On a flight out of London recently my goal was to use the time flying across the country to study the English landscape. Now that I had visited the country and seen its hills and creeks, listened to its birds singing in the hedgerows and wandered the streets of London in the sunshine, I wanted to see the country from above. To put it all in perspective. The visit. The return trip home from the land of my ancestors.
We were fortunate with weather all week. The English skies were clear and the temperatures cool and wonderful.
But there was something more. Coming east from America the country of Ireland had been obscured by clouds and I had not seen that landscape at all.
Going west again we soared 34,000 feet in the air and crossed the channel between Great Britain and Ireland. There was nothing but a few strings of clouds to block the view.
The coastlines were fascinating to me. They illustrate that habitable ground really does come to an end. From high up in the sky you can see the giant shimmering patterns of waves rolling up against the shore. It is humbling to realize that our view of the ocean by foot is always so limited. Yet there are truths to be revealed even in that narrow perspective. The breaking waves at our feet reflect principles of physics and laws of gravity replicated billions of times every second of every day, and for all eternity as long as the earth and water and sky have existed.
We know much about the visible consistency of our universe, our solar system and our planet. We also know that human beings evolved in concert with a very narrow band of physical properties that make life on earth possible at all. Some call that a miraculous circumstance. Others go a step further and credit it all to the power of God.
Science takes a parallel yet more verifiable view of such things, for our sciences measure the limits of all things as well as take measure of the infinite. That distinction is critical to our understanding of how things work. Yet it proves somehow unfavorable to people incurious about the material world and its deepest secrets.
An ideological divide
That divide between some brands of religion and the fields of study we call science is causing real problems with our collective understanding of our real position in this universe. Some people seem to have so much pride vested in the notion that human beings are specially created that they refuse to understand the real workings of creation at all. Yet nature truly is a creative, absolutely infinite source of invention if we consider both its power and its fragility.
Talk show enlightenment
On the radio this morning a pair of talk show hosts was leading a discussion with an astronomer from the Adler Planetarium in Chicago. They discussed how much information the Hubble Telescope has provided the human race about the cosmos. It has helped us detect and trace the effect of Dark Matter, a source of activity and energy that is being studied for its effects on the expansion rate of the universe.
For 25 years the Hubble Telescope has also enabled astronomers to look for planets similar to earth that might hold life in other solar systems. That’s a pretty huge numbers game to be playing, with views from Hubble spanning eons of time. As light travels to us at astonishing speed it can tell us what was once there, but not what is there at this precise moment. It’s a conundrum of sorts to know whether anything truly exists or not.
Yet there is evidence of other planets out there, the astronomer admitted, but it’s so far away it would take perhaps million of generations of human beings to reach it.
This led to a short but revealing discussion about life on other planets and whether human beings will some day be forced to colonize other planets in order to survive. Our immediate choices aren’t that great. To our knowledge there are no other planets in the solar system that even offer oxygen as a breathing option. Human beings have evolved to need oxygen to live. So there’s not much encouraging news in the idea that we can travel to Mars or Venus and survive.
Those planets are also so far away that the first travelers will have to agree that they are going away and not coming back to Earth. They’d be chartered to somehow set up camp and possibly breed, while living on what? There are also no known sources of food or water (other than ice, perhaps) on Mercury or beyond. You want to live on a gaseous planet like Saturn or Jupiter? Pretty cold places people.
Considering the globe
The entire notion of creating some sort of time travel to reach distant planets has not one shred of possibility now. Our movies and shows such as Star Trek and Star Wars are fantastical lies designed to deceive us into thinking space travel is some sort of entertaining soap opera. It’s not. It’s a deadly universe in which we live compounded by a disgusting pride that makes us think we’re so important we can impose our pattern of existence on other planets.
That rude assumption makes it difficult for some people to take any sort of pride in in the notion of protecting and maintaining the one planet where we know that life can exist. That is, if we don’t screw it up. That’s planet Earth.
Yet there is long and conclusive evidence that human activity is adversely impacting our global climate system. We’ve already proven we can pollute the air at a local level to make entire regions of the world nearly uninhabitable. Look at China right now with its air pollution and water pollution problems. The more dense their population gets, the more demands for energy and its resultant waste products.
Profit and loss
The ugly pride that says near-term profits are more important than the air we breathe and the water we drink is the ultimate form of arrogance. Yet there are entire political parties formulated around these very ideologies. It comes down to a simple matter really. Would you rather be rich or alive? Because those are the choices we are making and have been making since the advent of human awareness. The acceleration of technology, miraculous as it is, cannot keep ahead of our wasteful consumption.
The earth can seem like a pretty big place if you fly around in an airplane looking down at the ground below. But go a little higher where the atmosphere runs out, which is where the Hubble telescope sits 360 miles above the earth, and you can begin to appreciate that the universe is as finite for the human race as it is infinite for God. The Earth is a very small planet.
We don’t need science or God to appreciate that if we mess up this planet badly enough, the entire human race is screwed. If that prick of awareness is not enough to warn us, and if our little light in the universe blinks out, perhaps only God will really care. But according to the Bible, there have been moments before in history when God has either let life be destroyed on earth or even rubbed it out in God’s own purposes. The Old Testament God was one rude sonofabitch.
But maybe God will not really be alone if the human race goes extinct. Perhaps we’re just one of many social and spiritual experiments he’s got swirling around in infinity. Perhaps God doesn’t really even want us to mix with life forms until we have actually figured out that being good stewards of creation really is the right kind of pride.
There are a whole lot of signs pointing toward that end. That if we cannot get along and be gracious to each other and the earth, then we do not deserve to exist. If that’s too depressing a thought for you to consider, then may I suggest writing your Congressman and telling them to stop denying the plain fact that protecting ourselves from self-annihilation and suffocating the human race in heat and poisoned air may just be the most important thing we ever do. That is true on a spiritual, ethical, social, political and religious level.
Or else you can tell them to pray, and hope to hell that God has the time and space to listen. But God track record is somewhat disturbing in that category. If the legend of Noah’s Ark is proof of anything, it’s that God does not have infinite patience with the arrogance of the human race. And like it or not, God does mess around with promises quite often. Hence the negotiations with Lot over the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah, which suffered a fiery fate not because of homosexuality but because the towns were so abusive of human rights in general God no longer felt they deserved to exist.
It’s time to stop foisting our arrogant pride on God and turn inward a bit. We need to do some real, productive soul-searching instead of the kind that depends on platitudes and political dogma. And we need to include science on this inner conversation to do the subject justice.
Because the real answers about why the earth is suffering under our hand do not come from God or the notion of original sin, but from our presents sins being committed toward creation. These are based on selfish aims and short term whims of profit and extraction. We’re taking (and emitting) far more than we’re giving back to the Earth. And the Bible always tells us that it’s better to give than receive. But that’s really true when you consider the possibility that our receipts may add up to a bitter and eternal end for human life on earth.
A sobering thought. Yet the right kind of pride when it comes to determining where to place our priorities.
Christopher Cudworth is author of two books. The Right Kind of Pride is a chronicle of cancer survivorship; character, caregiving and community and is available on Amazon.com. His first book The Genesis Fix: A Repair Manual for Faith inthe Modern Age, is being republished on Amazon in early July.