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Post-Apocalyptic Faith

April 12, 2017 — 10 Comments


In a post-apocalyptic world, would there be any room for Christianity? A variety of writers have addressed that in dramatically different ways, arguing for faith’s final dissipation or its ultimate triumph.

Post-apocalyptic literature being what it is, of course, most of the portrayals of Christianity either (1) reveal its idealistic collapse, (2) describe its survival as a crippled reflection of its former self, (3) depict its takeover by some persuasive power figure or mysterious cartel, or (4) ignore it altogether, as if it never existed.

In a recent essay on the subject, one of my favorite books was referenced. Canticle for Leibowitz was one of the first novels I read that awakened me to the fact reading could be enjoyable. A Canticle for Leibowitz struck a perfect chord in me, blending captivating science fiction with a consideration of the place of faith in the apocalyptic equation.

A cinematic masterpiece of this subject is 2010’s The Book of Eli. This amazing film which stars one of our generation’s finest actors, Denzel Washington, is set in a very desperate era. If you have never seen it, you are missing a unique examination of faith in a world where people turned away en masse because of the nuclear apocalypse.

C.S. Lewis explored the long-range future of Christianity. Barring the parousia (the second coming), history will continue its trajectory indefinitely. Spatially, this suggests humans may expand our presence beyond our present planetary home. In addition to his Space Trilogy, Lewis toyed with such concerns in a couple of short stories.

Included in the collection Of Other Worlds: Essays and Stories, are two of these efforts. “Ministering Angels” begins:

The Monk, as they called him, settled himself on the camp chair beside his bunk and stared through the window at the harsh sand and black-blue sky of Mars. He did not mean to begin his ‘work’ for ten minutes yet. Not, of course, the work he had been brought there to do.

He was the meteorologist of the party, and his work in that capacity was largely done; he had found out whatever could be found out. There was nothing more, within the limited radius he could investigate, to be observed for at least twenty-five days. And meteorology had not been his real motive.

He had chosen three years on Mars as the nearest modern equivalent to a hermitage in the desert.

“Ministering Angels” was originally published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, volume XIII (January 1958). “Forms of Things Unknown,” an excerpt from which follows, was not published until the collection was released several years after Lewis’ death.

It is quintessential Lewis, blending reality and mythology in a creative fashion. It reads like what’s commonly called “hard scifi” (focusing on science and technology). But it hints at something more, in its opening quotation from Perelandra.

Likewise, the following passage indicates that not everything once deemed myth lacks foundation in fact. The exchange takes place between an astronaut preparing for a journey to the moon and one of his friends remaining behind.

“You’re surely not going to suggest life on the Moon at this time of day?”

“The word life always begs the question. Because, of course, it suggests organization as we know it on Earth—with all the chemistry which organization involves. Of course there could hardly be anything of that sort. But there might—I at any rate can’t say there couldn’t—be masses of matter capable of movements determined from within, determined, in fact, by intentions.”

“Oh Lord, Jenkin, that’s nonsense. Animated stones, no doubt! That’s mere science fiction or mythology.”

“Going to the Moon at all was once science fiction. And as for mythology, haven’t they found the Cretan labyrinth?”

What about the Real World?

Post-apocalyptic literature is riding the crest of popularity today. Nearly all of it is dystopian. There is little room in its pages for hope, let alone faith.

It mirrors the increasing secularization in the West and the increase in religious persecution in other parts of the world.

Atheists laud the increasing pace of the loss of faith in America and the rest of the Western world. They mistakenly think it will result in a more civil and happy world.

It will, in fact, cause the opposite.

I know nothing about Cardinal Francis George, former Roman Catholic archbishop of Chicago. However, when I read the following quotation, it stunned me. It is one of the most sobering assessments of the course of Western history I have seen.

Later in 2010, he further outlined the degree to which he believed religious freedoms in the United States and other Western societies were endangered. In a speech to a group of priests, he said, “I expect to die in bed, my successor will die in prison and his successor will die a martyr in the public square.

