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Knowledge, Mystery & The Spiritual Frontier

For the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea. —Habakkuk 2:14

A while back I finished reading The Worst Journey in the World, the account of the British expedition to Antarctica made by Robert Falcon Scott and his men more than a century ago. We had a mild winter where I live, so I felt I could handle a stretch of living vicariously in bleakness and frigidity. (You must realize this was shortly before COVID-19 upended our lives, so l never suspected that soon we’d need not look to Antarctica to find isolation, privation, endurance, and danger.) During the polar exploration craze of the early twentieth century, to challenge adversity was one way to “win renown.” Men who braved the ice were cultural heroes, maybe the equivalent to the early astronauts of the ‘50s and ‘60s.

The Worst Journey in the World was written by one of the youngest members of Scott’s expedition, Apsley Cherry-Garrard (known simply as Cherry to his companions). Published about ten years after the events described, his book relies heavily on his own journals and those of Scott and other key expedition members, and often gives long passages from them.

Though primarily a scientific research operation, Robert Scott’s expedition is best remembered for his attempt to reach the South Pole, which no one had managed so far. He did succeed in reaching the Pole in January of 1912, though he was beaten to it by a Norwegian explorer who made it thirty-four days earlier. Worse, Scott and his four companions didn’t survive the return trip, succumbing to starvation and cold. We know the details because their friends later found their final camp and recovered their journals before giving the fallen a snowy burial.

Though only five men trekked all the way to the Pole, there were twenty-five in all that lived at the main camp near the icy shore of the Ross Sea, and dozens more who stayed on the ship exploring the coast and collecting samples of marine life. From the main camp, various parties went out in different directions across the continent over the two-year lifespan of the expedition. In fact the title The Worst Journey in the World refers not to Scott’s later and much longer trip to the Pole, but to the so-called “Winter Journey” that Cherry and two companions made in hopes of collecting the first emperor penguin eggs ever seen by humanity.

Among other things, this book showed me conclusively that I am not the sort of person needed for polar exploration.

Emperor penguins lay their eggs in the winter, and previous explorers had always reached them too late in the year to see any. Winter travelling in the Antarctic had never been attempted, and Cherry’s account shows why. I don’t have time to tell you nearly all the details of even that one journey of the two-year expedition, undertaken in the months-long night of a sunless polar winter, when temps plunged as low as the negative 70s and frostbite reached even limbs well hidden in layers. Cherry says his teeth “split to pieces” either from their violent chattering or the sheer frigidity. But somehow the men, against all odds, managed to find their penguins and procure three eggs (plus two more that got smashed when Cherry fell into a crevasse).

At one point their tent is blown away from over their heads during a three-day blizzard, leaving them cocooned in their reindeer-fur sleeping bags under the open sky and the drifting, burying snow. They outlast the blizzard and, impossibly, find the tent intact a half-mile away amid a chaos of canyons and tumbled ice. With the tent recovered there is once again a minuscule possibility of making it home, and they start the return slog. Navigating treacherous, broken terrain in the still-unbroken darkness, the only suffering they are spared is the snow-blindness that afflicts and even debilitates members of the summer journeys that would come later. After five weeks of enduring the most unimaginable conditions, the three men stumble back into base camp with their three priceless eggs, and are welcomed by Scott and the others as heroes.

Creation can't be dis-enchanted; it's only we that can be. Matthew Cyr

I said earlier that Scott’s expedition was primarily scientific. In his book Cherry claims that the attempt to reach the South Pole was a fundraising ploy more than anything, because Scott could appeal to the national pride of those whose money he needed but who didn’t care much about scientific research. Scott was a former Navy officer and not a scientist himself, but he always gave priority to the research—even when this hurt his chances at getting to the pole first. To him, coming in second to the Norwegians was almost irrelevant; the object of coming to Antarctica was in the samples collected, the measurements taken, the observations recorded, and in pinning down the geography of this mystery continent. The men, both scientists and otherwise, kept daily meteorological records even under the worst conditions, and these turned out to be the longest unbroken weather record that had yet been captured. In addition to the weather and magnetic observations, they brought back to England a couple thousand plants, animals, and fossils, many of which were previously unknown. Up to his death Scott maintained that they had succeeded at something worth dying for: adding to the world’s store of knowledge. Knowledge for its own sake.

