Want to base jump off Verona Rupes? Feed the hungry

Erik WernquistChristian Sandquist, and Carl SaganWanderers, 2014

I first saw this video about a month ago and I was simultaneously amazed and disturbed by it.

My amazement is easy enough to explain. It really is a spectacular vision of our future colonization of the Solar System. What I love about it is, it’s not about tunneling through wormholes or traveling faster than light or befriending aliens. It’s about human beings going to actual places and doing things that seem pretty much sort of possible. The producers of the film depended largely on real images of real worlds to make this, and that gives it a thrilling vibe of science-fiction-but-not-quite, a sensation I’ve never really caught before.

The late Carl Sagan provides the narration in his unmistakable baritone (just revel in his pronunciation of “meticulously” at 00:59), culled from a reading of his 1994 book Pale Blue Dot. Hearing his voice atop this imagery nearly makes one believe the colonization of space is inevitable.

So yes, I was amazed in a simple way. It took a few weeks for me to get clear on the disturbing part. But I think I have it now.

It starts with a question: What is the woman smiling about in the last frame?

Every visual and verbal cue tells me she’s relishing the simple joy of adventure and her breathtaking view of Saturn’s rings and cloud decks, but anyone who knows how difficult it would be to achieve this vision will also detect in her smile — which, rather fascinatingly, we can’t actually see — the satisfaction of “Wow, we really did it. We made it out here.”

It would be quite an achievement. From a merely technical and physiological point of view, the difficulty of realizing such a dream is immense. Intense radiation, God-knows-what-kind of microbes, sub-sub-arctic cold, variable gravity, enormous payloads, vast distances, and terrifically long journeys are just the issues that came to mind as I first watched. There must be literally hundreds more. I’m not pessimistic about our raw capacity to do this, though. Technical problems tend to get solved once people get properly financed and motivated.

But for an accomplishment of this scale to be realized, there needs to be a sea change down here on Old Blue. For starters, we must end poverty.

And I don’t just mean that it would be immoral to rocket off to Miranda for a base jumping session with your buds when millions can’t get a single square meal, which of course it would be. I mean that, as a matter of economics, the feat simply can’t occur while so many struggle just to survive. The educational improvements and sheer human capital required would be enormous, and these cannot develop to the required levels so long as any group is unable to eat. As long as there is extreme poverty there will be war. This seems obvious. And the scale and depth of international (and inter-corporate) cooperation needed to support these adventurers is so vast that it cannot happen if there is widespread war anywhere on the planet.

But I’m no economist. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe this could happen without ending poverty. But this connects to my point.

If I am wrong and if one day people go for icy adventures on Europa or paraglide over Titan’s ethane lakes while the least of these languish in poverty and violence down here, then frankly I’m not interested. If this is the case then the woman’s smile is hollow and it gives me the total creeps. That was what disturbed the water a few layers beneath my consciousness a couple weeks ago.

But if I am right and if we colonize the Solar System after humanity has found a way out of poverty and violence and extreme wretchedness, then sign me up. I’m there. If that’s what lurks behind the woman’s smile, then I’m smiling too. Because that would be something to be really happy about, and the mind-blowing scenery would make for some truly excellent icing.

Major thanks to Alert Reader Ron Taylor for bringing Wanderers to our attention. As for everyone else, keep on sending us interesting pieces when you find them — the Internets are huge, and we here at psnt.net are oh so tiny.

My testimony


Ambrogio da Bergognone, Ordination of St Augustine, c. 1510

I was ordained into the gospel ministry yesterday at First Baptist Church Decatur. My gratefulness to everyone who attended, who played instruments, who sang, who read poetry, who spoke, who prayed, who worked the board, who set up the reception, who baked, who ate cookies, who cleaned up, who formatted the program, who traveled across the street or across three states to be there, is unbounded. You are saints in the truest sense, each and every one.

This is a transcript of the testimony I gave.

