Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.
As Chesterton famously did not observe, when people stop believing in God, they don’t believe in nothing. They believe in anything. One of the corollaries of this, in our time, is that loss of faith in the Second Coming and the Last Judgment and Four Last Things and angels does not mean that people believe in sputtering out their three score and ten in the cubicle job and then just being cremated and stuffed in the broom closet in an urn. Rather it means that our whole culture busily manufactures a secularist materialist myth to replace the reality of the Christian tradition.
Take for instance, this story and see if it sounds familiar: a being descends from Heaven, assumes the identity of a Carpenter, is killed, rises from the dead, and warns the nations of the earth that, depending on our choices, Heaven will return with mercy or vengeance. Where have you heard that tale before? Why, it’s the plot of The Day the Earth Stood Still, of course, as well as another tale you may be familiar with.
Or take take this popular tale: A being descends from Heaven, befriends children, has the power to heal with a touch, is persecuted and dies, rises from the death, and ascends into Heaven, but promises, before he goes, to dwell in the heart of his disciple. Sound familiar? It’s the plot of ET, as well as another rather older story.
Or consider an image like this:
A culture with “I saw the New Jerusalem coming down out of heaven” in its DNA goes on producing images like this even when the culture has lost all contact with its Jewish and Christian messianic traditions.
Similarly, we go on believing in heavenly messengers who come to say, “Peace on earth, good will to men” only we imagine they will come from other bodies around other suns, or even from other dimensions.
That’s “scientific” you see. So it’s not religious or anything.
In the same way, we invent imagery of judgment which looks for all the world like it is cribbed from the book of Revelation:
“And the fifth angel blew his trumpet, and I saw a star fallen from heaven to earth, and he was given the key of the shaft of the bottomless pit; he opened the shaft of the bottomless pit, and from the shaft rose smoke like the smoke of a great furnace, and the sun and the air were darkened with the smoke from the shaft. They have as king over them the angel of the bottomless pit; his name in Hebrew is Abaddon, and in Greek he is called Apollyon.”
Post-Christian culture also has eschatological dreams in a which a secular mankind spreads to the stars and establishes a peaceful kingdom of secular righteousness with no God to trouble us and everybody is clad in velour and leotards. Transhumanists likewise dream of a resurrection for nerds in which we replace ourselves piece by piece with android parts and download our brains into Artificial Intelligence Machines and live forever (whether in our mom’s basement or on (or as part of) some machine boldly going where no man has gone before is not clear). And eventually, we will all be transformed (one might even say “born again”) into this:
Now all of this sort of thinking is mythological, not scientific. It is an attempt to mythologize science into a replacement for Christian eschatology and, as such, is doomed to disappoint. The most recent disappointment was the end of the space shuttle program and the death of dreams for things like this (our supposed First Step to the Stars):
Our space program was an exciting thing as we raced to the moon. I feel the awe still over “One small step for a man”. I would be thrilled if we get a man to Mars (and back). It is as romantic, poetic—and practical—as climbing Everest. But I long ago gave up kidding myself that we are going to voyage to the stars or even get a workable colony on the moon or Mars. We’re not. It would be orders of magnitude easier to build New New York in Antarctica. The temperature is about the same as Mars and you don’t have to import your own atmosphere or create an eco-system from scratch. Also, you don’t have to travel near as far to get a widget if there is a serious system failure. A fortiori, we aren’t going to the stars because stars are, you know, really far away. As in so far away that it would take multiple generations to get to the nearest one and there is no guarantee that there would be anything like a habitable planet when the great grandchildren of our Space Family Robinson got there (assuming they didn’t murder each other on the journey).
Nor, I reckon, is anybody coming here from another planet, despite the dreams of Steven Spielberg and countless other believers in ET. The question Enrico Fermi put to the ET enthusiast community 60 years ago still holds: “Where is everybody?” We’ve been listening for a very long time now. If the cosmos really teems with intelligent organic life you’d think that at least one civilization would have invented Top 40 AM radio. But in fact, we hear nothing but static.
And this is leading some of the people who have given it some thought to wonder if, in fact, we are all alone.
Mind you, these people have no more a lock on the truth than those who imagine a densely populated night sky because, at the end of the day, we have no actual data to work with, just a fancy Drake Equation. What’s a Drake Equation you ask?
The Drake equation states that:
N = the number of civilizations in our galaxy with which communication might be possible;
R* = the average rate of star formation per year in our galaxy
fp = the fraction of those stars that have planets ne = the average number of planets that can potentially support life per star that has planets
fℓ = the fraction of the above that actually go on to develop life at some point
fi = the fraction of the above that actually go on to develop intelligent life
fc = the fraction of civilizations that develop a technology that releases detectable signs of their existence into space
L = the length of time for which such civilizations release detectable signals into space.
Pretty dang intimidating, ain’t it? Only a fool would argue with a scientific-type formula like that.
Only the thing is, we cannot fill in a single one of those terms with anything like actual data. And what indications we do have so far suggest that Earth is not the dime-a-dozen proposition many people suppose, but is actually well, Rare Earth. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible for there to be intelligent life on other worlds. It just means (if it’s true) that such life is so rare and so remote that, as far as we are concerned, it might as well not exist at all since we will never know of it or contact it. That is just as well since, as the history of our own race demonstrates, contact with other intelligent forms of life in remote places like America and Africa tends to lead to extermination for the weak and slave-trading for the strong. Any superior race that encountered us would likely find it necessary to wipe us out in self-defense. Can you imagine such a first contact with these interstellar Magi? They would approach us, full of expectant joy and ask, “It is rumored among us that the great God whom all rational beings worship actually became incarnate as a member of your species! What glory He has showered upon you! Please, tell us! How did you welcome Him?”
How’d you like to be the ambassador from Earth and try to explain that one?
But such an encounter won’t happen, because the aliens aren’t coming, Jesus is. That won’t stop the human imagination from populating the stars with Space Princesses, Barsoomians and Klingons, thank God, any more than a complete atlas of the globe stopped Tolkien from creating Middle Earth. May we fill the universe with works of the imagination as is fitting for sub-creators. And if there is anybody out there and they are rational creatures, then I hope one day to worship God with them and have a good laugh about it all.
But still, my curmudgeonly heart always thrills just a little bit when materialist secular eschatologies which seek to replace God with some illusion of the Conquest of Space and Time receive a knee to the groin from the sciences. For my hope is that, in the long run, the death of secular materialist eschatologies will lead back to the only real eschatological hope there is: the Christian one. For, of course, saying “There’s no ET coming” is not to say there’s no created non-human intelligence out there. There is. We call them “angels” (though if you want to scientize their names by redubbing them as “trans-multiverse non-corporeal intelligences” I don’t see the harm of it. The point is, there are non-corporeal beings possessing will and intelligence who move between heaven and earth (and whatever realms in between) and who exist to serve God and us. Likewise, there are corrupt versions of these we call devils. And we don’t have to wait for either of them to arrive. They been here from very close to the beginning, while the God they serve has been here since before the beginning. And despite all the false hopes of secular messianism, he will *still* come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.