In contrast to the book’s veneration of scientific knowledge and discovery, I don’t recall anything being said about spiritual discovery. Of the many things that Cherry-Garrard’s book gave me to be astonished at, one of the more surprising was how his detailed account includes almost everything but God. We might think that conditions of abject misery and the risk of death would be enough to turn most anyone’s thoughts toward their Maker. But if he was much on their minds, Cherry does not discuss it, and his excerpts of the other men’s journals omit it also, except as linguistic artifacts such as the occasional “God help us!” whenever things are looking really bad.

Another such artifact of bygone spirituality is the big cross the men erected in memory of the five who died on the way back from the Pole. There was some debate about the inscription to put on it, and someone suggested it ought to be a quote from the Bible because “the women think a lot of these things,”the women presumably being the wives, mothers, sisters, and daughters of the deceased. But Cherry approvingly records that instead of scripture, the men settle on the last line of Tennyson’s poem “Ulysses” to honor their dead: To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Since reading those words, I’ve tried to imagine the news being carried to the wives that they were now widows and their children now fatherless, or to mothers that not even their sons’ remains were coming home, because they were locked in ice at the far end of the world. I’ve wondered if they felt the hard-won scientific knowledge was a satisfactory return for the loved ones they spent, or if they took any consolation that their men had given the world excellent weather data, or really remarkable Glossopteris tree fossils. I’ve tried to put myself both in their place and in the explorers’ place, while wrestling with the question of just what sort of knowledge is worth dying for.

At the opening of the 20th century, it seems to have been widely accepted throughout the Western world that scientific progress was making the world safer, and easier, and would soon usher in a new era of happiness for humanity. Man was finally coming into his strength, the ability to conquer the world he lived in, the inevitable result being peace and enlightenment for all. From what I can tell, a vision of a sort of global Manifest Destiny was permeating Western culture, and such people would have been attracted to a poem like Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” a humanistic celebration of unbowed souls, “heroic hearts,” and bold adventure. The frontiers of knowledge were being rolled back just like the geographic frontiers, and spirits ran high.

A mere 57 years after mankind set foot on the South Pole for the first time, the first human planted his boot on the dust of the moon. I doubt Captain Scott would have wagered that we’d get so far in so little time. But so much had changed between those two sets of footprints—not just our bank of knowledge, but the way we thought of it. By 1969 our stories had largely changed to dystopias. The unfettered optimism of Jules Verne’s “futurism” had given way to Brave New World and 1984. We knew more things than ever, but the more insightful of us saw that knowing more facts and having more technology doesn’t translate to peace and prosperity, or even a sense of purpose. As a people, we’d seen too much to keep that faith afloat.

Today we’re even farther along; we live in an “Information Age,” which means we stumble daily through a blizzard of information that threatens to drift over and bury us. Even before COVID-19 blew in, we were bombarded by more facts, statistics, headlines, and sound bites than we could ever hope to make sense of. It can begin to feel meaningless, to degrade into mere noise. When I try to map out the path we took from the Heroic Age of Exploration to where we are now, it reminds me of the song “Small World” by The Orchardist. The opening lyrics run:

I used to live in a world of mystery A world that I could see But could not explain I used to live in a world of unanswered questions But unquestioned answers  Are all that remain —”Small World,” The Orchardist

Later the chorus laments:

It’s a small world after all When you know it all It’s a small world whose mysteries Finally are solved —”Small World,” The Orchardist

I think we Westerners are a people who have been running out of frontiers. The places beyond our maps get fewer and farther between, and it seems to mean less and less to fill them in. We harnessed the atom, sequenced our DNA, and we’re rolling right along on building artificial intelligence. And the utopia we anticipated a hundred years ago looks farther off than ever.  Our discoveries have tended to make things more convenient and more comfortable, to give us longer lives. . . and leave us emptier. We come out the other side and the universe has shrunk somehow. We’ve more or less completed the taming and subduing of the world, and what it looks like is all our needs being met with the push of a button, while we look at screens to keep from looking at each other, or at ourselves.

