FOUR DECADES AGO, SPACE travel fired the American imagination. The whole nation gathered around TV sets (often black and white) to hold vigil with the astronauts fired up into orbit. When in 1969 the first man stepped down onto the surface of the moon, it really did seem like a giant leap for mankind.
Today, the space program continues, but it has become so routine that Americans mostly ignore it, until a tragedy like the space shuttle Columbia disaster last year reminds them how dangerous these missions are, leaving many people to say the risk to human life is just not worth it.
We now have even more amazing technology than we did in the pioneering days of the Mercury and Apollo programs, but our culture is different. In those days, we were optimistic, convinced that "if we can put somebody on the moon," we can do anything. As it turned out, the colossal achievement of flying to the moon proved much easier than solving the breakdown of America's families or stemming the tide of crime, poverty, and war. Now American culture has become cynical, suspicious of lofty ideals and skeptical of grandiose projects.
In the days of Mercury and Apollo, we were modernists, confident that our science, technology, and rational expertise could conquer anything and that progress was unlimited. Now we know better. But we have gone to the other extreme of being postmodernists, convinced that truth-even scientific truth-is relative and irrelevant, that progress is nothing more than a power play and that the proper stance to the mysteries of existence is not wonder but irony.
Yet now a probe lands on Mars, sending back astonishing photographs of a new world both familiar, in its rocks and drifted dust, and alien, a red planet with features that we cannot explain. We start to marvel again, like we used to, and the old curiosity and sense of adventure feels like it could reawaken.
America, still culturally battered and divided, may be getting a sense of confidence back. Attacked on our own shores, we fought back and, though great challenges remain, we tasted victory. America is feeling its strength. Now, President Bush is calling for the nation to renew its exploration of outer space, to go to the moon to stay this time, and to send explorers off on the six-month voyage to Mars.
Is this wise? Can we afford it? Is it worthwhile to risk lives and treasure to go to those bleak and empty worlds? In the Mercury and Apollo days, space exploration was hardly controversial, garnering bipartisan support and overwhelming public favor. Today, the new space initiatives will spark angry debate.
But whether the new initiatives are feasible or imprudent, it is worth asking what space travel means. Is there a Christian perspective on the exploration of outer space? What about the questions that drive our imaginations-the possibility of life on other planets-even to consider going there? What about other questions involving our comprehension of the immensity of the universe and humanity's tiny place in it? Will the scientific knowledge gained by space exploration undermine the Christian faith? Or might we instead by considering the heavens bring glory to God?
Col. Jeffrey Williams is a Christian who has firsthand experience with such questions. As an astronaut, who in May 2000 flew in the space shuttle Atlantis, he walked in space for six hours. Col. Williams, now in training for future flights, talked with WORLD about what this experience meant for him and how it affected his faith.
"In orbit you view Earth and the vastness of space," said Col. Williams, and see that "we are an infinitesimal speck in light of the Creator Himself." This is profoundly humbling, but the vastness of the creation is a testimony to the infinite power and majesty of the One who called it into being. This sense of our smallness and God's unlimited glory is important for self-centered, self-absorbed human beings to realize. "One of the problems inside the church," said Col. Williams, "is that we forget this."
And yet, Col. Williams, when he was floating in the void, with the Earth below him, looking out at the far-flung galaxies, was not dismayed or depressed at the experience. Quite the contrary. It was exhilarating. It was inspiring. "My experience in space," he said, "only amplified my belief in the Creator."
That's different from the common view of those who say that the age of unbelief began with the discovery of outer space. According to this line of thinking, the old cosmology that Earth is the center of the cosmos, with the heavenly bodies rotating around it-the so-called Ptolemaic model, named after the Greco-Egyptian scholar who worked out the math in a.d. 140-allowed for a meaningful universe. Everything had its place; there was order and hierarchy; and man had a basis for dignity, with everything explainable by a religious faith.
Then, in 1543, Copernicus proposed an alternative model, which worked out even better mathematically: The sun is the center, with Earth being one of the planets. When Galileo found empirical evidence to prove him right, he landed in big trouble with the Roman Catholic Church, which felt that the new cosmology would undermine Christianity.
