… Or does religion need Mars? So argues social commentator James Poulos at Foreign Affairs:
What’s clear is that Earth no longer invites us to contemplate, much less renew, our deepest spiritual needs. It has filled up so much with people, discoveries, information, and sheer stuff that it’s maddening to find what F. Scott Fitzgerald called a fresh green breast of a new world — the experience of truly open horizons and an open but specific future. That’s a problem that does suggest a terrible calamity, if not exactly an imminent apocalypse. But by making a fresh pilgrimage to a literally new world — say, red-breasted Mars — we could mark our pilgrims’ progress from the shadows of ignorance and apartness from God.
I’m sympathetic to Poulos’s general point that Mars — and those, like Elon Musk, who want to colonize it — needs religion. (Perhaps even Calvinism in particular!) However, I’m not so sure that Earth has lost its ability to evoke spiritual renewal.
Poulos implies that civilization and abundance are the problem here: Earth “has filled up so much with people, discoveries, information, and sheer stuff.”
There is something to this. While I recently criticized Orthodox philosopher David Bentley Hart for claiming that early Christians believed wealth was “intrinsically evil” (short version: they didn’t), it is undeniable that Christians have seen great danger in great wealth from the very beginning. Jesus himself warned, “Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation” (Luke 6:24).
The logic goes as follows: wealth affords a person more opportunity. That opportunity can be used for good, but with every opportunity comes temptation. Thus a greedy man who is poor may have less opportunity to act on that greed and eventually, through his poverty, learn to let go of it. The greedy person who is rich, however, lacks that blessing, no matter how much else he may have.
So when, comparatively speaking, people today are so much wealthier than in the past, doesn’t that suggest greater opportunity for temptation? Indeed, Jesus again gives an appropriate warning with the illustration of the seed that falls among thorns: “Now the ones that fell among thorns are those who, when they have heard, go out and are choked with cares, riches, and pleasures of life, and bring no fruit to maturity” (Luke 8:14). Wealth can also distract us from what truly matters if we let its comforts snuff out our desire for heavenly consolation.
But that’s not the whole story. To his disciples’ question, “Who then can be saved?” Jesus answered, “The things which are impossible with men are possible with God” (Luke 10:26-27). Even in the midst of so many “people, discoveries, information, and sheer stuff,” God still calls us to contemplate and renew “our deepest spiritual needs.”
In an Acton Commentary article last year about the film The Martian, I explored this in a bit more detail:
It is not the frontier itself but the desire for it that is really the heart of the matter: “that restless, nervous energy,” as [American historian Frederick J.] 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.” Augustine situates this desire in the midst of the realization that “man is surrounded by his mortality,” which is the very thing that makes The Martian so thrilling.
Similarly, C.S. Lewis once remarked, “No man would find an abiding strangeness on the Moon unless he were the sort of man who could find it in his own back garden.”
This, to me, is the problem. On the one hand, the isolation of interplanetary travel and pioneer life on an alien planet has a certain poverty to it that I would expect to evoke the most basic religious desires.
On the other hand — as Poulos rightly argued — if the people who go aren’t religious in the first place, I’m not so sure that even Mars will change that. But if so, then we must see how, even now, life on Earth still “invites us to contemplate … our deepest spiritual needs,” too. And it does.
According to St. Augustine, all we need is an awareness that we are “surrounded by [our] mortality” — something for which, from a Christian point of view, only the resurrected Christ can offer the answer. It is the memento mori that allows us to find an “abiding strangeness” right here on Earth and see that we — and especially we Christians — have always been pilgrims all along.