Like many modern people, I watch with some interest when there is another report back from the Mars Rover: “Will we find life on Mars?” Somehow I doubt it. I doubt life on Mars precisely because it is so hard to find. Our experience here on our home planet is that you cannot get away from life: it’s everywhere. We have gone to great depths in the oceans, measured waters of extreme temperature over sulphur spouts from the deep earth and – found life. The most barren landscapes are only barren to the cursory glance. If we pause and draw close, life is always present. Generally, it is not just present, it is teaming. Anyone who has responsibility for preventing infections knows – life is not only present here – it is almost impossible to remove.
In the creation story (the third day) we hear:
“Let the earth bring forth grass, the herb that yields seed, and the fruit tree that yields fruit according to its kind, whose seed is in itself, on the earth”; and it was so. And the earth brought forth grass, the herb that yields seed according to its kind, and the tree that yields fruit, whose seed is in itself according to its kind. And God saw that it was good…
We live in a place that was blessed by a Divine command to “bring forth.” And it does – relentlessly. I have no idea whether anywhere else in all creation received a similar command. There are reasons to think not (the so-called anthropic principle) but no reasons to assume that this is correct. We just don’t know.
But we do have experience of what it is like to live on a planet where life exists. It is not rare. Though individually fragile, it seems to have doggedly survived every imaginable catastrophe (asteroids, global climate change, unending political campaigns).
I think that it is not just life that has this capacity. Beauty seems to share somehow in this resolute stubbornness. Despite our most horrific efforts to distort and disfigure our lives and the things around us – beauty still seems to emerge. I wonder how some people manage to sing – and yet the beauty of the human song is unrivaled by the song of any other animal.
Earlier tonight I watched a small video about some young people in Paraguay, whose families live at the city’s trash dump. The families live by recycling trash. They have found ways to make musical instruments from discarded items (the fact that life under such circumstances spends time to make instruments is extraordinary). I listened to Vivaldi, played by young people on instruments of trash. A young girl said, “Without music, my life would be worthless.”
That the word music remains in the vocabulary of someone born to the trash heaps of the modern world is evidence for life and the nature of the life that has been blessed to come forth.
Our salvation has a similar quality. The worst definition of salvation is a “reward after death.” It does almost no justice to the teaching of Scripture and trivializes the work of Christ. Our salvation has an eternal aspect – which is more a description of quality than quantity. Salvation is an existence that transcends time and is united to the timelessness of the Uncreated. As such, this same quality continues to manifest itself within and around us, despite our best efforts to destroy and damn ourselves.
This quality is the resurrection of Christ. It is present in His Pascha, trampling down death by death. It is life coming forth from the total emptiness of Hades. It is present even in the words at the beginning: “Let there be light!” For the words of creation’s beginning are spoken through Him and by Him and for Him. The act of creation is itself an icon and foreshadowing of His great and holy Pascha. Creation is existence from non-existence even as Pascha is life from death.
And this is the quality that does not disappear and will not be denied. Just as I see daily the overwhelming evidence of the existence of life, so I see daily the overwhelming evidence of the triumph of Christ’s life.
He has come that we might have life and have it more abundantly. Life indeed!
He that is full empties Himself, for He empties Himself of His glory for a short while, that I may have a share of His fullness. What is the riches of His goodness? What is the mystery that is around me? I had a share in that image; but I did not keep it……
(Gregory Nazianzen “The Word Partakes of My Flesh to Save the Image and to Make the Flesh Immortal”)
Thank you for addressing the theological aspects of a current scientific issue, Fr Stephen. If you have more thoughts on space and cosmology, please do share them with your readers. I personally always look forward to your blog entries!
“The world will be saved by beauty” -Dostoyevsky
Thanks for the post Father.
The world has always been beautiful. The problem is we have a notion or an idea that it should be something else other than it is, and this is the source of all the dissatisfaction that permeates our lives. Always groping and grasping for something we think it should be. Discriminating between things such as this and that, life and death, good and evil.
Thanks again for a wonderful post. I find it very appropriate that your entry concerning the irresistibility and indefatigablility of life is itself teaming with life. I had so much inspiration while reading it. I will share a couple things here:
Our greatest interest in life on other planets seems to be their story. We know our own, but how would it look if Eve didn’t sin (Perelandria) or something other than our path? Personally I believe we’ll never find extraterrestrial life because God won’t let us. We need to be about the business of living out our own story – not (intentionally or otherwise) corrupting another one.
