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Puny Humans, Vast Universe

Our place in the cosmos has been a source of fascination since the first human looked up at the splendor of the night sky. Every culture has reacted to the spectacle of the heavens with religious awe. The Babylonians and the Chinese watched the stars for omens. Petroglyphs in North America record novas. Greek gods are in the constellations. Vanished cultures erected immense monuments like Stonehenge to watch the movements of the heavens. Ancient Egypt was rocked by a religious movement led by Akhenaten, who worshiped the sun.

The sense of wonder about our place in the universe was shared by the chosen people. The Psalmist pours out his amazement:

When I look at thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars which thou hast established; what is man that thou art mindful of him, and the son of man that thou dost care for him? (Ps. 8:3–4)

In antiquity, nobody had yet teased out categorical distinctions between miracles and magic, science and superstition, revelation and folklore. Asking if a man was practicing chemistry or alchemy, astronomy or astrology, science or magic, myth or religion would have been a nonsense question to ancients. They knew that things were connected, but they were only beginning to understand how.

Did the Israelites Believe in Astrology?

Yet we moderns often try to force ancients into our categories. For example, scholars tell us there is evidence that Israel encamped around the tabernacle in such a way as to reflect the constellations (Num. 2), and there are ancient synagogues with mosaics of the zodiac inlaid in the floor. This could lead us to the conclusion that the Israelites “believed in” astrology.

This is false. Rather, it is evidence of a sacramental understanding of the world. Israel saw itself as the beginning of a new world order, symbolized by the “heavenly host.” The link between the “heavenly host” and the “earthly host” of Israel was very strong in the biblical mind, for both are ruled over by the same God—Yahweh Sabaoth (the “Lord of hosts”). The earthly tabernacle was a miniature of God’s heavenly dwelling: Both were attended by the armies of the Lord, the people of Israel and the angels in heaven, respectively. Similarly, in Genesis 37:9, Jacob and his sons are likened to the sun, the moon, and twelve stars.

The conviction that earth and heaven are both guided by a common Creator runs through Scripture. We are told “from their courses [the stars] fought against Sisera” (Jgs. 5:20). Likewise, both Ezekiel and Revelation portray heavenly creatures around the throne of God, corresponding to the constellations. Scholars point out that the four cherubim mentioned in Revelation 4:6–7 conform to the middle signs in the four quarters of the zodiac. The lion is Leo, the ox is Taurus, the man is Aquarius, and the eagle is Scorpio. John lists them in counter-clockwise order, backward around the zodiac.

But this is not an appeal to astrology. It is an example of the biblical and sacramental understanding that the creation in the heavens, like all the rest of creation, is a sign made by and pointing to God. In the words of Psalm 19:1, “The heavens are telling the glory of God.” To the ancient biblical mind, the groupings of the stars are not random, because nothing in all creation is random. The macrocosm of creation showed the glory of God writ large across the heavens, and the microcosm of the temple declared his glory on a human scale. For the biblical authors, as for us, everything is connected, but it is not the stars doing the connecting. It is God, the creator of heaven and earth.

We’re Nothing but a Small Blue Dot

In Scripture, the action takes place on earth, not in the sky, and the main story is of God and his people, culminating in the revelation of Christ. Astronomical events, such as the star of Bethlehem, point to what God is doing in the affairs of men. Like road signs, these phenomena point the pilgrim soul on his way to Christ and are then quickly forgotten.

But in an age that has come to doubt or even forget Christ, pagan ideas—including ideas about the heavens—can reassert themselves. We live in such a time.

It is not unusual to meet people who have a physicalist view of man’s place in the cosmos. One particularly crude argument asserts that the Bible errs by focusing on the earth and not the sky, because, as H. G. Wells said, “Man is utterly insignificant compared to the size of the universe!” They produce numerous illustrations of our smallness for popular science shows. A camera pulls back until the earth shrinks to (in Carl Sagan’s phrase) a “small blue dot,” then the solar system becomes a pinpoint that vanishes into an arm of the Milky Way, which itself becomes an indistinct smudge of light disappearing into billions of other galaxies. People set real store by such thinking. But that’s not because they are hard-headed scientists looking at cold facts. It’s because they are poets who think they are philosophers. They can’t refrain from supposing that immense differences in physical size mean something. But as G. K. Chesterton dryly replied to his friend Wells’s contention, “Man is small compared to the nearest tree.”

In short, size doesn’t matter. Michael Jordan does not have greater spiritual worth than Michael J. Fox because he’s taller. Because people are the size of ants compared to the Twin Towers does not mean the buildings were more important than the people killed in them. But when size differences become vast, we tend to wax poetic and to forget these obvious facts.

A Christian Speaking Idiotically

Similar thinking is at work in the insistence of a small cadre of reactionary Catholics on geocentrism. They claim that the earth is the center of the universe and that all other heavenly bodies orbit around it. Some even insist that the earth does not rotate on its axis but that the entire universe moves around the earth every twenty-four hours. That this is folly has been proven many times. The real question is why anybody would insist on geocentrism as vital to the faith in the first place. The answer is twofold. First, converts who were once Fundamentalists and who used to read Scripture literally become Catholic and proceed to read Scripture and Catholic documents literally. Second, they tend to believe that “if it’s old, then it’s part of Tradition.” Since pre-Copernican Christians assumed a Ptolemaic universe, then that must be part of Tradition. To geocentrists, heliocentrism is just another modernist corruption of the faith.

