Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Feats of Flight and the Tower of Babel

Waking up to rock babies at random periods in the night makes you realize just how little late-night television has to offer. So I took this BBC series out of the library to have something to watch in those wee hours of near-delirium. Last night I watched episode one, and it was pretty remarkable.

Did you realize that there were only 66 years between the first human flight and the first step on the moon? In 1903 Wilbur Wright propelled he and his brother Orville's oversized box kite in the air for almost a minute in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. In 1969 Michael Collins, Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong flew the Apollo 11 through space for four days and planted a flag on the moon.

Six years later I was born, part of a new generation who would take such things for granted.

Three things amazed me the most about the lunar mission. One I already mentioned, and that is that it was only one average American life span between Kitty Hawk and Magnificent Desolation (that's what they named the area around the moon landing).

The second was John F. Kennedy's speech in the early 60s which ambitiously set the lunar-mission's goal for completion within the decade. We get pretty used to hearing politicians spout lofty promises, but this was the heart of the cold war and he was dead serious and, well, those dang Americans got it done.

In that speech at Rice University, Kennedy said: "We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not only because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too."

The third thing that really amazed me about the whole lunar mission was that the space shuttle computers had 74 kilobytes of memory. My ipod nano has over 2 million.

Sometimes I despair of humanity and scoff at the myth of progress. Other times I marvel over all that we seem capable of doing. It raises theological questions for me too:

What made the moon launch any different than the tower of Babel?
What is the place of human development and discovery and dominion?

I think there is a positive place for such things. I think these exhibit the wonder of the created capacity of humankind. I think that the issue at Babel was more one of purpose and loyalty and pride than of accomplishment and teamwork. I think that the space program, as the medical world, the nuclear age, and on down the line all have the potential to glorify God or to dismay him.

The moon landing was surely tainted in ways. It was part and parcel of the cold war after all, as exemplified by the prominent place given to the planting of the American flag and the rhetoric of "winning" that the mission entailed. However, on that day in 1969 I have to think God was generally pretty pleased with what some of his creatures had done in his prevenient grace.

But then again, I am of the Irenaean persuasion that human development was always part of God's plan, and that the tree was forbidden not for its knowledge, but for the autonomy that eating it would entail. I am also fairly persuaded by Torrance that the natural sciences are an important aspect of Christian endeavour.

While many may have seen the lunar mission in merely humanistic terms, many also would have operated that mission in the motive of discovering God's creation. Some would have been cheering "we (the USA) beat the Russians!" Others would be crying "we (humanity) got to the moon!" The motives would have been mixed.

Curiously enough, what was introduced at Babel (culture and language barriers) as a way to keep human progress from getting ahead of itself -- to put limits on the (exponentially destructive) capabilities of autonomous humanity -- was part of what ended up motivating this mission to space. Whereas the tower of Babel was built because humanity was getting along so well, the lunar mission happened because they were not. The cold war is written all over this thing.

Nevertheless, it was quite a feat; a "giant leap" for humankind. It was a touch of the transcendent, and a moment for pause. For many, humanity in that moment seemed very small and yet disproportionately significant at the same time. Whether or not it should go on with such endeavours in my opinion depends largely on whether it can do so in precisely that spirit of humility.

More ideally, however, such endeavours would only be undertaken in service to the Creator God who made an immensely more giant leap for humankind by way of incarnation over 30 life-spans ago. After all, if humanity is really to progress, it is in the image and service of the God-man, the true human, Jesus Christ.


Tony Tanti said...

What a question, the difference between Babel and the Moon landing, I never thought of that.

Sorry for my recent commenting absence. It's been a busy time, though not compared to having twins at home. :)

Dave M said...

I feel like this is what the movie 2001 is articulating. There is some mystery that will always be just out of reach but humanity propels itself unknowingly towards it.

Matthew A. Wilkinson said...


2 new words for me.

Dave M once bought me a record of JFK's speeches. That guy could really talk.

jon said...

ierenaeean=thoughts attributed to Irenaeus (2nd century)

prevenient grace=in Christian theology this is the common grace extended to all humankind from the first (and maintained after the Fall), as distinct from "saving" grace or the stuff of redemption.

sorry for the shorthand, I was trying to smuggle a lot into a little space.

I'd LOVE to hear that JFK record.