The Theology of the Space Shuttle and Its Ice Cream

Shuttle Docked to Station (first ever photo)Recently, I found out that one of my favorite childhood foods – freeze-dried space ice cream – was only used on one space flight: the 1968 Apollo 7 mission. Apparently it just wasn’t very popular among the astronauts. But for millions of kids like me, that $3.99 package of crackly sweet goodness represented the dream of one day going into space. To this day, when I see a wrapper of Neapolitan space cream, I’m transported back to my seven year old self, surrounded by LEGO bricks and model space shuttles.

So as the space shuttle Atlantis lands safely for the last time, let’s spend a few moments eulogizing its impact the way we see the world, our selves, and our mission.

The Space Shuttle Changed How We See the World

The Scriptures record several places where men like Abraham (Gen 15:5; cf. Ex 32:13) and David (Ps 8:3; 147:4) reflected on the innumerable stars in the endless night sky. For them, the stars were a fixed, other worldly guide and a reflection of the vastness of God and his creation.

But for all their reflection on the stars, it would never have occurred to them to think of the those tiny lights in the sky as a “place to go.” Yet, for anyone living in the last 50-60 years, the stars have become very much a “place to go.” I grew up knowing that if I were talented and lucky enough, I too could become an earth-transcending astronaut. And today’s kids know that a lack of talent or luck can be overcome with just a few million dollars (Lance Bass?).

The space program has made the moon and going to it a part of our reality. So what does this mean theologically? Do we have any moral obligation toward the moon, Mars, or Kashyyyk? God commanded us to “cultivate and keep” the Garden (Gen 2:15), but how far does the metaphor of “the Garden” extend? It is limited to this planet? Does it extend to the entire universe that God has made?

The Space Shuttle Changed How We See Ourselves

The space shuttle is not the first tool that has shifted the way people look at the world and our obligation toward it. In the past five or six centuries, we went from believing the world was flat to believing that it was a sphere at the center of the universe to seeing it as one tiny planet among billions.

In some ways, each successive revelation has made individual humans seem smaller and smaller. Yet, concurrent with these scientific discoveries were technological innovations which gave humans newfound powers. With bigger and stronger seafaring ships, we no longer feared falling off the edge of the flat world. And now that we know we are not the center of the universe, the space shuttle allows us to see ourselves as those who can explore beyond this world.

In other words, when science makes us feel smaller, technology makes us feel bigger. We are no longer mere land dwelling creatures; we are those who dominate the sea, the air, and the stars. But we should remember that although this dominion is God-given (Gen. 1:26), history has shown that fallen humanity is prone to abuse their technological powers (Gen. 11:3-4) when they start to think too much of themselves and too little of God.

The Space Shuttle Changed How We See Mission

Finally, let’s get a little weird and think a few generations into the future. What happens when flights to Mars or other, more distant planets are normal? And more importantly, what if we finally do find E.T., the Cylon final five, or the Ferengi? Should we tell them about Jesus?

About 1600 years ago, Gregory of Nazianzus, in response to heretics who claimed that Christ was not fully human, wrote, “What God has not assumed, God has not saved.” (i.e. if Christ was not fully human he could not fully save humanity). So can Christ not save aliens if he doesn’t assume their nature? Does he need to become a Klingon Jesus, get phasered, and resurrected again and again for each new alien species?

Of course not. This is only true if we, like those who thought that the earth was the center of the universe, see humanity as the center of God’s salvation. But if we believe that Christ’s incarnation is the basis by which he will save, redeem, and recreate all of creation, then our theology of redemption could theoretically include aliens. Did the great commission just get way bigger?

The Space Shuttle Is a Metaphor for All Technology

I confess: I really have no idea what to do with alien salvation (or robot salvation!)

I only bring it these possibilities up as a way of showing that when technology expands what humans are capable of doing, it also has a way of changing how we see ourselves and the world around us. We now see the universe through the space shuttle. Or, rather, we see the universe through the power the space shuttle gives us. And that new universe that we see through the space shuttle brings up new questions.

This is pretty clear in the case of the space shuttle, but it happens in much subtler, more imperceptible ways with all of our gadgets. Cars, iPhone, Kindles, Google+, space ice cream, and all the rest empower us with new ways to have dominion which lead to new ways to see the creation, each other, and our calling.

To put on the mind of Christ, we need to hold the space shuttle in one hand and the Scriptures in the other, intentionally looking at the world through the story each of them tells and then comparing the two visions they give us. This can be hard work, because where there is conflict between the stories, there is probably hard ministry to do. So make sure you have plenty of spare freeze dried ice cream.

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John Dyer

In my day job, I work at Dallas Theological Seminary, and at night I write Bible software for countries whose leaders could be called "overlords." This one time, I wrote a book about technology and Christian faith. You can find out more about what I'm up to at http://j.hn/.

