one might feebly translate, “it is time. The summer was very great.” The English words fail to capture the lyricism of the Teutonic original, but these words have been running through my head since about the middle of August when, standing outside before dawn waiting for the bus, some days, I think a jacket might be nice. Just a light jacket. Something to cover the parts of my arms not protected by a tee-shirt. And I realize, although autumn has always been my favorite time of year, it cannot come without a sense of loss. I’m no summer beach fan. Most of the time when I wander to the ocean it has already taken on its gray fall coat. But still, the passing of summer is sad, always sad.

At the National Watch and Clock Museum, we learn that Galileo, often presented as the antagonist of the church. got his idea for the pendulum from watching church lanterns sway from their chains. Time was passing, but it was “God’s time.” The growing season ends, and the harvest is at hand. Our children head reluctantly back to school after too few months of unstructured time. Time when sleep is abundant and the sunshine lasts long into the night. Adulthood robs us, perhaps, of such finery, but I can still appreciate it from a distance. Were I more mature, I might even say it is of greater significance for being further away. I’m a little too young, however, to have forgotten how summer can make me feel. I adore the autumn, but I miss the sun nevertheless.

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Here in that transition between hot, endless days and the chill release of Halloween, I find myself contemplating the religious nature of time. “If I could save time in a bottle,” Jim Croce wrote, and then his plane crashed on take-off. Time is like that. It promises eternity but gives mere seconds. Apart from the beach bums pining for endless summer, those of us enamored of autumn stand still and reflect on the cusp of seasonal change. Perhaps, like the year itself, this is all a cycle. The face looking back at me from the mirror has more gray hair than I remember growing. And yet the clock on the wall continues to tick. Work will always be waiting there on Monday morning, and the sun can reach quite as high in the sky as it did only last month. “Herr,” I sigh, “es ist Zeit.”

Exobiology

Are we alone in the universe? The answer is every day growing more and more certain that we are not. Humanity may experience shortages of many things, however, pride is not among them. For millennia we’ve been convinced of our own superiority and, of late, we’ve become convinced that we must be as good as it gets. We’ve mastered logic and our material world. We’ve sent probes to land on Venus and Mars, and flying by just about every other planetary body close enough to reach. We sure are smart. So it stands to reason that we are the brightest beings in a universe that we tell ourselves is infinite. A recent article on Exobiology that my wife pointed out to me on The Conversation, traces the history of the idea of life outside the earth. Not surprisingly, the idea has its origins in religious thought.

Giordano Bruno was an early modern Dominican who was burned at the stake for his heresies. Like his near contemporary Galileo, he was fascinated by the sky and postulated that the world up there could be full of life. A church increasingly under pressure from the pesky Protestant movement had no time for flights of fancy among the faithful. No, religion at the time wanted its feet planted on solid ground. The only life up there was angels and God. Still, the idea had been broached. Since the world’s major religions have been geocentric, as a rule, they’ve had a bit of difficulty adjusting to the idea of the other other. God as other is one thing, other creatures as other is quite another. How do earth-bound religions account for the possibility of life in space? This is not merely academic fancy at play. We will almost certainly discover life elsewhere—whether it comes to us (or already may have), or we go to it (which might take a little longer), we will discover that a universe that is infinite has infinite possibilities. Will religion keep us grounded?

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Ironically, one of the areas where science and religion have broadly agreed is in the superiority of humankind. Both remain staunchly geocentric. Religions and tend to say we’re sinful, but other than that, pretty much the best the earth has to offer. Although biologists say evolution is non-teleological, they still have a hard time imagining something more advanced than us. We are pretty self-absorbed. Meanwhile, we are discovering water is likely not unique to earth. Rocky planets seem to be the rule rather than the exception. And there are billions and billions of stars in our own galaxy alone, among billions of others. What are the chances we’re alone? Virtually none. Here is one place that both religion and science might learn a lesson based on early spiritual teachings. In the face of the unknown, humility is the most logical response. I’m impressed in how far we’ve come in the last several millennia of civilization. I think, however, that we’d better be prepared to meet exobiology with a realization that Genesis 1 was only the beginning.

