“We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”
The last time Jupiter and Saturn, the two giants of the sky, appeared so close together was on July 16, 1623, when they were only about 5 arc minutes apart, but their proximity to the sun made the event probably unobservable to the naked eye. This year the two planets will align again on December 21, as the very likely Bible star of Bethlehem.
One has to go back to March 4, 1226 to have been able to actually witness such a close “great conjunction.” As Europe emerged from the dark ages to slowly march towards the Renaissance so many centuries ago, this conjunction heralds a unique moment in time.
Will the generation today be allowed to witness the next close “great conjunction” on March 15, 2080? The younger generation is now fighting for climate justice because their future, the planet’s life depends on it. Thirty three Portuguese children have just filed a climate change case with the European Courts of Human Rights. The UK, Switzerland, Norway, Russia, Turkey and Ukraine are among the countries being sued. The children know what is at stake. If they make it to 2080, it will be because a different tenor has been struck in the last few years, especially this year when the pandemic must change our collective behavior towards this unique planet.
Tipping points from all ecosystems around the world have sounded the alarm. When the Amazon has seen fires as horrific as those of 2019 with 8,373 fires and Australia and California and Siberia, all ablaze. Amidst all this mayhem the Chinese have planted their flag on the moon. The irony could not be greater. Cyborg intelligence seems to be around the corner, ready one day to command every aspect of our lives. And actual flying cars will soon make their appearance, confounding our view of the skies forever. As Mr. Musk’s satellites have already done obfuscating our view of the heavens.
In 1220, just a few years before the last visible close great conjunction, our Lady of Chartres, in France, had just been completed. The final Crusades happened from 1221 and 1291. The clash between Christian and Muslim civilization may not be equal in violence today to what it was centuries ago but spiritual and political tensions still exist and permeate our lives everyday from the teacher who was beheaded in Paris, to immense conflicts in the Middle East and beyond. Western intrusions in other lands continue and in many ways the crusades have only become more pronounced.
When the two giants of the solar system were visibly conjunct, the Mongols would have their sights set on conquering Europe. A year later in 1227 Genghis Khan died. The construction of Chartres Cathedral was finished in 1220 and Roger Bacon, the English father of empiricism and science was also born around 1220. He presciently foresaw a time when flying machines and motorized vehicles would take over the world. “Cars can be made so that without animals they will move with unbelievable rapidity,” and “flying machines can be constructed so that a man sits in the midst of the machine revolving some engines by which artificial wings are made to beat the air like a flying bird.”
He also predicted steamships, diving bells and even telescopes.
As we look up at the sky at the end of this year, with the scourges and realities of a vast pandemic, it is time to sight our sights further, beyond the visible horizon and aim for what Vaclav Havel called the “absolute horizon.” The wider moral horizon, one not dictated by the technological sphere but what joins humanity internally in the heart of our common emotional bond with a simple miracle called life.
Jacques Ellul, the author of the masterpiece “The Technological Civilization” in 1964, admits that “Man has always known wide horizons” but “today man knows only the bounded horizons and reduced dimensions. The space not only of his movements but of his gaze is shrinking.” The paradox underpins our time. We live more in abstract time instead of living time. We have dissociated from the essence of life and replaced organic time with mechanical time. And while superstitions and idols abounded in the Middle Ages nothing compares to the magic we have invested in the machine laden world.
As Ellul underscores, “Technique worships nothing, respects nothing.” We bulldoze mountains for coal, we set up satellites in space and continue to pillage the forests of Earth and its oceans. As opposed to the perfect order of the spheres beyond, driving much of religion during the Middle Ages, ours is a time that acknowledges the seeming chaos of the universe. And yet beneath it all there is an implicate order. Ellul knew that we had lost something grand with our science- and technique-filled world “Nothing belongs any longer to the realm of the gods or the supernatural.” We have shorn mystery from our lives. Perhaps some of the mystery that inhabited the Middle Ages will come back, perhaps a need to go outwards towards the cosmos will eventually force us to save what is still teeming with life right under our eyes.
