Wednesday, November 17, 2004


A Brief discussion of spatial concepts

By Peter Fredson

Preachers often use gestures for spatial and directional pointing. They point a finger above their head to indicate the path to Heaven, or they point toward their feet to indicate the geographical way to Hell. When strangers stop me on the street to ask directions, I often point in the direction toward which they should proceed. Nowadays we have GPS (geographical positioning systems) in our cars which indicate within a few feet our exact location on this globe. Maps of cities and streets then point out the direction we should proceed toward our destination. The point is that people should know where they are going, or proceed randomly and carelessly without any specific direction or destination. This could be considered as outrageous conduct. (Women claim that men do not like to ask directions, but would rather drive around until something looks familiar. But that’s beside the point. )

For ages people have been fascinated with going upwards, with ascending. Early attempts to build a giant tower or ziggurat in Babylon, a major going up, allegedly met with the disapproval of a deity. Evidently the deity did not want strangers trespassing into Heaven by accident, trampling down the grass, etc., so it made a preemptive move by confounding people’s language so they could no longer cooperate on construction projects which intruded into heavenly space. Seemingly, this restriction was later lifted for constructing the Eiffel Tower and the Skyscrapers of New York, although events of 9/11/2001 might reflect the cumulative wrath of a deity toward The Twin Towers going UP. Something to think about.

Yet, somewhat illogically, it was not taboo to climb a mountain. Evidently mountain peaks do not stick up through the floor of heaven or make deities apprehensive to have people simply dropping in and gawking at the harp-players or dropping pizza crusts and used tissues on the golden streets.

People were not satisfied to simply climb a mountain, but they wished to ascend above the fleecy clouds to see what transpires UP there. Some wanted to know how High was UP, as human curiosity sometimes breaks out of customary bounds, like an irrepressible curious kitten.

Gravity was a major obstacle toward ascending, but humans watched the flights of eagles gracefully ascend, soar, and drift among the clouds, so they decided that fastening wings to their shoulders and arms might be the solution. They found that flapping the unadorned arms does not work.

Humans have long watched winged creatures, probably with envy, for their ability to ‘loose the bonds of earth.” Eagles, vultures, hawks and other birds could swoop and soar farther upwards than any person. Humans also envisioned mythological creatures with wings, like the Sphinx, Unicorn (Pegasus), the Phoenix, Griffins, Gargoyles, Dragons, cherubim, and angels, not to mention several dozen supernatural beings that could flit without effort from Mount Olympus. Statues from ancient Babylon show winged lions and bulls. So, the idea of winged flight came naturally to human imagination long ago.

Fortunately one of the early attempts at winged space flight was preserved for our edification, in the charming Myth of Daedalus and Icarus. Daedalus came from the royal family of Cecrops, mythical first king of Athens. He was an architect, sculpture, and inventor, who built the famous Labyrinth for King Minos, to imprison the dreaded Minotaur.

Minos had a disagreement with Daedalus and imprisoned him & his son, Icarus, in the Labyrinth. To escape from the island, Daedalus made wings of wax and feathers, for himself and son. Before escaping he cautioned Icarus not to fly too low or he would hit the waves, but not too high or the sun would melt the wax. The wings worked beautifully and the pair escaped, flying over the sea. Icarus became so fascinated with flight that he forgot to be careful, and flew too close to the sun. The wax of the wings melted and Icarus drowned in the sea, (which was later named after him.) This is the first recorded successful flight of humans using attached wings
The story also illustrates good values. People should not fly too high, signifying arrogance, or they will suffer a fall. The story did not discourage people from trying other flight experiments, including the genius Leonardo da Vinci who seems to have invented an early version of a helicopter.

In our own day, Wilbur Wright, the visionary of the Wright brothers, understood the attraction of wings for flight. In 1908, he said: "I sometimes think that the desire to fly after the fashion of the birds is an ideal handed down to us by our ancestors who, in their grueling travels across trackless lands in prehistoric times, looked enviously on the birds soaring freely through space, at full speed, above all obstacles, on the infinite highway of the air."

Besides flight, objects in space have always interested humans. People have long been curious about the makeup of the moon. It seems so near and glows so beautifully for lovers. A Mexican culture deified it as the decapitated head of a goddess, Chalchiutlicue. The Aztecs thought that a god threw a rabbit into the moon, to dim its glow, because it was rivaling the sun too closely. There are ludicrous myths about the moon being made of cheese, cows jumping over the moon, and about “the man in the moon.” And there are still legends about the moon affecting human destinies here on earth.

Due to major human rivalries, several massive attempts to reach the moon, culminated in the actual “One small step for a man, one giant step for mankind” of Neil Armstrong who not only stepped onto the dust of the moon, but patriotically planted the U.S. flag there. Now we have space agencies of several governments reaching out to Mars and Saturn, et al, a million miles away. Doubtless there will be Moon Motels soon. President Bush said he would like to go to Mars, and we are quite willing to let him go there.

