Augustine, Aquinas, and the Apollo 13 (or Home Sweet Home)
April 11, 1970
On April 11, 1970, at 1:13 PM central time, the American spacecraft Apollo 13 launched from the Kennedy Space Center In Cape Canaveral, FL. The crew of the Apollo 13 was comprised of three men – Commander James A. Lovell, Command Module Pilot John L. Swigert, and Lunar Module Pilot Fred W. Haise. The objective of the Apollo 13 mission was to explore the Fra Mauro formation located in the highlands on the near side of the moon. This mission was to be NASA’s third lunar landing attempt.
Over the first two days of its mission, the Apollo 13 looked to be the smoothest flight the space program had made. 46 hours, 43 minutes into the flight, Joe Kerwin, the NASA CapCom on duty in Houston, reported to the Apollo 13 crew, “The spacecraft is in real good shape as far as we’re concerned. We’re bored to tears down here.” At this point for the Apollo 13, its goal, the moon, lay ahead as they left home behind.
There’s no place like home
The idea of home is a concept both common to all humans and distinct to every individual person. The word ‘home’ encompasses a complex range of emotional experiences and cognitive meanings. Memory and nostalgia are often associated with the idea of home. A longing for security and a desire to be established can also be common sentiments. For some, the thought of home conjures up anxiety and fear. For others, it symbolizes warmth and comfort. The affective range is broad and most likely varies with each person. Regardless, we are all familiar with the idea of home and know its importance in our lives.
In ancient Greek societies, the term ‘home’ signified the place that stood at the center of the world. This was not to be taken as a geographical location, as if the universe revolved around a singular space. Rather, this ‘place at the center of the world’ was to be understood as the central place of all existence, the place from out of which the world could be discovered. Home was the starting point of every journey and the place that made sense of the world.
Over time, the idea of home has expanded. One common way of comprehending home is in terms of land or ancestry, displayed through cultural traditions and patriotism. More individualistic definitions of home tend to particularize a specific location or address, considering mainly one’s personal dwelling place. A more sociological method of categorizing a home describes it as a place of protected refuge connected to the comfort, relationships, family, friends, and traditional rituals that give meaning to life. In this sense, some may consider home to be a church, a camp, a school, or any number of places.
However we may define it, home is a formative place of life. Whether our experiences may be good or bad, I believe we can all agree with the words of Dorothy Gayle: “There’s no place like home.” I also believe that Inside of every one of us is a longing for a place to call home, and we spend our lives in pursuit of finding a home that cannot be destroyed, broken, or stolen.
April 13, 1970
On April 13, 1970, 55 hours, 54 minutes, and 53 seconds into the Apollo 13 journey, as Captain John L. Swigert was performing a routine check of the hydrogen and oxygen tank stirring fans, the crew heard what they described as “a loud bang.” Initially, the crew believed a meteoroid had struck the ship. Soon they discovered that it was an explosion of one of the ship’s oxygen tanks that caused the noise. The mechanical force of the explosion resulted in a rapid deterioration of the remaining oxygen tanks, also causing the fuel cells in the command module to shut down, leaving the ship to run on nothing more than very limited battery power. The goal of the lunar landing was abandoned. The crew of the Apollo 13 sat helpless 173,790 nautical miles from the surface of the earth.
In that moment, the entire goal of the Apollo 13 mission changed for both the astronauts in space and the NASA crew on the ground. All efforts, motives, desires, and objectives shifted focus toward a new mission. In Captain Jim Lovell’s words, “The only thing we were doing was trying to figure out how to get home.”
The end of all things
For many of us, it may be typical to think of home as a place or location from where we have come – our launching point, which makes sense of the world. It is equally suitable, however, to see home as the destination to where we are heading. Home is not only our launching point; it is the returning point of our journey. In an ontological sense, home is the final destination of our existence, the end that orders our every commitment and behavior.
The teachings of St. Augustine of Hippo help us better appreciate how the end shapes us in the here and now. Augustine taught that the Christian life is centrally and solely formed by the telos, or ultimate purpose and aim, of our existence. Our telos shapes our every desire and motivates our every action. For Augustine, the telos of all life is only one thing – full delight in God. The true home we aim for is heaven, the place of eternal delight in God. Every thought, action, and desire is directed toward this end. To place desire in anything or anyone else does not satisfy.
Similarly, St. Thomas Aquinas taught that our telos is understood in terms of completion, perfection, or well-being. Achieving such completion, however, requires a range of intellectual and moral virtues that enable us to understand the nature of delight and motivate us to seek it with integrity and consistency. For Aquinas, final happiness consists in union with God. Such an end lies far beyond what we through our natural human capacities can attain. For this reason, we not only need the virtues, we also need God to transform our desires and perfect our nature. We need God’s help to bring us home.
Materialism vs. Consumerism
Augustine also taught that all things that exist are good. In other words, if something exists, then it necessarily contains some degree of goodness. For Augustine everything that exists can be divided into two categories: incorruptible things and corruptible things, with the latter being inferior to the former. If something is incorruptible, then by definition it cannot be made worse; that is, it cannot lose whatever goodness it may have. On the other hand, if something is corruptible, then it can be made worse. Thus, a thing’s corruptibility presupposes its having goodness, otherwise, it would not have any goodness to lose.
Augustine believed our desires should be set on the incorruptible, i.e. our heavenly home where we find delight in God. He does not, however, sweepingly condemn corruptible things. Instead, he teaches that corruptible things can be useful as they direct our desire and will toward God.
