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Pilgrimage to the Moon

By Gillies Macbain  

In terms of the space programme as a pilgrimage or quest, they were not theologians. They were not even high priests. They were the altar boys: stand here, go there, do that, hold this.
I believe that the expeditions that landed men on the moon in the late sixties and early seventies had an unconscious agenda - a religious one.

This is something that it is not possible to prove, but if I choose my words and images carefully, I may be able to give you some insight into 'where I am coming from'.

The United States' Apollo Programme was an enormous technical achievement, that is not in dispute...

I spent much of my childhood living in the shadow of an enormous technical achievement, in stone Lincoln Cathedral, in England. In mediaeval times when it's central tower also had a spire, Lincoln Cathedral had been the tallest building in the world, and the successor, as the tallest man-made structure, to the great pyramid of Egypt.

Both of these extraordinary monuments could be described in terms of architecture, engineering, and even social organisation, but we take it for granted that the fundamental impulse that drove their respective societies to build them, was a religious one.

That is what I take for granted about the men who organised the pilgrimage to the moon.

One of the conceits of some modern materialists is that they have no religion.

This I dispute.

A man who thinks that he has no religion is like one who thinks that he has no accent, even though he is aware of other people's accents. Just as everyone, to someone else, has an accent, so does everyone have a conscious or unconscious religious style and outlook.

I would say that atheism is one of the most dogmatic of all religions. 'Scientific materialism' is a major sect of the atheist faith. Materialism's basic tenet, it's 'ground of being', is an inert, unfeeling cosmic unity called 'reality'.

This 'reality' is in effect a doctrine, which says that the matter of which 'things' are composed takes precedence in both time and ultimate authority over form and relationships. Non material entities are defined and dismissed as 'unreal'.

It is not necessary to follow this point in order to appreciate the drift of this article, merely necessary to understand that I, the writer, believe that 'reality' is a dogma and an abstraction, and that those who hold it as self-evident are exhibiting a form of a blind, simple faith.

Those who hold to this dogma defend it, or escape having to defend it, by denying point blank that it is a dogma. 'Reality' is the core of a belief system that is exceptionally rigid, making even Islamic fundamentalists look like a vague bunch of woolly minded liberals!

'Reality', an abstraction, is upheld as a self-evident face, and above discussion.
The distinctive discovery of the Hebrew religion was that the world was not born, but commanded into existence. It was brought into being by the word of a solitary male and all powerful god. So were the men who organised the pilgrimage to the moon scientific materialists? Some were and some weren't. How do we know this?

We can't be sure of it. We are here up against one of the taboos of secular, pluralist societies. A man may hold religious beliefs, including ones incompatible with the beliefs of his neighbours, provided he keeps these sufficiently private and contained not to challenge or embarrass fellow citizens.

This taboo sometimes breaks down, or fails to become established, as in Northern Ireland, where Catholic and Protestant attitudes have not been successfully separated from the political sphere.

It is interesting to meditate upon the historical fact that while Protestants have fought with Catholics (although both are Christian) and while Christians have clashed with Jews (though both religions are anchored in faith in God the father) neither Christians nor Jews seem to get into sectarian confrontations with scientific materialists. It is almost as though scientific materialism is a development of monotheism and not a contradiction of it.

So who went on pilgrimage to the moon? Modern secular human beings from a pluralist society. If the space programme had continued, possibly all racial and religious groups would eventually have been included in the recruitment of astronauts, but always on the understanding that the technical requirements of the mission take priority at all times.

Religious convictions of a prescientific kind were permissible in the Apollo Programme, provided they took a back seat.

For some of the men who flew to the moon the current reformation, from the prescientific into the scientific religious mind-set, was still incomplete. Different religious belief systems seem at times able to coexist in the human psyche. When an individual 'converts' from one belief system to another, there is usually already considerable familiarity with the new belief system. Likewise the older theology does not fade away for a considerable time after the 'conversion'. What happens at 'conversion' is that the balance and priority between the two systems, changes dramatically.