His successor will pick up the shards of a ruined society and slowly help rebuild civilization, as the church has done so often in human history.”

It remains to be seen whether George’s words will prove prophetic. I fear they may. God have mercy.

arctic hares

Does it bother you to encounter an unfamiliar word when you are reading? How about in conversation?

I’m one of those people who enjoy using uncommon words. I savor conversations where people naturally incorporate words one rarely hears. I rejoice when I encounter a new word that precisely describes some elusive essence that formerly required a paragraph to explain.

I can illustrate that final comment—welcoming words that define hard to describe nuances—with a couple of examples. Angst and ephemeral were the first two such words that came to my mind just now, and momentarily I will offer passages in which C.S. Lewis uses each of them.

One is “angst.” It’s more than worry. It’s darker than anxiety. It conveys in many cases an air of foreboding. We can thank the Germans for angst (the word, not the dread itself).

Another too seldom used word would be “ephemeral.” In essence it means temporary or transitory. But it often conveys a sense of loss, of the passing of something before its due time. It suggests the dissolution of something we would wish to examine in greater detail. Ephemeral suggests something far more emotionally weighty than its original Greek, which translates into “lasting only a day.”

Narrowly defined or focused words, are like a sort of communication shorthand. They are useful for getting messages across more rapidly, and with greater accuracy. For example, it would be of little value for one Inuit to describe a location to another by saying it was covered with “snow.” If they intend to travel there, it would be beneficial to know in advance what kind of snow to anticipate.

Due to this unforgiving environment, the Inuktitut (the dialect spoken in the eastern part of the Canadian arctic) have a score of different words referring to snow and ice. This fascinating article addresses the subject and illustrates how this word group is supplemented by additional words which, when used in a winter context, mean a particular type of snow.

In Nunavik, for instance, it is possible to call maujaq the snow in which one sinks. This is a general term that refers to any type of soft ground (mud, wetland, quicksand) but which, in winter, can only apply to a soft snow cover where the foot sinks.

In the same way, the word illusaq (“what can become a house”) refers to any construction material (wood, stone, brick, etc.), but when an igloo is built, it applies precisely to snow that is rigid and maneuverable enough for erecting a semi-spherical house made of snow blocks.

While the native peoples of the Arctic possess many words for atmospheric water vapor that has been frozen into ice crystals, there are not quite one hundred, as some have parodied.

On the other end of the geographic spectrum, there are many human beings who will never in their entire lives see snow. Think non-mountainous equatorial settings that escaped even the Ice Age. For them, a single word is probably sufficient for the theoretically existent snow, and only one word required for the precious commodity ice, which is most frequently encountered in the shape of a cube.

I am not a skier, so I claim no philological expertise on snow slang where I live in Washington State. The snow we enjoy near Hood Canal comes and goes in a couple of days, several times each winter. Perfect for sledding or building snowpeople with the grandkids. Yet even here we readily recognize several types of snow. Wet snow makes deadly spheres for snowball wars. Powder is less suitable as a construction material, but it offers a slippery track for racing downhill sledding. Packed snow transforms into ice, and makes driving hazardous. Slush is, well . . . slushy.

Not All Words are Worthy of Inclusion

One simple way to expand our vocabulary is by subscribing to a “Word of the Day” service. More often than not, I already know the day’s offering, but occasionally it’s pleasant to be reminded of such things.

Then there are those words that are so peculiar or restrictive that we can’t consciously conceive of using them. Such was a word I received this week: “appurtenance.” I applaud you if you know it. I commiserate with your friends if you employ it.

One of appurtenance’s synonyms is “paraphernalia.” That was a fine word in and of itself, until it because too strongly associated with illegal narcotics. I guess if I elect not to use “appurtenance,” and regard “paraphernalia” as contaminated, I’ll simply need to retreat to the fallback word of my youth, “stuff.”

Today’s word was even less useful. “Sternutation” is the involuntary expulsion of air through the nose. Might be good for a bunch of junior high school boys, but I don’t think I’ll file it away for my next novel.