What you said about not just life but also beauty, hope – and anything else that God put in motion – is that it simply is. Like you said, we don’t have to go find it, let alone make it happen; it’s forever in the state of happening. I guess you could loosely use the term ‘a force of nature’.
One thing that’s been impressed upon me in the last year or two is that when God says something, it simply IS from there on out. When we say something, we often speak about desires or fears that may or may not come about. When He speaks it, it just is. There’s no wishing and hoping involved.
Thanks again for putting this idea into words so well!
I think back to the eruption of Mt. St. Helens and all the doomsayers talking about what a horrible impact it would have on the environment etc. Then, wouldn’t ya know, we discovered that the areas sodden with ash produced bumper crops that year because of the nutrients that were introduced into the soil.
Which leads to:
Am I correct in thinking that “our best efforts to destroy and damn ourselves” can have positive outcomes that would not be experienced otherwise? Is this what you are saying with regards to Pascha?
Why do you assume that and intelligent extraterrestrial life would not already be “corrupt”? Seems to me that this is one of the byproduct of intelligence.
I hope there is other life out there and that they find us or we find them. I’d be really depressed to know for certain that we are all there is.
Perhaps the notion regarding corruption relates to one’s perception.
No doubt. It’s contained in the greatest of ironies “Good Friday.”
One of the mythopoetic images I like is in Tolkien’s Simarillion. There, his account of creation has this (I’m grateful for my son for drawing this to my attention last year):
Tolkien is offering a “rift” (in the sense of a “jazz rift”) on the Christian story. It is the Middle-earth version of St. Isaac of Syria. Eru does not destroy the twisted tune – but overwhelms it. It’s also like the good Patriarch Joseph’s statement to his brothers, “You meant it to me for evil, but the Lord meant it to me for good.” It is vastly different than “God delivered me from the evil you tried to do.” It’s a very different thing indeed. More frightening – yet more hopeful – especially as I stand surrounded with the blasted shards that are the consequences of my poorly-lived life.
It’s the Deep Magic.
It seems to me that aliens fill the hole left by the angelic host in the cosmology of the postmodern materialist. Seraphim Rose — I believe it was Seraphim Rose — said that our fascination with “ET” is satanic (in the proper sense of the word), precisely because it “fills” the empty heavens which are the product of materialism and atheism. I say this because I am very much struck by your admission that you would be very sad if earth alone held life — or, at least, if man alone was intelligent. We humans seem to have built into us a desire for mind(s) — and not just mind(s), but higher mind(s).
I think Fr. Seraphim was reaching – to explain and give too facile an interpretation of the ET fascination. I don’t think it’s demonic in the least. It’s a combination of a couple of rather mundane things (I think).
First, the increasingly revealed phenomenon of “urban legends” (or the stuff their made of). Our ET stories are interesting – but quite dubious.
Second, ET’s give wonderful room for the imagination. You can put it in a book (like Sci-Fi) but it’s even more fun to imagine what might really be out there (ET’s). In the case of some (like Carl Sagan), speculation about ET’s does seem to fill a spiritual vacuum – in which it’s just sort of sad. The existence of ET’s doesn’t provide any sort of transcendent meaning. It just means that we have company in the question of what the heck everything’s all about anyway. Since, at the present state of knowledge, the Universe had a beginning and seems headed to an End (which apparently was the last thing(s) we scientifically expected), the transcendence question remains no matter how crowded the bar is here in Mos Eisley.
I have more respect for Douglas Adams’ (Hitchhiker’s Guide) than Carl Sagan. At least Adams could grasp the absurd and have a laugh. Sagan cloaked the absurdity of his own position in a kind of secular mysticism that was simply pathetic (in the true meaning of the word).
“Thanks for the fish”!
I too like Douglas Adams.
Perhaps Seraphim Rose overstated his case, but I do think he was onto something.
Fr. Seraphim was talking of the actual ‘encounters’ with aliens that some people report as either fantasy or acutally demonic. He viewed the the obsession that some have for aliens as a demonic distraction and a substitute for true salvation.
I love Douglas Adams. What a genius wit.
Perhaps Earth is a petri dish upon which god is conducting a biological experiment before he goes about mucking up the rest of the universe? 🙂
I think one ought to be skeptical of anyone who goes by the name Seraphim (or LaHaye or Lindsey for that matter).
I disagree that a fascination with extraterrestrials is any way less healthy than a fascination with the “spiritual.” There is probably more physical evidence to suggest extraterrestrials than there is to suggest angels or god but in either case it seems to me that human fancy and our love for story-telling would inevitably lead to each. To condemn such fancy is to condemn being human.
