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Book Review:  Touching the Face of the Cosmos

Reviewed by: Robert A. Lee
Title: Touching the Face of the Cosmos: On the Intersection of Space Travel and Religion
Editors: Paul Levinson and Michael Waltemathe
Format: Paperback/Kindle
Pages: 256
Publisher: Fordham University Press
Date: March 2016
Retail Price: $19.95/$9.99

My mother always told me, “Never discuss religion and politics at social gatherings!” This book goes where others may fear to tread by presenting an anthology of essays and science fiction stories exploring the intersection of space travel, spiritual philosophy and religion. The editors set out to provide a variety of ideas and viewpoints on the subject. Most of the book is from the Christian perspective with a smattering of other religions included (there is one entry from the perspective of Taoism and three from Judaism). The original “call for papers” included solicitation of papers from a non-religious perspective, but none are in the final product. There is an occasional swipe at both fundamentalism and atheism.

The book is divided into two parts. The first half consists of essays which explore topics such as how space travel affected astronauts’ spirituality, how religious reasons could provide a future impetus for space travel, how intelligent alien species might affect our view of our place in the universe, and even how space travel could be a form of pilgrimage. Each essay includes an author biography, a bibliography, and extensive links to articles for additional reading.

The second half of the anthology consists of religious-themed science fiction stories because “much of our thinking about space has come from fiction.” They include both near future space colonies and far flung alien civilizations that explore how space colonization might influence our beliefs and challenge their foundations.  

Readers who wish to explore the implications of space travel on Christian and personal spirituality will find much in this anthology to contemplate. Throughout there is a general positive view of all religions and that space travel will strengthen spiritual beliefs. There is a slight repetition among some of the papers, such as when providing descriptions of the affects of space travel on astronauts’ spiritual views. However, almost all of the papers and stories are easy to read. NSS members will also discover some suggestions for engaging the religious community in support of space travel.

There are also some surprises, such as similarities between religious pilgrimages and space travel. I now wonder whether I’m performing a sort of pilgrimage during the many times I’ve taken my family to Disney World for vacation and carved out one day for us to visit Cape Canaveral. Also, I had never considered the premise of one paper which calculates that, if God wished to provide a savior for each alien intelligent race, there would be over 400 versions of Christ in the universe simultaneously (I seemed to have missed that in the Drake equation!). But overall, the papers are informative and thought-provoking, and the science fiction stories unique and entertaining. Readers will find at least a few concepts that will stay with them long after the anthology’s conclusion. 

Below is an annotated list of essays and stories in this anthology.

Essays

  • Interview with John Glenn by Paul Levinson: Glenn discusses how space affected his religion and spirituality. The text includes a link to the audio recording of the entire conversation.

  • A Catholic in Space: Coming Home by Br. Guy Consolmagno, SJ, Vatican: As the director of the Vatican Observatory, Guy Concolmagno has studied much about the intersection of science, philosophy and religion. He opines on how new discoveries may shake our comfortable assumptions, but that we should not be afraid to challenge our faith.

  • Our Cosmic Future? How Religion Might Shape It by Joshua D. Ambrosius: The author feels that the space community needs to communicate with religious individuals and institutions to enlist their support for space exploration. This essay provides some interesting statistics on how different religions view science and space and how some engagement could radically affect their support.

  • Pennies from Heaven: Objects in the Use of Outer Space as Sacred Space by Deana L. Weibel: This paper points out analogies between religious pilgrimages and space travel. For example, taking objects to holy places and leaving or returning them is performed in both pilgrimages and the Apollo Moon voyages.

  • So You Want to Make Gods. Now Why Should That Bother Anyone? by David Brin: Some advice is provided to space enthusiasts for using biblical stories such as the Tower of Babel to engage religious individuals. Different interpretations of these stories can be used to gain support for  technologies such as creating space colonies, terraforming planets, creating intelligent robots or genetically engineering humans.

  • The Touching Interface of the Cosmos by Lance Strate: How people of the past have viewed the sky and the many reasons why we wish to travel into space. Could it be because we are lonely or wish to transcend ourselves?

  • Faith in Space: A Christian Perspective by Michael O’Neal: The author provides views from many astronauts about how they practiced their religion while in space.

  • Faith to Face by Jeremy Saget: How will future trips to and the settlement of Mars affect the spirituality of the colonists? This paper explores the “Overview Effect,” the pale blue dot concept, and stages of spiritual growth.

  • One Earth by Rabbi Barry L Schwartz: How has a half century of space travel affected the views of astronauts from multiple religions about the Earth and its inhabitants? Within a very short time, it is no longer about their country or continent, but of living on one Earth.

