Tuesday, October 13, 2015

When Going to Church Sucks


“I am with you, to the end of the age.” – Matthew 28:19b


Winter is a season of solidarity. People come together – less by attraction than compulsion – because the season’s longevity and frigidity force them to find comfort in the company of one another. In winter we learn, as individuals, that we’re not self-sufficient: we need each other. But winter as a spiritual season is more isolating. In the coldness of God’s apparent absence, we tend to batten down the hatches, to hibernate apart from the group, or trudge off alone into the unknown darkness. We need others, but we choose to be alone.

In winter, the Church is meant to be a source of warmth and camaraderie, because we can huddle together around the light of Christ. More often, however, the Church feels like an igloo: a shelter made from ice and snow, which is supposed to protect us from… ice and snow. It might offer temporary refuge, but many don’t want to stay too long. After all, being in a faith setting can be difficult if our faith is faltering. Nobody wants to ‘fake it till they make it.’ And who wants to stick around in a culture where ineptitude, monotony, and hypocrisy seem to be so common?

Yet, for all the good reasons to leave the Church, there are even better reasons to stay. Apart from the fact that the Church is seldom amended by abandoning it, nor the abandoner improved apart from it – the fact that the Church is deeply flawed is relatively good news. It demonstrates just how unfailing God’s crazy-love is for such a sorry group of people.

God always keeps His family close, and we’re to do likewise. As St. Augustine said, “The Church may be a whore, but she is my mother.” Certainly, she’s occasionally put her faith in progress over providence, but she’s still the mother of our hope. She may have given to Caesar things that are God’s, and vice versa, but she’s still the matriarch of grace and salvation. She’s done many things wrong, even when there was every reason and resource to do right, but God’s fidelity to her is forever. Surely, then, if our terrible mother has received such wonderful love from our Father – the kind that always lasts and never fails – there’s every reason to hope for their struggling children. In fact, to spend our winter within the Church is to be a part of the greatest guarantee imaginable: for Jesus promised, “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.” Indeed, God will come by the winter’s end, and in the meantime we can prepare our hearts for His arrival.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Does Religion Have Any Business in Outer Space?

The following article first appeared as masters essay in 2013 at Regent College, entitled, ‘Otherwordly? Critiques on Christian Interaction With Outer Space’

