Reading the Stars
David Mills on a Father Who Makes a Cosmos for His Children
The things we have declared different we have declared lesser,” declared Christopher Impey, an astronomer at the University of Arizona and “sworn agnostic,” to a reporter from the Tucson Citizen. He had just won a three-year, $275,000 grant from the Templeton Foundation to host a lecture series titled “Astrobiology and the Sacred: Implications of Life Beyond Earth,” and seemed to think that the finding of life on other planets, even microbial life, would upset the religious.
The article proceeded with his thoughts on the matter, but that is not what interested me about it. At the very end, he says: “It’s extremely unlikely that if we were to discover a civilization or entity that was not from this planet, that they would not be far beyond where we are technologically.” That is the article’s closing quote, the one that is supposed to leave the reader thinking “Wow,” but it left me wondering “Why?”
We have no reason to think that such a civilization would be so vastly superior to us, especially if we were the ones to discover them. It is a statement of blind faith. Impey’s dogmatic confidence on the subject of the superiority of alien races seemed a funny thing coming from someone who was so agnostic about God, for whose existence or non-existence we have so much evidence. And yet so many secular people of scientific bent seem to find in the heavens that which they do not find on earth.
They find God, of a sort. “I consider myself a spiritual person,” the evolutionist philosopher Michael Shermer said in an interview with the Rocky Mountain News. “I have an awe of nature, a sense of transcendence when I see an eclipse or a Hubble space telescope photograph. These things all generate a sense of transcendence, spirituality, every bit as warm and fuzzy and religious as when I was a religious person.” There is, he continues, “a source of transcendence and it’s evolution; these deep-seated moral sentiments were given to us as members of the species by evolution.”
I still do not know why very intelligent men find this kind of thing satisfying. Shermer is claiming that a blind, literally pointless string of complete accidents of which man is a product is “a source of transcendence,” which produces a “spirituality” which is “warm and fuzzy and religious.” Something that has no mind or will can “give” us something we do not have otherwise.
But why should he feel a “sense of transcendence” when he sees an eclipse? All that is happening is that an accidental moon of an accidental planet accidentally orbiting round an accidental sun, accidentally passes in front of the sun and blocks out its light for a few minutes. How is his emotional response justified by an accident? What does he think has been transcended? I am sure he does not feel warm and fuzzy and religious when he sees two cars collide on the highway, but he should, since accidents give him a sense of transcendence.
The word “transcendence” must mean an authoritative word from outside, something greater than man that tells him something he does not know or shows him something he does not see. I am afraid I do not see how the process of evolution can be said to transcend us who are one of its products, any more than the factory assembly line can be said to transcend the car made on it.
But people who do not believe in God still look to the heavens to give what religion once provided. I wonder if Impey’s faith in the existence of superior aliens expresses one of the materialist’s eschatological hopes: that though Jesus will not descend from the skies, some other savior might. (I use “materialist” to mean someone who believes that the material world is all that exists.)
Many quite intelligent people believe that the question of human origins and the meaning of human life would be answered if we found that we came originally from another planet. As was obvious to one of our children, then nine or ten, when I mentioned this idea to him, this only pushes the question back to another planet, it does not in any way answer it. But as I say, a lot of intelligent people think it does.
When I first wrote about this on Touchstone’s blogsite, a reader told me that someone had once challenged him to read Carl Sagan’s novel Contact, thinking he would not be able to defend his faith against Sagan’s vision of the cosmos. “The effect,” he told me, “was rather the opposite. I found myself marveling that Sagan, who never tried to hide his contempt for religious belief, wrote a book about aliens who were utterly god-like. They were all-wise and super-moral, and they were coming to us, to teach us to be more like them. I was amazed that Carl Sagan, who could not abide the idea of God, could easily conceive of an alien race who were, for all practical purposes, an awful lot like gods.”
Which makes me suspect that what many materialists (or secularists) really believe is “Anything but God,” no matter how implausible or illogical a belief their atheism leaves them, and makes me wonder if, having removed God from the cosmos, they simply do not like the idea of man being alone in the universe. I wonder if they cannot bear the burden of living by the vision of the cosmos their philosophy gives them. It is easy, and often quite useful, to say “There is no God,” but perhaps harder to feel safe and secure in a godless universe.
Aliens seem to me a very poor substitute for God, but if the secularists won’t have God, what other possible friend from outside this world could they have, but creatures from other planets? The Christian would say that we are made to look for a Friend outside—St. Augustine’s “Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee” is one of the ways this has been said—and if man will not look for a Friend, he will look for friends to take his place. The clearer-thinking secularist will say that this only proves that the truth is hard to bear.
