The religious sensibilities I’ve been discussing in recent posts here on The Archdruid Report have an interesting property: they’re hard to define with any degree of precision, but remarkably easy to recognize in practice. It’s a little like the old joke about how you know that an elephant’s gotten into your refrigerator; like the telltale footprints in the butter dish, the traces left by a given religious sensibility are hard to miss.
The sensibility that seized the imagination of the western world after 600 BCE, and has begun to lose its grip only in our time, is no exception to this rule. I’ve already talked about its distinctive central theme, the passionate insistence that human beings deserve more than nature, history, and the human condition are prepared to give them, and that there must be some way to escape from the trammels of humanity’s ordinary existence and break free into infinity and eternity. There are plenty of other tracks in the butter dish of western culture, for that matter, but the one I want to discuss this week is as simple as it is revealing: the spatial direction in which, according to the sensibility we’re discussing, the way out of the human condition is most likely to be found
To the cultures of the modern west, it seems self-evident that the only possible location for heaven is “up there,” and plenty of people assume that that’s universal among human beings. It isn’t, not by a long shot. To the ancient Greeks, for example, the gods and goddesses lived in various corners of the world—some of them lived on Mount Olympus, a midsized mountain in Thessaly, but Poseidon was normally to be found in the ocean, Pan in the woodlands of Arcadia, Hades in the underworld, and so on; when Zeus wanted to hold a council, he had to send a god or goddess around to summon them all to Olympus. In Shinto, the polytheist religion of Japan, some of the kami—the divine powers of Shinto—live in Takama no Hara, the Plain of High Heaven, but others dwell on earth, and every year in the month corresponding to October, they all travel to the Izumo shrine in western Japan and are not to be found elsewhere. The old Irish paradise, Tir na nOg, was on the sea floor of the Atlantic somewhere off west of Ireland—well, I could go on for quite some time with comparable examples.
Within the sensibility that’s now fading out across the western world, by contrast, the route to heaven was by definition a line pointing straight up from the Earth’s surface. I want to stress here that this is part of the religious sensibility of an age—that is, a pattern of emotions and images in the collective imagination—rather than a necessary part of the theist and civil religions that existed in that setting and thus were shaped by that sensibility. It’s not too hard, in fact, to find ways in which the teachings of these religions were manhandled, sometimes very roughly, to make room in them for the images and emotions that the sensibility of the age demanded.
Here’s an example. In the New Testament, the two gospels that describe what later came to be called the Ascension of Jesus describe the event in very simple terms; Mark says “he was received up into heaven” (Mark 16:19), and Luke says “he was parted from them, and carried up into heaven” (Luke 24:51). Those Christian friends of mine who know their way around theology assure me that heaven is a wholly spiritual state or condition of being, which is no more above the earth than it is, say, northeast of Las Vegas. The pressure exerted by the religious sensibility of the last two millennia, though, was such that the Ascension has nearly always been portrayed in art as an exercise in levitation.
This has not uncommonly been taken in a very literal manner. It so happens, for example, that Christian symbolism plays a central role in some of the higher degrees of Freemasonry, and members of one of those degrees thus celebrate an Ascension Day service annually. Here at the Cumberland Masonic lodge, there’s an extraordinary early 20th century trompe l’oeil painting, which is hidden away behind another piece of symbolic art, and uncovered for the Ascension Day service and certain other functions. It’s a landscape view of Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives; the Temple is below, with the rest of the city around it, and the Judean landscape reaching away into the distance. The foreground scene on the Mount of Olives is painted on a piece of metal, a little in front of the canvas background, and there are clouds handled the same way at the top of the painting.
There in front, on the Mount of Olives, Jesus stands among his disciples. At the right moment of the ceremony, one of the brethren pulls on a hidden string, and the figure of Jesus rises up from the circle of disciples and soars slowly into the air, rising straight up until he’s lost to sight behind the clouds. It’s a remarkably powerful image, you can hardly help imagining the disciples staring openmouthed at the miracle, and people down below in the streets of Jerusalem catching a glimpse of the sight and thinking, good heavens, that looks like a man rising up into the sky!
I don’t know of a better example of the way the collective imagination of the modern world shifted gears when Sputnik I broke free of the atmosphere and opened the Space Age. Until then, the top of the atmosphere might as well have been a sheet of iron, as the Egyptians thought it was. (Their logic was impeccable: polished iron is blue, and so is the sky; iron is strong and heatproof, and the sky would need to be both in order to support the boat named Millions of Years on which Ra the sun god does his daily commute; besides, the only iron they knew came from meteorites, which they sensibly interpreted as stray chunks of sky that had fallen to earth. Many of our theories about nature will likely seem much less reasonable from the perspective of the far future.)