C.S. Lewis’ Use of Precise Prose

The best, and most gratifying way to expand our vocabularies is by reading. I never resent reading a great book or stimulating essay that sends me to my dictionary.

As I promised, I am including examples of Lewis’ use of the words I had randomly selected to illustrate my point above. As a bonus, I’m including two examples of ephemeral, reflecting both senses of the word’s meaning.

From C.S. Lewis’ essay “Sir Walter Scott” which appears in Selected Literary Essays:

For the whole of that Gurnal, indeed, we might borrow a title from an author whom Scott himself fully appreciated, and call it ‘Sense and Sensibility’. The sense, I presume, is obvious enough. We see it, first and foremost, in his cool and moderate estimate of his own literary powers; a modesty almost (one would have thought) impossible in one whose reputation had filled Europe and been blown up until he was put above Goethe and almost equalled with Shakespeare. Yet it is not mere self-depreciation.

Though never deceived about his weaknesses, he knows his real strength too; the “hurried frankness of composition which pleases soldiers, sailors, and young people of bold and active disposition.” He recognizes, in his own way, the quality of what a more pretentious writer would call “inspiration:”—“I shall get warm as I work”— the morning, fresh from the labours of subconscious artistry, is musis amica. We see it also in his unchanging, cheerfully unemphatic, contempt for ‘the imaginary consequence of literary triflers’ and the ‘affectations of literature . . .”

But we should do Scott little service with some modern critics by insisting exclusively on his sense; for there is a widespread opinion that genius is never free from neurosis, and unless we can find Angst in an author’s soul he will hardly be taken seriously. Well, if we demand Angst, Scott can supply that, too. He confesses to “idle fears, gloomy thoughts” (1826); to “A thick throbbing at my heart . . . fancies thronging on me . . . a disposition . . . to think on things melancholy and horrible.” (1827).

Ephemeral as brief, in a 1959 letter where Lewis rejects the proposed title for one of his volumes:

Dear Mac, Thanks for your letter of the 18th. I don’t care for Dangers of Belief. I would like The World’s Last Night and other Essays. The and other essays would appear on the title page only—not on spine, back, or jacket. For No. IV I should prefer Good Work and Good Works. As soon as I can get it typed I shall send you a long correction for Lilies that Fester. . . .

It will replace the bit which in the Twentieth Century article begins ‘About Culture as’ (para 3, p 332) and ends ‘to extraneous ends,’ (para 2, l. 3, p. 334). This is necessary because E. M. Forster has said in print that he really meant the alternative ‘b’ which I offered him in a footnote to p 333.113.

Most of the passage I want to alter is therefore now irrelevant. And anyway I think that what I want to substitute for it is better and of less ephemeral interest. O.K.?

In the final volume of his space (cosmic) trilogy, That Hideous Strength, Lewis refers to celestial spiritual forces. Some of them are associated with stars and planets. The Oyéresu (unfallen angelic rulers) who serve God, their Creator. If you are unfamiliar with the book, don’t try to understand the meaning of what follows. Simply allow the power of Lewis’ narrative to paint an imposing scene.

[The freezing temperature evoked a progression of thoughts]: of stiff grass, hen roosts, dark places in the middle of woods, graves. Then of the sun’s dying, the Earth gripped, suffocated, in airless cold, the black sky lit only with stars. And then, not even stars: the heat death of the universe, utter and final blackness of nonentity from which Nature knows no return. . . .

Saturn, whose name in the heavens is Lurga, stood in the Blue Room. His spirit lay upon the house, or even on the whole Earth, with a cold pressure such as might flatten the very orb of Tellus to a wafer. Matched against the lead-like burden of his antiquity the other gods themselves perhaps felt young and ephemeral.

It was a mountain of centuries sloping up from the highest antiquity we can conceive, up and up like a mountain whose summit never comes into sight, not to eternity where the thought can rest, but into more and still more time, into freezing wastes and silence of unnameable numbers.

