JWR Outlook

Jewish World Review April 20, 2001 / 27 Nissan, 5761

The desperate search
for disorder

By Rabbi Yonason Goldson

RECENTLY, ALH84001 was back in the news.

ALH84001, a meteorite thought to be a fragment of the planet Mars, first made headlines across the country in August 1996, twelve years after its discovery. National Public Radio (NPR) ran the story as its lead every day for a solid week. Tension in the Balkans, scandal in the White House, raging bulls on Wall Street, and the presidential election all blurred to soft focus behind reports about a potato-size rock from outer space.

Why all the fuss? Because this particular meteorite possessed exceptional properties: carbonate globules, magnetite crystals, and tube-shaped microfossils. Who cares? Well, quite a few people cared, since carbonates and magneto fossils on earth form with the help of bacteria, and the tube shape of the fossils resembled tiny microorganisms found in rocks here on earth. In other words, this Martian meteorite provided compelling evidence of LIFE ON MARS!

Well, not exactly compelling. The globules appeared to have been formed at temperatures too high for bacterial life to exist. Magnetite is a common material that could have formed in any number of ways. And the "microfossils" could just as easily have been dried clay.

But the folks at NPR didn't let the skeptics dampen their spirit. They hurried from story to story and interview to interview like eleven-year-olds racing into Blockbuster video to rent Alien for a pajama party. And when the entire scientific community concluded that the strange markings on the meteorite were, after all, just strange markings, NPR was as silent as space. The story simply disappeared.

Until February, that is. It was then that NASA researchers announced new findings that some of the magnetite crystals could not have been formed through any inorganic process. Other experts described these conclusions as "hasty."

NPR has demonstrated more prudence in its reporting this time around, which is understandable considering their over-the-top exuberance four years ago. Indeed, had Captain Kirk beamed down into Times Square or E.T. escaped from federal agents in Roswell, New Mexico, NPR's excitability might be easily explained. But how did NPR producers justify devoting as much air time as they gave the Republican National Convention to a few ambiguous markings on a rock that fell out of the sky?

In truth, it's not hard to understand at all. The discoveries and accomplishments of Mankind have accorded him mastery over much of the physical universe; at the same time, they have fostered within him a supreme confidence in his own ability, even his own right, to redefine the universes of values and ethics. Nonetheless, for all Mankind's manipulation of science and revision of morality, one icon still remains beyond his grasp: the sanctity of life. After the most concerted of Mankind's efforts, he has failed either to discover life elsewhere in the cosmos or to replicate it in the laboratory. And so, alas, the greatest blow for evolution and big bang remains unstruck.

And so --the reasoning goes -- even the most tenuous possibility that otherworldly life exists in even the most elemental form offers irrefutable proof, once and for all, that the universe was not created by G-d but that G-d was created by man, a product of man's need to impose the illusion of order upon his world.

And so, with religious zeal, NPR grabs holds of every opportunity to deride conventional monotheistic ideology. Eminently respectful toward Zoroastrianism, Native American paganism and, of course, atheism, NPR commentators make little effort to disguise their contempt for mainstream Christianity and Orthodox Judaism.

Predictably, one commentator couldn't resist pushing her point. "Does this discovery challenge the core beliefs of traditional religion?" she asked a theologist.

"Well, no, not really," he answered. "There's nothing in traditional religion that precludes the existence of life elsewhere in the universe."

Although clearly not the answer she had hoped for, the commentator persisted. "But surely if human beings were central to G-d's plan, He wouldn't have bothered creating life in other places."

"Not necessarily," replied the theologist, stubbornly refusing to cooperate. "The same G-d who created the stars and the galaxies for His own reasons might just as easily have created inhabitants to occupy them."

Had the NPR commentator done her homework, she would have learned that classical Torah sources addressed the issue of extraterrestrial life centuries ago. The Talmud itself makes reference to thousands of worlds that exist outside our own: "Every righteous person stands to inherit three hundred and ten worlds," teaches the Mishna. And although many commentators understand this to mean spiritual worlds, the medieval authority Rabbi Chisdai Kreskas explains that just as there are heavenly worlds inhabited by ethereal beings, there might just as well be other physical worlds inhabited by extraterrestrial beings.

Why would G-d bother to create extraterrestrials? Perhaps for the same purpose as the supernal beings that reside in the higher spheres: for just as supernal beings provide us with a model of unswerving service to G-d, otherworldly civilizations -- if they exist -- might provide us with examples of social commitment and devotion to the community. Even rudimentary life on other worlds could communicate the idea that man is only the center of the universe when he strives to attain G-dliness in his character and his actions.