I am a huge fan of the Silmarillion. Thanks for posting that Fr. Stephen. That whole creation story is captivating as are the stories that follow. J.R.R. was brilliant.
For you other Tolkien fans, I highly recommend “The History of the Lord of the Rings” which was written by his son and contains many of J.R.R.’s earliest manuscripts (in which we find that Frodo was originally named “Bingo” and one of my favourite quotes “I didn’t know anything about Bree until I got there.”). It is a wonderful read.
“He viewed the the obsession that some have for aliens as a demonic distraction and a substitute for true salvation.”
I have such a hard time with this. The next natural observation is “Why are those to be considered ‘fantasy’ but so-called encounters with angels or god are not?”
There most certainly is life somewhen else in the universe. Take the beautiful cave painting of a spotted hyena (c. 30,000 year BP) found in the Chauvet Cave in France or evidence of temporary wood dwellings dating to the Paleolithic period (c. 400,000 BP). The ideas of Darwin and of those who trod in his footsteps Darwins Dangerous Idea (1995)– Daniel Dennet only serve to deepen the significance of Pascha.
I’m puzzled. Why be sceptical of persons who go by names Seraphim, LaHaye, or Lindsey? Why not include Shores? Seems as random a name as any other.
I would prefer that we not venture over to the topic of “is there life elsewhere.” It’s kind of a moot point. And I don’t actually care. I’m just as uninterested in whether people are seeing demons disguised as people from out there. Again, moot point.
But as for Life and Beauty – may they continue to burst forth in our darkness.
Wonderfully put, FATHER STEPHEN, wonderfully put!
It was once pointed out to me that everything in creation is alive, including what we normally think of as “inanimate” matter. When viewed under a microscope with sufficient powers of magnification, it becomes clear that everything is alive and in constant motion, propelled and held together by an invisible power that not even atomic scientists have been able to comprehend.
We humans can take almost anything and make it “a distraction and substitute for true salvation”. That is what corruption is all about. We can even do it with music, nature and our own intelligence. Clever sinners, we are.
But then again, we also appear to have the capacity to do the opposite, as with the children making musical instruments from the trash heap. This is when we get a glimpse of what it means to be made in His image.
Great good can emerge from the terrible messes we humans make. “Is this what you are saying with regards to Pascha?” (asked by John, aka TLO). Indeed. We cannot make the transformation by ourselves…
Fr. Stephen – as an aside, is that video of the children playing the instruments available for public viewing? I’d love to see it. Thanks.
Mary, an obvious request. I probably should have made it part of the post. I’ll embed it here. Hope it works.
It can be hard to pin down with precision what we mean by the term ‘life’, as it is not something that can be inspected or quantified directly, on its own. It manifests itself only by way of the agency of living beings. I am often surprised by the talk of otherwise strict materialists whose language seems to presuppose the existence of life. Yet when we step down to the material, molecular level, what we call (biological)’life’ amounts to nothing more than complex arrangements of simple atoms. Something similar could be said of beauty; we all observe it as a reality, yet we cannot put our finger on it directly.
There are a few occasions where Scripture seems to speak of local places as though they are living beings. God commanded the earth to bring forth- is one such place. In other places, lands would ‘vomit out’ detestable people. In our songs of the nativity, a star may teach, the earth offers a cave. While these allusions might be understood as mere poetry, I find myself inclined to believe that all the planets and galaxies themselves are alive, even though they consist only as intricate collections of independent, simpler material bodies.
Excellent points. Indeed, the “Anthropic Principle” discussed by some cosmologists posits that intelligent life only exists on Earth, but that it is the “product” of the entire universe – something itself required on the scale of size and age for life as we know it to happen even once. There are many problems with this, perhaps, though I could read it in a way that worked fine with Genesis. In that sense, the Universe is indeed alive, our local variation being sentient, vocal even hieratic.
As Father said once, commenting on Luke 19:40 “But He answered and said to them, ‘I tell you that if these should keep silent [the disciples], the stones would immediately cry out.'”
“That would be the original rock music.”
Good point. Anyone familiar with the Shores’ knows what scoundrels we are.
I read an interesting book on the anthropic principle. It’s remarkable how fragile is the “balance” of the universe.
I don’t assume life on other planets would not be corrupt; I HOPE that it isn’t.
“I hope there is other life out there and that they find us or we find them. I’d be really depressed to know for certain that we are all there is.”
It’s my turn to check your assumptions: Why would you think that we’re all there is just because we aren’t able to find the other life that’s out there? As I said, I think it’s likely that God keeps us separated so that we can each work on our own stories. Otherwise we easily want to play God and mess with other people’s lives before putting our own house to right.