In our present period of history in which changes are accelerating until they crowd one upon the other, I believe that the sea change into atheistic materialism will still be far from complete when it is overwhelmed by the next reformation. (That is a matter that we will come to in due course... )

In the case of the expeditions to the moon, several of the men who went on them still carried within their cultural and religious make up, the more traditional patterns of thought, even though they were pioneers in perhaps the greatest achievement of rational planning and scientific materialism.

The men who went to the moon were all (of course) male, all middle aged, all American, all white, and almost all married, and Protestant.

In theological terms they did not seem to know what they were doing.

This was the climactic achievement of linear, scientific thinking but as scientific materialism defines itself as not being religious dogma, but simply the Truth, (and does that sound familiar?) the theology of scientific materialism did not form part of their training.

In terms of the space programme as a pilgrimage or quest, they were not theologians. They were not even high priests. They were the altar boys: stand here, go there, do that, hold this.

They had a humble part in an enterprise that was greater than they could be expected to understand.
What after all was the lunar mission code named? It was called Project Apollo. The mission to the moon was dedicated to the sun god!

The overt primary purpose of the expeditions was exploration ("we came in peace for all mankind") but as exploration the cost was ruinously out of proportion to the results or any conceivable results.

It was not a bag of rocks they sought.

Beneath the exploration motive lay, first, a nationalist agenda.

Neil Armstrong, who was first to step on to the moon, had earlier in his career flown numerous combat missions in Vietnam. It was not as a peacemaker that he had been sent there.

The writer Jules Verne, in his famous book about a voyage to the moon, had described how three men in a space vehicle called the 'Columbiad' travel to the moon, and dedicate their mission to all humanity but 'take possession of this new continent in the sky, and plant upon the summit of it's highest elevation the star spangled banner of the United States of America'.

Except that the command module was called the 'Columbia' not 'Columbiad' this is almost exactly what did happen!

The nationalistic spirit in which men went to the moon was the natural successor to that mixture of arrogance, aggression, curiosity and greed that sent Columbus to the Americas, or captain Cook to Australia.

What is more, far from going in peace for all mankind, the Apollo Programme had helped to develop reliable and accurate delivery systems for weapons which threatened mass destruction for cities, territories and peoples.

So there was more than one motive for the expedition to the moon, and we can start by disregarding the stated ones.

The pilgrimage to the moon exposed the limits of the mode of consciousness that it set out to glorify. It uncovered no new world except the one that it had foolishly attempted to leave behind. In the Christian materialism of the West we have a religious tradition which evolved in stages the layers of secular materialism, Protestantism, Catholicism, early (New Testament) Christianity and Jewish and primitive monotheism, are each rooted in the layer beneath. As each new layer outgrows its predecessor, without being uprooted, it somehow manages to marginalise it. It packages all former layers and takes them along.

When an older layer is rejected, taboos are locked into place (like the fear of the lunar month number, 13) which can remain long after the older system is buried and forgotten. One of the most interesting things about our Western religious culture is that it is nomadic in spirit. The Old Testament account of the promised land is the history of a nomadic people, (the children of Israel), invading the settled country of the Canaanites. Gods such as those of the Canaanites were strongly associated with place. In particular early gods are associated with the places where the ancestors are buried. Shrines and then temples may emerge at these places.

Nomadic peoples do not have this security of place. Their women cease to have the role of cultivators and become chattels to be transported. Their concept of the Divine is forced to evolve. They develop an idea of a god who is everywhere, transcendent and invisible.

What is interesting is that we in the Christian and materialist West would, if asked, consider ourselves a settled people, are clearly and avowedly in the religious tradition of the nomadic Hebrews, and not in that of the settled, agricultural Canaanites.

Perhaps scientific materialism can be seen as the ultimate expression of the nomadic desert tradition which does not remain static through the natural cycle of the seasons but consumes and moves on, ever restless, ever curious, and ever hungry for new pastures.

The distinctive discovery of the Hebrew religion was that the world was not born, but commanded into existence. It was brought into being by the word of a solitary male and all powerful god.

The pilgrimage to the moon was the ultimate expression of this tradition unified, rational, masculine and linear.

