Interstellar Love

In the 2014 film Interstellar, the bond of love between a father and daughter separated in space and time is powerful enough to bring them back together and in doing so, to save the world. The only thing that can traverse interstellar space and connect the fallen, dying Earth and the new life-sustaining planet discovered in a galaxy far, far away, is love.

With hindsight, it almost seems as though the aged Professor John Brand (Michael Cain) chose the hero Joseph Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) for the mission not because of his piloting skills but because his love for his daughter Murphy (Mackenzie Foy and Ellen Burstyn as the young and older “Murph”) provided the personal motivation to succeed. But beyond this, there is a more esoteric idea about the special line of communication between two people who are intimately connected through love.

This special connection is borne out by telephone telepathy. How is it that so many people report knowing who is on the other end of the line when the phone rings, or even thinking about the person calling just before it rings? Rupert Sheldrake has carried out carefully designed experiments to test this strange phenomenon scientifically. One important finding is that the incidence of so-called telephone telepathy is far higher between people who are intimately connected, that is, between romantic partners and family members.

Is Interstellar a Christian allegory? There are certainly some interesting parallels, especially the central theme of a special unbroken bond and line of communication between a parent and child across a cosmic chasm connecting two different realms. In the film, this situation was caused by an environmental crisis. In the Bible, it was prompted by a spiritual crisis.

The last books of the Jewish Bible, the books of the prophets, are an extended lamentation at the inability of the Jewish people to remain faithful to the covenant established between them and their God JHWH. Why were they so faithless, lukewarm, rebellious and sinful? Why did they keep falling away from their calling to be the people of God? The despairing frustration of the prophets comes through loud and clear.

How does the New Testament attempt to solve the problem of this apparent disconnect between God and His people? By creating a bond of familial love. Jesus refers to God as his father and to himself as the son. Just as in Interstellar, parent and child are separated across an impossibly large physical and metaphysical gulf. In both stories, the separation is not a total break, however. It is something like quantum entanglement, where two particles remain connected even when they end up at opposite ends of the universe.

In Christianity, the Father and the Son are connected by a bond of love (in Trinitarian terms, this love is the Holy Spirit). When the Son returns to the Father after his death and resurrection, this is spatially imagined as a return to heaven, the spiritual abode of God. Son and Father are reunited, not unlike the return of the Prodigal Son in the Jesus’ parable (Luke 15: 11-31), and the Son takes his seat at the right hand of the Father.

The followers of Jesus had developed a bond of love with him on earth. He was their spiritual master, but also a brother and a friend. Love was the condition of discipleship: “You cannot be my disciple, unless you love me more than you love your father and mother, your wife and children, and your brothers and sisters. You cannot come with me unless you love me more than you love your own life”. (Luke 14:26 CEV)

Saint Paul is emphatic about this unbreakable bond of love:

“For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Romans 8: 38-39

Now that Christ was ascended to heaven, the original bond of love between God and the world through the Son remained intact, except that now it was established between Christ and his followers across the chasm of heaven and earth, through this more intimately personal and deeply human relationship with him.

The Christian solution to the problem of human indifference to the non-human (albeit anthropomorphised) transcendent God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob was to humanise and personalise the connection through a bond of familial love in two directions: first the bond between Father and Son, then the bond between the Son and his followers and disciples, which are in a sense his spiritual children, adopted as the children of God. The key to this arrangement is the dual nature of Jesus as both fully divine and fully human. Only then can he act as a bridge between heaven and earth.

The Christian solution is love. When the lawyer asked Jesus what was the greatest commandment in the law, he replied:

“Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

Matthew 22: 36-40

This is not an original saying. Jesus was quoting scripture. The Christian innovation, however, is in the mediation of Christ himself, which makes it psychologically easier to love God by drawing on a personal, intimate, human love. It is after all easier to love a person than an abstraction.

As the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing put it, “He may well be loved, but not thought. By love may He be gotten and holden; but by thought never.”

But isn’t this all a bit human-all-too-human? Don’t you lose the pristine idea of an invisible, transcendent God? Aren’t you in danger of falling into a kind of idolatry? And what about the non-human world of Nature? All this love talk is all very well, but doesn’t exclusive focus on the human-divine love of the Son of God in heaven mean that we neglect our love of the natural world here on earth, perhaps even creating the environmental crisis we’re now facing as a consequence?