It is an index of this church’s openness to new things that I am being ordained today, and ten thousand thanks must go to Julie and the council who saw fit to support me even though my vocation is not traditional. I do not have an official ministry job waiting. After today I will continue to teach at Agnes Scott and at local seminaries and to pursue my dream of being a writer and minister to a secular age. My council’s vote in favor of my ordination required them to trust and believe in that dream, which I myself have wished to abandon on several occasions.

I would also like to thank my dad for being the world’s greatest dad. It is his birthday today.

On Ash Wednesday 2006 at noon I was sitting in the back room of an office in a tiny rundown strip mall in Rome, Georgia. I was 37 years old and severely depressed. On this particular day my mood was even lower than usual. I thought I had plenty of reasons to feel bad, so I itemized them for Nick, my bear-sized, truck-driving therapist.

Nick is very direct, and for that reason is an excellent (and in my experience unusual) therapist. When I finished my litany of grievances he remained immovable in his seat. “Paul,” he said after a brief silence, “the hole is on your side of the fence.”

He was telling me the truth: my problems were mine, not my wife’s or my parents’ or my friends’ or my church’s.

The hole is on your side of the fence. I had heard words like this before and even believed them. But when Nick spoke I heard them as for the first time and a powerful internal event occurred. I found myself at the edge of a cliff looking down into myself, into a bottomless chasm of need and poverty I had never known existed. I knew my incompleteness for the first time. It was terrifying, but Nick was kind. “Call me anytime,” he said as I left.

Halfway to the college I pulled the old Honda over and cried for a long time.

That was in 2006. Over the following year my depression grew worse. A thorn called despair festered in my heart, and I tried, mostly unsuccessfully, to manage it. Even so I had something to look forward to: a sabbatical. I had recently been awarded tenure and I wanted to use my new security and freedom to transition from scientific research to writing. That, I believed, was the direction of my calling. I had always loved to write and was planning to use my sabbatical to work on a textbook on the history of astronomy. I had already started it. But when the time came I could not write it. My heart was not in it. Frustrated, I began writing whatever came to mind, mostly stories from my childhood. I burned out in April, no longer able to write anything at all. Here at last was the end of my rope, and I was still slipping.

This was happening during a terrible drought. Northwest Georgia had seen no rain in many weeks. One hot day in late April I drew the curtains and took a nap. It was one of those really good ones, about two hours long. I awoke refreshed and looked outside. And guess what? The sun was still out but the world was wet. It had rained — poured, I later learned — as I slept. And as I gazed in wonder at the slick road and dripping magnolias it occurred to me with considerable force that maybe God was trying to tell me something.

At the very center of myself I have always believed in God. I was raised not far from here in a loving church. When I was a boy God was revealed to me first through nature and later through people who loved me. I spoke and God listened; God spoke and I listened. It was pretty simple. Later, as high school senior, I was chosen to be the pastor on Youth Sunday. I was honored: somewhere, someone saw me as a spiritual leader.

But by then something had changed. I don’t remember what I said to the church that Sunday but it was not heartfelt. I wanted it to be but it was not. I know this because in high school I kept a journal for only about 5 weeks, and Youth Sunday fell during those five weeks. That night I wrote that I felt like a salesman who didn’t believe his pitch. I didn’t know what I was talking about, and I knew it.

I can say now what I could not say then: I was struck by the utter arbitrariness of Christianity. “God made us good but we screwed it up so God sent Jesus – who was really God – to die for our sins and if you don’t believe that then too bad for you”: how could this possibly be the way the world is organized? So in college I just let it go, and I called it doubt.

Which is what it was. Now in my experience doubt is a good thing if and only if it is accompanied by a true desire for understanding. This good doubt is the kind valued by scientists. It goes like this: ask a question; investigate it; draw conclusions, however tentative; repeat. In high school and college my doubt was mostly of this simple variety.

It was after returning to the faith as a young adult that my doubt began to take on less benign forms. I can think of three of these. First, I doubted because it was fashionable. Doubt, I saw, is what smart people do. So I doubted. Second, I doubted for my protection. It’s easier to doubt God’s love than to accept it. It costs less.