The founders of the Jewish religion were the first to see history as linear, rather than an endless cycle of seasons, death and rebirths. They saw history as unfolding and developing. It was also inevitable that the pilgrimage would be made upward, to the skies, not an exploration downward into the earth or to the depths of the oceans. Our tradition is a daylight religion. Early Celts and Jews started the day at dusk, we take it for granted that the day starts at dawn. We revere the daylight because that is the time when the human mind is conscious and engaged in conscious, rational and linear thought. We believe in progress. We aspire to travel upwards, skywards, into ever greater light and consciousness.

We place heaven in the sky, unlike the Celts who looked to an afterlife in the West, or the Greeks who looked to an afterlife beneath the earth.

We bury our dead in the earth. Why then does Christianity picture heaven as being in the sky?

The names of God in the Indo-European languages comes from roots which mean 'god' and 'father' but also often mean 'day': deus, Dyaus Pitar, Jupiter, Zeus Pater, Tiu, Tyr

The cock at the pinnacle of the church is gold, the colour of the sun, and heralds the dawn; the day; the daylight consciousness; the sequential, linear and 'masculine' mode of thought.

This linear mode was also the language of the computers that played a major part in the navigation to the moon. The religious bias of the expedition was made clear. There was no intention to come under the influence of the moon; the intention was to invade her. What after all was the lunar mission code named: it was called Project Apollo. The mission to the moon was dedicated to the sun god!

Leaving aside the unconscious religious agenda of the expedition, what did the pilgrims actually say? Once you eliminate all the technical communication necessary to mount the expedition, you are left with a wealth of religious references.

"I looked and looked but I didn't see God" (Yuri Gargarin. First Russian astronaut. 14 April 1961)

The astronauts on Apollo 8, the first mission to circle the moon, celebrated Christmas eve in orbit. They broadcast back to earth a reading of the account of creation in the book of Genesis. (This caused offence to an American atheist, Madalyn Murray O'Hair, who made a complaint based upon clauses in the American constitution relating to the disestablishment of religion!)

The book of Genesis is not of course the earliest part of the Bible in terms of order of composition, but it is our myth of origin, and it declares itself in the very first words: "in the beginning " The words "in the beginning" announce a linear history, and declare that there was a beginning. The "big bang" theory of creation is also linear, and uses the imagery of sound, not sight or feeling (big flash, big thump) because sound is linear. It assumes that something is bound to come first. The reader, brought up in these traditions, may share this assumption but it is a contradictory one: If every observable effect in the physical world stems from a preceding cause, then an origin which is singular, without cause or context, and a world created or self generated 'ex nihilo' out of nothing contradicts that tradition.

It would be more consistent if the shape of time was circular, or if there were multiple universes giving rise to each other. By reading from Genesis the astronauts declared to the listeners their system's pedigree. Of all the myriad religious and cultural traditions on the earth theirs was the one that traced back to Cyrus the Great of Persia releasing Jewish priest from their Babylonian exile to rebuild the Jewish Temple state. The priests who re-wrote the Babylonian creation myths to front a collection of their own books and tribal tales of origin, which the Greeks later called "Genesis".
  The first astronauts who actually set foot on the moon were truly representative of the present state of Western culture. They were permitted to bring along with them eight ounces of P.P.K. (personal preference kit). This meant small items of personal, family, or religious significance. What all of those items were is not recorded, but the inclusion of religious icons among the hand luggage was highly approproate for the ultimate in nomadic travellers: "Why did you steal my gods?" (Genesis 31 v.30) Jacob's wife Rachel concealed her gods by putting them in the saddle of a camel, and sitting on them. The nomadic believer, taken from her people, does not abandon the tribal gods but bringing them along with her.

In similar fashion a modern secular society, even if it fancies that it has uprooted itself from its origins, in fact miniaturises an packages its earlier religions: it has it's gods in the bag.

There is no better symbol of such a society than the Apollo launch vehicle. It is an afvanced and complex technical construction, which still contains within it, almost as a consumer product, each person's personal preference kit, and tokens of the ancestral religious mentalities that brought it into being.

