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Feuerbach on the Moon

We have just passed the 25th anniversary of the first landing on the moon. Statements like this don't go over big in some religious circles, but I will venture to christen this landing the greatest event in the history of the human race. Yes, I know it sounds extravagant, but think about it. That's what I want to do for a few moments. Will you join me?

The moon has always played the role in human myth and folklore of a god or goddess, and/or of the very gate of heaven. For instance, in the Rig Veda we read hymns addressed to Soma. Soma is the deity both of the moon and of the sacramental plant that provided visionary journeys to the moon, conceived as the heavenly Valhalla where the ancestors feasted with the gods. Listen to the ecstasies of the visionary Brahmins as they sang to Soma: "Where the inextinguishable light shines, the world where the sun was placed, in that immortal, unfading world, O Purifier, place me! Where they move as they will, in the triple dome, in the third heaven of heaven, where the worlds are made of light, there make me immortal!" And now human beings have scaled that height, not in a visionary trance, but in the flesh! Paul once recounted his own journey to the third heaven, confessing that "whether it was in the body or out of the body, I know not" (2 Corinthians 12:3). Of course, he ascended in a vision, but Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin did it in the body!

Consider for a moment another ancient bit of mythic scripture, this one from the Book of Genesis. "Now the whole earth had one language and few words. And as men migrated from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, 'Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.' And they had brick for stone and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, 'Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.' And Jehovah came down to see the city and the tower, which the sons of men had built. And Jehovah said, 'Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do; and nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another's speech.' So Jehovah scattered them abroad upon the face of the whole earth, and they left off building the city" (Genesis 11:1-8).

Here is a perfect cameo of what Feuerbach thought biblical religion was all about: the stifling of the glorious potential of the human race. There is nothing they will not be able to do once they put their minds to it. Now one might imagine this to be the proud declaration of a god who took considerable satisfaction in how well his creatures had turned out. But that is not the point of the Tower of Babel myth at all. Just the contrary: the myth depicts a peevish god who is made insecure by the spectacle of human potential. He might have a dangerous rival on his hands here, so he contrives to nip human potential in the bud! Cripple it at the start! Then he can breath easily! He and his fellow deities with whom he conspires on this scheme ("let us").

Let us ask Bultmann's question about this myth, as about all myths. What understanding of human existence is implied here? The answer is clear: we hear the voice of a religious narrator who regards human knowledge and power as a threat to the worship of the gods and thus seeks to limit that power by keeping the mass of the people in the dark. It is the work of the priestly elite. The same agenda can be detected in the Eden story: who else could possibly imagine it ungodly or impious to seek knowledge for oneself? Here we are dealing with what the 18th century rationalists and Natural Religionists called "priestcraft." It is the work of the Grand Inquisitor.

And this is just what Ludwig Feuerbach saw going on in theistic religion: the usurping of the glorious potential of humanity in the name of an imaginary boogy-god. We must bow and scrape and toady before a god whom we imagine to possess all the perfections which are inherent really in the human breast. The Fall of humanity is not an estrangement from a god outside of us, as in traditional Christianity, but rather an estrangement, an apostasy, from a god inside of us: our own glorious nature. Feuerbach bemoaned and denounced the sickening cowardess of pious self-hatred that says "He must increase and I must decrease" (John 3:30). To make our idol appear all the greater, we must believe ourselves to be lesser. Why are we sinners, if we are? It is a self-fulfilling prophecy. We sin because we are catechized into the belief that we can do nothing else. The truth that the soul knows is "Now nothing that they propose to do will be impossible for them." But what the soul learns is the wing-clipping doctrine, "Without me ye can do nothing."

The Babel tale recognizes the illimitable ability of the human race and thinks it a good thing to confute and squelch it. But 25 years ago human beings threw off this burden, these blinders, and resumed their original intent to storm the heavens. They planted their flag in the soil of that place where the worlds are made of light. The Tower of Babel was extended all the way up into the heavens by flying the rest of the distance.

Of course, there is a contradiction in what I have just written: how can there be soil in a place made of light? As Lovecraft wrote of a mythical heavenly realm, "human foot has never soiled these streets." The tread of human footprints on the moon, then, demonstrated that there was no heaven there, no immortal gods and patriarchs. Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin observed the same thing when he went up into the starry void for the first time and saw no Jehovah there. Durkheim spoke of the disenchantment of the world in the wake of the Protestant Reformation, the secularization then unleashed that wiped the heavens, and the churches, clean of any saints and angels, issuing in the secularism of our own day. The moon, too, and all of space, has been secularized by the entrance of human beings. It once was Eliade's Sacred Space, but now it has passed into Profane Space because we were able to make our way there, despite the best attempts of jealous priestcraft to hinder human progress. Just as in Fellini's Roma, as soon as we enter the ethereal with our worldly tread, the illusion of the ethereal and the eternal pops, and the once-brilliant colors fade to the duller hues of the mundane.

But if the moon and the stars are now mere real estate, where has the divinity gone? Into the very human race who scaled such heights! It is as if the Roman general Titus absorbed the holiness of the Jerusalem temple when he entered it and, entering it, profaned it. As Nietzsche's Mad Prophet heralding the death of God proclaimed, "We must become gods ourselves to be worthy of the deed!" For the same cultural revolution he described as the death of God Nietzsche also used the image of the earth having become unchained from the sun, no longer bound by its orbital tether. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were following in the path Nietzsche marked out: by setting profane human feet on the soil of the mythic moon, they cut the earth loose from the sun, though at the time NASA made no note of it. Religious fundamentalists knew what was at stake, though. On the very eve of the Apollo 13 launch the news featured various of them predicting that God would yet strike the Babel-rocket from the skies because men had no business poaching in God's heavens. They were right, but they were wrong. Right about what it meant to succeed, wrong that it wouldn't succeed.

But the lesson of this, the new myth that is fact, the moon landing, is not to look backward at what we did, but certainly to look ahead at what we may yet do. Rejoice at the divine glory locked in the human frame, the human spirit, throw off the nay-saying priestcraft and resolve henceforth to set no limit to our noble goals: "Now nothing that they undertake to do will be impossible for them."

Robert M. Price


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