We often talk about theology and ministry that is relevant for today. But what about being ready with theological ideas and pastoral strategies that will be relevant for tomorrow? If we don’t develop these now, we’ll be unprepared for the crises that tomorrow will throw at us.
Tomorrow will involve space travel. We are all aware of the finite amount of oil on earth, but there is an equally finite amount of metal, not nearly enough to stretch as far as our productive capabilities go. The high metallic content of meteorites, meanwhile, reveal how much metal there is out in the cosmos waiting for us to come and mine it. Elon Musk and SpaceX’s initiative to colonize Mars is just the first taste of what will become a widespread reality.
And that’s just talking about industrial production. Stephen Hawking famously predicted that, because of climate change and overpopulation, the human race would need to spread to other planets if it were to have any chance of survival. Considering the growing consensus about the state of our environment, this idea is likely to become more and more widespread.
This means space travel will become a more familiar experience for an increasing number of people. One day, perhaps, will be as regular as air travel for all of us.
We can already predict the kind of problems that will arise from this.
NASA issued an evidence report in 2016 on Risk of Adverse Cognitive or Behavioral Conditions and Psychiatric Disorders. It is tempting to assume this was a reaction, in part, to the mental breakdown of Lisa Nowak, the robotics expert aboard the Discovery who subsequently attacked and attempted to kidnap another astronaut with whom she had been romantically involved.
Nowak was an intelligent woman; the officer who interviewed her described the interrogation as being like a game of chess. Yet something caused her to snap, and the psychological impact of her time in space is an obvious suspect. This is not the only time that psychological disturbances have resulted from being in outer space. The report describes a Chinese traveler on the Challenger who threatened not to return to Earth, a Russian space flight mission that was cancelled when the entire crew experienced a smell that seemed to have no physical cause, and an American astronaut who developed a paranoid obsession with the fact that simply turning a handle would open a shuttle hatch.
The report observed how the physical situation of being in a spacecraft – the claustrophobic conditions, the monotonous work and the altered sleep cycle – can lead to physiological and neurological disturbances that result in hallucinations and psychological disorders. It also noted how personal and cultural factors can affect the way an astronaut reacts to these conditions. NASA has various ways of preventing or treating these issues. Astronauts are vetted with intense psychiatric screenings (though some have concerns that candidates worried about being prevented from going to space might conceal their problems in these interviews), and the International Space Station not only participates in psychological conferences with medical staff every two weeks, but its medicine kit includes antidepressants, antipsychotics, and anxiolytic drugs.
Noticeably missing here is a spiritual analysis, or, we could say, an existential analysis.
Many have noted an “overview effect” that astronauts have experienced when seeing our planet from outer space. They have a numinous moment in which they recognize Earth’s comparative smallness and realize how petty and small our conflicts and differences are. But a religious experience of an entirely different kind is possible: One of despair.
William Peter Blatty predicted this in his 1978 novel and 1980-movie adaptation The Ninth Configuration. In this odd story, one of the protagonists, Colonel Cutshaw, an astronaut who was slated to go to the moon, suddenly turns into a raving, anti-religious lunatic before his mission begins. He ends up in an experimental asylum, where a doctor is assigned to diagnose the source of his insanity. At the story’s climax, a suddenly lucid Cutshaw explains what caused his breakdown:
"I'm afraid... See the stars: so cold, so far, and so very lonely... All that space, just empty space and so far away from home. I've circled round and round this house, orbit after orbit, and sometimes I wonder what it would be like never to stop and circle alone up there, forever. And what if I got there, got to the moon and couldn't get back? Sure, everyone dies, but I'm afraid to die alone, so far from home. And if there's no God, then that's really, really alone."
The issue, in other words, is not just that an astronaut is physically secluded and at an unfathomable distance from everything familiar and homely. It is also that they are in danger of experiencing a transcendental loneliness in space, leaving a person vulnerable to all the other lurking dangers to the psyche.
We already encounter a deep existential sense of loneliness here on Earth, with all terrestrial diversions around us; we are already, as Walker Percy put it, “lost in the cosmos.” Being out in the cosmos can only enhance that experience. If we – especially we in the Church, which provides care to souls – don’t deal with this creeping anxiety in the warmth of our homes, it will become much worse when we venture beyond it into the icy darkness. (The science fiction film Silent Running speculates about what could happen to humans forced into space before they are psychologically ready to deal with it).
Pascal described this dread better than any other writer did and it was he who first described the realm above the skies as being outer “space.” In his Space Trilogy, C.S. Lewis has a character taken up in a rocket ship experience “life pouring into him at every moment” from “this empyrean ocean of radiance in which they swam.” He rejects the label “space” as “a blasphemous libel” suggesting “black, cold vacuity” and prefers the ancient name, “the heavens.”
Unfortunately, Pascal and Blatty seem to have described most astronauts’ experience more accurately than Lewis did. What Lewis depicts is more of a mystical vision of the cosmos.
But perhaps that mystical vision is necessary. Karl Rahner once said that the Christian of the future will either be a mystic or else will not exist. Science and culture no longer offer us a thick, sacramental, enchanted world. As a result, we have angst.
The only cure for that is a re-enchanting spirituality. It’s been done before.
Many would recognize a comparison between space and the seas, which humans sailed in pursuit of new goods and new worlds. Certainly, we can devoutly hope and pray that, like the Jesuit characters of so many sci-fi stories, chaplains aboard spacecraft will one day become commonplace, just as priests and friars were commonplace aboard the vessels of yesteryear’s explorers. (Buzz Aldrin, a Presbyterian elder, brought Holy Communion with him on Apollo 11, which was the first food consumed on the moon; the pyx should be a regular part of a spacecraft’s accoutrements).
Scripture does not portray the seas positively: they are raging and violent (they often symbolize Gentile nations and empires), invoking the chaos that existed before God imposed order on creation, out of which strange and untamable monsters are liable to appear, much as we continue to imaginatively populate outer space with alien beings.
But, of course, the Lord has conquered the waters; this is part of the message of the story of Noah. They may seem chaotic, yet God has an order for them.
Rahner is right: we need to become mystics. And the space age may give rise to a new spirituality, just as the atomic age gave rise to the “nuclear mysticism” that infused many of Salvador Dali’s paintings. A pastoral mind that is prophetic, in the sense of preparing God’s people for what is coming by looking at the signs of the times, should begin building that new mysticism now.
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