Very soon, more observations of the stars and planets went beyond Copernicus. The sun is not the center, either. There is no center. There are millions of suns, forming millions of galaxies, spread out in an unfathomable extent of empty "space."
As early as 1658, the great Christian apologist Blaise Pascal gave voice to a new sense of being lost in the cosmos. "When I consider the brief span of my life absorbed into the eternity which comes before and after," he wrote in PensŽes, "the small space I occupy and which I see swallowed up in the infinite immensity of spaces of which I know nothing and which know nothing of me, I take fright."
According to the 19th-century materialists, who sought to replace belief in God with the belief that empirical physical reality is all there is, the universe-not God-is what is infinite. Man is nothing more than a cosmic accident, randomly evolved on a tiny planet, spinning around an insignificant star in a minor galaxy. In this cosmology, life has no meaning, and religious faith is nothing more than a fantasy.
Although this is the line of those who attack Christianity, it misses the point. Scientific cosmology keeps changing: Scientists now know that the universe, despite its size, is not infinite, that it had a definite beginning and has definite limits. But the spiritual implications are far different than usually supposed.
Asked whether the vast reaches of outer space render human beings insignificant, Col. Williams said that "apart from Christ, we are insignificant." Our significance does not come from our merit, much less from being the center of the universe, but from "being created uniquely by God," who, "in spite of our fallenness, purely by His grace has chosen to redeem us and give us the gift of His Son as a provision to satisfy His wrath."
Col. Williams spoke about his realization of God's "transcendence, yet His closeness.... To say we have a personal relationship with God, we focus on His closeness, but there is also His infiniteness." The Bible teaches that God is both transcendent and immanent, and that this infinite Creator came down from heaven in Jesus Christ to save these miniscule, rebellious beings, out of His infinite love and grace and continues to draw near to them.
The Ptolemaic model of the universe was actually constructed by pagan philosophers and is intrinsically humanistic. Even some Christians, though they took for granted the science of their time, saw the difficulty. In the epic allegory, The Divine Comedy, which is arguably the first work of science fiction, Dante imagines himself soaring through the heavens and finally breaking out of the created universe into the beatific vision of God Himself. From this vantage point, he looks back from where he has come. In the scheme of the whole poem, it isn't just that Earth is the center and that man is the center, Hell is the center of the universe. From the aspect of Heaven, Dante knows that just cannot be. He looks again and sees the truth, turning his whole universe inside out: God is the true center, around which the whole universe revolves.
Milton, who knew Galileo and who was a contemporary of Pascal, recognized this. In his Paradise Lost, he draws on both cosmologies-his Earth is encased in the Ptolemaic spheres, not as a center but as a tiny pendant dangling on a chain from Heaven-but his description of "the deep" that surrounds it, with its vast reaches and alternative worlds, imaginatively anticipates the cosmology to come. Milton's Hell is, in effect, another planet, with land and climate zones, consisting mainly of a sea of liquid fire, reminiscent of what scientists are now telling us about Jupiter. The Earth, explains the angel Raphael to Adam, "is a spot, a graine, / An atom, with the Firmament compared / And all her numbered stars, that seem to rowl / Spaces incomprehensible." But Milton knew that God was present in it all: "Boundless the Deep, because I am who fill / Infinitude, nor vacuous the space."
One motivation for space exploration is curiosity over whether there is life in some of those "spaces incomprehensible." Either way has profound theological implications. C.S. Lewis observed that opponents of Christianity have used both possibilities as arguments: "We are alone in a vast universe, so how could your religion be true?" and, when the other possibility arose more recently, "There are probably millions of inhabited worlds out there, so how could your religion be true?"
Lately, though, the materialists' interest in the matter has been overtaken by advocates of new religions. Having rejected God, many people are trying to replace Him with aliens in flying saucers. They are our true creators, seeding our planet with the primitive life that evolved into what we have today. In some versions, they have been supervising our evolution. In still others, the aliens will come again as our saviors, rescuing us from nuclear and environmental annihilation. Scientologists believe that we are all reincarnations of extraterrestrial survivors of an intergalactic war.
