Why Study the Stars?
From time immemorial, humans have been fascinated by the stars. With the advent of a “blue moon” in July, my Facebook news feed was inundated with astrological speculation. Also popular were stories on the topography of Pluto, given the success of the New Horizons mission. And of course, the world is still reeling from the fact that scientists were able to land a probe on a speeding comet. The study of phenomena in this wide and wonderful universe has a rich theological history, and as I will argue here, remains an implicitly theological endeavor.
Early in the Christian Church’s history, Saint Augustine and others spilled a great deal of ink refuting fatalist astrologers, who held that the location of stars at a person’s birth determine the events of his or her life.1 While denigrating determinists, Augustine nonetheless affirms that the positions of stars do play a role in the course of events.2 As with all ancient men, the saint saw an intimate connection between the movements of the heavenly bodies and the movements of bodies on earth. Augustine believed that the perfect things above—such as the perfect rotations of the heavenly spheres—influence the less-than-perfect things below. All motions were seen as connected, with heavenly powers (angels) guiding the direction of physical planets, and God’s providential design governing the whole.3
The middle ages continued this trend. Saints Bonaventure and Aquinas took it for granted that planetary rotations make the generation of life possible.4 These rotations were seen as pieces of an inclusive world-machine, all locking together to create the conditions necessary for life on earth below.5 One of my teachers compared medieval views on stars to our contemporary views on genetics. Although we now know that genes (as opposed to stars) effect personal traits and dispositions, we remain captive to the study of space and her various night luminaries.
In the modern era, however, narratives of religious significance for heavenly bodies have been replaced by narratives of materialism and positivism. How did this come about? At the turn of the modern epoch, a giant comet flew across the European skyline. People like Johannes Kepler noted this occurrence as evidence that things were changing in heaven above. The universe outside our earthly sphere was, perhaps, not so different from the world of change we perceive here and now. No longer theorizing that the heavens were perfect, many reconsidered the idea that planetary rotations are directly linked to life on earth. If the heavenly bodies were subject to the same laws as bodies found below (cue Newton), why would they exert any special influence beyond physical attraction?6
Today we live in a physicalist world, where the parameters of search and signification are defined by empirical disciplines. When we reach a new milestone in our relationship with the universe—such as landing a probe on a distant flying object—the discovery is stripped of religious meaning. Nonetheless, questions raised by such an encounter are inherently religious: How did things get here? Why are things the way they are? Rather than focus on these unsettling thoughts, society packages scientific information into convenient quips carrying news of progress. Such narratives channel admiration and wonder into hubris, creating spectacles to be consumed as pleasant distraction. On the other end of the spectrum, space is sometimes portrayed as the only salvation for a resource-taxed humanity. The problem with this view is that it tends to subsume pressing human concerns—feeding the hungry, showing love to all—beneath a grand future vision that somehow “escapes.” As C.S. Lewis hashed out in That Hideous Strength, such a vision is, in the end, truly monstrous.
Despite these twin narratives about space (narratives of diversion and deliverance), we need not lose hope. We need not fear humanity’s deep desire to know the universe, for the universe is God-founded. The universe, when viewed beyond the veil of our own arrogance, shows that the sum total of all is Gift, is Love, is Truth. Scientific study and exploration help us experience awe at our finitude in comparison to the infinitude of Triune Reality Itself, all while marvelously showing the brilliant interconnectedness of the whole.
1) He did this, incidentally, by showing that twins—although born at the same time—often underwent exactly opposite fates in life. See City of God Book V.
2) The issue is one of “extent to which.” Augustine admits that the stars “signify” events, which is quite different from claiming they “cause” events. Signification is, of course, open to human interpretation and error.
3) For Augustine, God controls the whole picture providentially. Fate is, most truly, “the will of the Father Supreme.” See City of God Book V.
4) They also believed that the universe would end after a fixed number of planetary rotations completes.
5) See, e.g., Grant, “Celestial Orbs in the Latin Middle Ages.”
6) Descartes paved the way for this paradigm shift with his theory of corpuscular gravity. Of course, problems arise when we assume that physical attraction implies only coldness and impersonality. C.S. Lewis would disagree. The picture of space that he paints in Out of the Silent Planet is of a plenum or fullness that is alive with the sound of music. Superstring theory confirms this notion.