It is said, often enough, that Christianity is ‘otherworldly.’ This is frequently meant as a criticism. Christianity is too otherworldly: its morals are too unrealistic, its mindset overly metaphysical or its adherents unengaged from what life is really like. Whatever the merits are of these or other charges, I don’t think Christianity is otherworldly enough. Not in the heavenly sense, the celestial sense – as in space: cold, black, starry and far away. Christianity vis-à-vis space is decidedly this-worldly. The time has come for this to change. Human activity in space is at a crucial juncture: astronomy and its related fields are redefining our relationship with the cosmos, and earth’s orbit is becoming host to private enterprises, public recreation, escalating concerns of militarization, congestion, debris pollution and its satellites sustain the pace and connectivity of 21st century civilization. On almost all these matters the collective Christian consciousness appears unconcerned or unaware. There’s no denying that terra firma presents Christianity with enough challenges already, but matters of global importance rarely afford an opt-out clause. Space is no longer humanity’s next or final frontier. It is the present frontier. Christianity has a vocational duty to rouse itself to informed awareness. As such, this essay introduces three space related issues that warrant Christian reflection and response: research in the astronomical sciences, engagement with the threat of militarization in space, and an ethical analysis of space-tourism. Without serious reflection on these topics (whether by Christian academics, theologians, ethicists, public policy groups or notable social, intellectual and pastoral figures), Christianity will be failing to fully consider the scope and nature of a 21st century commitment to truth and apologetics, peacemaking and moral leadership.
John Calvin recognized five centuries ago “that astronomy is not only pleasant, but also useful to be known… [for] it unfolds the admirable wisdom of God.”[1] He was right then, but only half-right now: astronomy isn’t just useful, it’s vital. Advanced astronomy and cosmology (and their sister fields astrophysics and astrobiology) are rapidly reconstructing the known universe: “One hundred years ago, the entire universe was believed to be a few thousand light years across; now that extent is measured in billions of light years. Then the universe believed to be static; now it is seen as expanding and evolving, and cosmic evolution is the watchword from the Big Bang to the present.”[2] It would be a mistake to limit our impression of astronomy to hard-science observation, because, “In a fundamental way [astronomy] is seeking to place the Earth, life, and most importantly, our unique role as intelligent beings on this Earth in the broader context.”[3] And this is the broader context of astronomy that Christianity has to come to terms with. The findings, theories and hypotheses of these related fields, of which the Big Bang is but one, are or will be for the 21st century public-worldview what Darwinism and genetics was for the 20th century.
The human story, from its predicted beginnings to its projected end, is being retold by the astronomical sciences. Together they are part way through a remarkable renaissance of intellectual construction: “it is a period of transition in our understanding of nature as great as any in our history. The Newtonian physics and cosmology have been overthrown, but we’re not yet done with constructing its successor.”[4] Unfortunately, however, Christianity has not kept abreast of astronomy. According to a Templeton Foundation report, “because of the upheavals in our [astronomical] worldview, we might have thought that the dialogue between science, philosophy and religion would be crackling… [Instead] there is [only] sporadic communication among these disciplines.”[5] Christianity’s absence from and lack of interaction with the field of research is deeply problematic. This is as much a public relations issue as it is scientific: there is a public perception gap (both real and perceived) between the advances of science and the credibility of faith. It often appears that Christianity exists in a state of splendid isolationism. This perception is deeply cemented in the biological/evolutionary sciences, and it is vital, given the growing importance of astronomy and cosmic evolution, that Christianity avoids another Darwin like debacle. To this end, it’s important that Christianity take greater efforts to increase its presence within the applicable fields of research and publication. Today’s research is shaping tomorrow’s public imagination – and in the western context, this is the same public that we are (or ought to be) attempting to re-evangelize.
To the great credit of the Catholic Church, they ‘get this’. The Vatican Observatory is a recognized, highly respected, and award winning observatory: most recently winning (via the cosmologist Fr. Michal Haller) the million-dollar Templeton Prize. And similarly, the Templeton Foundation, founded by the Presbyterian Sir John Templeton, is a unique and rare example of a well-endowed, secular, philanthropic organization dedicated to (among other things) scientific examination of ‘big questions’, and actively welcomes religious participation. But these are two exceptions among a ubiquitous trend of separation between organized religion and leading research in astronomy. A possible next step for Protestant astronomy could be an ecumenical: establishing a privately funded position for an astronomer at the Vatican Observatory (either in its Italian facility, or more likely, at the Mount Graham International Observatory in Arizona.) Another similar venture might include greater development of existing facilities at leading Christian research universities like Baylor or Duke. Whatever is done, it is important that Christianity further establish its presence in astronomy and related fields. A failure to do so will potentially isolate Christianity from the growing importance of the subject, exposing it to yet another major disadvantage in re-evangelizing the modern mind.
Earth’s orbit, the street corner of outer space, has become noticeably “congested, contested, and competitive.”[6] There are over 1,100 active satellites in Earth’s orbit. They represent over seventy countries and companies, and together enable such features of 21st century civilization as GPS, modern telecommunications, satellite television, Internet, international banking, weather tracking, environmental monitoring, surveillance and a wide variety of important non-weapons based military functions. There are, however, grave concerns regarding the current safety, orderliness, and continued demilitarization of space. Although Christianity lacks (nor needs) its own space program, it ought to take a vested moral interest in the state of affairs in Earth’s orbit – which it is duty bound to do, given its unique demographic stature and peacemaking vocation.
            The militarization of space is a significant and growing danger. Thankfully the United States, Russia and China are all signatories of the Outer Space Treaty, which bans space-based weapons of mass destruction. There are, however, gaping holes – or black holes, one might say – regarding further militarization in space. The lack of clarity, transparency and a binding legal framework in Earth’s orbit is exacerbating tensions between China and America. In foreign affairs, “China’s [opaque] military intentions in outer space have emerged as one of the central security issues between the two super-powers.”[7] And the matter is far from being purely speculative: in 2007 China conducted tests of a ‘direct-ascent antisatellite interceptor’ that exploded one of its own satellites, causing media and political alarm. The United States followed suit in 2008, using an anti-satellite missile against one of its own purportedly malfunctioning spy-satellites. And in 2009, the commander of the Chinese Air Force was recorded stating that the militarization of space is “a historical inevitability.”[8]