Of greater interest than either little green men or microscopic space germs is the desperation of those who exploit every new revelation of science to support their most passionate belief that G-d is dead. In his conviction that science will answer all the mysteries of creation, the committed atheist is often more devout and less rational than the reasoning creationist. So while evolutionists continue jumping through hoops to explain the absence of fossil evidence to support their theories, while physicists continue pondering what primal force set the big bang in motion, the atheist grasps for any particle of evidence to help prove that the unfathomable and meticulous ordering of the cosmos was nothing more than a cosmic accident.

Is G-d really so frightening that otherwise reasonable people will dogmatically reject His existence? Evidently so, since Charles Darwin himself confessed that he was driven to develop evolutionary theory was his inability to believe in a Creator.

"I cannot persuade myself," Darwin wrote, "that a beneficent and omnipotent G-d would have designedly created the [parasites that feed] within the living bodies of Caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice."

But why not? On the one hand, Darwin was hardly a committed atheist, having affirmed more than once his conviction that "I cannot look at the universe as the result of blind chance."

But on the other hand, he insisted that "I can see no evidence of beneficent design, or indeed of design of any kind, in the details."

Did Beethoven put too many notes in his symphonies? Did Rembrandt put too many colors in his paintings, Shakespeare too many words in his sonnets, or Frank Lloyd Wright too many lines in his blueprints? The sophisticated layman might not fully appreciate the creation of genius, but he doesn't deny the existence of genius simply because he doesn't understand. To give lip service to the existence of G-d while simultaneously denying His ability to create an infinitely complex universe is breathtakingly arrogant.

Yet Darwin was not the first to do so. "Where were you when I laid the foundations of the world?" the Almighty asks of Job, who also questioned whether G-d was really in control of all the workings of creation. Yet G-d did not answer him directly, but instead showed him the the infinite complexity of His universe and made him see how the human mind cannot begin to fathom the vastness of G-d's work.

"Will you declare Me wrong in order to make yourself right?" the Almighty demands. And Job, who challenged G-d's justice because he couldn't imagine the reasoning behind his own suffering, conceded with his silence, humbled by the undeniable logic of G-d's rebuke. Indeed, if Job could accept the design responsible for his own suffering, certainly the rest of us should be able to find room in G-d's for the existence of parasites in caterpillars and bacteria upon on Mars.

But without the Almighty to confront him, Darwin made no such concession over a century ago, just as so many refuse concession today. Instead, they embrace the coexistence of G-d's presence and absence, of order and disorder, of randomness and design: they embrace them because G-d's existence explains away the mysteries of creation, while G-d's indifference allows the total abdication of responsibility.

If G-d is not involved, hasn't revealed Himself, and doesn't care, then there is no guide or standard for human behavior. Especially today, given contemporary society's worship of individualism and denigration of moral certitude as "judgementalism," one has to wonder whether it is faith the atheist rejects, or whether it is the responsibilities of the faithful.

On the other hand, if G-d does remain involved with our universe and our lives, must we not try to understand the purpose for which He created us? Must we not endeavor to follow as best we can the path He has laid out before us, even if this path may not always lead us where we think we want to go, and even if it may not bring us the immediate gratification we desire?

Faith in random chance and devotion to personal autonomy demand considerably less from us than faith in the Almighty. But wishing G-d away won't make Him disappear. Fredrich Nietzsche may have declared that "G-d is dead," but a century later Nietzsche is long gone and G-d remains very much alive. He lives in the hearts of all people whose recognition of a Higher Authority imbues them with a nobility of character to reach out to the poor and defend the weak. He lives in the hearts of all people who master their impulses and control their desires. And He lives in the hearts of all people who strive to direct their aspirations toward the perfection of their souls.

Long before Nietzsche, G-d survived Copernican astronomy, the Renaissance, and the Age of Enlightenment; and long before Martian bacteria G-d survived quantum theory and communism, pop-religion and the sexual revolution, in vitro fertilization and cloning. Neither a few microbes from outer space nor an entire galactic civilization will drive any nails into G-d's coffin. Yet the faithful atheist holds out hope, trusting that science will eventually succeed in hypothesizing G-d out of existence or, at the very least, out of our lives.

There is a better way. Better to diligently seek truth wherever it may lie, whatever form it may take, and however much it may challenge our minds and our hearts. And better to consider the words of Sir Francis Bacon: "A little philosophy inclineth man's mind to atheism, but depth in philosophy bringeth men's minds about to religion."

JWR contributor Rabbi Yonason Goldson teaches at Block Yeshiva High School and Aish HaTorah in St. Louis, and writes a regular column for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Send your comments by clicking here.


© 2001, Rabbi Yonason Goldson