Lewis said that if we were to find intelligent life on other planets, the question would remain, "Is it fallen or unfallen?" When Lewis was writing his novels, most science fiction portrayed aliens as hideous monsters invading Earth or attacking human explorers. In Lewis's science fiction, his space travelers encounter beings who never made Adam's mistake. The humans are the invaders, bringing not just destruction but sin. We are the monsters. The Fall that brought sin and death into our world and all our woe is the exception, the anomaly in the universe. "I have wondered before now," he writes, "whether the vast astronomical distances may not be God's quarantine precautions. They prevent the spiritual infection of a fallen species from spreading."
Col. Williams says that he is "skeptical" that there is any kind of extraterrestrial life. "If life were to be discovered anywhere, I don't think it would challenge my faith." Still, the Bible gives no evidence of any such thing. "My gut feeling based on studying the Scripture is to doubt the existence of life elsewhere, as Earth and mankind are described in God's revelation."
As far back as 1667, Milton was already imagining both possibilities. Even Raphael is only speculating when he talks to Adam about the moon, saying "What if ... land be there, / Fields and Inhabitants?" He warns him, though, not to be preoccupied with these kinds of speculations, but to be content with the spiritual realities that God does reveal.
More profoundly, Milton contemplates "the stars numerous," with "every star perhaps a World / Of destined habitation." In the context of Raphael hailing Man as having been created in God's image and given dominion "over His works on Earth, in Sea, or Air" and called to "multiply a race of worshippers / Holy and just," he must be alluding to the most mind-blowing possibility of them all.
Adam and Eve were told to be fruitful and multiply and to have dominion, a command given before the Fall. If Adam and Eve and their descendants were to be fruitful and multiply-and no one ever died-where would these exponentially multiplying humans of sinless perfection have gone? The Earth would have soon been full. "Perhaps" every star-the magnitude of whose numbers we know far more about than Milton did-is a "world of destined habitation." Although the Fall would have spoiled such a great adventure, perhaps this is something that awaits us after the Resurrection.
Poets have a license to let their imaginations run away with them. Theologians, like scientists, need to be more sober. Raphael's advice to stick to what we know from Scripture is the most salutary.
Whether or not-and how, and to what extent-we should travel in space is a separate question. It is a matter for engineers and scientists, economists, politicians, and other pragmatic folks to determine, one way or the other.
Col. Williams maintains that the benefits of space exploration-the new technologies, the scientific advances, and the inspirational value-are worth the costs: "If you look at the big picture, it's a small part of the national budget, and it's been flat or in decline since we landed on the moon. There is a large return on the investment that is a lot more significant than other investments we make. And much of that return is intangible."
For example, he cites "the motivation of students of all ages to be inspired into areas of technology and engineering"-exactly the areas that math-starved casualties of America's educational system have been abandoning-and the potential "to further the progress of our nation and our world."
"I believe that there is something built into our nature that makes us want to explore the unknown," he said. "We see at a distance," but we have "a desire built into our nature to explore and understand."
Col. Williams cites Romans 1, which teaches that "the very creation tells us that God exists. Apart from His special revelation, we can't know Him, but there is something in that creation.... We see the creation and want to know God, who is behind it."
Another Scripture for outer space is Psalm 8, which begins by marveling at God: "How majestic is Your name.... You have set Your glory above the heavens!"
"When I look at Your heavens, the work of Your fingers [such a small task for God!], the moon and the stars, which You have set in place, what is man that You are mindful of him [we shrink into insignificance], and the son of man that You care for him? Yet You have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor. You have given him dominion over the works of Your hands; You have put all things under his feet."
This Psalm speaks to us of Christ (Hebrews 2:6-9), but it also evokes the complex feelings-of both our insignificance and our undeserved exaltation, of God's glory and His grace-occasioned by gazing up at the night sky or by floating in outer space.