One of the things that Native American cultures have done for postmoderns is make a return to Catholic ways of seeing the integral nature of creation.
For five hundred years, that project of the postmodern West has been to divorce the spiritual from the material and desacramentalize creation with the notion that it is ‘just’ matter and energy. Since so much of this springs from a reaction to Catholic sacramentality, appeals to Catholic authority which have always denied this divorce and opposition did not fly with westerners. And, of course, while the American white Protestant project of Manifest Destiny was ordered toward the subjugation and annihilation of Native cultures and people, this integral view of creation was likewise ground into the dirt.
But as doubts have grown about this approach to creation, Native American views of the relationship of matter and spirit have attracted a new regard and with it, Catholic sacramentality has been seen in a new light. Here is an interesting piece on why Native Americans don’t separate religion from science. It’s a way of seeing the world that St. Thomas would largely agree with
Last year five Native American tribes in Washington state managed to repatriate the remains of the “Ancient One,” as they called him, or “Kennewick Man,” as scientists called him.
For the tribes, the Ancient One is to be revered as a human ancestor. But for the scientists, the rare specimen of a 9,000-year-old Kennewick Man was important to understanding the history of North America. After a 20-year court battle, the tribes finally reburied the Ancient One. However, this could be done only after scientists had created his multi-dimensional model for future study.
For a long time, the relationship between Native Americans and scientists has been a contentious one. It would appear from this case that what matters most to Native Americans are religious beliefs and not science.
While this might be the case with human remains, which are a sensitive issue with most tribes, scientific endeavors are very important to Native Americans.
That is why indigenous scientists and scholars including myself supported the March for Science on April 22.
Scientists began thinking and writing about how Native Americans understand the natural world in the 20th century. Instead of seeing a conflict between Western science and Native American knowledge, they started thinking about ways to learn how Native Americans addressed environmental and ecological issues differently.
Ecologist Fikret Berkes pointed out these distinctions in his seminal book “Sacred Ecology,” where he noted that both Western and indigenous science can be regarded as “the same general intellectual process of creating order out of disorder.”
He provided his own research as an example. He stated that the Native Americans he worked with knew far more than he did about aquatic ecological systems, even though he had academic training. He noted their knowledge was both scientific and viewed through a religious lens.
“One important point of difference is that many systems of indigenous knowledge include spiritual or religious dimensions (beliefs) that do not make sense to science…. This is ‘sacred ecology’ in the most expansive, rather than in the scientifically restrictive, sense of the word ‘ecology.’”
In addition, there is this interesting piece on how German theology and Russian mysticism shaped our view of space
First, a little historical background. The Russians kind of made a religion out of their desire to explore space. It’s called Cosmism, and it began at the turn of the 20th Century, predating the Bolshevik Revolution. The philosophy was developed by Nikolai Fyodorovich Fyodorov, who melded a type of futurism with devout Russian Orthodox Christianity. He believed that humans were still at an early phase of evolution, and that mortality was evidence of our lack of development. He theorized that through scientific advancement we could become immortal, and then resurrect all of our ancestors. Then we would dedicate our immortal lives to further scientific advancements, and space and ocean exploration. He was an influence on Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, who went on to become one of the founding fathers of rocket science. Tsiolkovsky worked out formulae for space travel and rocket propulsion, designed space elevators, and had the first aerodynamics lab in Russia—in his apartment. All of this work was in service of his particular flavor of “panpsychism,” the belief that there was an overarching consciousness to the universe, and that humans were essentially puppets acting out that Capital-C Consciousness’ will. Part of this will was that humans would spread across space. When the succeeding generation began developing the Russian space program, they revered Fyodorov and Tsiolkovsky, holding them up as grandfathers of space exploration. Right from the start, the roots of the Russian program were fed by a type of spirituality that was vastly different from the climate of America’s forays into space.
After the Revolution Cosmism was tied into the whole Soviet mythos, and the idea that Russian-flavored communism, being correct, would naturally spread out into the stars, where happy workers could live in harmony in colonies on the moon. This faith was extremely practical, as it was used to encourage schoolchildren to study math and science, to inspire rocketry clubs, and more generally to bolster the ideal that every person could be well-educated and intelligent despite their pre-Revolution class standing.
