Wednesday, April 1, 2009

H.J. Oberth - Catechism of the Uranians

From Space Odyssey: Voyage to the Planets

You may think that Rocket science and Theology suit each other like potatoes and perfume.

Guess again, baby!

I have the privilege to know some highly educated engineers dealing with technologies shaping our high-tech world who show more open minded curiosity about the truth and seem to have more faith in God than some of my very learned theologian friends.

Prime example of a top modern scientist who wrote about humanitarian and theological issues is H. J. Oberth. After retiring in 1962 from research institutes and universities he turned his brilliant mind to Philosophy and Religion.

In the previous blog I describe why Oberth is respected as one of the founding fathers of space technology. Perhaps you are not impressed him being a pioneer of modern rocket scientist, a teacher honored by Werner von Braun. If so that is not enough please remember that he is one of the key persons behind the invention and development of the scariest weapons of mass destruction human's have ever developed to kill each other. Neither Russia nor USA would have achieved so quickly those peace makers quietly waiting in their silos for the red button that ends life on our planet without the rocket technology pioneered by Oberth.

Oberth settled permanently in the town of Feucht, near Nürnberg where he later turned his attention to Philosphy and Religion. In 1959 he published Stoff und Leben (Matter and Life) where he argues against materialistic atheism and argues for the presence of an immortal soul in.
His little-known book Katechismus der Uraniden demonstrates how ahead of times he really was for H. J. Oberth was also a pioneer of Space Theology.

Oberth, Hermann -
Katechismus der Uraniden. Haben unsere Religionen eine Zukunft. Gedanken aus philosophischen Vorträgen und z.T. nach unveröffentlichten Schriften gemeinverständlich dargestellt. Wiesbaden - Schierstein, Ventla-Verlag, 1966.

The Catechism of Uranics has not been translated and is so rare and little understood that respected antiquarian bookshops list Oberth's book as UFO literature.

Most of humanity lives still in the pre-space era with only occasional glimpses up to the sky. It is also a very Biblical world in the sense that humans are the center of focus. Very few have realized the true dimensions of the space as it has not much practical effect on our lives.

But Oberth realized that the sky is not the limit and asked if our religion has any future in the space age. He is also, of course, writing about humans but he is considering the meaning of space to our existence and to our future.

Nazi background

The book has a rather sinister background in the early 1920'ies Germany that had been devastated by the First World War. Oberth himself had abandoned his dream of becoming a medical doctor after serving Wehrmacht in the front as a medic and pushing intestines back into wounded soldier's stomach.

Manfred Nagl describes in his interesting paper on Nazi mythology a group of people that wanted to escape the misery of post-war Germany to the space:

The Atlantis-faith and Glacial Cosmogony also inspired the about 600 members of the "Society for Space Flight"who wished to escape from the German misery by means of spaceships. They wanted to discover "new worlds, as modem conquistadors"; they planned to augment Germany's greatness by building a space-station whose "strategic value" was among other things to consist, as Willy Ley wrote, in "creating tornadoes and rainstorms, destroying marching troops and their supply-lines, and burning entire cities." Thanks to the active propaganda of this society, the idea of space travel grew so popular that moon-rockets became a regular item in carnival parades, and Fritz Lang was stimulated to make the film The Woman in the Moon (1928) for which he asked the Society for expert advice.
Its perhaps most prominent member, Hermann Oberth, author of Die Rakete zu den Planetenraumen, 1923 (3rd edn Berhn and Munchen 1929 with the title Wege zur Raumschiffahrt) continued in the same tradition after the Second World War. He propagated the belief in flying saucers, wrote the Katechismus der Uraniden, Wiesbaden-Schierstein 1966, and occasionally functioned as a figurehead for the NPD (neo-Nazi party).
In early 20'ies Oberth just a young university student. Later he certainly became an important scientist whose skills were needed by the Luftwaffe of Nazi Germany. Adolf Hitler understood well the value of rockets and the feared V2 was part of his efforts to conquer the entire world after crushing the spirit of Britain.

H.J. Oberth was not just a regular German with some Nazi sympathies since M. Nagl writes that after the war Oberth participated in neo-Nazi activities. He must thus have agreed also with the ideology of the Nazi party that included also space in its dreams of conquest.

Heavy stuff indeed. But perhaps enough time has passed from those days, however, so that we can make an attempt to see what H. J. Oberth was himself writing in the 1960'ies after the utter collapse of Third Reich and the suicide of its Führer.

Space ship in troubles
Conquest of space for Lebensraum
As a citizen of Germany with close ties to the National Socialistic Party of Adolf Hitler, post-war Oberth may well have asked himself "Does the humanity have any right to colonize space, to get more living room (lebensraum)"?

Is the humanity so immersed in warfare and militarism mature enough to reach for space?

If we consider the Hollywood expeditions to outer space we can see how aggressive, laser gun and explosion oriented our imagination is. A trip on wrap speed beyond the galaxies is boring if we do not face those enemies, yakky things with jaws dripping human blood and who deserve to be blown to pieces in the name of self-defense.

Alien from the movie
I have yet to see a TV series or SciFi movie where humans get seriously interested in the awesome characteristics of that unique limb-tearing Alien. Where does it come from? Besides for mayhem and kill what it wants from us? Can we perhaps communicate with it nicely after just knocking it sensless like Will Smith in Independence Day without killing it?


USA movie writer led human expeditions to colonize the space are "shoot them to smithereers" expeditions and talking comes only to give some quiet moments between the awesome displays of human firepower. (Well, there are nice aliens in the team as well, making the firepower more effective).

Oberth had seen, and participated, in awesome shoot-outs himself and lost his daugher to a mighty explosion. He knew how it feels.

Yet in this Catechism he answers yes! to both our questions

The humans are not only allowed but have a duty to explore the space in order to find new planets to live in addition to mother Earth.

And yes, humans are mature enough for such an expedition and it does not necessarily have to be a war expedition like Christian Crusades or Spanish Christian Conquistador conquests.

Learning soul
According to Oberth soul is an essential characteristic of man. God has made the soul such that humans are able to learn new things and the soul can be taught what has been learned.

Soul is immortal. Learning does not only include factual information about the world but has also moral and ethical element. One day, after the human body dies, the soul faces judgement after death. This is the ultimate demonstration of man's moral responsibility.

Oberth writes: "We can never be absolutely certain about reward or punishment after death for our good deeds would turn out psychologically motivated by our selfishness and not by our social responsibilities. God can not create the ideal human without education. This is His ultimate purpose." (my translation)

This is a very deep idea expressed by an emeritus professor who has seen much human life.

And indeed. If we look at the history of humanity we can see a continous learning process. There is a huge learning curve from prehistory to modern days which keeps going on despite of the many dark periods and cultural declines. Especially the history of modern science is an almost exponentially rising curve which touches most fundamental ethical and moral questions of human existence.

But Oberth was not a proud Promethean soul who worshiped human rationality and mental powers.

Humbly he saw man as creation of God who Himself is teaching those who has made.

This is a very Biblical idea and appears especially in the Book of Psalms.

"I will instruct thee and teach thee in the way which thou shalt go: I will guide thee with mine eye."
Psalm 32:8 KJVA

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