Another reader responded to the same article by noting that “We know that we need an alien understanding (a perspective that exists apart from us), an alien salvation (a salvation that exists apart from us, for we know we cannot save ourselves), an alien righteousness (a righteousness that exists apart from us, for all of our actions are sinful).” We make up counterfeits and idols because we will not accept the reality. “We are desperate for a word, for an answer, a wisdom apart from ourselves, because it fills our need at the deepest level; but we reject God and the true answer because we would be as God, knowing good from evil. And hence this whole fascination with Star Trek, Star Wars, alien encounters, and the like.”
That seems to be true of some secularists, anyway. They and their peers seem to think that intelligent life must exist somewhere in the universe, simply as a matter of the odds. “Space is really big,” they say. “With all those billions and billions and billions of stars, there must be intelligent life somewhere else.” Some of them feel that the idea that all those galaxies could have been created solely for man is just absurd. That a universe so vast should exist with only one race on one world to appreciate it seems to annoy them greatly.
The Christian, on the other hand, can be perfectly agnostic about the existence of other intelligent creatures, because he does not claim to know what God has done with the rest of the cosmos. It does not bother him in the least to think that we are the only creatures with minds and souls in the universe, that man has no peers anywhere, that the unimaginably vast space around our small planet is entirely empty of life. It does not bother him for at least two reasons.
A Creative God
First, the Christian knows that God loves creating. We are not surprised that he might make billions of stars because he wanted to make billions of stars, because making billions of stars gave him great joy (if we can speak so of God). We are not surprised that he might make billions of stars of which we will never know, because he did not make them for us.
That is what creators do. Almost every museum in the world seems to have one of Monet’s paintings of lilies. If a man so loved painting lilies, how much more would God love making them? And God has a lot more time, and a lot more energy, and much better resources, than Monet. G. K. Chesterton explained this in “The Ethics of Elfland,” the fourth chapter of his great book Orthodoxy.
He begins by pointing out that the modern materialist mind believes that repetition is evidence of death, but that most earthly things vary because they are dying or dead. We take a bus because we are tired of walking, and walk because we are tired of sitting still. We see this in children.
Here is where the modern makes his mistake. He thinks of God, understandably enough, as a grown-up.
Second, the Christian knows that a God who would take his form and die for him, especially after he had treated God so badly, would do anything for him. In the picture of the Son of the Father dying on the Cross he sees a love for whom making billions and billions of stars would be a trifle, like a billionaire taking a friend to lunch at McDonald’s. A man who believes in the Incarnation and all that followed can easily believe that the Creator made the universe entirely and solely for man. He has swallowed the camel and will hardly strain at a gnat.
The Christian who knows a little of God’s love for him can imagine the Father saying, “Oh, stars, they’ll love stars. They’ll make up lots of stories about them. The children will have such fun looking at the night sky and finding shapes in the stars. And think what their poets will do with the stars, especially that Dante. And when they get around to inventing astronomy, how much joy they’ll get from finding out about the universe. I know: Let’s put in lots of stars they won’t see till the middle of the twentieth century, or later. And let’s give them some puzzles to work out, like black holes and quasars. And dark matter, that’ll keep them going for awhile.”
That is the sort of universe in which the Christian lives. It is the sort of universe in which even the heavens are a present, the stars like packages under the Christmas tree. It is the sort of universe in which a boy standing in his yard in some dreary American suburb can look up at the Big Dipper and say with delight, “What? For me?”, in which a girl tending her family’s goats in a field in Africa can look up at Venus shining just after sunset and say, “Thank you!”
A Cheerful World
The Christian lives in a much more cheerful world than the materialist. He has no need to look for friends scattered about the universe to quiet his feeling of being alone in the cosmos, because he knows he is not alone. Although why the materialist finds aliens comforting, I don’t know. If human life is, as he must believe, merely the result of a vast number of random mutations, I do not see what comfort it is to know that elsewhere in the universe are creatures—creatures we shall almost certainly never meet—who are also the results of a vast number of random mutations.
The Christian knows that he is not alone in the cosmos, that he has a Friend and a Father, who may have made everything he sees just for him.
The writer would like to thank Craig Gale (the first reader quoted) and Mark Kloempken (the second reader quoted) for their comments.
David Mills is executive editor of First Things. He was editor of Touchstone from 2003-2008. His most recent book is Discovering Mary: Answers to Questions About the Mother of God (Servant Books). He is living with his wife and two of their four children in Manhattan, where they attend Immaculate Conception church.
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“Reading the Stars” first appeared in the July/August 2004 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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