            If Christianity is going to take its role seriously as a peacemaker in international affairs, it must come to terms with the new strategic spacesapce. And it ought to: as the world’s largest voluntary non-state demographic, comprising 32% of the world’s population[9], it has every right to investigate the matter – and hopefully, to pursue a mediating influence. And yet, despite Christianity’s historical ties to just war theory, its history of conflict resolution and vast international networking capabilities – there is zero evidence of any serious consideration or engagement with the topic. There isn’t even any evidence of unserious engagement!
The prospect of orbital hostilities poses serious challenges to maintaining global economic activity, geopolitical peace, worldwide communication and connectivity, international transactions and travel, and it could hamper numerous important daily activities (like facebook!). A Christian response to space’s strategic situation can be both academic and activist. On a theoretical level, Christians can reengage with the important field of just war theory. This would involve (at minimum) examining orbital hostilities and satellite disruption in relation to the principles of ‘immunity to non-combatants’, ‘limited objectives’ and also ‘limited means’ on account of space debris being irremovable and highly dangerous for all orbiting satellites.[10] My research suggests that this undertaking would be a groundbreaking (i.e. new) addition to the field, and (in my opinion) an important addition to the public understanding of space-related combat and its moral parameters. On a practical and political level, efforts can be taken to promote international dialogue. This ought to be undertaken as Christians, as opposed to Canadians, Americans, or whomever, because Christianity (along with other world religions) has no direct vested interest in space save the good of all humankind. Initial projects could range from high profile forums at magazines like First Things or Christianity Today, to academic symposium at leading universities – preferably through an Ivy League university with facilities in Hong Kong. The ideal next step would be involving Tony Blair’s Faith Foundation and his Yale based Faith and Globalization Initiative. Together, these two platforms provide the stature, representational breadth, intellectual depth, religious credentials and political credibility to engage with the subject and determine a suitable (and no doubt up-hill) course of action. It may be that Christianity, at this point in time, can do little on Earth but pray for peace in space. If, however, this is the case, it must be arrived at through investigation, not assumption.
This decade is the first in which space has really become capitalism’s newest frontier. The charge is being led by a handful of Internet age Captains of Industry: among them Sir Richard Branson (founder of Virgin Group), Jeff Bezos (founder of Amazon.com), Paul Allan (co-founder of Microsoft), (Google’s) Larry Page and Erich Schmidt, Dennis Tito and Elon Musk (of Pay Pal and Tesla Motors). The industry is already valued well into the billions and private payloads have been delivered (as of May, 2012) to the International Space Station.[11] But the area of space capitalism that requires particular Christian reflection is space tourism. 
            Both Elon Musk and Richard Branson have plans to develop a full-fledged space tourism industry. This will essentially allow the super-rich to go on sub-orbital sight seeing trips. Richard Branson’s ‘Virgin Galactic’ is the farthest along: already boasting a chic spaceport in New Mexico, with over a dozen successful test flights and an immanent commercial launch date. Virgin Galactic has accepted an initial 550 reservations (among them Tom Hanks, Stephen Hawking and Brad Pitt) charging $200,000 a ticket.[12] Branson has also expressed his intension to provide full orbital flights in the future, and even (within his lifetime) a Virgin hotel in space. And Branson’s passengers aren’t space’s only socialites. In 2012 ‘Fearless’ Felix Baumgartner made skydiving history: jumping from a ballooned capsule 39km into the stratosphere, free falling at speeds of Mach 1.25.
Thanks to advances in aerospace technology, vast amounts of private capital, stunningly inventive entrepreneurship and a keen desire to explore, the human race is entering a new stage of social history in which the world can no longer contain the ambition, curiosity and financial investment of elite groups of people. The trend is small, but it has established itself and looks likely to grow. Given that space tourism is now fact rather than fiction, it seems appropriate to take a longer, more critical look at whether or not it is, in itself, a good thing. It behooves Christianity to ask: if the sky is longer the limit, what is? Is it appropriate for individuals to seek entertainment outside the bounds of earth? In a world of great philanthropic need, is it bad taste, or in fact ethically wrong for an extravagance such as space-leisure? Should we encourage a geocentric attitude towards human activity and investment?
            It may well be that for clarity of conscience, a line on extravagant expenditures should be drawn, and space would seem an appropriate place to do so. It may be that floating rich men find it even harder than gravity-bound rich men to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. My hope, however, is that space remains open to us. By all means, $200,000 dollars is a hefty price for a few minutes of weightlessness and a great view. And in an immediate cost-benefit analysis, $200,000 seems better spent on philanthropy than sub-orbital frolicking. But I expect that the further we venture from Earth, the dearer it will become. For instance, the astronauts of the Apollo Program universally experienced a greater appreciation for Earth for having left it.[13] This was accompanied by convictions of international and ethnic goodwill, “[because] from space, you can’t see any blacks, whites, Jews or Orientals, just spaceship earth. We realized we needed to learn to love one another.”[14] And the first photos of Earth from Apollo 8 were monumental aids to environmental movements.[15] It’s also possible that agnostic space-tourists will return, like Apollo 17’s Gene Cernan, with newfound theistic sentiments. Cernan’s epiphany upon seeing Earth from space was that “there was too much purpose, too much logic, too much beauty… for science and technology to explain it…. There has to be a creator of the universe.”[16] Either way, it seems likely (to me, at least) those who view Earth from space will return with a renewed commitment to it. In which case a $200,000 ticket on Virgin Galactic may be no more than a sizable deposit for a reinvigorated philanthropic conscience.
            In President Kennedy’s famous moon speech, he declared, “we choose to go to the moon.”[17] Likewise, Christianity must choose space – to broaden our collective consciousness of it and consider key developments in astronomy, the threat of militarization, and the expansion of private adventure beyond Earth itself. In order for Christianity to proactively engage in 21st century science, peacemaking and moral guidance, it should not put off consideration of the topics herein introduced.

