I was listening to the radio the other day, and caught an interview with two NASA scientists. It turns out, the new Mars rover Perseverance has landed on the Red Planet. The host interviewing the scientists promised not to go overboard with her own speculations, but asked the question that we all wonder about: what would it mean if we found signs of life, there? The first scientist said something expectedly inspiring, but the second scientist said something else. I don’t think he had planned to say this, and he seemed to surprise himself. He said that if we found life on Mars, it could mean that life is fairly common in our universe. And with the way our own lives are going, the way in which we’re destroying our planet and each other, he would be relieved to know that humankind is not the best the universe can do.
I was kind of shocked. A moment of such a great achievement, fueled by humanity’s innovation and drive to know what is unknown, reduced to such a hopeless summary: There’d better be life somewhere else, because we’re clearly unworthy of it, here.
In the Gospel today, Jesus rebukes Peter for thinking of human, earthly things, when he should be considering divine, heavenly things. Sometimes I wonder what exactly what we’re supposed to do with that line. Some have interpreted it as a call to monasticism, to wall ourselves off from the world and sing and pray day in and day out, thinking only of God. While that’s an attractive thought, it doesn’t quite sound like the Jesus we’re called to imitate.
St. Augustine of Hippo wrote about this issue of earthly knowledge (which he calls scientia) vs. heavenly wisdom (sapientia). He wonders in his writings, when we were still in Paradise before the Fall, were these two different kinds of knowing divided, as they seem to be now, or were they joined somehow? Were we able to see all the earthly scientia—mathematics, literature, art, biology, chemistry, and rocket science—did we see this knowledge as separated from God? Or was it joined to the sapientia, the wisdom, love, justice, truth, nobility and glory that are Godself? Augustine saw our Fall from Paradise as the divorce of knowledge and wisdom, and this idea continues to our own day: science vs. religion. But Augustine didn’t end it there. He knew then something we know now: Jesus has reconciled heaven and earth. That division is either already mended, or will be mended at the end of all things, and we can get just a taste of it now.
I think what Jesus is saying to us in this Gospel reading, is that if we bend our minds only toward earthly things—which are good in themselves, of course!—toward charting the planet, exploring the depths of the ocean, mapping the human G-Nome, inventing life-saving inoculations, or even if we sent someone to make the first set of footprints on Mars, none of it matters if that’s where it ends. If we invent medicines but don’t have love, so what? If we teach but don’t have wisdom, so what? If we make laws but have no justice, if we make speeches but have no truth, if we could know everything there is to know, so what? If that’s where it ends, there’d better be life somewhere else in the universe.
Augustine said, the scientia of the world are not only good to know, we have to know it, because to want to know is part of what it means to be human. But it can’t end there. At some point, we have to stop looking around, and look up to God.
We’re not exactly sure what Jesus meant when he said to “take up our cross.” Some interpreted it as being ready for martyrdom, and many were, but others in the early church used this image to remind us of our baptism. By denying ourselves and taking up our cross daily, we’re reminding ourselves that we have been baptized for greater things, for God’s things. We are called to be in the world, and for the world. We try to see the world through God’s eyes and not our own, for God’s purposes and not our own. We try to see all the scientia, all the knowledge we can gather, through the eyes of wisdom, the sapientia that is God.
So, when I watched the footage from the Perseverance, and felt the chills seeing the Martian landscape in a way we’ve never seen it before, I remember that everything God created was called “good.” And when I consider humankind, when I get just a taste of how capable we can be, or how daring, or imaginative, or loving, or wise, or just, I remember that at our creation God called us not just good, but very good.
The Rev. Joani Peacock, Editor for Emmanuel Voices: A Parish Blog