Gnostic Agnostic

ACU-Stuckrad-WesternEsotericism-COVER.indd Hidden knowledge is sweet. Belief in it is very old. Kocku von Stuckrad’s Western Esotericism: A Brief History of Secret Knowledge offers its own kind of hidden knowledge—well, it’s not so much hidden as it is simply ignored—that even science owes a debt of gratitude to the draw of the esoteric. We are trained to treat such “New Age” ideas with contempt from our tender years, and we are assured that the light of reason has dispelled the gloom of occluded wisdom. Von Stuckrad, however, clearly demonstrates that the desire to explain our world streams from the same font as the belief that a larger, if hidden, reality lies behind what our senses perceive. Such ideas originate in antiquity and continue in various forms up to the present. The impetus to explain it all shows in Galileo’s belief in astrology as well as astronomy and Newton’s fascination with alchemy as well as calculus. Great minds have always been willing to be stretched.

In more recent, and self-assured, days vocal spokes-folk have declared a single way of knowing, and it is empirical and imperial all at the same time. That which cannot be explained rationally cannot be explained at all. Still, our experience of life often suggests otherwise. Sometimes it feels as if science overuses the coincidence excuse, and maybe there is something more going on. The esoteric, without fail, has been assigned to the category of religious thought because, in the current paradigm, the only real opponent to science is religion. If it’s irrational, it must be religious.

Ironically, von Stuckrad’s research demonstrates that the culture that led us to science, in many ways, has its basis in esoteric beliefs. That gnawing suspicion that not everything is explained by numbers and experiments has been with us since the days of Gobekli Tepe, the pyramids, and Stonehenge. Each of these monuments (and many others besides) were astounding feats of engineering—and engineering is applied science—while all being profoundly religious. Science in the service of the unknown. Such complexity need not be considered naive; even scientists can be subject to religious ways of thinking. Von Stuckrad does not advocate esotericism in his book; he merely documents it and treats it non-judgmentally. There is perhaps a hidden lesson here for all of us as well. Instead of declaring a single heavyweight champion of all the world, perhaps true wisdom lies in being fully human with all its complexity and contradictions.

Where is it?

When I step outside to pick up the morning newspaper, I always look at the sky. I think this is a very early evolutionary trick. It may be because there was a time when primates were smaller and birds of prey larger, or it may be because some big cats like to drop on prey from trees. It may be simply that we don’t like to get wet, especially unexpectedly. For whatever reason, the sky is a source of endless fascination. Helen T. Gray, in a piece written for the Kansas City Star yesterday, ponders the place of Heaven in the space age. 80 percent of Americans report believing in Heaven, she points out, and she describes how Heaven has shifted from an improbably physical place to a transdimensional or neurologically embedded place. We, as a people, believe that there must be a better place than this. No matter where we locate it, Heaven is always a decided improvement on this place where too many people suffer too much and all of us suffer some of the time.

I once considered astronomy for a career. My high school, built in the fretful days of the Cold War, had an actual planetarium as the space race was burning over the red line. I took a high school class in astronomy and when I got to college I followed it up with an undergraduate course in the same. While I enjoyed learning about all the strangeness of space, it soon became clear that astronomy was simply another word for mathematics; the class involved intensive equations stressing a regularity that Metamucil would be proud to claim. And, of course, since we live on a sphere every direction is up. The belief in a better place is nothing if not resilient. It survived the knowledge that “up there” is either nowhere or everywhere, depending on your point of view. Most theologians after Galileo’s day finally admitted that. When I go for the paper, I still look to the sky, however.

In Hebrew the word translated “heaven” is the same word that is translated as “sky.” The Hebrew Bible knows no separate place called Heaven, but the latest parts do indicate a life restored after death. I wonder if Rick Nowels and Ellen Shipley might not have gotten it right when they wrote the song that would help solidify Belinda Carlisle’s solo career. Maybe Heaven is a place where love prevails. Not just the erotic love of pop music, but the love that sees not a Muslim, an African, a Hindu, or an Oriental, but human beings. That stranger experiences those same feelings, hopes, aspirations that all of us do. He or she should not be left shivering, hungry on the street corner begging for quarters to buy his or her next meal. If it’s clear outside I linger as I gaze at early morning stars and planets, feeling deep yearnings I can’t hope to express. No, Heaven may not be a Mormon planet where you get to become God after you die (ahem). Heaven is not a mansion in the clouds (I’m sure some satellite would’ve picked it up by now). Heaven is not where I get to go and you don’t. Heaven is here and now, but we all have to work for it.

Unbelievable Voyage

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.