“I can see the rover,” my dad joked.
I looked in the eyepiece again, trying to find the tiny piece of human machinery somewhere on the moon’s surface–one of the “moon buggies” used during the last Apollo missions. It was my first time using a telescope, which I’d gotten as a gift (I think for Christmas), and my family and I had chosen the easiest, most obvious target in the night sky to try it out. The moon’s features had come into focus in more detail than I’d imagined was possible. It took me a minute to realize my dad was joking. Even with a much more powerful telescope than what we had, we wouldn’t have been able to pick out one of the lunar rovers.
In retrospect, it strikes me as strange to look at a celestial body and expect, even for a fleeting moment, that one might find a man made object up there. But ever since the Apollo 11 mission, which touched down on the moon 49 years ago today, seeing evidence of humans on the moon has been possible in principle if not in practice. The moon is now a place humans have been before.
Because I grew up the 1980s, I never knew a world in which humans haven’t been to the moon. For my generation and those who are younger, the moon doesn’t feel quite as far away as it did to those who came before us. The moon isn’t exactly old news, but neither is it the next thing over the horizon of experience. It doesn’t matter that people haven’t been back since 1972. We have proven that the moon is within the realm of human reach. People will no longer wonder if it’s possible for a person to walk on the moon. Our pioneers have already been there.
That’s the beauty and excitement of space exploration. It shows us what humans are capable of.
That question, “What are we capable of?” is one where science, engineering, and adventure bump up against theology. The other day, I made a list of questions like that to guide my thinking and writing—big questions of life that both theology and space exploration help us address. The usual ones come to mind immediately: “Are we alone?” “Where did we come from?” “What is our purpose?”
But that question of human potential—what we’re capable of—is just as important. Space exploration shows us what human beings can do by pushing past our limits, discovering new ones, and figuring out ways to push past those. Can we survive without gravity? (Yes.) Can we survive the vacuum of space? (No.) What about with a space suit? (Yes.) Can we walk on the moon? (Yes.) Can we orbit another star? (TBD.)
Theology, too, helps us understand human potential. Through theology, we discover that humans are capable of virtues such as love, joy, and peace. Study of the Bible and the lives of the saints shows us the full potential for human flourishing, which we begin to experience as we open ourselves to God through Scripture, prayer, and the imitation of Jesus. Can we love others? (Yes.) Even our enemies? (Yes.) Can we feed the hungry and care for the sick? (Yes.) Can we rise from the dead? (Yes.)
Space exploration shows us our potential goes at least as far as the moon. The Christian faith shows us that our potential extends beyond the grave. Because we live in the year 2018, we inhabit a world where Someone has been resurrected. We have never lived in a world where resurrection is not a reality we can hope for and look forward to, if we dare to believe it. And even if the evidence of it is invisible to our telescopes, we know that it has happened, and we look toward the future with a different posture. It’s not old news by any means, but neither is it a totally unknown experience. Resurrection and eternal life are within the realm of human experience. Our Pioneer has been there, and he goes to prepare a place for us.
What are we capable of? We are capable of landing on the moon, which we did 49 years ago . We might be capable of orbiting Venus, living on Mars, or leaving the solar system. But let’s not forget that we are also capable of experiencing God’s grace, even on the moon. We are capable of sacrificial love. And if the promises of Scripture are to be believed, we are capable of living forever, shining like the stars themselves. It is my hope that as we continue to push the limits of human technology and exploration, we also carry forward our potential to live and love as Jesus lived and loved.
If we do, maybe the evidence of our potential will be visible to distant future observers, whether they look through telescopes or through the eyes of faith.