We know a lot about going UP. We have invented stout space ships to enclose humans for long periods of time. People can move about in space, breathe, float, take walks outside of their space ships, eat, defecate, communicate with home, and do all ordinary affairs of living aboard a space ship.

People versed in engineering, mathematics, astronomy, physics, chemistry, electronics, etc. work as teams to explore space. They use scientific facts and technology to predict that they can send a space vessel, loaded with vast amounts of fuel, food, oxygen, etc., out of an airfield on earth on a certain day and minute, and that on a certain day and minute it will land (hopefully) in some exact geographical spot without incident. The precision to calculate all of the factors involving leaving the gravity of earth, reaching an orbit, high above the earth, existing intact for some time, then returning, is fantastic, astounding, remarkable. No one person can do it, but a thousand people, working in unison, in cooperation, show that space exploration is indeed a marvelous feat of human ingenuity through technology.

In contrast, one person of antiquity has supposedly gone UP into remote space…so remote that it is beyond ability of telescopes and map-making to discover it. No space ship, nor space suit, no helmet, no oxygen tanks, no propellants, no toilet, no food, were needed to send that person far UP. Neither gravity, nor temperature, nor asteroids or radiation, or lack of oxygen, were obstacles. We don’t know what the rate of climb was, but without rocket fuel it was probably something like the rate of climb used by magicians to levitate people on a stage. In fact, as far as news is concerned, that person might very well still be ascending UP or to have perished soon after leaving the pull of our planet by some sort of implosion or explosion of lungs.

This magical flight was recorded in fragments of ancient manuscripts, by devotees of the purported astronaut, and preserved, like the Myth of Icarus. Modern fundamentalists believe every word of the incredible flight preserved in their Sacred Bible concerning a supernatural being, similar to a Greek God, commonly referred to as Jesus.

In the New Testament, the story of Jesus' ascension is found in the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts. The classic text is Acts 1:9-11. After the “risen” Christ had spoken some final words to his followers, we are told:

"As they were watching, Jesus was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight." The text then states that they were "gazing up toward heaven while he was going." Those are just about all the technical details available.

To further elaborate the flight, Acts 1:10-11 states: After the Ascension, the disciples were gazing up to Heaven, and two angels appeared and said to them, "Men of Galilee, why do you stand here looking up to the sky?"… like saying, you have seen all you were called together.” Next two winged astronauts, space travelers called Angels, enter the scene, and make us wonder if Jesus had sprouted wings before he went UP. This would explain how a person could, without flapping his arms, go UP.

The technology of this time would not have permitted actual space ships, nor having some Captain Kirk saying, “Beam me up, Scotty.”

The very sketchy account leaves all details in limbo. Acts 51: “And it came to pass, whilst he blessed them, he departed from them, and was carried up to heaven”. Frankly any present day newspaper would fire anyone who filed such a sketchy report. The lack of details makes us suspicious that such marvelous event ever occurred.

1 Corinthians 15-6 says that there were about 500 people who witnessed the Ascension, none of whom left any account of the marvelous incident. What a shame that we had no video cameras for roving reporters to record the event.

We would certainly like to know what was the motive power, beyond the assertion that “he was carried up to heaven.” Or “and a cloud took him out of sight”

For instance, exactly where is this Heaven that is frequently mentioned. We have mapped vast areas of space, galaxies, black homes, planets, etc., but never has there been a hint of any place remotely resembling the descriptions of heaven, not even Seventh Heaven, given by any street-corner evangelist. We found no place with people perched on clouds (Cloud Nine?”), sprouting wings playing harps, and walking on streets of gold. No signs or wonders have ever been seen hanging from fences in Heaven.

Is Heaven close enough so that Jesus could get there without an oxygen mask, without food, without a suit, without fuel, without even a blanket in the coldness of space?

Any assertion that it was “spiritual power” that defeated the forces of gravity, cold, hunger, etc. seems more imagination than actual occurrence, reflecting people’s wishes and aspirations rather than reality.

There is one unusual technological possibility that this lone astronaut could have pulled off one stage of the ascent. In his day there were Roman Candles, used in warfare, with lots of glitter and fire. What if the potential space traveler had inserted one of these in his rear orifice, lit the thing on fire, then spread his arms for flight? That would be really impressive and he might have lifted off a few inches. But, No, that is too imaginative.

Recently we have a street magician, David Blaine, who besides doing neat card tricks, announces that he will levitate. After some hocus-pocus he indeed seems to levitate a few inches from the sidewalk. But onlookers describing his ascent often say he went up several feet off the ground. Illusion makes for wonderful entertainment. Just don’t take it seriously.