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 various sorts of religious awe. Babylonians watched the stars for omens, as did the Chinese. Petroglyphs in North America record novas. Greek gods are bound up with the constellations. Vanished cultures erected immense monuments like Stonehenge with an eye on the movements of the heavens. Egypt was rocked by a religious reform movement led by Akhenaten, who worshiped one god: the Sun.
The sense of wonder about our place in the universe was not lost on the Chosen People either. The Psalmist pours out his amazement:
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars that you have established;
what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
mortals that you care for them? (Ps. 8:3-4)
In antiquity, nobody had yet teased out categorical distinctions between such things as miracles and magic, science and superstition, revelation and folklore. Firmly defined barriers between different species of knowing that later generations would erect did not yet exist. To ask if a man was practicing the rudiments of chemistry or alchemy, astronomy or astrology, science or magic, myth or religion was usually a nonsense question for ancients. They knew things were connected. But they were still only in the bare beginning stages of understanding how they were connected.
Still, we moderns often try to force ancients into our categories. So when some scholars tell us there is evidence Israel encamped around the Tabernacle in such a way as to reflect the constellations (Numbers 2) we often get a mistaken notion. When we further discover that there are ancient synagogues with mosaics of the zodiac inlaid in the floor, that notion can harden into the certainty that Israelites “believed in” astrology.
This is false. There is something more like sacramental symbolism taking place here than astrology. Israel saw itself as the beginning of a new world order, symbolized by the “heavenly host”. Indeed, the link between the “heavenly host” ruled by Yahweh Sabaoth (the “Lord of Hosts”) and the “earthly host” of Israel is very strong in the biblical mind. For both hosts are ruled over by the same God. So the earthly Tabernacle was a miniature of God’s heavenly dwelling: both were attended by the armies of the Lord, composed of the angels and the people of Israel. Similarly, in Genesis 37:9, Jacob and his sons are likened to the sun, moon, and twelve stars.
This conviction that earth and heaven are both guided by a common Creator runs through Scripture. We are told “the stars in their courses fought against Sisera” (Judges 5:20). Likewise, both Ezekiel and Revelation portray heavenly creatures around the throne of God corresponding to the constellations. Many 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 corresponds to Scorpio. John lists them in counter-clockwise order backward around the zodiac.
But this, again, is not an appeal to astrology. Rather, it is an example of 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 declare the glory of God.” Thus, to the ancient biblical mind, the groupings of the stars are not random because nothing in all creation is random. Rather, the macrocosm of creation showed the glory of God writ large across the heavens and the microcosm of the Temple declared that 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.
In Scripture, the main scene of action is the earth, not the sky. The main thing is the story of God and his people, culminating in the revelation of Christ. Astronomical events, such as the Star of Bethlehem, tend to point straight back to what God is doing in the affairs of men. And like road signs, once such phenomena have pointed the pilgrim soul on his way to Christ, they are quickly forgotten.
However, in an age that has come to doubt or even forget Christ, pagan ideas–including ideas about the heavens–can re-assert themselves; sometime in amazingly crude forms. And we live in just such a time.
For instance, it is not unusual to meet people who have a surprisingly “physicalist” view of man’s place in the cosmos. One particularly crude argument is simply this: The Bible errs to focus on the earth and not the sky because man is infinitesimally small–indeed the entire solar system is infinitesimally small–compared to the size of the universe. All kinds of illustrations of that infinitesimal smallness are produced and they make wonderful gee whiz graphics for popular science shows. The camera pulls back until the earth shrinks to (in Carl Sagan’s phrase) a “pale blue dot”. The solar system becomes a pinpoint and vanishes into an arm of the Milky Way. Then the Milky Way itself becomes a mere indistinct smudge of light disappearing among billions of other galaxies. Finally, the H.G. Wellsian creed is invoked: “Man is utterly insignificant compared to the size of the Universe!”
People set real store by such thinking. But that’s not because they are hard-headed scientists looking at cold fact. It’s because they are poets who think they are philosophers. It’s because they can’t refrain from supposing they know that immense differences in physical size mean something. They have never internalized the wisdom of Wells’ friend, G.K. Chesterton, who drily replied, “Man is small compared to the nearest tree.”
In short, size doesn’t matter. In our sane hours, we realize this. Michael Jordan does not have greater spiritual worth than Michael J. Fox because he’s taller. Just 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, the poet in us awakens and we start to forget these obvious facts.
Curiously similar thinking is on display in the insistence on geocentrism by a small cadre of reactionary Catholics. Geocentrists claim earth is the center of the universe and all other heavenly bodies orbit it. Some even insist earth does not rotate on its axis. Instead, according to them, the entire universe moves around earth every 24 hours. The falsity of this folly has, of course, been shown many times. Such a theory requires we believe galaxies billions of light years from earth to make a complete circuit of the universe every 24 hours at speeds orders of magnitude faster than light rather than acknowledge the obvious fact that earth is just rotating on its axis. Also, many satellite tracks appear highly erratic on maps assuming a stationary earth, yet these maps accurately predict the actual path of the satellite as any amateur with a telescope can show. How do these apparently wandering satellites trace such erratic courses? Easy. Factor in the rotation of the earth and suddenly the satellites are revealed to simply be describing an orbit around the turning earth.
