Do Christian Mystics Offer Guidance for Living Off Planet?

By Caleb Strom

As humanity moves beyond its home planet, it becomes closer to the wider cosmos. Once humans have learned to live permanently off Earth, and assuming that we do not encounter other forms of life, human civilization could in theory expand into the cosmos indefinitely and infinitely. If this happens, humanity will have gone cosmic. Going cosmic, however, requires a cosmic philosophy. Modern science is already cosmic in many ways in its thinking. Social and political philosophy, on the other hand, tends still to be human-focused or, at least, Earth-focused. 

A cosmic ethical philosophy would need to see the entire universe as an end and not simply a means to human ends. This ethical approach to the universe is already common among many Indigenous communities. Aboriginal Australians and Torres Strait Islanders, for example, see themselves as custodians of the lands that they inhabit, subject to the laws that  their lands inherited from The Dreaming, as reflected in their songlines. This ethical view is expressed in more scientific language by the philosopher Michel Serres ,who argues in his book Angels: A Modern Myth that even non-living processes, such as volcanoes, have intelligence because  they transmit some form of information and are self-organizing. Thus, according to Serres, even a volcano or a lifeless planetary body like the Moon could be said to be intelligent and have some sort of subjectivity that must be taken into account ethically.

Such ideas are anathema in our current global civilization. Influenced by capitalism, almost all humans see most natural environments, especially non-living ones, in terms of what resources can be extracted from them. This is especially true of celestial objects, which, as far as we know, have no extant life. The moon and asteroids are just warehouses of resources as far as Elon Musk is concerned. Many current visions of human expansion into space simply apply the capitalist growth ideology to the cosmos. The natural environment of space is destroyed and reconstituted to make way for infinite human growth and resource exploitation. The moon becomes a giant mining pit, the Martian poles are nuked in a vain attempt to make it a copy of Earth, and the planet Mercury is deconstructed to build a Dyson sphere around the sun, all so that humans can continue to consume more products and make more money.  

I am in favor of humanity becoming a cosmic phenomenon and do not see the use of extraterrestrial resources or terraformation as being wrong or even undesirable in of themselves, but the capitalist growth ideology is a dead end off-Earth as much as it is on Earth. There must be a better way for humanity to expand across the cosmos than turning it into a giant suburb.That better way might be to expand into space because of the intrinsic value of the space environment itself, to see and be shaped spiritually by the majestic canyons of Mars, the rings of Saturn, and the geysers on Enceladus.

A civilization that considers even non-living environments to have value in themselves and not just in terms of their utility would have a different use for technology in these environments. Technology would be used to care for and understand these environments, only extracting what resources were necessary for human survival and flourishing. This motivation for space exploration is essentially a spiritual motivation. The economic, or capitalistic, and spiritual motivations for space exploration exist in tension, often in the same people. Shifting toward a spiritual motivation for space exploration that stems from a holistic cosmic philosophy can be catalyzed by the mystical traditions within the major religions. Many religions could do this, but I will focus on the one with which I am most familiar: Christianity. My inspiration for  an emerging cosmic philosophy within the Christian tradition comes from the ideas of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Leonardo Boff, and Ernesto Cardenal.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was a French Jesuit paleontologist. In the early 20th century, he did important scientific work on human evolution. He also sought to reconcile Christianity with evolution. He is the originator of Omega Point theory, the idea that the universe is evolving towards a pinnacle of complexity and consciousness, or the Omega Point.Teilhard identified the Omega Point with God and believed Omega required humanity coming together in others-centered love.

Leonardo Boff is a former Roman Catholic priest and Franciscan. He was influential in the development of Latin American liberation theology and eco-theology. In his book Cry of the Earth, Cry of the Poor he argues that all living things have kinship to each other because they came from the same Big Bang. Boff believes that the main problem with humanity’s relationship with nature is that we see ourselves as distinct from the universe, which is reduced to a stockpile of resources, leading to a destructive, exploitative relationship with nature. He believes that we should see the universe as a community of which we are members, along with stars, volcanoes, slime molds, and vampire squids.

The last inspiration, Ernesto Cardenal, was a Nicaraguan Roman Catholic priest, poet, and revolutionary who was involved in the Sandinista revolution against the regime of Anastasio Somoza Debayle in 1979. He also founded an artist community on one of the islands of the Solentiname archipelago in Lake Nicaragua focused on local primitivist art. Cardenal believed that the Christian God is a liberator who is always on the side of the oppressed. His poems, many of which are recorded in his major work, Cosmic Canticle, speak of a vision of revolutionary movements across the world joining in solidarity against their oppressors. His poems suggest that solidarity is also necessary between humans and the cosmos itself. It appears that, for Cardenal, the revolution is not just international. It is intergalactic.

Another notable theologian, though not necessarily considered a mystic, is Sallie McFague who argued that creation is essentially the body of God, which should change how we relate to the universe. If we see the universe more like a living organism of which we are part, we will treat it differently than we would if we saw the universe as a warehouse for resources to use to accomplish our human-centered goals. 

These perspectives could form the beginnings of a cosmic philosophy, the essence of which is that humans are not the only part of the universe that is an ethical end. The universe is an organism that is slowly becoming conscious, and humans are a manifestation of that consciousness. 

We should not assume, however, that we are the only manifestation of that consciousness. The way we make the universe conscious is by discovering the other cosmic neurons and connecting with them and not assuming that we are the only neuron so far, to do so would be to do violence to the cosmic organism. Coming to see non-human animals, plants, volcanoes, stars, and planets as our cosmic siblings on the same journey towards consciousness and love, having the same need for liberation from destructive relationships, is how we move beyond the Anthropocene.

Caleb Strom is a PhD student studying planetary science. He also writes about science, faith, technology, and how all three can be brought together to make a better world.

Image credit: Liber Divinorum Operum, or the Universal Man of St. Hildegard of Bingen, 1185 (13th-century copy); Wikipedia Commons