It is true that nobody makes a new earth without first making a new heaven. – G. K. Chesterton (Ffinch 1986, 278)
I have recently been wondering, if I were to travel to Krypton, would the sun give me superpowers? Or would Krypton’s sun, being red and therefore older and cooler, deplete my powers? The way chunks of Krypton deplete Superman make me wonder.
With the significant success of “Guardians of the Galaxy 2,” space fiction is making a run. Space operas are making money, which means they are forming and filling this generation’s imaginative universe. The heavens are galaxies of excitement and escapade. Pirates ships, cargo holds, and space monsters. The skies house alien gods with pitiless power and sailors on bawdy, but heartwarming, streak of adventure.
Take a moment and picture the Earth in your mind. I guarantee that you pictured our planet as a planet. A planet floating through Space. Though you have never been there, your mind’s eye looks at your world from Space. Your creative faculties’ picture of where you live has been formed by the assumed modern cosmology. Your imaginative landscape has been assembled out of space travel and scientific hypotheses about the universe.
What is out there between our planet and the nearest planet? Nothing. Maybe a bit of space dust. A comet or asteroid perhaps. But the universe is mostly empty, quiet, and cold. You have never been there. You have probably never met anyone that has been there. Yet your imagination is settled because imagination is not formed simply from experience. Our imagination has been formed and filled by the art and stories that we have been surrounded by since youth.
My imagination was formed by ‘Space Camp,’ ‘The Last Starfighter,’ ‘Star Trek,’ ‘Star Wars,’ and Superman spinning the world in reverse to roll back time. And, of course, beautiful pictures of the earth from space. All together I have been filled with stories and images that involved weightlessness, enormous distances, ultra cold and eminently quiet expanses. An outlandishly mammoth altar-less cathedral dedicated to nothing. I was a self-professing atheist by the Sixth grade. The near infinite expanse of space filled my head and left no room for a god. I could get all the news I’d need on the weather report. To stand and stare bravely required that I believe the heavens, and all things, to be cold-souled and empty. Of course, in spite of this, we fill the universe with life. Even when we know it is probably not there.
But my Atheism rested on unfounded assumptions. The nature of the heavens is not settled. Cosmology is the well-adjusted middle child that the philosophy and theology departments accidentally left at the hardware store while they were picking up paint and slug killer for the lake cabin. The Science Department felt obliged to watch him until Sophie and Theo count heads and make the mad dash back to find Cosmo, halfway through a box of Twinkies and half rack of Mountain Dew, watching a Space Opera marathon and on Science’s couch. In the mean time, science gets to fill our heads with madcap notions about Space. But until our discourse and company is expanded beyond the echo chamber of people that are like us our assumptions will remain unchallenged and unexamined. And since C.S. Lewis has settled the difficulty of getting books from the future (Lewis 1970, 200-201) the easiest place to find people with different cosmological assumptions is to read old books.
When anyone before 1850 looked up they saw a universe filled with warmth, life, dance, and song. Plato (428-348 BC) believed that the stars were living gods (Plato Apology  1952, 204), that there was a great soul causing the motion of the universe (Plato’s Timaeus  1952, 450), and that our personal soul is derivative of that universal soul (Plato Philebus  1952, 619). Origen (185-253 AD), one of the greatest observational astronomers of his day, agreed that the stars were alive (Scott 1991, 114), and the fire of life connected the heavens and the earth (Scott 1991, 117). The great early church theologian Maximus (580-662 AD) described heaven and earth as a “liturgical event . . . [in] a hidden but holy dance.” And each individual person finds their identity in this “enormous cosmic game” (Urs von Balthasar 2003, 60). As late as Chaucer (1343-1400 AD), each month, each day, and even each hour was dedicated to a planet. And the living being of that planet whispered their influence during their dedicated times (Lowes 1934, 10-29).
The ancients and medievals do not agree on what is above the atmosphere, but they were holistic ages (Gardner 1977, 143). They understood that people find identity in their relationship to the universe. We, on the other hand, relate to the universe in an historically peculiar way. The universe is cold and dead up there. It is empty space. But since “It is true that nobody makes a new earth without first making a new heaven” (Ffinch 1986, 278), and since we live after the revolutionary era, it ought not surprise us that our relationship to the universe is conceived differently than all that have gone before us. Or that ours is an era of angst and ennui. The old order was just that. An order. Filled from top to bottom, everything had its place. Everything new where it belonged and how it related to everything else. It was not simply a worldview. It was a cosmos view. And people had a place. We belonged. The new cosmos is not only not alive, it will kill us gruesomely if given the chance.
But, thankfully, science fiction is giving us back what was taken away. They had Universal Soul, aether-lubricated crystal spheres, and the great chain of daemons and demiurgical beings. We have Krypton, warp drives, and Chewbacca and Han Solo heading home to celebrate Christmas on Kashyyyk. We are made in the image of a God who filled the empty universe between the 3rd and 6th days of creation. So we are not comfortable until space is transformed into place.
Space is an area empty of life and personality.
Place is an area transformed by hands and minds for living.
Trekkies are not far from the Kingdom of God. They are moving closer to their own created nature by filling the heavens with the United Federation of Planets. Science fiction is our human nature expressing its discomfort with empty space. Nature abhors a vacuum. And human nature abhors a vacuum of life. Give forty people identical gray cubicles and a month and watch. Cubicles are space. They are all the same empty, lifeless, and soul-murdering. But give them to people and just transform them from space into place. From empty, cold, lifeless, unmarked boxes into personalized life-shaped places in which a person’s identity is safe. Space is an identity sponge. It soaks our identity out of us and leaves ennui, angst, discomfort. Place protects, reflects, and magnifies our identity.
Our lives should be shaped by our shaping. By our remodeling, reorganizing, and remaking of space into place. Be it arranging the table for a meal, city planning for the prosperity of your Metrocity, or harmonizing a yarn with the music of the spheres, you guard our galaxy by transforming space into place for the good of your neighbors and family.
Ffinch, Michael. 1986 G. K. Chesterton: A Biography. San Francisco: Harper & Row.
Gardner, John. 1977. The Life and Times of Chaucer. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Lewis, C.S. 1970. On the Reading of Old Books. In God in the Dock. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
Lowes, John Livingston. 1934. Geoffrey Chaucer and the Development of His Genius Cambridge, MA: The Riverside Press.
Scott, Alan. 1991. Origen and the Life of the Stars: A History of an Idea. New York: Oxford University Press.
Urs von Balthasar, Hans. 2003. Cosmic Liturgy: the Universe According to Maximus the Confessor. San Francisco: Ignatius Press.