The first two men to set foot on the moon were also truly representative of our culture, in that one of, Aldrin, took with him in his P.P.K. a tiny gold chalice, a thimbleful of red wine, and a wafer, and celebrated holy communion on the lunar surface. His companion, Armstrong, (presumably not a church goer), looked out of the porthole while this was going on, observing a respectful silence.

None of this was reported back to earth at the time, for fear of giving further offence to atheists! Thus the rules of post enlightment religion were observed: work and technical matters take priority. Religion is a commody - primarily for personal private consumption. Do not invade personal space, do not intrude.

After setting foot on the moon's surface, the austronaut took a telephone call in a link up to president Nixon, on the course of which the president used the phrase: "because of what you have done, the heaven's have become part of man's world..." This again is the language of aggressive male colonisation, taking over territory.

I have used the word "man" throughout, because that was the word used throughout the ascent and return, and also in the prententious, botched phrase rehearsed by Armstrong for the first words from the surface. The territory to which man had made his retreat was the last word in barren wilderness. The truth was that the expidition had discovered a new world: not the dead dusty rock upon which thay stood, but a new view from outside of the whole earth. We, the ordinary people of the planet, via television and photography, had been vouchsafed a vision of the earth as a complex, delicate, but resilient and powerful whole, suspended in endless space, as we had long known, but never seen or truly understood.

In interstellar terms the "giant leap for mankind" was no more significant than the leap of a flying fish that manages for a brief moment to escape it's natural element.

Far from escaping the confines of earth, the astronauts demonstrated that human life is an integral part of the biosphere. The backup system for the expedition was not just mission control in Heuston, Texas, but the interrelated natural systems of the earth as a whole.

"What would you need to tale from the earth in order to survive on another planet?" asls a primary school textbook - and I supply the answer: "everything".

To take any less is to misunderstand the nature of the earth - the Ohio cornfields that grew the wheat that made Aldrin's communion wafer. The ice ages that grind the rocks that make the soil in which that wheat is grown. The rain. The oceans. The tides. The moon. The wheel of the stars. Everything.

The pilgrimage to the moon may never be repeated.

It is unlikely that there will be expeditions to Mars, without the stimulation of an arms race to act as an excuse, and a catalyst. We are reaching the limits to our expansion: in human numbers, in species extinctions, in environmental global pollution, in resource consumption, in information overload.

We have made a pilgrimage to the limits of rational planning. There are limits to this colonisation of every mode of understandingby the rootless, nomadic and linear masculine mode of the mind.

The astronauts themselves were theologically naive. We are taught nothing by them, but we can learn from them. One of them, Irwin, actually founded an evangelical organisation known as "high flight", and later led another expedition to Turkey, to search for Mount Ararat and the surrounding region for the remains of Noah's ark!

This may seem bizarre, but so the entire moon pilgrimage seem bizarre to any future age which has learned to live in a cyclical and sustainable and compatible way within the natural limits of the earth.

In such an earth community we would discard the linear ideas of "in the beginning" and "the end of the world". We would have learned the lesson of the limits to space exploration, to expansion in a finite world, and to the usefulness of rational and linear thinking.

We would mechanise logical thougth processes with the use of ever smaller and stronger computers and free ourselves to dream dreams and see visions. We could come to see an excess of sequential information as a form of pollution. We might recognise that the world is not large enough to contain all the information for full knowledge of itself in sequential form.

We may recognise that God's own knowledge of all that is in the world is not held in a remote and alienated sequential form - but in being.

We may reverse the colonisation of the natural mind by the conscious mind - that has been going on since that time which we know best through the myth of Adam and Eve in the garden: the fall into self-consciousness.

That was in paradise, before the spirit of man became divided and ambivalent. Before God became remote, single and exclusively masculine.

The pilgrimage to the moon exposed the limits of the mode of consciousness that it set out to glorify. It uncovered no new world except the one that it foolishly attempted to leave behind.

We also have a pilgrimage to make: Our pilgrimage now is the whole earth. Not to search for God in the heavens, but to rediscover God within ourselves, and ourselves as part of nature, at home again in our world.
Gillies Macbain, a writer, philosopher and organic farmer, lives with his family in Crannagh Castle, Templemore, County Tipperary.
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