In fact, the distinction seems simple enough: Vibrant cultures want something; exhausted cultures don’t. And what do we actually want, today? For a thought experiment, imagine hearing this on tomorrow evening’s new shows:
The Vatican announced today that it will soon begin colonizing the planet Mars. Many parts of the mission remain unclear, but the plans to launch the first rocket from a pad on the island of Malta appear definite, with a tentative launch date in July 2010. The goal will be to establish a colony capable of sustaining itself within 20 years, with the long-range aim of completing the terraforming of Mars within 100 years. Accompanying the initial group of 142 Catholic settlers on the 297-day flight will be a priest and an auxiliary bishop from the diocese of Rio de Janeiro.
The geopolitical ramifications would be fascinating and perhaps even dangerous. How would a wealthy Islamic country such as Saudi Arabia react? Or the European Union, so desperate to deny its Catholic past?
But geopolitics are always fascinating and more than a little dangerous. The greater impact would be on the human imagination. We seem to aim at so little today, to have such small interests in mind. No wonder the biotech visionaries have gained a hearing: They claim to be going somewhere. Where they want to go is the destruction of human nature, but at least they are calling us to something beyond ourselves.
To be a religious believer is to know that the hungers of the human heart will not find fulfillment without God, but even religious believers benefit from goals short of the ecstatic vision of the divine. A people without any temporal horizons—without any historical purpose or vision of the future—grow enervated and decadent, and they begin to follow strange gods, who promise them meaning.
The science-fiction writers had it better: Space is the obvious next horizon for human beings. Want to diminish the biotech revolution to its proper role as a curer of disease? Offer a more exciting goal. Build a rocket ship, and fly it to Mars.
Deal me in.