Anthropomorphic sentiments applied to what is essentially a mystery suppress it. If there is other life in the universe other than the experience of our own world it is simply that we haven’t discovered it, or are aware of it yet.
If it isn’t, that would be an interesting item to consider in the “free will” argument.
P.J. One also has to take into account the time in which Fr. Seraphim was writing: Aliens as saviors; aliens as creators; aliens as pretty much everything as a direct replacement for God, Jesus Christ and real salvation (as well as cults in general). It was a really hot item at the time which ultimately led to tragedies such as the Heaven’s Gate suicides down the road.
Fr. Seraphim can certainly seem excessive in the light of today’s climate, but much more sober in light of what he was addressing at the time.
His over-all message was: “Don’t buy into the the way of the world in any area of your life.”
While I do not advocate adopting all of what Fr. Seraphim said, I certainly don’t think that dismissing him in the manner that has become popular is a good idea either.
Many of my generation of converts were deeply touched by his life and work.
His best books: “Nihlism” and “God’s Revelation to the Human Heart”
John S., recently you mentioned your dad’s becoming an Orthodox Priest. I’m curious about his journey. I wonder how long ago that occurred and what has been the effect of that on him vis-a-vis the character and expression of his faith during your childhood? No pressure to share anything too private. Just wondering . . .
Hi Karen – It was something of a bizarre turn of events, from my perspective. In his youth he attended Prairie Bible Institute where he was taught what the Church Fathers said and subsequently taught either that they were wrong or no longer relevant.
Forward forty years.
After wending his way through the Southern Baptist then Wesleyan sects, he retired and later found the CEC (Charismatic Episcopal Church) where he was ordained a priest. He served a couple years as rector of a church in Muleshoe, TX but was somewhat disappointed with the leadership in the CEC. Personally, I don’t think there are enough bad words in all the languages ever spoken to adequately convey my contempt for the CEC and its leadership. That he left on good terms speaks volumes about the character of my dad.
Having started on the liturgical journey, he kept moving forward until he went completely (Western) Orthodox and was either re-ordained or received as an Orthodox priest (I don’t recall which since I wasn’t there). It was not many years after that that he hung up the collar for good and now is content to be a parishioner at a Western Orthodox church.
I think he is happier in his faith than he has ever been but there’s no escaping a lifetime in Protestantism. He has a great deal of difficulty with Marian theology which he considers to have elevated Mary higher than she ought to be. Other than that, though, he has found a contentment that I don’t think he ever experienced outside of the Orthodox faith.
A side-effect of Protestantism is a strong need to be right. My dad was sorely afflicted with this as I was growing up. It always seemed to me a sort of reaction to insecurity and uncertainty. Having learned about his own upbringing, I completely understand it now. I cannot recall a time when he didn’t act as if he had something to prove and he loved debating (mea culpa – the nut doesn’t fall far from the tree). Nowadays, I don’t think he debates very much. He seems to be in a place where being right is more like being at home than defending a fortress.
Of course, he will still, occasionally, try to lecture me on good and evil but I just let him. I understand his views and I respect them, even when I don’t agree with them. We used to go at it hammer and tongs when I was still a Christian but that’s all past now. We have less to debate about since I don’t have a sect to defend, I guess. It’s a strange thing about Christendom that I now find rather nauseating – all the right-itis and division (even between Orthodox sects). I respect him and his beliefs and I look at him as a man who has paid his dues and deserves to be heard.
I often wonder if those who were raised Orthodox are able to appreciate it as fully as one who was raised Protestant and then found Orthodoxy. From what I can tell, the latter seem to be the happier, just as a battle tested warrior cherishes peace more than one who has never experienced war.
Honestly, I don’t think there is any man I admire more. That he came out of the turmoil of his childhood as a man who took responsibility and did the best he could to raise his kids and that he then came out of Protestantism while retaining his faith and without losing his mind are astounding to me.
If anyone here is in the Atlanta area and would like to meet him, I promise that you will be friends within ten seconds of the encounter.
That brief description of your Father’s adventure reminded me again of “God’s secret hand, fighting Amalek onto the ages of ages”…
Thanks, John. Sounds like your dad’s been through a lot. I believe you that we would be friends if we ever met.
Your letting your dad just lecture you when he feels the need sounds like a very Orthodox approach! 🙂 I have no doubt he loves you as dearly as you love him.
I guess that I’m an Orthodox agnostic.