(c) Doug Slagle, Minister to the Gathering at Northern Hills, All Rights Reserved
Hear a partial recording of the message by clicking here (early parts of the message are not included.)
As we just saw in the video, exactly fifty years and one day ago, three men entered orbit around the moon 62 miles above it. Two of them then entered a fragile landing craft to descend to its surface. What the video does not show is that the descent to the lunar surface nearly ended in calamity.
When that landing craft was just over a mile above the moon, its guidance computer, one that was hundreds of times less powerful than a modern smartphone, sounded an alarm. It could no longer handle the mass of data it was being asked to process. The captain, Neil Armstrong, manually took control of the craft and continued its descent without computer guidance.
As he did so, communication with earth went out. So too did the landing radar which reported height above the surface. After a seemingly agonizing time, communication and radar was reestablished – but those instruments continued to lose and regain earth contact.
There were more tense moments. At one hundred feet above the moon, the craft was down to less than 60 seconds of fuel. Some controllers on earth thought the landing should be immediately aborted. If the fuel level reached zero, there was no reserve. The craft would violently crash into the surface.
At that moment shortly before landing, Armstrong realized the craft was heading toward a spot on the slope of a crater covered with truck sized boulders. He quickly peered through a small triangular window for a flat place to land. There was little fuel to spare but he calmly revved the engines to pilot the craft toward safety.
At ten feet above the surface, fuel was precariously low. And then dust kicked up, the landing probes appeared as shadows on the surface, and the lunar module gently settled to the ground. Creatures from earth – human beings – were on the surface of another world for the first time ever.
Modern humans are a relatively young species – about 200,000 years old. We can only imagine, however, what it would have been like 130,000 years ago when modern humans set foot on the island of Crete – the first island in the middle of an ocean to be visited by people.
Imagine what that journey to Crete must have been like – the first human journey across water hundreds of miles beyond sight of land. A few daring people, venturing onto a dangerous sea – with no idea where to aim for – sought other ground. Using technology available at the time, they likely lashed together logs on which to travel. They would have needed animal skins to hold water and food – since heat fired clay pots had yet to be invented. Stone tools to cut and kill would have been required. Amazingly, those ancient people journeyed onto seemingly limitless water – much like interstellar space – not knowing where or if other land existed and, if it did, whether they could survive there. But they went anyway.
Anthropologists say that human history is actually one of non-stop exploration. From the very first person who came across a cave and bravely went into it, to those who today plan for a 9 month one-way journey to Mars, the impulse to explore and discover is a human one.
Some experts say it is our minds that motivate us to explore. We do not like the unknown – and so we seek answers. Importantly, however, we don’t rely on made up answers to define the unknown. Humanity has invented myths to imagine how certain things happened, but those were usually not intended to be factual answers, but instead imaginations of what might have happened. Our species wants verifiable evidence of truth – something confirmed by sight, touch and experience. We don’t want to rely on imagination or faith for what is true. We want to personally experience it. To do that, humans therefore explore.
The ancient Greek philosopher Cicero said that human curiosity comes from an innate passion to learn. Our brains are hardwired to want knowledge. We use facts to better understand the universe around us.
While all creatures instinctively eat, reproduce and fight to live, only humans seek knowledge that has little to do with basic survival. Indeed, curiosity often puts humans in danger of survival – much as it did for early humans who ventured onto the high seas, or for the astronauts who journeyed two hundred and forty thousand miles from earth.
For me, the yearning to explore and thus understand is a spiritual one. When we sit on the shore of an ocean and look out across its expanse, we want to know what’s just over the horizon. The same is true when we stare at the night sky and ponder the nature of other suns and planets. Those yearnings to know what’s out there are not just our intellectual minds at work, but also our realization of things far greater than us. We see the vastness of oceans, or the infinite depths of space, and we’re often awestruck. We want to better understand such beautiful complexity.
If we think about it, musing about life after death, and the existence of gods and goddesses are also forms of exploration. Spirituality is contemplation of things beyond factual knowledge. We seek what we don’t know, and so we philosophically explore religious ideas, ancient myths, and spiritual wisdom.
An article in the Harvard Business Review says that even though modern humans now explore many things unknown to us, our impulse to explore is the same as it was for the very earliest humans.