It’s an extraordinary experience to go back and read what sensible people in the first half of the 20th century thought of the claims then being retailed by the small minority who dreamed of going to the Moon and the other planets. Outer space—take a moment to think about the implications of that conventional phrase!—was to most people an abstraction, not a place, and when the Moon and Mars weren’t just lights in the sky, they served as convenient new labels for fairyland. Equally, the idea that human machines or human beings, might someday pop through the atmosphere into that “space outside” was raw material for fairy tales.
Nor were the fairy tales slow to appear. An earlier post here explored the extraordinary role that science fiction played in shaping the collective imagination of our age, even when it was considered the last word in lowbrow reading. The civil religion of progress, as I suggested in last week’s post, needed a mythic image of salvation from nature, history, and the human condition before it could break loose from the competition and become the established religion of our time; science fiction provided that, and in the process underwent a massive transformation of its own. Until the early 1940s, science fiction was still what it had been in the time of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, a literature that explored the whole gamut of imaginable technological advances; thereafter, it fixated more and more precisely on one specific suite of imagined technologies and the central image around which they clustered.
The close similarity between this image and the one shown earlier in this post, I’d like to suggest, is no accident. As pointed out in an earlier post in this sequence, civil religions derive their core imagery and emotional tone from the theist religions they replace, and the image of man’s ascension into space took on the same role in the religion of progress that Jesus’ ascension into heaven has in Christianity. What SF writer Arthur C. Clarke called, in the title of a hugely popular nonfiction book of his, The Promise of Space was the precise equivalent—or as precise an equivalent as a materialist and anthropolatrous civil religion could manage—to the promise of salvation at the heart of Christian faith.
Listen to those of today’s cornucopian true believers who don’t simply put their faith in the endless prolongation of business as usual, and it’s rarely difficult to hear the ringing voice of the Christian evangelist coming through the verbiage about limitless energy sources, new worlds for mankind, and the rest of it. How many times, dear reader, have you heard the great leap upward into space described as humanity’s mission, its destiny, even its sole excuse for existing in the first place? How many times have you read enthusiastic claims about space-based manufacturing, orbital colonies and the like that assume as a matter of course that benefits will outweigh costs and difficulties will inevitably be overcome, because, well, going into space is humanity’s mission, its destiny, etc.? Let’s just say that if you write a blog that asks hard questions about the mythology of progress, you can count on fielding outraged comments along these lines several times a week from now until star date fill-in-the-blank.
Now it so happens that there’s a very good reason to doubt these claims, and in particular to challenge the notion that orbital colonies, settlements on Mars, and the rest of it will inevitably prosper if we just find the quadrillions of dollars necessary to pay for them and the infrastructure necessary to build them in the first place. In an article published in Nature in 1997, a team of economists headed by Robert Costanza set out to calculate how much value is contributed to the global economy by the Earth’s natural systems; their midrange estimates works out to an annual contribution roughly three times the size of the world’s gross domestic product. Put another way, of every dollar’s worth of goods and services consumed by human beings each year, around 75 cents are provided free of charge by nature, and only 25 cents have to be paid for by human economic activity.
That immense contribution to human well-being—call it the “biosphere dividend”—isn’t available anywhere else in the solar system. (Even if Titan, say, has a biosphere of its own, its version of that dividend will apply only to life forms who enjoy sipping liquid methane and gazing at the bright orange sky on a balmy —290°F. afternoon, not to human beings.) Here on Earth, human beings get air to breathe, water to drink, shelter from radiation, topsoil in which to grow crops, and a dizzying array of other goods and services at no charge from the planetary system; anywhere else, all these things have to be provided by human labor, and require constant inputs of resources that human beings must also provide. That burden somehow gets left out of the sort of glowing rhetoric so often circulated among true believers in progress—one of many examples of the remarkable blindness to the economics of complex technology I’ve discussed here in several posts already.
Such arguments have little impact on those who believe. Still, civil religions are considerably more vulnerable to disproof than the theist religions they supplant, in that they belong wholly to the world of ordinary experience, and are far more difficult to uphold in the face of ordinary experience than their theist cousins. When advances in rocket science made it impossible to ignore the fact that what was up there above the clouds had nothing in common with heaven, Christians all over the industrial world recalled that most schools of Christian theology define heaven, as already noted, as a spiritual state or condition rather than a physical place at high altitude. Long-established habits of thought had to be changed, to be sure, but those habits didn’t touch the core commitments of the faith.
The civil religion of progress didn’t have the same advantage, since its core commitments were supposed to manifest in the world of ordinary experience, not in a spiritual condition inaccessible to any eyes but those of faith. Once the religion of progress embraced the fairy-tale logic of science fiction and set out, like Jack climbing the beanstalk, to find the giant’s palace of its dreams somewhere up there in the sky, it was vulnerable to catastrophic disproof—and catastrophic disproof is what it got, too, though I’m not at all sure the believers have yet noticed just what it was that hit them.