Third — and worst of all — I doubted because doing so gave me a socially acceptable way of holding onto my despair. This may sound strange to some of you, but it’s true: as terrible as my despair was, as much as that thorn ached, it was at least mine. It was familiar. I knew my way around it. It gave me an identity. When I was angry at the world I knew who I was. Without my anger and the despair it fueled, what would become of me? Or, in the words of poet Dick Lourie, “If we forgive our fathers, what is left?”

I spent decades lovingly cultivating my despair. This is an embarrassing but completely true fact.

Which brings me back April 2007 and that miraculous rain. Within a few days of waking to the freshly wet world, it occurred to me that it might be time to go to seminary. I had been feeling the tug for about ten years. It had returned to me at regular two-to-three year intervals. Each time it came back stronger, but each time I had been able to say, No, not yet; maybe it will come back.

Well, it came back and this time I was not able to say, Not yet. So in 2008 I went, open to what might come: chaplaincy, parish ministry, whatever. But nothing came. Doors closed in every direction, and when I graduated in 2011 I had no job prospects and a family — now complete with a third child — that needed my support. I watched as my seminary friends moved on to jobs or further education.

But one thing had come while I was in seminary, and it had come quietly: I had started writing again — this time about science and religion — and had seen some modest success in that area. People actually connected with what I had to say, and I realized for the first time the ministry potential of such work. So throughout 2011 I strung together what freelance jobs I could. I wrote quite a lot for one religion site in particular, and by late 2011 it seemed as if they would take me on as a staff writer. There was not much money involved, but the exposure would be incredible.

In early 2012 two things happened: the religion site opted for a new direction and cut me out of their lineup, and I got a job as an adjunct physics professor at Agnes Scott. So I started teaching (again) and stopped writing (again).

But I didn’t stop for long. Finally convinced by friends that my ministry was to be comprised of both teaching and writing, I began putting together a book proposal and returned to online work. And today, for the first time ever, through the help of several dear friends and a very particular set of personal circumstances, I have become willing for God to remove the thorn of despair that has so dominated my life.

This willingness has not come of virtue but of necessity. I am ignorant of many things but I do know this: if I do not turn my despair over to God, deliberately and consciously and continuously, it will in fact kill me. I have had no choice but to trust in divine love. And I am surprised to report that, ever since I have become willing to do this, I have felt, at certain moments, a return of something like the simple faith I knew as a child.

This ordination is an outward sign of that trust and that faith and of my great need for you, my friends, family, and community of faith, to support me. I do not know what will come of my ministry, but I don’t worry about that anymore. Instead, with God’s help and your help, I pursue it in small steps, deliberately and consciously and continuously, every day. And I can rest knowing that God will make it what it will be, if it will be anything at all.

So today I stand before you a new man, a beginner if there ever was one. And — I can’t believe I’m saying this — I am actually happy.

Thanks be to each of you, and thanks be to God.

What were you doing last Tuesday?


Earth and Moon from the Chinese Chang’e 5 mission, taken Tuesday 28 October 2014. On that day the Moon appeared as a thin crescent for Earth-bound viewers, but Chang’e 5’s perspective from lunar orbit revealed a large portion of the Moon’s sunlit far side — which we never see from Earth — and our home planet in the distance. What were you doing on that little blue ball when this shot was taken? Sitting in traffic? Eating lunch? Praying for a sick friend? Gazing up the Moon and considering the mystery of it all?

Click on image for high-resolution version. Credit: Chinese National Space Administration, Xinhuanet

The sacred and secular in ten minutes


The stars down there. Albrecht Dürer, Stars of the Southern Sky, 1515. Because most southern stars remain permanently underfoot for northern observers, this part of the sky was not familiar to 16th century Europeans like Dürer. Compare this map with its crowded northern counterpart here. Click image for high-resolution version. Source: Ian Ridpath

Tonight I spoke briefly at the Fringe about religion and science. And I do mean briefly: I had ten minutes to get the conversation going. Earlier this week I asked myself: With so little time, what do I say? What is the simplest and most fruitful way to frame such a large and messy topic?

