In the past, I offered a reflection on what it means to bring humanity to space. In that reflection, I teased the idea that space travel needs to be more than just scientific exploration. Don’t get me wrong, the science of space travel is central for many obvious reasons. At the same time, if we really want to bring humanity into space it requires us to explore science, philosophy, culture, humanities, and faith. The human person is not a one dimensional species. We are a complexity of biology, psychology, and religiosity that creates both the beauty of the human experience and the tragedy of what can happen when the fragility of our human nature fails.
I was reminded of this while penning my reflection, Space Missions in 2021: What Are You Most Excited To See In This New Year? In particular, I was quite moved by the United Arab Emirates Mars probe mission, Al Amal. Enjoy this beautiful video as a refresher of the Mars mission soon to arrive at our distant neighbor.
What touched me the most about this video was how the scientists tied this mission to their culture. Islam has a deep history of scientific and philosophical advancements. A history I had a unique experience with while being Chaplain at Regis High School In Eau Claire, Wisconsin.
One day, Yoseph Ahmed, a rather bright student at Regis, dropped by my office to ask me if I would do a directed studies religion class with him. When I asked Yoseph what he would like to study, he said, “The morality and ethics of Thomas Aquinas.” I was a bit stunned that any high school student would want to voluntarily read the Summa Theologica, but Yoseph’s deeper explanation helped me understand why he wanted to study this Church Doctor. “Fr. James, when I read Thomas Aquinas, I feel like I am listening to the Imam at my Mosque.” It then dawned on me: Thomas Aquinas built his ethics primarily on a recovery of Aristotle through the writing of the Islamic philosopher Al-Ghazali. I accepted Yoseph’s request and what commenced was one of the most powerful experiences of interfaith dialogue I ever had. In gratitude for working with Yoseph (and later on his brother Mahmoud), the Ahmed family invited me into their home and shared the full extent of Muslim hospitality with me. It was a night I treasured and remember fondly to this day.
When I watched the video of the Al Amal mission, I sensed the same cultural pride that Yoseph displayed to me as we explored Thomas Aquinas. It’s the desire of us all, regardless of our faith background, to make a positive contribution to our world. The contribution we make is not simply for notoriety or fame, but as an expression of who are as a people and what we feel God calls us to be. From this perspective, exploring space, by its very nature, will always be an interfaith exploration, finding within the common scientific goals of missions to the Moon or Mars a personal connection with who we are as a people.
Of course, we also need to temper this idealism with the reality of our fallen nature. Sadly, the year Yoseph and I explored Thomas Aquinas was also a year of global acts of violence of Christians toward Muslims and Muslims toward Christians. When they occurred, Yoseph and I would talk about how these tragic events made us feel, whether it was Christians as victims or Muslims as victims. We developed a deep appreciation and respect for each other, realizing that neither one of us wanted to see people of our faith traditions killed for religious reasons and the phrase “killing in the name of God” was equally irrational and incoherent to our understandings of Christianity and Islam – At least from the perspective of how they should be practiced versus how they sometimes have been practiced.
Yoseph entered the United States Navy and, as is often the case as a priest chaplain, it’s been some time since we’ve talked. That being said, I’m proud of the Ahmed brothers and know they are making good in the world. I treasure my experience with them and know those experiences have made me a better priest.
When watching the promotion video NASA created for the Artemis missions, I feel that same sense of connecting the human experience with space exploration. When we look at Artemis’ goal of going to the Moon, Mars, and beyond, we receive a clear message: Humanity is making a home in space!
I find this exciting, but also worrisome. Can this new era of multi-cultural space exploration lead to bring out the best of humanity, allowing the exploration of space to unify the human spirit or will the fallenness of our human nature turn this exploration into a new era of tension and conflict?
The honest answer: It will probably be a little bit of both.
That being said, let us take time today to ask God to heal our broken world and renew our desire to achieve a common kinship amid our diversity of beliefs. May we allow the best of what it means to be human be at the forefront of exploring new worlds. And may we avoid the trap of allowing our fallenness to turn this new era of exploration into a new manifestation of division and hatred.