The beating heart of the universe is an endless and beautiful mystery, and it’s a mystery that isn’t solved so much as opened, more and more fully with every wonder. Matthew Cyr

As for geographic frontiers, with Google Earth I can sit eating Cheez-Its and visit any place in the world; I can zoom right down to Captain Scott’s 1912 expedition hut still standing at Cape Evans and even “walk” inside, scoping out their old-timey lanterns and supply crates and a preserved emperor penguin skin on a table. I’m doing it right now. If I want to, I can mouse-wheel back out past the stratosphere, then plunge down in another hemisphere and onto my street, till I can read the numbers off my mailbox. I can see branches in my yard that need to be picked up, and a box waiting on the porch to be brought in. I can see what looks like an oil stain where my wife parks on the street. I can see cracks in the pavement, individual leaves and pebbles. I can do the same thing with an alley in Bangkok and what appears to be a strip mall in Reykjavik (Taco Bell, KFC, and Domino’s Pizza). If I want, it’ll tell me the distance between the two down to the hundredth of a mile (6,271.97). Everything has been pinned down and quantified. There seems nothing left out there to be discovered.

Hilariously, when I opened the website, it warned me: You are running an experimental version of Earth. It feels that way, doesn’t it?

In the absence of geographic frontiers and the (seeming) scarcity of scientific ones, I think the idea of a spiritual frontier could be an antidote to the dis-enchantment of the universe. But I also think that we can have a hard time thinking of God as a still-mostly-undiscovered country, beckoning us to virgin landscapes and never-before-seen phenomena. Sometimes it can feel like the Christian faith too has been pinned down and quantified over the centuries. Charted and catalogued to the least minutiae by theologians, dried and put under glass by church bylaws. Yet as Michael Card told us last Hutchmoot, only .09% of Jesus’s earthly life is described in the gospels. We’re shown only a well-selected sliver of even that 33-year span. And if our Creator is indeed infinite, then the whole of what he’s revealed of himself so far can only be the tip of the iceberg. What remains hidden and waiting to be revealed is vast beyond comprehension. There is Love and Beauty, Wisdom and Mirth in such abundance that we can spend the rest of forever pressing into him and come no closer to exhausting his marvels. God grant that I might be an explorer who will shrug off my fear to encounter wonders.

Reading Cherry-Garrard’s experiences in the Antarctic, I was fascinated by the idea of snow blindness. The sun’s glare off the snow and ice can debilitate men, especially during a polar summer’s months of daylight uninterrupted by night. One man came back to England with blue-gray eyes in a weathered face, and even his mother didn’t readily recognize her son, who’d been brown-eyed when he left her. I’ve since read other accounts of the color being burned out of people’s irises during polar travel. Our eyes are made to receive light, to see, but there is more light in the world than we can take in; too much and we are overwhelmed. I begin to wonder how often I’ve trudged over a field of innumerable cold hard facts, each one like a tiny crystal reflecting the light of a single Source to which I was insensible. How often have I been snow-blind?

As the outer borders of our world keep getting annexed into “the known,” I’m deeply thankful for pockets of artist-priests like the Rabbit Room. The body of Christ needs members who will keep reminding us that the seemingly barren expanse of data we’re subjected to is actually outlining the contours of Glory, scattering more light around than we know how to see. The beating heart of the universe is an endless and beautiful mystery, and it’s a mystery that isn’t solved so much as opened, more and more fully with every wonder. Every snowflake and aurora and penguin egg becomes an arrow pointing to that One that gives them meaning. Creation can’t be dis-enchanted; it’s only we that can be. May we instead pursue Jesus into the horizon with the tenacity of Jacob wrestling his God—To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.


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