The vulnerability here was precisely its dependence on borrowed imagery from the theist faiths it supplanted. Decades of science fiction primed the collective imagination of the western world to see the ascent from earth to space as an ascension from earth to heaven, a passage out of ordinary reality into something wholly other—even if that “wholly other” too often consisted of nothing better than the sort of tacky adventure-fantasy so many SF authors splashed across a galaxy of forgettable imaginary worlds. The torrent of propaganda and pageantry the United States invested in the Space Race against Russia helped feed the sense of expectancy, and brought it to a climax that summer day in 1969 when Neil Armstrong stepped down a spidery ladder onto the surface of the Moon.
After the speeches and the TV specials and the ticker-tape parades were done with, though, something very different began to whisper through the crawlspaces of the industrial world’s collective imagination—something that could be summed up fairly neatly as “Was that all?” We went to the Moon, not once but repeatedly, and every trip made it harder to ignore the fact that the Moon wasn’t wholly other at all. It wasn’t fairyland. It was monotonous gray desert without air, water or life, and the only thing you could see there that was of interest to anybody but a handful of scientists was the extraordinary blue-and-white sphere of Earth hanging motionless in the black and starless sky.
To make matters worse, that’s more or less what orbiters and landers found everywhere else in the solar system, too. Mars, the scene of countless fantasies since the dawn of science fiction, turned out to have a remarkable resemblance to the less interesting corners of Nevada, without even the rattlesnakes and poisonous scorpions to lend a bit of human interest. Every world in the solar system that human spacecraft reached offered the same less than overwhelming spectacle: sand, scattered rocks, and basically nothing else. Even if Mars had turned out to have some analogue of blue-green algae huddled on the underside of the occasional damp rock, even if the Huygens lander on Titan had spotted unmistakably biological growths basking in the dim glow from the distant sun, a few space missions and a few more National Geographic specials later, the same reaction would inevitably have followed, because the emotions and fantasies that gathered around the promise of space had nothing to do with what was actually out there in the solar system, and everything to do with images and ideas of salvation and transcendence that had been surreptitiously borrowed from older theist religions.
The drawback to that borrowed imagery is that you can’t actually transcend nature, history and the human condition by riding a rocket to the Moon, to Mars, or even to some hypothetical exoplanet circling Proxima Centauri, any more than you can do it by riding a cross-country bus to Nevada. Ironically, a close reading of science fiction could have warned of that well in advance; the sense of wonder and exaltation that came to early readers of the genre as they read of voyages to the Moon soon palled, and had to be rekindled with ever more elaborate journeys to ever more distant worlds, until finally characters in SF novels were voyaging across multiple universes in an effort to give readers the same rush they got in Verne’s time from a simple trip in a balloon. That’s what happens when you try to make a quantitative difference fill in for a qualitative one, and use mere distance or size as a surrogate for a change in the essential character of existence.
To return to an image introduced earlier in this essay, it’s rather as though some misguidedly materialist believer in the Ascension had convinced himself that heaven really was somewhere up there in the upper atmosphere, and worked out some way to copy those artistic depictions and levitate straight up into the air from the Mount of Olives. His disciples would no doubt have stared with equal awe as he rose into the clouds, and there might well have been people down below on the streets of Jerusalem who caught a glimpse of the sight and thought, good heavens, there goes another one!
It’s what follows, though, that makes the difference. According to Christian tradition, the Ascension ended with Jesus being received into heaven and taking his throne on the right hand of God the Father. For our imaginary imitator, of course, no such welcome would await. Somewhere above 8,000 feet, altitude sickness would cut in; somewhere above that, depending on the weather, frostbite; above 26,000 feet, the oxygen content of the air is too low to support human life, and death from anoxia would follow if hypothermia hadn’t gotten there first. If nothing interrupted the ascent, the planet’s already substantial collection of orbiting space junk would shortly thereafter be enriched by the addition of a neatly freeze-dried corpse.
All metaphors aside, it’s rarely if ever a good idea to try to take a vision of transcendence and enact it in the world of matter. That effort is the stock in trade of civil religions, which tend to emerge in ages that have lost the capacity to believe in transcendence but still have the emotional needs once met by the theist religions of their cultures, and it accounts for the way civil religions have of failing catastrophically when their efforts to act out simulacra of transcendence collide with the awkward realities of the world as it is. The implosion of the civil religion of Communism thus promptly followed the collision between fantasies of the Worker’s Paradise and the bleak bureaucratic reality of the Eastern Bloc nations; the implosion of the civil religion of Americanism is taking place right now as a consequence of the collision between what America thinks it stands for and what it’s all too plainly become; and the implosion of the civil religion of progress is arguably not too far off, as the gaudy dream of infinite knowledge and power through technology slams face first into the hard limits of a finite planet and a solar system uninterested in fueling human fantasies.