Stone age people, in other words, had the same discovery psychology we have today. What that means is that humans evolved as explorers. The impulse to discover is imprinted on our genes.
This instinctual desire, the Harvard Business Review says, is not something we can switch off. Critics have often said that humanity should focus on the well-being of its members, instead of on risky and expensive exploration. The Apollo program cost over 130 billion in today’s dollars. We can only imagine the schools, meals, and houses for the needy such money could have provided.
Besides being wasteful of precious resources, critics also say exploration has historically been very risky. Countless ships lost at sea, land explorers who starved to death, and astronauts killed in fiery rocket explosions are all evidence that exploration is dangerous and seems to make little sense. Why venture to unknown places when the risk of death is so high? If we consider exploration from a purely survival psychology, people throughout history should have mostly stayed put.
Had that impulse to play it safe predominated, however, humanity might still be huddled on the African continent and completely unaware of lands, creatures, and things removed from it. Humanity might have been safe, but it would be a very primitive safety.
Exploration, therefore, has historically returned rewards far greater than its cost. New materials, new knowledge, and new land areas were obtained that enabled humanity to improve itself – developing medicines and scientific knowledge that benefited life for all.
Beyond practical rewards, however, exploration offers something more profound. We explore and seek to understand to satisfy our curiosity and thus enlarge our souls. We explore to figuratively come face to face with what I believe is god – that being capital ’T’ Truth. For me, knowing what is verifiably true is far more useful than reading and memorizing ancient myths that creatively imagine reality. We seek Truth that because that is the highest and most spiritual reality in the universe.
The first ancient human to set foot on land across an ocean, the first person to understand and explain how life is conceived, or Neil Armstrong who placed the first footprint on another celestial body, these explorers opened up amazing realms of new awareness. If that is not getting a glimpse of what might be called the god of the universe, then I don’t know what is.
Walter Cronkite, during his live TV broadcast of the lunar landing, broke down in tears when Neil Armstrong said his famous words, “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.” Cronkite felt what millions of people around the world felt. We, you, me, all humanity – felt awestruck and in the presence of something much bigger than us.
The lunar landing has been called the greatest achievement of the 20th century. I suggest it is one of the greatest achievements of all time. While some Americans boast that it proved America’s superiority, that is nationalistic arrogance. As with all science, the culmination of putting a human on another celestial body rests on the shoulders of countless explorers throughout history. It exemplified the power of both the human mind and spirit.
For us as Unitarians, it was an expression of several of our principles. Humanity freely and responsibly sought truth and meaning, our 4th principle. By seeking new truth, humanity also showed its respect for the interdependence of all existence – the 7th UU principle. People are not a species unto themselves, nor is the earth the center of the universe. When we venture outward into the cosmos, we confront the humble reality that our planet is a speck of dust in the totality of space and we humans are even smaller.
Most significantly, the mission to the moon was an encouragement to spiritual growth, the 3rd UU principle. For us as Unitarians, in ways that are both good and bad, we value a search for knowledge that has a spiritual dimension to it. We commit to the third principle with high-minded purpose and goodness – something exemplified by the plaque, signed by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, that now rests on the moon. “Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the Moon, July 1969 A.D. We came in peace for all mankind.”
That last sentence implies the theme I offer today. Humanity may have sometimes explored distant lands to gain power and money. Or, they’ve done so to boast of military, economic and intellectual superiority. As with all good things, people are prone to cheapen their highest ambitions.
To the contrary, however, John F. Kennedy said that we seek to go to the moon not because it is easy, but because it is hard. The lure of finding new discoveries is a challenge similar to why we read, learn, and come to places likes this church. We want to expand ourselves. We have questions. We seek answers. And so we go. Along the way, we see all the better who we are – creatures who want to know truths about life, death, and all existence.
Fifty years ago, over half the world’s population – three billion people – gathered around TV’s to watch blurry images of Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepping foot on the moon. That was an amazing moment of human togetherness. Far more significant, it was a moment when the human species figuratively bowed at the altar of Truth in amazement and reverence. As we remember and honor the Apollo 11 exploration of the moon, may we commit to explorations of our own – ones delving into our souls, into nature, and outward to new frontiers.
I wish you much peace and joy.