  • Shall the Sacred Heavens Be Cast Down? by Kathleen D. Toerpe: Have the ancient views of the heavens and space as a sacred realm run their course due to our “mundane” space activities? And does this demystification cause us to lose something in the process?

  • The Heavens Declare the Glory of God by Michael Waltemathe: Can pilgrimages and religious voyages of the past be a model for religions to promote space travel and teach us more about the perceived nature of God?

  • Space Exploration as a Religious Pilgrimage by Juan Pablo Marrufo del Toro, SJ: “When we explore space, we are trying to answer our deepest questions.” Proposed is that perhaps the answer does not matter compared to how we are affected by the journey itself.

  • Did Jesus Die for Klingons, Too? by Christian Weidemann: If there are multiple alien civilizations in the universe, all requiring “salvation,” will God use the same method for all of them?

  • Anticipating the Contours of Extraterrestrial Religion by Peter M. J. Hess: Will biology and evolution cause aliens to have many of the same religious elements that we do? Prayer, morality, angels and demons, incarnation and many more examples are listed for discussion.

  • Human-Heaven Unity by Wu Jianzhong: A core concept of Taoism is discussed relating to how humans are a microcosm of the universe and how space exploration can be seen as a process to extend the human body and mind in many ways, just as we extend our sight using the Hubble Space Telescope.

  • Castles in the Air: Young Children Imagine Outer Space by Molly Vozick-Levinson: Listening to children’s ideas about space can lead us to deeper thinking about ourselves in ways we might have forgotten.

Stories

  • The Story of Creation Told from the Moon by Philip Gibson: An account of Apollo 8 as if it took place today, with reports and comments sent via social media akin to Twitter.

  • Biblical Literalism in the New Jerusalem by James F. McGrath: An evangelical space station with over 10,000 inhabitants uses a strange orbit. Why?

  • The Third Chimp by Gregory Benford: An expedition discovers a quasi-intelligent plant-like “Marsmat” in the caves of Mars. The race is on to explain why it is dying. This story is only peripherally related to religion and contains just one paragraph on the subject.

  • Come All Ye Faithful by Robert J. Sawyer: A televangelist on Earth witnesses through his telescope a “miracle” at Cydonia. The lone Padre of a Mars colony is dispatched by the Vatican to investigate.

  • Ecce Aqua by James Heiser:  Multiple dispersed Christian colonies exist on Mars, and the priests use crawlers to visit them. When the main water station that supplies the various settlements has an accident, the workers are trapped. A Padre is dispatched to save them, but the crawler does not have enough room for all. What will he do before the air runs out?

  • The First Seder in Space by Paul Levinson: A spaceship bound for Alpha Centauri turns back, and the space-time field seems to indicate that outside, time is flowing backwards. What will happen to the two children born during the trip?  Will they disappear?

  • Epiphany by Arlan Andrews, Sr: Brother Henry’s faith is challenged when an alien tells him that there are millions of intelligent species, but only Earth has religion.

  • The Right of Interference by Marianne J. Dyson: On a far off alien planet, a visiting creature calls himself John. He preaches to those around him to forsake drugs. The drug lord aliens wish to kill him, while a spaceship in orbit wishes to capture John for illegally influencing the local population of the planet. Will a miracle happen to save John from both parties?

  • Birth of a Pantheon by Kyle Aisteach: A fuel explosion on one of two ships sent to colonize Venus with a floating city sends it plummeting towards certain doom. The pilot calls on an imagined goddess of starfaring for help, calculating that it doesn’t hurt to ask, even if he made her up. Will this help save the colony ship?

  • Kayanoga's Decision by Dave Creek: A priest takes a man’s confession about his causing many deaths during a rescue mission in Jupiter’s atmosphere. The priest tries to answer his question, “Why would God test me this way?”

  • The Miracle on Tau Prime by Alex Shvartsman: On a far off alien planet, a small alien being has started perfectly transcribing the Bible in ancient languages, as if out of nowhere. The Vatican dispatches two investigators. Is it a miracle, and what will the study of the alien reveal?

  • The Universe Emerges from Information by Tom Klinkowstein: This very short story was rather obscure to me. It consists mostly of a list of space wishes over the next century, such as a satellite to the Oort Cloud within 70 years.

  • Jumping the Road by Jack Dann: Inexplicably, and with no contact from Earth, an alien race has independently developed a sect that practices Judaism. A Jew from Philadelphia is dispatched from Earth to help explain the religion, since the aliens mysteriously do not even seem to notice the local Jewish practitioner.

© 2016 Robert A. Lee

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Updated Sun, Feb 7, 2016 at 17:24:08
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