To have a celestial event unique in our time should be a beacon to honor a different clock than the mechanics of superannuated time we have constructed for ourselves. We have overburdened the planet, exhausted our resources and devise more tools and “gadget gods” as WH Auden said, to carry out our day. “But this delusion cannot last much longer.” Of that Ellul was certain. A full half decade before Earth Day in 1970, he recognized that “everything that is not technique is being eliminated. There is no place for an individual today unless he is a technician.” As we reinvent life, survival is being thrust in our direction. As we look up we have to come back down to earth and be reminded of what is just ahead us on the trail where living wonders still lie.
Perhaps that is why the artifice of the monoliths arrived in the midst of the fantastic canyons of Utah not coincidentally days before the coming conjunction. We have become so very technocratic that the eccentric, the unexpected is rare. We are so very captivated by the internet’s internal language that we have forgotten how to look further afield and find meaning in realties that go beyond our common understanding.
Saturn and Jupiter will soon do a tango together, obliging us to look beyond, for beyond is a mystery, a space we have calculated in some measure but which we can barely divine because essentially it belongs to the realm of the mystics. There is an unfathomable metaphysics that orders us about that science has barely tapped and a numinous miracle about those beings born of biology, called species, that civilization has critically abused in recent times. Most life on earth could be lost this century unless we find room for something other than mere technical progress. The vaccine may correct our time worn disease until millions of minks in Denmark wreak their vengeance and giant viruses unleashed from melting tundra in the coming years spread a far greater mortality rate. A revenge for which we will be completely unprepared. We have been so convinced of our superiority as a species, we have become deaf to the larger reality of life.
While modern mass society is being prepared to receive a vaccine, two gigantic heavenly bodies have decided to pass by in the night of our despair and dance. They are grander heavenly planets than ours, but ours is unique. We are being forced to swallow the bitter pill of our immense frailty, in this entirely self created, artificially induced time. But beyond the gravity of our situation, there above our heads will fly by the lords of a grand magical time table of which we still know very little. There above us in the sky ecstatics of space and maybe even otherworldly life, will conjoin above us.
For a brief moment, the lucre of marketplace, and our daily lives, will hold no sway. The near reverence we have assigned to nanoprocessors and the confabulations of the digital arsenal will be silenced. For a brief moment wonder of our gazes will be directed at the music of the spheres as it was long ago, back in 1226. For perhaps too long we have forgotten the interior life in favor of speed, quantity and size and especially the seduction of the machine fabricated world we indulge in. We think ourselves superior to many cultures that have outlived ours. As long as we continue to think our progress will come from the outside and that all our improvements are outward bound, the self will continue to languish. In many ways our lives are emptier than those of our ancestors and tribes we think are so primitive today actually harbor a viable cosmology with a wisdom and story many of us are longing for.
With all our innovations, we have lost the greater story. Our superstitions are greater because for many years we thought we could outsmart nature. In a sweeping, revelatory way that notion has been discounted under the plague of an immense ignorance that has brought us to where we are today. It has shown us our immense weakness and from it, we will see if this country can shed its old skin and become an inclusive country of possibility or a crippled giant that has outworn its usefulness.
In a few days, we will be given the chance to gaze anew at the solar system and maybe our world. We have become superstitious, about this savior called the machine. Much as St. Thomas Aquinas, the Italian Dominican friar, born in 1225, could ask himself, how many angels could dance on the head of a needle. We are flummoxed with the possibilities of artificial intelligence and still know hardly anything about the bottom of the oceans. When we will look in astonishment and see the planets, for what they are, two of the true grand wandering, ungovernable supervening gods of our time, we should see the wonder for what it is and for the ideals we must aspire to because we have never needed it more than now.
December 2020 may be the month that the pandemic changes course, but if we do not learn humility, others are sure to follow. The planets are the grand agents, if not arbiters of an order we barely comprehend, one we will never fully understand, because it is beyond our capacity. But in all humility, our civilization needs to take heed of what we have done to the soil, to life, to the globe. Our moment of reckoning is here. The planets are insuperable reminders that there is an order beyond the storm and artifice of the human strain. Man’s place on earth has been one of utter devastation on other forms of life. As the prophet once said, the creation of heaven and earth is a greater achievement than the creation of man.
As one looks up to Jupiter and Saturn on Dec 21, a few days before Christmas, one month before a new administration takes office, America and humanity needs to find balance, vision, justice and the healing that needs to carry this tiny, humble but miraculous planet forward into the future as it turns in its ineffable journey around the sun.