God doesn’t call us to sit on our butts. However, there are a million ways to not sit on one’s butt. Why should space exploration be one of them?
Two reasons: for the greater glory of God, and the development of our own virtue.
First, God’s glory. This almost goes without saying: the universe is amazing. God’s creation is utterly mind-boggling and humbling. Christians have historically been on the forefront of explorations both geographic and scientific, and there is good reason for this: we are called to learn more about God, and God’s creation provides a handy starting point.
For the last 2000 years Christians journeyed as missionaries to distant places and collected knowledge at home; knowledge from their journeys, from past scholars, and from current experiments and theories (I have already posted on Christian contributions to scientific method here). From Bede the Venerable and Albert the Great to Gregor Mendel and Georges Lemaitre, and even more recently to the Jesuits of the Vatican Observatory, the faithful have been devoted scientists and researchers.
But what of explorers? From St. Patrick in Ireland to Francis Xavier and Matteo Ricci in Asia, Jacques Marquette in North America, and countless others across the world, Christians have sought out new places, not only for the sake of evangelism and helping others but also for the sake of learning more about the world.
When we learn about God’s creation we are struck by its wondrousness. For the Christian, this glorifies God, and when we share those ideas we share God’s glory with the world.
Furthermore, to get Franciscan for a moment, St. Francis had a beautiful way of referring to all things in creation as his brothers and sisters, as in “Brother Sun, Sister Moon.” The above explorations have all been on earth, but I think we ought to get to know some of our more distant family a little bit better. They will have stories to tell us about God. Stories written in their rocks, and perhaps even stories of life. Just last month astronomers announced the discovery of a good candidate for an earth-like world, Kepler 22b – right size, right temperature. It would take centuries or millennia to get there, but until then we can certainly keep looking for more to add to our planet catalogue. Exploration is not only about physically going there (though I think that should be the ultimate goal), but also about mentally going there, through telescopes like Hubble and Kepler, probes like the Voyagers and Pioneers, and various planetary orbiters, rovers, and landers.
Second… why are we called to learn more about God? For our own benefit, both intellectual and moral. God doesn’t get anything from our glorification, God has no needs; this is something to help us become better people.
Explorations are always dangerous. And so we grow in courage to face the unknown, both physical and mental. Not only are lives on the line, but thoughts as well. What if a discovery overturns previous knowledge? We would have to humble ourselves before reality. Science is a religious activity and furthermore a very Christian activity because it requires not only hard work, which makes us better, more disciplined people, but also humility before creation. Humans are not smart. Individually we know next to nothing and collectively we still know very little. And yet it is miraculous that we can know anything at all. God deigns to give us brains capable of glimpsing the infinite, and he does this out of pure love.
Through the hard work and courage of science and exploration we cultivate ourselves towards moral and intellectual virtue. We learn how to use our time wisely, how to use God’s resources wisely, how to care for what we have been given. We also gain insights into the rationality of the universe and the purpose and meaning of life. Aristotle (whose ideas were well-baptized by St. Thomas Aquinas) argued that the purpose of human life was wisdom: knowledge of the eternal and the meaning of the universe. Wisdom, both practical in how we act, and theoretical in how we think, is a noble goal, the most noble of course connecting this wisdom to God’s love.
So how do science and exploration relate to God’s love? All this talk of self-improvement can begin to sound, as virtue ethics is sometimes accused of being, a bit selfish. What good is all of this for everybody else?
Immediate social justice questions come to mind. Our world is in serious trouble right now because we have institutionalized structures of injustice which are not only hurting and killing people for the benefit of a few powerful people, but damaging the entire ecosphere, ultimately harming even those who profit from its destruction.
How does space exploration benefit the poor here on Earth? How does science benefit anybody?
These are hard questions to answer, especially when we know that people are starving in Somalia and being slaughtered in the Congo. Shouldn’t we just pour money into those places to try to save lives, rather than sending rovers to Mars for the sake of the wisdom of a few rich Westerners? Surely saving the life of even one person is more important than material stuff. And I see the sharp point of that critique.
What I can say is that knowledge has unexpected benefits which apply to everyone, not just the rich. Newton probably never envisioned that his mechanics would eventually yield a physics capable of an industrial revolution. Einstein at first would not have perceived that the equivalence of mass and energy would yield nuclear power plants. Both of those blessings have also proven to be curses, because we humans are imperfect. But computers, cell phones, refrigerators, airplanes, and most everything else technological about modern life is rooted in ideas that were once just “ideas,” alone, with no purpose other than the amazement of discovery. Knowing orbital mechanics was of little practical relevance to peasants long ago, except perhaps insofar as they affirmed the calendar or demystified eclipses. But knowledge grows upon itself and leads to unexpected things, like men walking on the moon.
But more than that, wonder and beauty, especially in the form of information, are not things for a few but for all. Information is easy to share. A photo of Mars can be free, if you have a classroom or access to the internet. And wonder can change lives. It can even make life worth living. Humans do not die only physical deaths; we also die spiritual deaths, we die because of despair and meaninglessness. But if we know the truth about our history, our place in the universe, and most especially about God then we realize there is no need for despair. We are loved and we live in a world beyond imagining.
Purposelessness leads to death and destruction. Humans NEED purpose. Perhaps one of the reasons our contemporary world is so messed up is because we know longer know why we are living. Is it all just for money and entertainment? No wonder people want to die. No wonder we are stuck in fruitless political arguments while people starve and bombs explode and millionaires extract yet more money from the poor. All that effort for nothing good. To quote Alfred North Whitehead “Without adventure civilization is in full decay.” We need something good to do with ourselves.
But Christians have a purpose; we just need to get working on it. We are to love God and neighbor, two very simple commands with immense implications and difficulties for us to actually get doing. We can help the world not only through corporeal works of mercy, but also through spiritual ones, such as educating the ignorant. Which, in case you didn’t know, is all of us. We know hardly anything about the universe.
Exploration of space is a noble task. And it is a noble task which all humans can share in and be encouraged by. The knowledge gained will provide practical benefits we can hardly dream of, but more than that it can, now, improve our souls both morally and intellectually. Everyone can benefit from exploration, even if the material benefits are distant, the emotional and intellectual benefits can be immediate and powerful. Truth, goodness, and beauty are all encompassed by wonder and in that moment of humility before the infinite we can transcend ourselves and find real meaning in life.
I’ll end with one last story.
When I was in the outer atolls of the Marshall Islands in the Pacific, one evening while looking at the moon, cockroaches flying through the air, the family I was staying with asked me: “Did people really walk on the moon?” We were far from civilization, hundreds of miles from any significant population center. They were, by all measures that we have in the US, poor. They lived in a plywood house with a leaky sheet-metal roof, and got about 12 dollars for a 200 pound burlap bag of copra (coconut meat) which took at least three days of hard work to create. We might well ask why they should care about such things as people walking on the moon. But, because they were human, they did.
To their question I said “Yes. About 30 years ago.” We sat in awed silence, pondering. Then another question: “Why don’t they go back?” I didn’t know, and so I replied as much. Another long silence. And then a response. “I think they should go back.”*
They knew a good idea when they heard it.
I think we should “go back” too. And then some.
Ad astra! Ad majorem Dei gloriam!
What do you think?
* Of note is that in the “they” I think there was an implicit “we.” All humans together. Collective amazement brings us together in the face of wonder.