CNN. “CNN Newsroom Transcripts.” Accessed March 8, 2013. http://transcripts.cnn.com/ TRANSCRIPTS/1205/22/cnr.07.html

Collins, Francis S. The Language of God. London: Free Press, 2006.

Dick, Steven. eds Many Worlds: The Universe, Extraterrestrial Life & the Theological Implications. Pennsylvania: Templeton Foundation Press, 2000.

Duke, Charlie and Duke, Dotty. Moonwalker. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 1990.

“Global Christianity,” The Pew Forum of Religion and Public Life. Accessed March 6, 2013, http://www.pewforum.org/Christian/Global-Christianity-exec.aspx

Giberson, Karl W. The Wonder of the Universe. Downer Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2012.

Homes, Arthur F. edits War and Christian Ethics. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2005.

In the Shadow of the Moon. DVD. Directed by David Sington. 2007; Burbank, CA: Discovery Films, 2007.

Kennedy, John F. “Moon Speech – Rice Stadium 1962.” Accessed March 8, 2013. http://er.jsc.nasa.gov/seh/ricetalk.htm

Lindaman, Edward B. Space: A New Direction for Mankind. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1969.

Moltmann, Jürgen. Science & Wisdom. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003.

Time. “100 Photographs That Changed The World, by Time Magazine.” Accessed March 7, 2013. http://digitaljournalist.org/issue0309/lm11.html

Youtube. “Billionaires in Space,” Accessed March 4, 2013. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v =L3vibKoCC-Y&feature=youtu.be&width=560&height=315

Zenko, Micah. “A Code of Conduct for Outer Space: Policy Innovation Memorandum No.10.” Council on Foreign Relations. Accessed March 5, 2013, http://www.cfr.org/space/code-conduct-outer-space/p26556

Zhang, Baohui. “The Security Dilemma in the U.S.-China Military Space Relationship.” Asian Survey 51 (March/April 2011): 311-322.

[1] Karl W. Giberson, The Wonder of the Universe (Downer Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2012), 55
[2] Steven Dick, introduction to Many Worlds: The Universe, Extraterrestrial Life & the Theological Implications (Pennsylvania: Templeton Foundation Press, 2000), vii
[3] Christopher P. McKay, “Astrobiology: The Search For Life Beyond The Earth” in Many Worlds: The Universe, Extraterrestrial Life & the Theological Implications (Pennsylvania: Templeton Foundation Press, 2000), 56
[4] Lee Simon, “Our Relationship to the Universe” in Many Worlds: The Universe, Extraterrestrial Life & the Theological Implications (Pennsylvania: Templeton Foundation Press, 2000), 79
[5] Steven Dick, introduction to Many Worlds, viii
[6] Micah Zenko, “A Code of Conduct for Outer Space: Policy Innovation Memorandum No.10,” Council on Foreign Relations, November 1, 2011, accessed March 5, 2013, http://www.cfr.org/space/code-conduct-outer-space/p26556
[7] Baohui Zhang, “The Security Dilemma in the U.S.-China Military Space Relationship,” Asian Survey 51 (March/April 2011): 311
[8] Ibid.
[9] “Global Christianity,” The Pew Forum of Religion and Public Life, accessed March 6, 2013, http://www.pewforum.org/Christian/Global-Christianity-exec.aspx
[10] Definitions for these categories provided by: Arthur F. Homes eds. War and Christian Ethics (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2005), vii
[11] “Billionaires in Space,” uploaded on March 1, 2013, accessed March 4, 2013, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L3vibKoCC-Y&feature=youtu.be&width=560&height=315
[12] “CNN Newsroom Transcripts”, accessed March 8, 2013, http://transcripts.cnn.com/TRANSCRIPTS /1205/22/cnr.07.html
[13] In the Shadow of the Moon, DVD, directed by David Sington (2007; Burbank, CA: Discovery Films, 2007)
[14] Charlie Duke and Dotty Duke, Moonwalker (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 1990), 276
[15] “100 Photographs That Changed The World, by Time Magazine”, accessed March 7, 2013, http://digitaljournalist.org/issue0309/lm11.html
[16] Gene Cernan, In the Shadow of the Moon
[17] John F. Kennedy, “Moon Speech – Rice Stadium 1962”, accessed March 8, 2013, http://er.jsc.nasa.gov/seh/ricetalk.htm