7 thoughts on “The Theology of the Space Shuttle and Its Ice Cream”

  1. That’s pretty much one of the theological papers I’ve been wanting to write, but never quite got around to — Soteriology and the Extra Terrestrial. Mary Doria Russell’s “The Sparrow” is a great novel about, among other things, this topic.

  2. This is excellent. Seriously. I really enjoyed reading this post. I’ve thought about this kind of thing before but never really put the thoughts together. You’ve got a gift my friend.

  3. One wonders also about the development of not only technology that makes us seemingly masters of the universe, but of ourselves. How, for instance, do we theologically look at imagined futures of a Kurzweilian sort, with limitless self-modification into forms that are not even recognizably human and endless extension of our lifespans? Of course, whether involving little green men or the Singularity, we have to be careful, it’s easy to start pre-modifying our theology based on the facts as they are found in a future that might turn out to be completely false.

    But to run with ET a little bit, because it’s interesting…

    First a quick question of clarification. You answer the “Does [Christ] need to become a Klingon” question in the negative, saying it “is only true if we…see humanity as the center of God’s salvation.” What did you mean by this? Wouldn’t it be the other way around? Jesus being born of humans and then also being born of aliens seems much less human-centric than Jesus’s incarnation solely as a man saving not only us but Jar Jar Binks from his many sins, doesn’t it?

    Other assorted thoughts to toss into the ring:

    1) The Old Testament is largely a record of God’s story with one particular group of humans. Yet Christians, understanding it through the lens of Jesus, nevertheless see it as a testament that was ultimately carried out from the Jewish people and to bear its witness into the whole world of humans. One could potentially imagine the New Testament in a similar way being a story of mainly the humans, yet serving and connecting with the “whole world” of sentient beings.

    2) Has the whole universe fallen? If we take the “new heavens and new earth” language to suggest so, then what does that mean? Was the fall of man the fall of the universe? Did we drag the universe down with us? Or did, perhaps, it go the other way, and the universe dragged us down with it? There are multiple scriptural hints at humans not being the only ones or even the first to fall (see: serpent, fallen angels).

    3) One imaginable conception of the earth around us (including other animals) is that it wasn’t guilty of the fall in the way that humans were, but was nevertheless damaged and set askew by it, and that a new heavens and new earth is therefore a matter of restoration and repair but not, except for us or others like us (that is, guilty participants), a matter of forgiveness and redemption. Is it possible that some races of beings are part of the fall as humans are, and others are a part of it only as, say, horses or trees might be? In that case, is the Good News for some extra-terrestrials not a word of pardon but a promise of rescue from the races, like humans, that have wrought destruction upon everyone?

  4. I always wondered if God created the universe in such a way that it was like stepping stones for exploration of the universe. The nearest object to us is the Moon, a lure to space and close enough to reach. Mars, our nearest planet, is very similar to Earth in many respects (Schiaparelli thought he saw canals; Burroughs fictionally speculated it might be an older, dying Earth). Our nearest star system, Centauri has two stars which are very similar to our own.

    I wonder why God would create such a vast universe and imbue us with such a sense of wonder and exploration if he didn’t want us to go see what’s out there.

  5. Great post. Two thoughts:

    Romans 8:18-22 speaks of all creation being subject to the fall. As technology lets us expand our view of “all creation.” It may seem arrogant that the one choice of Adam & Eve had such consequence to all of creation, but it seems that it did so.

    Another view is that of C.S. Lewis that we see in the Space Trilogy. Basically, that there was a Fall on Earth, but not elsewhere in the universe. Thus, the unfallen creation watches the demonstration God is making on Earth of His justice and mercy.

    Personally, given that in Genesis 1, God creates “the heavens and the earth” I think that something very particular and special happened here on this planet. Thus, I would guess there is no other life – at least none made in God’s image – in the universe.

    But it is a very interesting question to consider.

  6. Great stuff (as always) John!

    As a parent of a child with Down syndrome I sure appreciate you’re answer. According to Webster’s my son would be considered an ‘alien.” One of it’s definitions states, “to be unlike one’s own” – being that he has an extra 21st chromosome (or 2, or 2 billion) we would be “unlike” his “own” (you and I.)

    Which then leads me to wonder whose to say it isn’t you or I that’s the “alien?” Where in the Bible does it say a person has to have 2 copies of their 21st chromosome? It doesn’t…we say that.

    So my son is “alien” compared to you, or I…but we would be considered “aliens” by him and his over 7 million friends living with Down syndrome on the Earth today.

    I say all of that as I am thankful to believe in a God that isn’t all that concerned with the number of chromosomes we have, if we are born with all 4 limbs…or none at all, or (in my case) are just a little “weird.” I’m thankful for a God that can save with having to become a crazy guy, a guy with 1 hand, or a little baby with an extra chromosome….

    The only “thing” He who knew no sin had to become was… sin…and thankful He did. And I beg God that one day my little son Noah will come to believe that….

    Even if he is a little ‘different’ then me. :)

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