Aliens, Bach, and the Voyager 1 Space Probe
By Philip Zaleski
Next month—August, 2017—marks the fifth anniversary of the Voyager 1 spacecraft’s entry into interstellar space. At this time, Voyager 1 remains the first and only man-made object to escape the solar system and head into the infinite unknown.
No doubt this anniversary greatly alarms physicist Stephen Hawking, who fears that a hostile extraterrestrial attack is imminent, thanks precisely to the Voyager spacecraft and other evidence to our existence and location (radio and television waves, for example) that we have recklessly dispersed into space. But we need not fear. The earth and its Church shall survive. We have, above all, the Lord’s assurance that the gates of hell (which encompass, one assumes, imperialist extraterrestrials bent on planetary genocide) will not prevail.
And there is a second reason to hope. For Voyager I carries in its cargo the celebrated “golden record”, a glittering 12-inch gold-plated copper disk that contains greetings in 45 human languages to any alien races it might encounter, along with a number of other artifacts, including scientific and mathematical diagrams, photographs of architecture, food, and daily life, as well as the inevitable statements by politicians, all designed to inform aliens of our cultural achievements and good intentions.
This catalogue brings to mind an amusing anecdote well-known among space scientists. As the Voyager cargo was being assembled, a number of prominent figures, including renowned biologist and author Lewis Thomas, were asked what they might like to include in this interstellar treasury as a gift for the extraterrestrials. Thomas instantly responded, “The complete works of Johann Sebastian Bach.” He paused, then added, “But that would be boasting.”
Fortunately, the inspired NASA officials who made the final selections either heard of Thomas’s suggestion or arrived independently at the same conclusion. For the golden record includes 27 recordings of music (that universal language that requires no deciphering), and of these recordings, more than 10% are compositions by Bach.
This is as it should be. Bach wears the crown. His work is the highest of all musical achievements, dazzling evidence of the profundity of human artistic exploration and at the same time—and this is the key to my hope—a profound expression of love for God and His creation.
Of particular interest here are three letters that Bach took care to inscribe at the end of all his religious compositions and a great many of his secular ones: S.D.G. That is, Soli Deo Gloria: in English, glory to God alone; more expansively: for the sole glory of God. Does Bach’s dedicatory acronym accompany his Voyager recordings? I don’t know, but I’d like to think so.
What a perfect message S. D. G. makes for our first encounter with aliens, who, as rational beings (for so they must be, to make anything of Voyager), possess their own understanding of God and his goodness. What wonderment it will evoke! While Voyager 1’s cargo was under discussion, I recall someone proposing that the text of the Jesus Prayer be included. An admirable suggestion, but S.D.G. is more on the mark. It’s unlikely that extraterrestrials know of Jesus, at least under that specific personal name; revelation of the Trinity and the incarnate Lord to extraterrestrials may require other space missions, preferably with a human crew. And yet all creation, terrestrial or interstellar, has an inherent knowledge of the glory of God and a desire to sing his praises “The world is charged with the grandeur of God. It will flame out, like shining from shook foil…” (Gerard Manley Hopkins). “All the earth worships you; they sing praises to you, praises to your name” (Psalm 66:4). S.D.G. contains notes of holiness, beauty, truth, and goodness, all aspects of God’s manifest glory; it also offers a basso profundo of humility (glory to God, not myself), an essential aspect of spiritual wisdom. What better gift to present to our friends from the stars upon first encounter?
It occurs to me, while writing this, that Soli Deo gloria, which rolls gracefully off the tongue, also makes a perfect ejaculatory prayer, brief enough to utter throughout the day, perhaps in tandem with the Jesus Prayer. The Jesus Prayer is an in-breath, the Soli Deo gloria an out-breath. In the Jesus Prayer, we implore God for help and humbly await his gift of mercy; in the Soli Deo gloria, we ourselves are gift-givers, offering thanksgiving to God and consecrating our work, as Bach consecrated his music, to God’s majesty and glory. What more can a human being—or, for that matter, an extraterrestrial—do than to make life an oblation to God, a hosanna to his goodness, an hallelujah to his glory?
Voyager 1, spread the gospel, make disciples of all nations!
Philip Zaleski is a senior editor at Second Spring Books, and one of the founding editors of Second Spring journal. His most recent book, coauthored with his wife Carol, is The Fellowship: the Literary Lives of the Inklings (Farrar Straus & Giroux, 2015).