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Outer Space or Heavens Above?

from-camille-flammarions-latmosphc3a8re-1888
From Camille Flammarion’s L’atmosphère (1888)

Pagan superstitions are always threatening to crowd in.  Either Christ reigns or malign spirits will.

It was the gospel that supplanted pagan superstition in Europe.  Through the spread of Christ's word freedom was offered from a bondage to enslaving beliefs.  The world was awash with gods, demigods, and other spiritual forces.  Fatalism ruled and the best you could hope for was some kind of propitiation of these spiritual slave-masters.

But as the gospel comes into this context, people are confronted with a good Lord who has shown Himself to be utterly for us.  He has provided the propitiation.  He has ransomed us from the devil's power.  And He has brought us to the Most High God who reigns over (not within) this world with Fatherly power.

It was the gospel that enabled the West to be secular.  The gospel drove out the spirits from this world and freed a people to become more prosperous than any who have lived before.  It freed us to love the world and explore it.  To experience some of that dominion which the Bible speaks of.

Yet, having rejected this gospel, the gods are flooding back in.  The new priests are telling new myths, but these ones are like the pagan ones: bleak and bloody and utterly tragic.  Impersonal, immoral and fatalistic to the bitter end.

Of course we scoff at superstitions regarding earth.  We feel as though science has dispelled the mysteries of this planet.  Yet our latent paganism shows itself in our views of outer space.   Go onto Youtube and search for any of the hundreds of videos offering a journey through the universe.  Here's one, almost at random:

Notice the soundtrack.  All the soundtracks are virtually identical:  blasts of slow, austere, rhythm-less synth-brass.  If you subtract the synthesizers it's precisely the kind of music that, in bygone days, made lowly subjects bow in fear to their king.  But our new masters are the giants and supergiants.  And this video literally does command us to bow to our lords.

It is a naked power-play.  The heavenly bodies are presented purely in terms of their strength, blinding brilliance and sheer immensity.  And as we listen to the music, how are we meant to feel about these monstrous powers?  Small, insignificant, uneasy, fearful.  They are the impersonal, uncaring forces and many of them are malign (think black holes).  Ultimately, so the story goes, the powerful will win the day.  Our fate is to be swallowed up by the strong and, in the meantime, all we can do is cower in their presence.  The best we can hope for is to get on in our own corner of the universe with our insignificant little lives and await the inevitable.

It's the old paganism, this time with CGI.

In the Bible, "the morning stars sing together and the sons of God shout for joy" (Job 38:7).  When the LORD asks us to consider the heavens He doesn't play Mahler's 5th.  It's more like the Hallelujah Chorus.  Joyous, personal, harmonious, rapturous.

Or consider how David viewed the sun: "Like a Bridegroom coming forth from his pavilion, like a Champion rejoicing to run his course." (Psalm 19:5)  The sun speaks of the Light of the world who makes the journey from east (God's absence) to west (God's presence).  And He does so not as a display of His own power, but as our rejoicing Champion and our loving Bridegroom.  His power is for us.  You see, when David looked up He saw love.  He saw a Bridegroom who runs the race as our Champion, and joyfully so.  What soundtrack is appropriate for that?  Jean-Michel Jarre on morphine?  Not likely.

But I wonder how much this latent paganism affects Christians.  I wonder whether documentaries like the one above shape our reading of Psalm 19 and not the other way around.  In fact on Youtube I've found Christian videos of Psalm 19 that use the same barren soundtracks.  It's as though we think the "glory of God" is like the old pagan deities but with the trumpets turned up to eleven. May it not be!

In Out of the Silent Planet, CS Lewis imagines the first journey through "space" taken by his hero Ransom. He finds the reality of 'outer space' very different to the scientific mythology:

Ransom, as time wore on, became aware of another and more spiritual cause for his progressive lightening and exultation of heart. A nightmare, long engendered in the modern mind by the mythology that follows in the wake of science, was falling off him. He had read of 'Space': at the back of his thinking for years had lurked the dismal fancy of the black, cold vacuity, the utter deadness, which was supposed to separate the worlds. He had not known how much it affected him till now-now that the very name 'Space' seemed a blasphemous libel for this empyrean ocean of radiance in which they swam. He could not call it 'dead'; he felt life pouring into him from it every moment. How indeed should it be otherwise, since out of this ocean all the worlds and all their life had come? He had thought it barren: he now saw that it was the womb of worlds, whose blazing and innumerable offspring looked down nightly even upon the earth with so many eyes-and here, with how many more! No: Space was the wrong name.”

Don't think "space". Think "heavens".

4 thoughts on “Outer Space or Heavens Above?

  1. Si Hollett

    "It’s the old paganism, this time with CGI." and a few extra names - in addition to Jupiter, Mars and Mercury, there is VY Canis Majoris (not the biggest star, but the smallest in the wikipedia list of most massive - though it is 7th on volume), UY Scuti (most voluminous) and NGC 3603-A1 (a rather massive star). We're not as good at naming them any more.

    And don't forget the most-glorious (heavy), most-illuminating star of them all! All hail the great R136a1!!

    Luckily for us, it (and it's similarly heavy and bright brothers) are 165000 light years away, so will be unconcerned about our daily life, unlike Saturn, Venus and Uranus, whose control on our lives can be seen in the more downmarket papers, normally next to the puzzles. ;)

  2. Cal

    Good post. One thing:

    Interesting you note how the Good News of Jesus Christ as Lord, as the only and sovereign creator, a good and kindly father and king, drives out the spooks of nature. I suppose that shows how one is receiving the message in Scripture.

    In my take, we see in the wake of christendom a return to the old pagan ways, because, well, they were never removed. So much synthesis was being accepted that many old gods became new saints, and revered and 'doulia''d were they. Nature was still the haunt of the same monsters and creatures that the Romans, Germans, Celts etc etc. feared.

    Of course then we see the advance of secularization, both speared ahead by the spread of the Gospel, free of Roman fetters (pre and post Reformation), and also the spread of learning. Providence still at work! However, the reversal then becomes Man as a god, and the nature laid waste as a thing to be harvested, even butchered, if it meant the advance of man. The stars became a place to set the throne of men.

    While what I laid out in truncated form is Western civ, but it's a story oft repeated. Even in the Bible we see the same fearless contempt of nature and religion in the speech of Rabshakeh and the Assyrians before Jerusalem. Mankind wavers between cowering before the gods, or taking on itself the mantel of divine power.

    You're right it seems that pop-science is returning, in a different sort of way, to the blood-chilling fear of olden-days. I'm just not so optimistic of Western history. The Word of God breaks us of both evils, of both pride and fear. That we're not gods, nor slaves to the gods, but are liberated to being beloved children.

    2 cents,
    Cal

  3. Nath

    Great stuff. Always funny/annoying that those novels are often packaged as The Space Trilogy rather than Lewis' preferred title of The Cosmic Trilogy. The heavens are gloriously full not cold and empty space!

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