In Matthew 6, Jesus speaks to heaven as our eternal home – an incorruptible place where no moth or rust destroys and where no thief breaks in or steals. Making a contrast to materialistic concerns which can occupy our attentions, in Matthew 6:19-21 Jesus urges his disciples to keep proper focus, both by giving priority to eternal issues and also by trusting their heavenly Father to meet their needs here on earth. The warning of Jesus in Matthew 6 is that real danger comes when our habits and tendencies seek enjoyment in inferior material things instead of in God.
To be primarily concerned with material possessions not only shows wrongful perspective but also is foolish since such possessions cannot last. God alone is eternal, thus God alone can truly be enjoyed.
It has become common in western Christianity to condemn the stuff of this world as evil. We often presume that the main problem we face in the first-world west is an over-attachment to money and the materials available to us. The dichotomy seems obvious – either we desire God or we desire material things. But perhaps another way of looking at this it not in terms of attachment but instead in terms of detachment.
In his book, Being Consumed, William Cavanaugh makes the profound observation that materialism has become an easy target for us to condemn because in truth, the majority of today’s world is not obsessed with hoarding riches. We are not materialists because we are not overly attached to our stuff. Instead, we are consumerists. What characterizes a consumer culture is not attachment but detachment. We do not hoard money; we spend it. We do not cling to things; we discard them to buy other things, often the newer version of what we already own. Our desires are unsatisfied and our thirst goes unquenched. As Cavanaugh writes, “Consumers are categorized by a constant dissatisfaction with material goods. This dissatisfaction is what produces the restless pursuit of satisfaction in something new.”
Uncontrolled consumption and unbridled desire
Bringing Augustine’s teachings into a discussion of consumerism, I believe Augustine would say that our attitude of detachment fails to appreciate the goodness of the things of this earth. Thus, it becomes easy for us to condemn the stuff of this world because it no longer helps us find delight in God.
Consumerism is an important subject to discuss in our spiritual lives because it is a spiritual disposition – a way of looking at and interacting with the world around us. Where we begin to seek delight in the things of this world, we can find no satisfaction. Likewise, when objects are cut free from their chief end, consumption is simply done for the sake of consumption. Proper focus and appreciation is lost. At this point freedom of delight in God disappears and we become slaves to our own need for desire, turning into consumptive addicts of sex, alcohol, pornography, shopping, food, etc. Ultimately, we are left not wanting too much, but left with the desire to continually consume with no idea why. When we lose sight of our telos, we do not find ourselves delighting in the wrong things but instead cease to find delight in anything at all. Our desires cease to be filled, so we keep searching for the right thing to fill them.
Though often criticized for their extreme ascetic practices, the early desert monastic orders took the purification of desire seriously. They viewed the habit of uncontrolled consumption as ‘gluttony’ and the habit of uncontrolled desire as ‘lust.” For the desert monks, these were dangerous gateways to sin. Uncontrolled consumption and unbridled desire are spiritual doorways allowing sin to take a foothold. Accordingly, to combat sin, the desert monks believed spiritual doorways to virtue were the practices of fasting and prayer. Fasting directly opposes consumption, as it is the practice of self-denial. Through fasting, a spiritual door is opened to abstinence and discipline. In proper practice, fasting accompanied with prayer helps us center on the One who truly supplies our needs with incorruptible things. Additionally, fasting and prayer bring corruptible things back into proper focus, allowing appreciation for them as God’s good gifts to grow. As the soul is purified through prayer and fasting, it draws nearer to God through honest commitment and good behavior, shaped by His desire.
Jesus’ words in Matthew 6 serve as both a warning and a directive. Even good spiritual practices such as giving to the poor, prayer, and fasting can become harmful when separated from their heavenly purposes. Jesus reminds us to not seek to find our desires filled by the things of this world, but instead to find our desires consumed by the things of heaven. For if our heart is in heaven, there too will our treasures be.
April 17, 1970
April 17, 1970, 142 hours, 54 minutes, and 47 seconds after first leaving home, the crew members of the Apollo 13 landed safely in the South Pacific Ocean, once again back home on earth. The efforts and support of many men and women aided to the success of their return. Though facing a seemingly impossible task of returning the crew of the Apollo 13 safely, ground control flight director Gene Kranz said failure was never an option. In fact, he believed the strength provided through the collaborative effort of all those involved made the return of Apollo 13 NASA’s finest hour. The reason – everyone involved never lost sight of what was always the ultimate goal of the mission, to bring the men of Apollo 13 home.
The Christian life is centrally and solely formed by the telos, or chief end, of our existence – full delight in God. Achieving full delight in God motivates every desire and every action. Thus, our telos has essential implications on our commitments and behavior as Christians. Though there are many we could name, I want to offer the following two in closing*:
First, our desire for God calls us to be active and creative participants in this material world. One tangible way of doing this is to become more involved in production. Being an active producer reminds us that we are not merely spectators of life. We don’t just sit back to consume the gifts God has given us or the entertainment, food, and materials that others make. Instead, in being an active producer, we share in the creative activity of God. We discover goodness and value in corruptible things. Making things gives the maker an appreciation for the labor involved in producing what is consumed. I encourage you to find delight in God by making your own homemade bread, writing your own song, building your own bookshelf, etc. Discover ways to actively participate in the creative activity of God.
Second, when God’s incorruptible desires consume our own, it manifests itself in charity. There is a continual call throughout the scriptures for God’s concern to care for the widow, the alien, and the orphan – those lacking a home. Likewise, Christ tells us to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and visit the imprisoned. The truth is that self-interested consumption does not do any of these things. A consumerist mentality creates a competition between others’ desires and my own. But when I am consumed into the divine life of the Triune God, it beckons me to actively share in the self-giving love of God, doing my part to care for others and bring them home.
* A book I highly recommend, Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire by William T. Cavanaugh, formed many of my thoughts throughout this post.