I am among the foremost skeptics of science’s pretensions. But I count myself among the first to express amazement and thanks for revelations that scientific work has provided—not so much discovering “new” worlds as uncovering hidden worlds. Consider the amazing event of January 14, 2005, when a joint European-American space mission landed a probe, known by the name of Huygens, on the surface of the Saturn moon Titan. It was the most distant space landing ever. Among all but space-exploration aficionados, it seems to have been a mostly unheralded achievement. It deserves, though, to be etched in contemporary imagination.
Huygens settled lightly, by parachute, on the surface of a strange, methane-ordered world, sending back images of its landing and then a few minutes’ worth of vistas of the ice-strewn landscape. Even today we can see the event, shared with all the world on YouTube, whose mostly banal platform is redeemed and transfigured by these singular films.
Recent Martian landings, rovers, and photographs are no less marvelous, if somehow also less eerie. They seem to indicate that Utah has managed to stretch into outer space, an astonishing fact in itself. In both cases, on Mars and on Saturn’s moon, NASA has provided us with striking visual witnesses to the reach of present reality that shimmers beyond our awareness. Things are happening, even now and without our apprehension. They are complex, beautiful, and mysterious, multiplied by an infinite power that surpasses representation.
I submit that the reality of these unseen yet present worlds should be central to our faith. Surrounded by the armies of Syria, the young servant of Elisha assumes that all is lost, until God opens his eyes to see the mountainside filled with multitudes of divine chariots of fire standing guard at that very moment (2 Kings 6:17). Satan, we are told, is “roaming” about the world, unbeknownst to us, causing untold mischief (Job 1:7; 2:2). Our fields and streets are seasoned by angels and spirits; Jesus has his own “legions” (Matt. 26:53). The Book of Revelation indicates realms and abysses on our every side. And the righteous man, Job, can apprehend only the “outskirts” and “whispers” of God’s ways, knowing that there is so much more he cannot apprehend (Job 26:14).
Some Christians are concerned that emphasizing the “unknown” aspects of God can end up diluting our faith’s solid affirmations—the cross, sin and redemption, the hope of heaven. I think otherwise. The anxious worry that causes us to avert our gaze from the unseen and unknown so as to hold on to faith’s sure foundations has led to a diminishing interest in God himself. Instead, we satisfy ourselves with doctrines about him. With this diminished interest comes a parallel diminution of our human calling to explore. Often, the Christian religion gets reduced to a rigid demand for so thin a world that getting beyond it must seem like a release.
But there is no zero-sum game between Christian affirmation and the mystery of divine life within creation, which escapes our grasp. The hem of Jesus’s robe is real and healing (Matt. 9:20–21). There’s always more: “Not my feet only, but my hands and my head!” (John 13:9). We can and should believe in the truth of the Son of God found in the particular and circumscribed words and witness of the Gospels. But we can do so without having at the same time to deny their status as but a sampling of the inexhaustible truth of Jesus himself. Let us always remember the final words of the Gospel of John: “There are also many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.”
And not just remember but also take as spiritual counsel. Unless what is known presses us ever more deeply into the unfathomable hiddenness of God that gives forth light and wonder as a gift, we risk not just staying, but straying about the edges of truth. The truth loses its radiance and its penetrating power as we fiddle on the surfaces. Unmoored in what is inexhaustible, we are only too prone to drift in the winds. Much of Christianity’s irrelevance to younger people arises from the willingness of the faithful to settle for the tired and banal, reticent to venture toward the unknown.
The much-cited concept of the modern world’s “disenchantment” is obviously tied up with this reticence. The concept, made prominent by the pioneering sociologist Max Weber in the early twentieth century, has been widely used to describe the positivistic framing of reality that dominates contemporary society: empirical facts, numbers, data, and demonstrations, all arrayed in accord with metrics of utility and functionality. There is little room for angels and demons, let alone for God as the One who orders our lives and oversees our destinies.
The disenchantment thesis is fair enough as far as it goes. Modern society discourages wonder. But many traditional Christians have responded with a simplistic “counter-disenchantment” thesis. Pining for something beyond the known, they affirm exorcisms, miracles, religious telekinesis, and other manifestations of the supernatural. This impulse is not without value. But too often the counter-assertion goes no further. Looking “above,” as it were, it fails to nurture an ongoing thirst to delve ever more deeply into the fecund soil of existence itself—the “natural” unknown, the mystery of that which is. Too much contemporary “re-enchantment” literature tastes a lot like positivist functionalism, accompanied by a side dish of spiritual carbohydrates.
While the skeptic David Hume was himself hardly a Christian mystic, many of his science-oriented colleagues were. Indeed, the ranks of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century natural philosophers and empirical experimenters were filled with Christian enthusiasts, struck by and drunk on the wonders of a world they barely understood, yet whose intricacies impelled their faith into a mode of this-world exploration that ended up reordering contemporary physical knowledge, laying the foundations for modern science: Kepler, Pascal, Kircher, Boyle, Euler, and many others, along with a myriad of lesser-known thinkers.
Recent scholarship by Richard Popkin, Frances Yates, Peter Harrison, and Margaret Osler reframes the stale critiques of “Enlightenment rationalism” as godless atheism. This approach has for too long straight-jacketed conservative Christian apologists, tempting them to echo their imagined enemies as they offer various forms of rationalist theism. In truth, modern science was inspired by a questing Christian faith. This faith and its thirst for knowledge that gave rise to so much discovery was often born of a sense of humility and gratitude in the face of God’s almost overwhelming and thereby ungraspable creative abundance. Always more to know, more to astonish!
In our day, it should be no surprise that fantasy and sci-fi literature have taken the place of both religious and philosophical writing as food for the imagination of the young. For neither contemporary religion nor “pure science” offers much that can penetrate the surfaces of a world that seems to have grown weary of itself. While vana curiositas is certainly a vice, it is not today’s major Christian temptation, which leans rather to complacency or teeth-gritting formalism. God’s work, by contrast, is teeming with wonder. Delving into the mysteries of the quantum world is, in itself, hardly salvific. But that world’s reality is part of a larger dynamic of grace that also involves the fact that suffering is filled with good, that our limited lives are overflowing with the touch of God’s life, that our struggles, whatever they may be, are bound up with the glory of Deborah, Moses, the servants of the prophets even, and the endless corridors of Jesus’s own existence.
I interpret Huygens and its voyage beyond Mars as a parable about hope, the “conviction” in things “unseen” (Heb. 11:1). We should heed such parables. And we should let them unravel our resistance to God’s breadth of life.
Exploring the present, that which is, requires deliberate labor and discipline that can pay dividends of joy. We seem to have forgotten this calling to uncover the fullness in what is already, here and now, around us, rather than searching for what lies beyond. But in our era and culture, here and now seems never enough. Yet this place and this time is exactly where and when God has given himself most fully and richly.
Ephraim Radner is professor of historical theology at Wycliffe College.
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