It was also strong like a mountain; its age was no mere morass of time where imagination can sink in reverie, but a living, self-remembering duration which repelled lighter intelligences from its structure as granite flings back waves, itself unwithered and undecayed but able to wither any who approach it unadvised.

Reading Lewis is an education in many things. Many years after his death he continues to teach receptive minds about writing, creativity, communication, rational thinking, Christian living, and so very much more.

If you are curious about an author who actually contributed to C.S. Lewis’ own vocabulary, check out this column.

Vodka the Opiate

May 5, 2015 — 8 Comments

ApolloIn our troubled world, some disappointed souls seek solace in a bottle. There are also corrupt governments that steer their people toward such destructive distractions to draw their attention from their rulers’ crimes.

Such, sadly, is the current state of Russia.

I have long felt a compassion and affinity for Russia. Even when it was the Soviet Union, I knew that the Russian people did not want the world to end in a nuclear conflagration.

For many years I displayed the dual Soviet and American stamps issued to commemorate the docking of the Soyuz and Apollo spacecraft. I saw that event as a promise of the peace and cooperation that might someday exist between our nations. A peaceful, even warm, relationship that would be a blessing to the entire world.

I thought that day might have arrived with the end of the Soviet Union and the restoration of a Russian nation.

Unfortunately, democracy was not to prevail—at least at this moment—in that historic land. Russia ended up with the worst elements of capitalism. They got the West’s privileged (i.e. rich) classes who hoarded the nation’s wealth. And, the Russian version was even harsher. The masses have been left with dreams unfulfilled, and an oligarchy living in luxury.

As the people begin to awaken to the injustice, their leaders turn to a proven means of dulling human thought—alcohol. And, since we are talking about Russia, that means vodka. I found this analysis by David Satter quite interesting.

The Putin regime needs an end to sanctions—not because they are crippling in themselves but because, in combination with the growing crisis of the economy and the unpredictable trajectory of the war [in eastern Ukraine], they could help lead to the destabilization of Russia. . . . It is a measure of the government’s concern that it has cut the price of vodka. . . . This is a transparent attempt to use vodka to tranquilize the population.

SoyuzWhile I will continue to pray for the people of Russia, this description of Putin’s strategy reminded me of the oft-quoted Communist adage that “religion is the opiate of the masses.”

Marx or Lewis?

Karl Marx was right, in that manmade “religion” can be used to blind people to their surroundings.

Marx, however, did not understand Christianity. Because Jesus of Nazareth dispels all illusion and enables us to truly comprehend reality.

C.S. Lewis referred to Marx’s slander in his book, The Problem of Pain.

Those who reject Christianity will not be moved by Christ’s statement that poverty is blessed. But here a rather remarkable fact comes to my aid. Those who would most scornfully repudiate Christianity as a mere ‘opiate of the people’ have a contempt for the rich, that is, for all mankind except the poor.

They regard the poor as the only people worth preserving from ‘liquidation,’ and place in them the only hope for the human race. But this is not compatible with a belief that the effects of poverty on those who suffer it are wholly evil; it even implies that they are good.

The Marxist thus finds himself in real agreement with the Christian in those two beliefs which Christianity paradoxically demands–that poverty is blessed and yet ought to be removed.

Lewis aptly describes the hypocrisy of the elite who live with the comforts they supposedly disdain. In contrast, he affirms Christ’s own words about how the least are the greatest in the Kingdom of God.

Far from serving as a debilitating opiate, Christianity moves people to overcome the trials of this world. It motivates them to care for the less fortunate. It is active, not passive and resigned.

Unlike a mind-dulling spirit, Christianity calls us to forgive even our enemies and extend to them a hand of peace.

Who knows if lowering the price of vodka will distract the Russian people from the disastrous direction of their ruling regime. I hope not.

I pray that Russia will seize instead the promise bequeathed them in their Christian heritage. So that, following in the footsteps of the Prince of Peace, they might become an example of national righteousness for the rest of us, whose homelands have their own deep imperfections.


