Friday, July 19, 2019

The Mighty Ocean of Tranquility

This Saturday marks the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing, perhaps the greatest technological-cultural achievement in human history since the Roman Empire connected an entire continent with roads. While the promise to put a man on the Moon was in part a determination not to let the Communists beat the U.S., it was also a natural act of hope. There was hope that mankind would not be restricted to the sublunar sphere, and might someday make the dangerous climb into the material heavens to explore the fullness of God's created glory.

America being the religious melting pot that it is, the mission astronauts made for an odd grab-bag of affiliations. Neil Armstrong was a professed Deist. Michael Collins was a moderate Episcopalian with a wife described by some as "staunchly Catholic." Buzz Aldrin was a Presbyterian elder who celebrated a makeshift communion service after the lunar landing; he was also a practicing Freemason who was deputized to claim territorial jurisdiction on the Moon. Half a year prior, NASA was sued by atheist activists when astronauts aboard Apollo 8 broadcasted a reading from Genesis during Earth orbit at Christmas. In explaining the choice to read from the Bible, command module pilot Jim Lovell said with interreligious magnanimity that "It is the foundation of most of the world's religions.... They all had that basis of the Old Testament."

Earlier poets had imagined fantastic journeys to the moon. Ludovico Ariosto's Orlando Furioso includes an episode where the knight Astolfo flies in Elijah's chariot to the Moon in search of his companion Orlando's sanity. Rudolf Raspe's Baron Munchausen includes multiple humorous voyages to the Moon. Greatest of all was Dante's Paradiso, when the poet ascends to the first celestial sphere, wherein the inconstant blessed souls reside. The neglectful Piccarda explains her humble beatitude:
"So that as we from step to step
Are plac'd throughout this kingdom, pleases all,
E'en as our King, who in us plants his will;
And in his will is our tranquillity;
It is the mighty ocean, whither tends
Whatever it creates and nature makes."
God made man to rule over the material creation, and occasionally the magnitude of our ambition reminds us of that primal vocation. The lunar Mare Tranquillitatis should be a reminder of the ocean of rest to be found in the divine will, even though for some it is an opportunity to kick against the limitations of human nature. How far we are today from the humbled aspect of Piccarda's repentant and feminine soul.

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