When human beings are faced with certain transcendent experiences, we seem to instinctually jump to a language that is spiritual or supernatural to explain it. We reach a point that surpasses our limits of experience and instinctively reach to define the void beyond. Some will call it God, assigning intellect and purpose where there is none. For me that point beyond ourselves, that brink of space between what we know and the potential of what lays outside has no name, no purpose, no reason. All I’m left with are feelings that I lack words to adequately describe. Small words like ‘awe’ or ‘hope’ are merely the click of a pebble bouncing down the sides of well it can’t possibly fill. I have a euphoric feeling of standing at the edge of the abyss about to take flight. I get these feelings when contemplating the potential future of space exploration, such as the documentary series Mars Rising. For the religious, these are the feelings they get when contemplating the nature of god and his purpose for creation. To-may-to -– to-mah-to. What does it matter how we classify this experience?
In the case of The Sparrow, the difference in classification could be compared almost to erotomania. The characters, faced with the transcendent, songs from another world, are swept into believing their experiences were God’s will. Driven by Father Emilio Sandoz, they rapidly go from finding an alien transmission from Alpha Centauri to being part of a Jesuit missionary team traveling and making contact with them. Father Emilio:
went sleepless, unable to decide which was harder to live with: the idea that he had started all this, or the possibility that God had. The only way he could reassure himself during these midnight debates was to believe that wiser heads than his were making the decisions. If he could not put his faith directly in God, who remained unknowable, he could place it in the structure of the Society and in his superiors.He starts the endeavor, driving it forward, and then counts on the will of God or the Jesuits when it spirals out of his hands. Even the supposedly agnostic members of the group fall prey to his contagious belief.
In the beginning their mission seems divinely driven. Impossible obstacles are easily overcome. As one character comments,
Kinda Spooky, ain’t it. Hell of a lot of coincidences. Like we say back home, when you find a turtle settin’ on top of a fencepost, you can be pretty damn sure he didn’t get there on his own.Members of the group look to Father Emilio and see the beginnings of a literal saint. Yet reality and misunderstandings of this alien world take their toll as all but one of the naive missionaries are killed, their leaving only Father Emilio alive, damaged and gang raped and a massacre of alien tribes corrupted by concepts brought with the missionaries. Deluded into thinking that they were part of a divine plan, they falsely operated under the assumption that each step they made was blessed and guided. Instead of smallpox, the Sparrow missionaries brought vegetable gardens. As with previous missions on Earth, indigenous beings are often destroyed by unintended and unimagined consequences.
After returning to Earth, Father Emilio explains to Jesuit Inquiry,
The problem with atheism, I find, under these circumstances is that I have no one to despise by myself. If, however, I choose to believe that God is vicious, then at least I have the solace of hating God.The author, Russell, uses the Bible verse Mathew 10:29,
Not one sparrow can fall to the ground without your Father knowing itas inspiration for the book’s title. The entire story could be summed up from her perspective, as another character responds in the book,
But the sparrow still falls.
From my perspective, thinking of a future mission to Mars, I’m glad we are being guided by science and reason rather than religion. There will still most certainly be unintended and unimagined consequences, possibly even horrible catastrophic ones, but at least we will be going in with eyes wide open and in search of the truth. The sparrows that go to Mars may still fall, but at least they’ll be educated, trained, and prepared sparrows.