“What we need for the moment is not so much a body of belief as a body of people familiarized with certain ideas. If we could even effect in one per cent of our readers a change-over from the conception of Space to the conception of Heaven, we should have made a beginning.” Dr. Ransom of C.S. Lewis’s “Out of the Silent Planet”
On July 4, 2016, NASA’s space probe JUNO successfully entered Jupiter’s orbit. It was the second spacecraft ever to do so after the Galileo probe which orbited from 1995–2003.
For me, it is beyond ironic that NASA chose to name the probe JUNO and I think C.S. Lewis would have been delighted that they a chose pagan myth to tell the story of their scientific endeavor. Here is the thinking from NASA: “In Greek and Roman mythology, Jupiter drew a veil of clouds around himself to hide his mischief. It was Jupiter’s wife, the goddess Juno, who was able to peer through the clouds and reveal Jupiter’s true nature. The JUNO spacecraft will also look beneath the clouds to see what the planet is up to, not seeking signs of misbehavior, but helping us to understand the planet’s structure and history.”
The stated mission? They hope to improve the understanding of our origin. JUNO will spend twenty months orbiting the gas giant, peering into its clouds with the hope of penetrating the myriad of mysteries that mask its making. JUNO hopes to pull back the colorful veil of gases behind which the king of planets hides his truth from us.
This is exciting, indeed, but even if JUNO is able to expose all her beloved’s secrets, will we truly be closer to knowing all there is to know about our origin? Perhaps.
What about the “why” of our existence? Can science alone answer such a question?
“We have conquered Jupiter!” exclaimed JUNO mission’s principal investigator Scott Bolton at the media briefing of July 4th. The scientists on the panel were all glowing; seriously glowing. It was the effulgence of scientific success, something that as a former scientist I recognized immediately. I could not help but get swept up in the excitement, even though the little skeptic in me scoffed at his statement. “Conquered? Really?” a small inner voice quipped. “And you will be like God …”
Oh, how easily we fall into scientific hubris! Man’s wretchedness is always nipping at the heels of his greatness. Yes, it was quite a feat of engineering and theoretical physics to get JUNO into her orbit without crashing into the gravity giant. They had much to celebrate. Yet, how quickly such scientific success puffs us up.
Scientists today remind me of Lewis’s Ransom Trilogy. The books tell a tale of one man’s journey into space, his experiences on Mars and Venus, and his battle against forces of evil (NICE) back on planet earth. As a Christian, Ransom’s experience of the cosmos is contrasted with his adversary’s, a theoretical physicist named Weston who “has Einstein on toast and drinks a pint of Schrodinger’s blood for breakfast.”
Ransom experienced space as a place teeming with crushing vitality and a purpose that energized while Weston seemed completely immune to its effects. Most importantly, Lewis compares the effects of knowledge on these two main characters with Ransom increasing in humility and awe while Weston’s humanity crumbles under the weight of a lust for power and dominance. For Weston, this consuming “love of knowledge” would end up producing “a kind of madness.”
Weston would think that asking the “why” question was completely irrelevant. When hearing about Ransom’s expertise in philology, he replies with “I don’t care two-pence what school he was at nor on what unscientific foolery he is at present wasting money that ought to go to research.”
Here is what Weston says to Ransom about the ethics of scientific advancement: “Small claims” like those of an individual’s life “must give way to great” for “we are doing what has never been done in the history of man .. . infinity, and therefore perhaps eternity is being put in the hands of the human race.”
Ransom’s reply? “I suppose all that stuff about infinity and eternity means that you think you are justified in doing anything – absolutely anything – here and now, on the off chance that some creatures or other descended from man as we know him may crawl about a few centuries longer in some part of the universe.”
In many ways, scientists are the modern world’s high-priests. I have thought this since my days in the field. At the end of almost every article I read for my work, scientists seemed to instinctively know that they must pay their respects to science’s ability to answer all the important questions of our origin. And this, regardless of whether or not it was immediately applicable to the work.
Of course, Weston represents an extreme that, thankfully, rarely happens (with some notable exceptions like Francis Crick). Perhaps, only in the fleeting fancies of some scientists do such thoughts occur. Lewis was aware of this, too. As with most art, fiction of this sort presents us with a picture of a world where the logical consequences of dogma are attained. The contingencies of this world – funding, publishing, equipment malfunctions, politics, and that dreaded word for a protein chemist such as myself, contamination – keep that dead march of scientific progress to its extreme in check, slowing down our approach to Weston-like thinking.