Satter’s editorial, which appeared in the Wall Street Journal, is available here.

evoraEarth’s days are numbered. Eventually, all scientist agree, she will die . . . and all life on the planet will perish.

Even if this doesn’t occur due to a catastrophic accident like a massive asteroid impact or an alien invasion, it is inevitable. Inevitable.

If nothing else interferes, scientists tell us earth will die in the death throes of its own star. In about 2.8 billion years, the sun will destroy all life here. Before the sun consumes its nuclear fuels and transforms into a “red giant,” it will have scorched the solar system.

It’s a disturbing thought. At least, it can be to those who place their hope in the future of humanity. Christians, in contrast, look forward to the promise of a new creation, a new heaven and a new earth, where even the harmony of the cosmos will be restored.

For those who believe that ultimate meaning can only be found in the continuing evolution of humanity, it is necessary to see an opportunity to continue the race. Until we evolve into pure mind and energy forms (right!) we need to find a place on hospitable worlds where we can survive, prosper and continue to advance.

So, if we assume it’s necessary for humanity to continue to exist, and our days here on earth are numbered, what are we to do?

The answer’s obvious. We must migrate to the stars. Baby steps are already being taken, with planning for our first colonies on Mars and our own moon. Many movies have explored establishing our presence in other solar systems. In fact, it’s become a trope of the scifi genre.

Some writers and directors envision a welcoming universe. Others populate it with hostile environments and competitors.

One of the most disturbing thoughts I have heard in the past few months was voiced by a scientist contemplating this subject. In essence, he said that our observation of nature shows that it is the predators (not their gentle prey) that must become smarter than the rest of the fauna to survive. The presumption being that it is the predator, not the grazer, that would evolve farthest and potentially venture into space.

I grew up influenced by the utopian images of Star Trek. Sure, there were Klingons and other threats out there, but there were also a large number of affable races that were eager to band together and share their knowledge and culture.

Star Trek went a step further. Even our one-time enemies (like the aforementioned Klingons, the Cardassians and the Ferengi) could become our allies. Well, there’s a precedent in that here on Earth (think post-war Germany and Japan). Still, it may be a tad naïve when it comes to interstellar swashbucklers.

Of course, all this presumes that we are no “alone” in the universe. By alone, we mean, the only sentient beings to populate the stars. (That’s figurative language, of course. No one lives on the stars themselves . . . that we know of.)

The prolific writer C.S. Lewis wrote a series of books about humanity’s first encounters with life beyond our planet. The Space Trilogy will be of interest to open-minded fans of science fiction, and to people who enjoy learning more about Lewis’ broad interests.

The first book in the series is called Out of the Silent Planet. In a 1939 letter, he explained to a correspondent one of his reasons for writing the book. [The quotation refers to Professor Weston, who is the novel’s nemesis. One of his goals is to usher in the age of human colonization beyond our own orbit.]

The letter [at the end of Out of the Silent Planet] is pure fiction and the “circumstances which put the book out of date” are merely the way of preparing for a sequel. But the danger of “Westonism” I meant to be real.

What set me about writing the book was the discovery that a pupil of mine took all that dream of interplanetary colonization quite seriously, and the realization that thousands of people in one way and another depend on some hope of perpetuating and improving the human race for the whole meaning of the universe—that a “scientific” hope of defeating death is a real rival to Christianity.

With this, we return to our initial thought. If we are looking to the stars for humanity’s hope, I’m afraid we will ultimately be disappointed.

I don’t know if there is mortal life beyond our planet. If there is, I can’t predict whether it would be friendly, or inimical to us.

Who knows whether we could even communicate? It’s a mystery for now. What isn’t a mystery, is whether or not we need to look beyond this tiny blue globe. After all, it is certain this world’s days are numbered.


Note: The alien at the top of the page is the Regent of the Evora species, a Federation protectorate. I used her image because of the curious marking on the crown of her head. It resembles a tattoo of a cross, but from the lines on the sides of her head I suspect they might all merely be varicose veins.