Christianity is a Love Religion but it’s not a Nature Religion. Compared to the traditional indigenous shamanic religions of the world, it seems suspiciously detached from the natural world, even condescending and dismissive. Genesis 1:26 is often cited by environmentalists who blame the mass extinction of species and careless destruction of their natural habitats on Christianity, since God seemingly gives us free licence to do whatever we want with all life on Earth:

“And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.”

This is debatable and continues to be debated, but there is clearly some truth to it. Over the centuries, we have developed an attitude of power and dominion over Nature, which has had some disastrous consequences, especially since the advent and rapid development of science and technology and their aggressive application in the service of purely human interests since the seventeenth century. All this was at least in part facilitated by this passage in Genesis and the attitude of superiority over Nature it engendered.

Is there a way of reading the Christian story in a more environmentally friendly way? Is there a way of including the non-human natural world in our circle of care and love? Not just as an afterthought but as an integral part of our religious commitment?

One way to do this is to notice a seemingly universal religious impulse that Christianity shares with its own religious parents, Judaism and Greek Paganism, as well as with all traditional indigenous religions, ancestor worship. In the Bible, this is most clearly seen in the genealogy passages, the “begats”. What has this got to do with environmentalism? Bear with me!

The New Testament begins with “The book of the generation of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.” (Matthew 1:1) beginning with Abraham. In the gospel according to Luke (Luke 3: 23-28), the genealogy is recounted in the opposite direction, starting with Jesus and working backwards: “Jesus, when he began his ministry, was about thirty years of age, being the son (as was supposed) of Joseph, the son of Heli, the son of Matthat, the son of Levi, the son of Melchi, the son of Jannai, the son of Joseph,” etc. etc. until we arrive at “the son of Enos, the son of Seth, the son of Adam, the son of God.”

Jesus’ father was Joseph. Joseph’s father was Heli. His ancestors stretch back all the way to “the first parents”, Adam and Eve, and through them back to their father, God. The same is obviously true of all of us. If we trace our evolutionary lineage back, we are all descended from the same common ancestor we share with the chimps. If we keep going back, we eventually arrive back at the ultimate first cause where the backwards regress stops and on which the whole sequence rests, in other words, God.

When Jesus says that he is the Son of God, he is skipping all the generations of his ancestors back to the first father of this patriarchal lineage. He is ultimately “the son of Adam, the son of God.”

This is where we hit the root of the problem in the family tree (pun intended). In the Judeo-Christian genealogy, we are descended from Adam and Eve, who were created by God along with the rest of the natural world. He created the plants and trees on the third day, the animals on the fifth day, and mankind on the sixth day. Our ancestors stretch back to Adam, who was directly created by God in parallel to all other life on Earth. So the animals and plants are not really ancestors.

For the indigenous tribes of the Amazon basin, as well as for almost all First Peoples, ancestors also include animals and even plants. Our modern understanding of evolution confirms that this is literally true. Whether or not we accept a Creator at the beginning of the whole series, with the origin of life on Earth, or at least at the Big Bang, we now know that our ancestral lineage stretches far back beyond the human.

If the six days of Creation described so beautifully in Genesis are read as a sequential “book of the generation of Creation” in the manner of the genealogical “begats” of the Old and New Testaments, then we can also consider the animals and plants as our ancestors, as well as the herb, the vine, the cactus and the mushroom. As Paul Stamets says, human beings are essentially fungal in their basic cellular composition.

The interstellar bond of love connecting God and mankind includes all of space and time, passing from us via our ancestors from father to father back through our own species, genus, family, order, class, phylum and kingdom all the way to “Our Father in heaven”. Love is the way, the truth and the life, connecting us all and engendering an attitude of care and reverence for all things. If we truly understand and embody this, maybe we won’t end up in the desperate environmental straits that the people of the near future in the film Interstellar find themselves in.

On the other hand, our connection to the transcendent ground of Being is here and now. When Jesus says “before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58) he is pointing to this identity beyond time and space. The great I AM is the name that God gives himself in Exodus: “And God said unto Moses, I AM THAT I AM: and he said, Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, I AM hath sent me unto you.” (Exodus 3:14).

Therefore Jesus is the Son of God not through ancestry in linear time on the horizontal plane of existence, but vertically, through the generative womb of the eternal present. This is what it means to be born of the spirit and not of the flesh. With this direct connection, which folds time and space together like a wormhole, the human and the divine are one. But this unity also includes the whole of Creation:

“As earth is my witness. Seeing this morning star, all things and I awaken together.”

Gautama Buddha