To a person who understands the world scientifically, claims about the ascension of Jesus or Elijah may seem absurd. For some, claims like these are clear reasons to reject Christianity or Judaism. For others, if religion is to continue to show its importance, it must purify itself of these “mythological” elements in favor of a faith that is beneficial to progress in a scientifically understood universe.
This latter view is taken up by Daniel Ross Goodman in a recent piece here at Public Discourse. Goodman thinks that we now know that science, not religion, tells us how the universe works. But religion is still valuable, he thinks, because it tells us about the meaning of the universe and shows us the sanctity of every human person. Like literature, religion can help us empathize with others and imagine better futures. Belief in a God who calls us to disciplined flourishing can give us a firm foundation for setting off into the cosmos for the sake of perfecting ourselves. But to attain this sort of faith, Goodman argues that we must shed views of God as authoritarian, of human persons as intransigent and sinful, and of certain places (or anything other than human persons) as sacred.
There is a clear dichotomy between Goodman’s humanistic faith and a traditional faith that believes in ascensions. But it is the latter, I contend, not the former, that is necessary and beneficial in the space age. Goodman is quite right when he tells us that a life without religion (or literature) is impoverished, but he is wrong in how he thinks such a life is impoverished. To reduce the value of religion (or literature, or even science) to improved empathy is already to live an impoverished life.
A life of traditional faith involves actions like contemplation and self-understanding that are valuable in themselves, regardless of their consequences. It imparts virtues of humility through the knowledge of one’s own tendency to evil, obedience to a transcendent order, and wonder at the variety of persons and things that are crucial for humanity in this age. It teaches truths, especially about the human person, that must be remembered if humanity is to flourish anywhere, even in space. All these features of traditional faith will be forgotten if religion is reduced to humanism or consequentialism.
A Sacramental View of Reality
These features of traditional religion are embodied, for example, in the stories of ascensions. These events show us, by the way in which the participants are taken from particular places on earth into the sky on their way to heaven, that there is a structure to the earth and cosmos that is not just physical, but is also a sacramental structure containing places in which God has really acted. Likewise, history is not just a chronology of human events; it is also a sacramental order of events through which God providentially reveals Himself. Humanity is not an undifferentiated mass of sacred individuals; it is made up of particular people in unique places and times who are chosen by God, who exhibit particular forms of goodness and evil, and to whom God has given commands and promises.
As I have argued previously here at Public Discourse, it is religion, with its attendant forms of theological, philosophical, and devotional reasoning, and its grounding in personal and traditionary experience, that tells us the facts about how the universe works at its most fundamental level. All other facts, whether scientific or literary, must be placed in this context.
We must make these sacramental structures present to ourselves if we are to flourish, whether here on earth or in the far reaches of space, for it is in their context that we experience and understand ourselves as whole human beings. Human persons flourish when they do what is highest in their nature: contemplating God and wondering at the created order as participating in His divine being.
The space age gives us ample opportunity to exercise these capacities, but we cannot do so if we take ourselves alone to be sacred or if we consider ourselves unbeholden to anything prior to ourselves. The scientific age, with its moral and practical complications, requires of us that we remain in full awareness of (and humility before) the many complexities of human life. Only in this way can we recognize one another’s genuine sanctity rather than give in to the promise of control that technological advances hold out to us.
Human persons find themselves to be cosmic misfits. We are each rooted in the soil of a particular place and time and are also able to intellectually comprehend the physical universe. We each have the capability of committing the most terrible and cruel of evils, but we can also accomplish great good if we live in accordance with just and wise laws, many of which we have learned from divine revelation. We are capable of radical freedom but are unable to exercise that freedom well unless we find our place within a larger story that is not of our making. In an age when we are building technologies with which we could destroy ourselves, and with which we could leave this earth and forget our past entirely, it would be well for us to remember these basic facts. Traditional religion gives us these facts and the virtues we need to live in their light.
A Sentimental Picture of God Is Not Enough
The religion that Goodman advocates, by contrast, gives us a sentimental picture of God as an entity who calls us to flourishing but is stripped of all agency and leaves responsibility for progress and moral understanding entirely with us. It is not clear that God or religious understanding in such a religion plays a function that could not be played by literature or secular ethics.
Goodman’s God, like the God we find in many progressive religious views, could easily be replaced with literary or philosophical meditations on the glory and dignity of the human person. To adopt Goodman’s God or to replace God with such meditations is to strip oneself of roots in particular events and places wherein God has disclosed Himself and given us laws to live by. It is to have no sense of the full range of complexities of human life and experience, for many of these complexities cannot be experienced or understood except through understanding the role of divine providence in our lives. It is to lose the ability for the sort of complex and full reasoning about ourselves that traditional religion, which takes into account all disciplines and features of human life, provides.
Those who adopt Goodman’s faith, or any liberal faith, ultimately have no reason to abide by their faith or their God or by a particular literature or ethics. If the only value these things have is utilitarian, then one need only take on new goals and values to have a reason to abandon them. This creative redefinition of all things to suit new values is, of course, the thrust of the liberal religious and secular project: thus we find liberal churches redefining doctrine and morals, liberal scholars redefining literature and history, liberal politicians redefining human rights and the foundations of law, all to suit newly chosen values and sentiments.
The outcome of this sort of faith is not a robust standpoint from which one can explore and flourish in the cosmos; it is the destruction of any firm standpoint whatsoever other than human will and appetite. It is to abandon any standpoint on which one can confidently and objectively say that human persons are sacred, and to adopt a standpoint on which human persons have only technical value or the value given to them by whatever power is in control. The picture of the human person yielded by Goodman’s religion, and by the liberal project in general, is a picture of the human person as entirely malleable and perfectible by our own agency and planning—that is, as having nothing inherent to him or her, no real sanctity at all.
A Faith Received
By contrast, the picture of the human person and of his or her relationship to God and the cosmos that we find in traditional religion is given in definitive revelatory events and in human nature. A traditional religion is a faith first received, not chosen over and against other faiths. It provides a firm standpoint because it is not of our making.
Without the providential guidance of an authoritarian God, without clear knowledge of the complexities and evils of human persons, and without a vital foundation in real times and places, we will just carry the failures and cruelties we have perpetrated here on earth to the stars. We will wonder why our hopefulness and intellectual planning did not yield better results, and our false faith will lead, as in so many science fiction novels, to violence or despair.
As it is, even with traditional faith, we will certainly carry such evils with us as we journey out into the cosmos. But we will understand why this must be so, for we will be content to wrestle with, not seek to permanently eradicate, the sinfulness of the human person. And we will have the resources from our religion to bring with us laws and traditions that can guide us amidst those evils, even on alien worlds, and to remember our roots in the holy places of old Earth. We will know that we are still human persons, not something new, still having the same roots and possibilities. We will have what it takes to ascend one day beyond the stars.