In 1961 the Russians shot pilot Yuri Gagarin into space in what was essentially a glorified tin can, and when he came back alive he obviously became a hero around the world. But in Russia, he essentially became a sort of space icon. I mean in the old school, Russian Orthodox sense of “ikon” and he still is—if you look at photos of the ISS, you’ll see images of Gagarin alongside those of Christ Pantocrator and various ikons of the Theotokos. Gagarin himself became the subject of a religious dispute, with the anti-religion Soviet state claiming that he said some variant of “I don’t see any God up here”—a phrase that doesn’t turn up in any of the recordings of the flight. That statement seems to have come from Nikita Khrushchev’s speech at 1961’s meeting of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, which was actively trying to break Russians away from the Orthodox Church. (Gagarin did, however, say, “Let’s go!” while he was being launched into space, because he was cool as shit.) Gagarin swiftly became an international superstar, a Russian hero, and the central saint of Cosmism.
Meanwhile, the American space program really got off the ground (…sorry, I’ll stop) because of Wernher von Braun. Von Braun had been a rocket scientist with Cosmist leanings in Germany, and worked with the Nazis, using the rocketry he had hoped would take humanity into space to bomb London. As the Third Reich began to fall apart, he and his brother knew they would have to defect, and chose to surrender to U.S. troops rather than Russian. Writing about this decision, Braun explicitly stated that he was guided by religious belief:
We knew that we had created a new means of warfare, and the question as to what nation, to what victorious nation we were willing to entrust this brainchild of ours was a moral decision more than anything else. We wanted to see the world spared another conflict such as Germany had just been through, and we felt that only by surrendering such a weapon to people who are guided by the Bible could such an assurance to the world be best secured.
But, it’s important to remember that he was writing years later, after he had lived on a series of Southern American military bases, had converted to a particularly American brand of evangelical Christianity, and eventually left that denomination for the upwardly mobile Episcopal Church. The way he tells his story, he makes the decision to work with the U.S. because he wants to help the God-fearing nation reach space first. This feeds into a general conversation around the space program, where a monotheistic America was pitted against the godless communism of Russia.
The nascent space program toed the same bland, vaguely Christian ideals that all aspects of American public life were expected to uphold. The U.S. had just spent the 1950s adding “In God we Trust” to our money and “Under God” to our Pledge of Allegiance, while the Civil Rights Movement was making headway by using the rhetoric of Black Christianity. The U.S. had never undergone the mass secularizing effect of a Communist revolution or a Nazi regime, so “science” and “faith” largely remained separate spheres, and there wasn’t a sense that space exploration could itself inspire religious feeling—and there certainly wasn’t an opportunity for any sort of sci-fi religion to crop up as Cosmism has in Europe and Russia.
The Apollo 8 mission even included a Christmas Eve reading from Genesis that was broadcast as Bill Anders, Jim Lovell, and Frank Borman orbited the Moon for the first time. This led to some interesting fallout: the founder of American Atheists, Madalyn Murray O’Hair, brought a lawsuit over the broadcast, saying that since the astronauts were government employees, their public promotion of a religious text on national television went against the separation of Church and State. The court dismissed the case, citing a lack of jurisdiction… because it happened in space.
It also impacted a later mission. Being a devout Presbyterian, Buzz Aldrin wanted to add a sacred element to his time on the moon. He decided to celebrate Communion (Comm-moon-ion? Sorry. I’m so, so sorry.) and initially wanted to broadcast it back to Earth, but after the controversy of the Genesis reading NASA discouraged it, with Deke Slayton asking him to keep things “general.” So rather than broadcast exactly what he was doing, he sent out a more neutral message:
I would like to request a few moments of silence… and to invite each person listening in, wherever and whomever they may be, to pause for a moment and contemplate the events of the past few hours, and to give thanks in his or her own way.
Later on he mused on even this, writing in Magnificent Desolation: The Long Journey Home from the Moon: “Perhaps, if I had it to do over again, I would not choose to celebrate communion. Although it was a deeply meaningful experience for me, it was a Christian sacrament, and we had come to the moon in the name of all mankind—be they Christians, Jews, Muslims, animists, agnostics, or atheists.”
After that, religion and space travel coexisted peacefully, with various Popes sending icons and prayer cards up occasionally.