Acton Institute Powerblog

The cultural mandate and the final frontier

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“Space,” proclaimed the memorable opening to the original Star Trek series, is “the final frontier.”

The image of the frontier, and its historic importance to Americans especially, has been part of our national discourse since at least historian Frederick J. Turner’s famous essay, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History.” I reflected on the significance of Turner’s thesis for space travel, and Martian colonization in particular, in an essay a few years ago on the hit film The Martian:

It is not the frontier itself but the desire for it that is really the heart of the matter: “that restless, nervous energy,” as Turner put it. There is something universal at the bottom of this American idea. As St. Augustine prayed, “O Lord … You made us for Yourself and our heart is restless, until it rests in You.”

That restless heart in the face of the vast “final frontier” of outer space is the topic of a recent article in Convivium by Brett Graham Fawcett:

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.

Fawcett notes economic motivations that make space travel more likely in our future at the start of his article, but he hones in on the need for proper pastoral care for future frontiersman (and -women), concluding,

[Karl] 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.

While I’m unsure how pressing this need is — despite being a techno-optimist in general — there is spiritual value in the imaginative exercise of asking how we would prepare for such a scenario, however sci-fi it may seem to us in the present.

I agree that a healthy mysticism would be an asset to any space travelers — monastics have lived in purposeful isolation while maintaining, indeed improving, their spiritual health all throughout human history. Some degree of asceticism — whether prayer, meditation, mindfulness, or some combination — makes sense to me. A regular practice of fasting might even incidentally help one adjust to the quality — or lack thereof — of space food.

But there is another side to ascetic spirituality that also could aid in the “re-enchanting” of the cosmos that Fawcett calls for: the ascetic work ethic. The Benedictine Order’s famous motto, ora et labora (“pray and work”), is characteristic of the vast majority of Christian asceticism throughout Church history, even including Protestant traditions according to sociologist Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.

That economic side to the question that Fawcett notes as a potential motivation for space travel but leaves behind as he focuses on pastoral and psychological concerns, has a spiritual and theological basis as well — what some theologians call the “cultural mandate” of Genesis 1:28: “Then God blessed [humanity], and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth.'”

Furthermore, in Genesis 2 we see that God not only made his creation “very good,” and placed humanity in Paradise, but the work of creation was far from finished: God made us “to till the ground” (Genesis 2:5).

Now, I doubt the author of Genesis had other planets in mind when this passage was originally written, but by the same reasoning, the author likely had an expansive, cosmic view of what this mandate meant. The “ground” or “earth” in question would include all the resources of the cosmos, and our “dominion” would extend as far as God has enabled us to “fill the earth.” As I wrote in the above-mentioned essay on The Martian, “We might say that God’s command to ‘fill the earth’ (Genesis 1:28) should not stop at the soil of this planet.”

The biblical cosmology consists of “the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1). Notably “earth” is not here the proper name of our planet but simply another word for soil. We could also take it to mean the physical aspect of creation, as distinct from the spiritual (“the heavens”).

In any case, God made us to make something good of his good creation. As I wrote in my book Foundations of a Free & Virtuous Society, “In short, God wants us to work. He wants us to creatively make good and beautiful things, just like he did (and does).” This theological foundation of our economic lives could, indeed ought, to be extended as far as we are able, even, when possible, across that “final frontier” of outer space. Someday that mandate may mean tilling and tending the earth of other planets.

In the meantime, it should also inspire us to make good and beautiful things on this planet, both for the glory of God and the good of our neighbors.


Image credit: “Colinization of Mars” by D Mitriy, Wikimedia Commons

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Dylan Pahman Dylan Pahman is a research fellow at the Acton Institute, where he serves as managing editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality. He earned his MTS in Historical Theology from Calvin Theological Seminary. In addition to his work as an editor, Dylan has authored several peer-reviewed articles, conference papers, essays, and one book: Foundations of a Free & Virtuous Society (Acton Institute, 2017). He has also lectured on a wide variety of topics, including Orthodox Christian social thought, the history of Christian monastic enterprise, the Reformed statesman and theologian Abraham Kuyper, and academic publishing, among others.