Augustine replied to this thinking:

It not infrequently happens that something about the earth, about the sky, about other elements of this world, about the motion and rotation or even the magnitude and distances of the stars, about definite eclipses of the sun and moon, about the passage of years and seasons, about the nature of animals, of fruits, of stones, and of other such things may be known with the greatest certainty by reasoning or by experience, even by one who is not a Christian. It is too disgraceful and ruinous, though, and greatly to be avoided, that he [the non-Christian] should hear a Christian speaking so idiotically on these matters and, as if in accord with Christian writings, that he might say that he could scarcely keep from laughing when he saw how totally in error they are. . . .

With Scripture it is a matter of treating about the faith. For that reason . . . if anyone, not understanding the mode of divine eloquence, should find something about these matters [about the physical universe] in our books, or hear of the same from those books, of such a kind that it seems to be at variance with the perceptions of his own rational faculties, let him believe that these other things are in no way necessary to the admonitions or accounts or predictions of Scripture. In short, it must be said that our authors knew the truth about the nature of the skies, but it was not the intention of the Spirit of God, who spoke through them, to teach men anything that would not be of use to them for their salvation. (The Literal Interpretation of Genesis, 1:19–20; 2:9)

How to Go to Heaven

As another famous Catholic named Galileo put it: “The purpose of revelation is to tell us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go.”

The fact that modern geocentrists persist in their beliefs despite all the evidence to the contrary tells us that they are confusing physical reality with spiritual reality. Just as some people think our physical size means something, so others think our physical location means something. They believe that if we are not literally at the center of the physical heavens, then we cannot be at the center of God’s heart. But humans have dignity because they are made in the image and likeness of God, not because of where they happen to be located in God’s universe. Such obvious physicalism was put to bed three thousand years ago, when the king of Syria was rudely disabused of the notion that God was a God of the hills, not of the plains (1 Kgs. 20:23). Neither is he a God of the earth, or of the Andromeda Galaxy. Wherever we are physically, we are spiritually at the center of God’s love.

Yet there are lingering doubts in the modern mind. Surely there is something terribly provincial about the Christian conviction that humans are “special” in a fourteen-billion-year-old, 156-billion-light-year-wide universe! This jittery insecurity is seen every time a new planet is discovered orbiting distant suns. We are instantly asked what implication this has for the (presumably) small-minded Christian faith. The Christian faith has always believed that the universe contains non-corporeal, non-human, intelligent beings. We call them angels and demons, but the same definition can be applied to “extraterrestrials.”

But, as C. S. Lewis points out, corporeal, non-human, created intelligent beings called “extraterrestrials” pose a problem to the faith only if we know the answers to five questions:

  1. Are there creatures on other planets? Answer: We don’t know. We don’t even know if we will ever know.
  2. Do these hypothetical creatures possess what we call “rational souls”—that is, the ability to know (and sin against) God?
  3. Assuming rational creatures exist on other worlds, are they fallen? If not, there is no need for God’s salvific incarnation, death, and resurrection.
  4. Assuming the answer to all the previous questions is “yes,” is our mode of redemption what such creatures require for salvation? If not, it merely shows that the Great Physician prescribes particular medicine for the particular illness of a particular species.
  5. Finally (assuming unknowable affirmatives to all the previous questions), do we know redemption will be denied to these fallen rational creatures? A visit to earth ten thousand years ago would not have yielded much information to the outside observer about what God was up to in preparing the way for Christ. Likewise, it would probably be extraordinarily difficult for human observers to tell what God has done, is doing, and will do toward the salvation of these hypothetical creatures.

Good Alien, Bad Alien

Of course, arguments for ET have no evidence. I do not propose “We Are Alone” as dogma of the faith but rather to point out that those who insist “We Are Not Alone” do hold it as an article of faith—because there is nothing else to go on. Their arguments are purely aesthetic, beginning with phrases like “Surely, you don’t believe” or “How can a universe this big.” That is telling.

Every age creates an aesthetic mythos to support its deepest beliefs, and ours is no exception. A mythos is not necessarily false or true. It is a picture of the world with a satisfying shape. Sometimes that shape accords with reality and tells us something true, and sometimes it accords with our wishes and tells us something about ourselves.

The faith teaches us that our ultimate hope is in Christ, who will come again in glory on the Last Day with his holy angels to judge the living and the dead. A Christian mythos grew up around these basic truths and populated the world with stories of angels, visions of Judgment Day, and an entire folklore that adorned the Christian imagination as it contemplated the truths of the faith.

But a post-Christian culture, having abandoned the hope of heaven, has to hope for something else and create a new mythos to express that hope—a mythos that even serious Christians are capable of drinking in deeply. Instead of imaginative visions of heaven and hell, we are given imaginative visions of beatific aliens in Close Encounters of the Third Kind and of demonic aliens in Independence Day or The War of the Worlds. These things are part of the emotional and cultural mental furniture of our day and age.

The point is this: For millions in our culture, the spirit of progress occupies the niche once held by the Spirit of God mysteriously at work in the world—even for those who still believe in Christianity. Man’s conquest of space occupies the niche once held by the Second Coming. It is apparent in things like the climactic “Star Child” scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Aliens occupy the niche that angels, devils, heaven, and hell once did. Tales of being taken up into the third heaven or visions of cherubim and seraphim no longer have cultural currency. Even those who have had such visions, such as Paul and Ezekiel, have them explained away by the modern expedient of pressing our ancestors into modern categories, often using Chariots of the Gods-like scenarios of alien abductions and interplanetary craft.

Our culture places its hope in immense distances, in colonization of the planets, in alien saviors born of emergent variants, and in the spirit of progress. Millions of poets think they are rationalist philosophers; they declare.aspects of Catholic teaching to be “superstition” while confidently assuming that First Contact, the invention of the warp drive, and the colonization of the stars are just around the corner.

Nobody but a few Trekkers dwell on such ideas consciously, but millions receive them as cultural background music. These ideas must be clearly seen for what they are: the triumph of poetry over revelation and reason.

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