None of this is, as they say, rocket science. But the question remains: “Why would anybody insist upon 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 in a flat-footed and simplistic way become Catholic–and proceed to read Scripture and Catholic documents in a flat-footed and simplistic way. The assumption “If old, then part of the Tradition” takes hold. And since pre-Copernican Christians assumed a Ptolemaic universe, why then, that must be part of the Tradition and heliocentrism is just another modernist corruption of the Faith of our Fathers.
To this, Augustine gives a reply
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 the scriptures it is a matter of treating about the faith. For that reason, as I have noted repeatedly, 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 the scriptures. 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).
In short, 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.
That said, I think the fact that modern geocentrists fall into the confusion despite all the sound evidence to the contrary tells us something else as well: namely, that it too is rooted in the tendency to confuse physical with spiritual reality. Just as some people think our physical size means something, so others think our physical location means something. They have the strange notion 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 the reality is, just as humans have dignity because they are creatures made in the image and likeness of God and not because of their size, so they have dignity no matter where they happen to be physically located. Such crude physicalism was put to bed 3000 years ago, when the king of Syria was rudely disabused of the notion that God was a God of the hills, but not of the plains (1 Kings 20:23). Neither is he a God of the earth, but not of the Andromeda Galaxy. Wherever we are physically, spiritually we are at the center of God’s love.
Yet to say this often reveals lingering doubts in the modern mind. Surely, say many people, there is something terribly provincial about the Christian conviction that humans are “special” in a 14 billion year old, 156 billion light year wide universe. This jittery insecurity is seen every time somebody discovers new planets orbiting distant suns or a Martian rock turns up with what might be fossilized Martian bacteria in it. We are instantly asked what implication this has for the (presumably) small-minded Christian faith.
Prescinding from the fact that the small-minded Christian faith has always believed the universe contains non-corporeal, non-human, created intelligent beings (called “angels and demons”) it is worth noting that, as C.S. Lewis points out, corporeal, non-human, created intelligent beings called “extraterrestrials” only pose a problem to the Faith 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 entirely 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”, do we know our mode of redemption is what such creatures require for salvation? If not, then Christianity is not shown to be provincial. 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 always 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 what are, after all, entirely hypothetical creatures.
“But they won’t be hypothetical forever!” says the modern person from the depth of his being. For the mere suggestion that we may, in fact, be utterly alone in the universe is deeply unsettling to the modern mind. Say that you think we are, in your opinion, all alone and you will discover the reaction of a huge number of moderns is visceral outrage. What arrogance! What about the Drake Equation? What about Star Trek? What about all that stuff?
Prescinding from whether such an opinion is right or not, I simply note that such arguments for ET produce no actual evidence for a simple reason: there is no evidence to produce. I note this, not to propose “We Are Alone” as dogma of the faith, but to point out that those who dogmatically insist we are not alone do hold it as an article of faith, because they have nothing else to go on. Their arguments are purely aesthetic, beginning with phrases like “Surely, you don’t believe…”, “How can a universe this big…”, and “Seems like a big waste of space to me if…”. And that is telling.
Why? Because every age creates an aesthetic mythos to support its deepest beliefs and ours is no exception. A mythos is not necessarily false nor necessarily true. It is rather a picture of the world with a satisfying shape. Sometimes that shape will accord with reality and tell us something about reality. Sometimes it will accord with our wishes and tell us something about ourselves.
Now the Faith teaches 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 another mythos to express that hope–a mythos even serious Christians are quite capable of drinking in deeply. And so instead of imaginative visions of Heaven and Hell, we are given imaginative visions of beatific aliens in Close Encounters of the Third Kind and hellish visions of demonic aliens in Independence Day or the War of the Worlds. Such things are part of the standard emotional, imaginative, and cultural mental furniture of our day and age.
The point is this: for millions in our culture, the Spirit of Progress occupies the emotional and imaginative niche once held by the Spirit of God mysteriously at work in the world, even for those who (with another part of their brain) still believe in Christianity (not to mention the millions who don’t). For a significant percentage of moderns, man’s conquest of space and evolution into the Beyond holds the emotional and imaginative niche once occupied by the Second Coming (just watch the climactic “Star Child” scene of the greatest science fiction myth of the 20th Century, 2001: A Space Odyssey). And not surprisingly, aliens occupy the same emotional and imaginative niche angels, devils, Heaven and Hell once did. Tales of being taken up into the third heaven, visions of cherubim and seraphim: these no longer have cultural currency. Indeed, even those who have had such visions, such as Paul and Ezekiel, have them explained away by the modern expedient of again pressing our ancestors into modern categories via Chariots of the Gods scenarios involving alien abductions and interplanetary craft.
In short, post-Christians need hope too. But having lost the hope of the New Heaven and the New Earth, 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. And because they do, millions again act like poets who think they are rationalist philosophers when they confidently declare aspects of Catholic teaching such as the Parousia and angels to be “superstition” while confidently assuming First Contact, the invention of the warp drive, and the colonization of the stars are just around the corner.
Stated that baldly, such notions often evoke laughter. That’s because nobody but perhaps a few Trekkers dwells on such ideas consciously. But millions receive them as a sort of cultural background music. The force they exert is not like a wrestler pinning you to the mat, but like barometric pressure. And that matters because if it not clearly seen in the light of day for what it is– the triumph of poetry over both revelation and reason–many people will continue to mistake it for reason, revelation, or both.