Yet, I would like to submit that if these are the only things that are holding us back, we are not in good shape. This is what concerned Lewis, as well. I would much prefer for virtues like humility, wonder, awe, Love, and that dreaded word for our autonomy obsessed culture – reverence, to hold us back from becoming Weston. I am not as optimistic as I long to be, given some current rationales for things like abortion, euthanasia, and embryonic stem-cell research.
That is why it struck me as odd that the JUNO mission scientists would use the pagan imagery to describe their mission. The high-priests of our silent planet have sent Saturn’s daughter into the heavens to tear apart Jupiter’s veil, rendering his secrets ours. Will this mission be our salvation? Ironically, the true King of the heavens has already revealed salvation to us in His life, death, and resurrection. 1.1 billion USD later, will we be convinced?
I doubt it. What secrets we collect from the mission will be wholly constrained by what questions we ask of the king of planets. I submit that the information we glean will be greatly limited if we are assured that Jupiter will tell us our origins. If we assume, as most modern scientists do, that we are only collecting data points devoid of any meaning outside of mathematical inquiry, what might we miss? We might be able to determine how gas giants like Jupiter have formed and from that paint a picture of our solar system’s birth, but the “why” it was formed will be left out. Our knowledge will remain as flat and unimaginative as the two-dimensional picture we draw (or as unreal as the virtual 3-D models we construct). It will be just a collection of points deciphered by a meaningless collection of atoms. Atoms contemplating atoms.
One may legitimately question whether or not the “why” is important, as Weston would most certainly do. In my opinion, the answer to the “why” will guide how we use the data we gain from the JUNO mission, and any scientific knowledge really. Whether or not we see that there is a Love that “moves the suns and other stars” or that it is just meaningless matter moving through empty space will determine if we will behave more like Lewis’s Weston or his Ransom.
They were astonished at what he had to tell them of human history—of war, slavery and prostitution. “It is because they have no Oyarsa,” said one of the pupils. “It is because every one of them wants to be a little Oyarsa himself,” said Augray.
― C.S. Lewis,
Mankind is incurably curious. I am convinced that the indefatigable urge to solve mysteries is a function of the Imago Dei. Indeed, it is written in Proverbs that “it is the glory of God to conceal a matter, but the glory of kings is to search out a matter.” As His delegated terrestrial sub-rulers, it is this in us that exults in discovery. But like all of our marble, there is a muddy underbelly. It is just a few easy steps from such wonder to hubris and harm. We must temper the glory of discovery with humility. “O, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable His judgments, and untraceable His ways!”
Still, the Imago Dei will not be completely suppressed (thank our lucky stars!). I was astounded at the language these scientists were using in the midst of their jubilee. In describing the first ever real-time images that JUNO caught of four of Jupiter’s moons’ orbits, Bolton almost unconsciously exclaimed, “It’s the king of the planets with his disciples moving around him!”
What?! A Christological reference at a NASA news conference? From a pagan myth to Christ? I imagine that Lewis would have been beside himself with laughter. I was! Jupiter may have conquered these scientists, instead … at least for a few beautiful moments.
Could it be that theological language is a “language more adequate” when it comes to describing the wonders of the Cosmos? Lewis once wrote that our “Christian ‘doctrines’ are translations into our concepts and ideas of that which God has already expressed in language more adequate, namely the actual incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection.” Could the same principle be at work here?
Regardless, this is what celestial wonder can do to the soul and why my first quote from Lewis’s Ransom Trilogy remains true. If it can get through to these hardened high-priests, consider what it could do for those of us that are more removed from metaphysical naturalism’s confining grasp.
“The heavens declare the glory of God … their voice goes out unto all the earth.” Even the speech of these scientists cannot escape their influence.
And, it is not only the heavens but all of God’s Creation that speaks to us. As a scientist, I studied some of the world’s smallest entities: proteins. I will tell you that these beautifully complex molecules (known as the workhorses of the cell) declare God’s glory, too. Like Weston, we have to be bent by pride and an a priori rejection of meaning not to hear their speech that goes out into all the earth and quite literally sustains us at a cellular level.
Here is the video that NASA unveiled at the press conference that evening. Despite the self-important statements about our origin, I find it incredibly moving. Enjoy watching the harmonic motion of the “Love that moves the sun and all the stars”!
BONUS: protein crystals are notoriously difficult to produce. One day a colleague came running into the lab to show me this picture from one of the microscopes we used to search for them. Even protein crystals declare God’s glory! Truth be told, I felt closer to Him in the lab than just about anywhere since. There, it was hard to escape His glory. My professor even had HUBBLE images framed and hanging in the halls about the lab (my favorite being “The Pillars of Creation”). I’d say to myself, “The heavens declare the glory of God … and so do protein molecules!”