I decided to address the God of the Gaps fallacy. This is the fundamental mistake made by many who believe science and religion are necessarily opposed. It goes like this: Whether or not God exists, God properly plays the role of an idea among ideas. Therefore the divine (and the possibility of divine action in the world) might be displaced by scientific investigation, and ever since Copernicus God has been forced to retreat further and further into those ever-shrinking gaps yet to be explained scientifically.

In this view, the sacred and the secular jostle for territory within a single conceptual space, like opposing chessmen on a finite Cartesian grid.

This view was parodied by the Onion in an article titled “Evangelical Scientists Refute Gravity With New ‘Intelligent Falling” Theory.” It came out years ago but I came across it this week for the first time. Here’s the lede:

As the debate over the teaching of evolution in public schools continues, a new controversy over the science curriculum arose Monday in [Kansas]. Scientists from the Evangelical Center For Faith-Based Reasoning are now asserting that the long-held “theory of gravity” is flawed, and they have responded to it with a new theory of Intelligent Falling.

“Things fall not because they are acted upon by some gravitational force, but because a higher intelligence, ‘God’ if you will, is pushing them down,” said Rev. Gabriel Burdett, who holds degrees in education, applied Scripture, and physics from Oral Roberts University.

This is the logical endpoint of the strict either/or thinking that characterizes the God of the Gaps. What a delightful reductio ad absurdum.

There is, I believe, a more excellent way. A story may suggest it.

About ten years ago, on the first day of one of my introductory astronomy courses, I mentioned a modest fact: Under a dark and transparent atmosphere, with an unobstructed horizon and keen vision, one can see at most about 3000 stars. I mentioned — parenthetically, really — that if we could remove our home planet from under our feet we could see perhaps 3000 more, for a total of 6000.

I began to introduce the constellations but was brought up by a look of near-trauma that had fallen upon a student’s face — I’ll call him Greg — two rows back. He was scarcely breathing. I actually stopped the lecture, such was his appearance. I asked him if he was okay and he began to grin. Sheepishly he explained himself: “It’s just that you said that there are stars under my feet, and I had never really thought of it like that before. Wow!”

The student in question was smart. He must have been about 20-years-old. Could he have possibly missed something so obvious?

It is unlikely. I suspect something more interesting happened that day. Greg had known the concept for years: The spherical Earth is surrounded on all sides by stars. But until that day this was merely a concept for him, a husk encasing a bit of green actuality.

But while he was sitting in class that day, minding his own business, the husk fell away and reality was recovered. The stricken look on his face suggested that the stars far beneath his seat became tangible to him in that instant, that the words up and down lost all content. In that short span of time the absolute became relative and the strangeness of the world was revealed in all its simplicity.

What had for years been merely conceptual became incarnational; that is, it became profoundly present in a way that Greg himself got involved. He was no longer playing with an idea; he himself was being played by reality. Notice that the incarnational contains the merely conceptual, but the conceptual does not contain the incarnational.

I’m not saying that Greg’s experience proves God exists, whatever that might mean. But I am saying there’s a deeper level of understanding than the conceptual, a level that simultaneously transcends and undergirds mere discourse. And I think Greg was surprised, quite simply, by reality, which alone has sufficient power to wake us up. But we must have eyes to see and ears to hear.

Today is All Saints’ Day, so in her sermon this morning Julie mentioned some qualities shared by all saints: they are joyful; they have interior knowledge of God; they are fallible. Another one was: They recognize no line between the sacred and the secular. The true saint finds the gate of heaven in all places and in all things.

I’m no saint, but I that’s exactly what I wanted to say tonight: science, far from pushing God away, provides us 21st-century folks a whole universe of unprecedented opportunities to encounter the divine.

Tonight was fun, and the conversation following was energetic and wide-ranging. Thanks to all who showed up and contributed to the food and fellowship.

And here’s to a peaceful week for all Alert Readers.