Interplanetary Life

November 4, 2013 — 9 Comments

death valley stars

How many galaxies exist out there? How many stars? How many planets? Billions upon billions, apparently.

Of all of those myriad worlds, how many boast life?

C.S. Lewis pondered that subject in an essay entitled “Religion and Rocketry.” He said that either result—an absence of life, or an abundance of living creatures throughout the cosmos—can be used by atheists to deny the existence of our Creator.

In my time I have heard two quite different arguments against my religion put forward in the name of science. When I was a youngster, people used to say that the universe was not only not friendly to life but positively hostile to it.

Life had appeared on this planet by a millionth chance, as if at one point there had been a breakdown of the elaborate defenses generally enforced against it. We should be rash to assume that such a leak had occurred more than once. Probably life was a purely terrestrial abnormality. We were alone in an infinite desert. Which just showed the absurdity of the Christian idea that there was a Creator who was interested in living creatures.

But then came Professor F.B. Hoyle, the Cambridge cosmologist, and in a fortnight or so everyone I met seemed to have decided that the universe was probably quite well provided with habitable globes and with livestock to inhabit them. Which just showed (equally well) the absurdity of Christianity with its parochial idea that Man could be important to God.

Lewis, brilliant and honest, then predicts the future. Believers and cynics alike, he says, will seek to interpret all new data in a fashion that proves their own, preexisting beliefs.

This is a warning of what we may expect if we ever do discover animal life (vegetable does not matter) on another planet. Each new discovery, even every new theory, is held at first to have the most wide-reaching theological and philosophical consequences.

It is seized by unbelievers as the basis for a new attack on Christianity; it is often, and more embarrassingly, seized by injudicious believers as the basis for a new defence.

Fascinating as these comments are, they merely represent Lewis’ introduction to the subject. The heart of his concern is this—what would it mean if we should one day encounter alien beings created by God on a distant world?

In a moment I’ll share with you one of the most provocative thoughts Lewis expresses in this essay, but first take a moment to watch this amazing reminder of the vastness of our universe and the power of its Creator.

A video presentation like this can leave us feeling rather small, lost in the abyss of an immeasurable vastness. Or, it can inspire us. It can baptize us with an increased appreciation for the majesty of the One who loved each of us so profoundly that he sent his only begotten Son into the world to redeem us from destruction. I hope your reaction is the latter.

I promised another fascinating observation from Lewis, and here it is. He poses the question of precisely what might transpire if humanity encounters another sentient race. His Christian interpretation may shock some readers, but I believe he is right.

It sets one dreaming—to interchange thoughts with beings whose thinking had an organic background wholly different from ours (other senses, other appetites), to be unenviously humbled by intellects possibly superior to our own yet able for that very reason to descend to our level, to descend lovingly ourselves if we met innocent and childlike creatures who could never be as strong or as clever as we, to exchange with the inhabitants of other worlds that especially keen and rich affection which exists between unlikes; it is a glorious dream.

But make no mistake. It is a dream. We are fallen. We know what our race does to strangers. Man destroys or enslaves every species he can. Civilized man murders, enslaves, cheats, and corrupts savage man. Even inanimate nature he turns into dust bowls and slag-heaps. There are individuals who don’t. But they are not the sort who are likely to be our pioneers in space.

Our ambassador to new worlds will be the needy and greedy adventurer or the ruthless technical expert. They will do as their kind has always done. What that will be if they meet things weaker than themselves, the black man and the red man can tell. If they meet things stronger, they will be, very properly, destroyed.

Lewis continues, addressing related themes in this amazing work that seems more prescient each year. He next compares our encounters with fallen, and unfallen races. I highly commend the essay, which appears in The World’s Last Night and Other Essays.

If you prefer a fictional consideration of these same topics, I encourage you to read C.S. Lewis’ Cosmic Trilogy (Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength).


Appreciation goes to a retired USAF chaplain colleague of mine, Chuck McGathy, for bringing this Hubble video to my attention.