By Fr Billy Swan
I have always been fascinated by the moon landings and the Apollo missions. Last year, on the fiftieth anniversary of the first lunar landing, I bought a box set of archival footage from that historic time. Included in the coverage was an interview with Edwin ‘Buzz’ Aldrin in 1979 on the tenth anniversary of the moon landing. In the interview, Buzz talked about his struggles with alcoholism and depression since he shot to fame as the second man to walk on the moon on July 20th 1969.
As he spoke about his recovery, he spoke about the ‘changes in outlook of a spiritual nature’ that helped him to become a different person and beat his addiction. When asked to elaborate, Buzz Aldrin shared how his views towards his higher power have matured over the years. He continued:
‘Just as there are physical laws that govern material objects, I believe there are spiritual laws that govern the behaviour and the relationships between human beings. We can be in tune with these laws and harmonious with these laws and accepting of them or we can be in opposition to them. And if we are opposition to them then generally, we are not very happy’.
What struck me from these words was the authority behind them. Here was a man whose life as an astronaut depended on knowledge of the laws of the physical world. Yet here was the same man raising spiritual physics to the same level of importance as material physics. Like every astronaut or pilot before and after, he knew how important it is to respect and obey the laws of physics. For if you try to navigate without respect to the physical laws that govern the material world, then disaster and death will be the outcome.
Let’s consider Buzz Aldrin’s theory about spiritual physics in the light of Scripture. In the garden of Eden, when God forbade Adam and Eve to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil and the tree of life, this was not a rule imposed arbitrarily by an external authority. For when Adam and Eve sinned, the effects of their disobedience were first felt within themselves, ever before they were called to account by God. We are told they felt shame, fear and sought to hide. As their inner harmony was broken by their sin, so was the communion among themselves as they began to blame each other. So too was the harmony destroyed between them and the natural world that we see with their expulsion from the garden (cf. Gen. 3:1ff).
Therefore, at the very beginning of the Bible, we see the consequences of ignoring spiritual physics – a loss of internal peace, fear, alienation of humans one from another and a fractured relationship with the natural world. Buzz Aldrin’s words appear to confirm the teaching of Scripture that when we act contrary to our spiritual nature then we become tragically divided within ourselves, become estranged from others, from the natural world and ultimately from God.
For decades, the modern scientific project that presented itself as being at the service of human liberation was designed to overcome and control nature – to use it for our own ends. A famous proponent of this process was Francis Bacon (1561-1626) who argued that ‘knowledge is power’ and who rejected classical arguments of the existence of a natural world order that ought to be respected.
For Bacon and his disciples, we are at war with nature and nature must subject itself to the assertion of our power. Slowly but clearly, we are beginning to see that in this long war against nature, nature is beginning to fight back. In the short term we thought we had won the battle against the processes of nature to advance human progress. But while the battles might have been won, the outcome of the war is far less certain.
Take for example the issue of climate change caused by scientific advancements hailed as human progress about 200 years ago but that are now threatening to destroy us and our natural habitats that we depend on for survival. We are coming to realize that attempts to dominate physical laws without respect for wider moral and spiritual considerations, are coming back to bite us. Other examples here include nuclear technologies, genetic and gender manipulation that take place without respect for the integrity and totality of every human life and the future of life on earth. In the words of Pope Benedict XVI: ‘humanity has a nature that we must respect and cannot manipulate at will’ (Address at the Reichstag Building, Berlin, 22nd September 2011).
The same is true in the area of morality. Popular philosophy today asserts: ‘I want to be free and if my nature provides obstacles to me achieving this then I will use my freedom and power to remove those obstacles’.
The problem with this understanding of freedom is that it fails to acknowledge that in our nature there is a certain make-up, order and harmony that must be respected if we are to remain intact and be at peace. In the logic of spiritual physics found in the Bible, there are choices that enhance our nature and lead to inner harmony and peace with others and there are some choices that diminish our nature, fragment us from within and alienate us from others. In other words, the choices we make in the name of liberty must respect the laws of spiritual physics. Otherwise they will become the cages of our captivity.
This is the lesson Buzz Aldrin learned when he talked about being in tune with these laws or in opposition to them. If we are in tune with them, we are happy and if we are in opposition to them, we are not. As someone who knew all about physical laws and came to know the existence of spiritual laws that govern human relationships, Aldrin’s testimony urges us to take the concept of spiritual physics seriously.
Consider therefore the commandments and the beatitudes as the laws of spiritual physics. These laws are not just cold prescriptions and prohibitions given by God to frustrate our search for happiness but are given out of love to guarantee our happiness. Obedience to them leads to inner harmony and rightly ordered relationships with others and with God. A few examples to illustrate. When we find our center of gravity in Christ, everything else rotates in harmony around it; the more humble we become, the more God will exalt us; if we try to be first, we end up last; the more we give ourselves away in love, the more we receive; the more we participate in God’s own life, the more our humanity becomes alive. These are some of the laws of spiritual physics that are found in the Bible and were obeyed by the countless martyrs and saints of the Church.
Sooner or later, we all learn, like Buzz Aldrin did, that ignoring spiritual physics is just as dangerous as ignoring material physics. Just as it is impossible to escape the physical laws of the cosmos we inhabit, so it is impossible to act contrary to or ignore the spiritual laws that come with our human nature. The French philosopher Simon Weil once said that ‘all natural movements of the soul are controlled by laws analogous to those of physical gravity’ (Gravity and Grace). For us who believe in a Creator God, this is true because God is the source and sustainer of all that exists with both the physical and spiritual laws that govern all creation.
Buzz Aldrin and the crew of Apollo 11 went to the moon by harnessing and respecting the laws of physics. We can also touch the heavens and become more than we can imagine by harnessing and respecting the laws of spiritual physics that God has written into our nature to ensure our joy.