What does the first man rocketed into low Earth orbit in 1961 have in common with a recently retired professional soccer player in 2023?
Not much, until you insert the thoughts of one of the best Christian thinkers of the 20th century.
When Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human being in space, the world was in awe, and the United States was in shock. The Russians had beat us with Sputnik, the first artificial satellite, launched in 1957. When Gagarin went into space a mere four years later, it seemed Russia would win the wager of who would reach the moon first. At the time, U.S. rockets still had the propensity of blowing up on the launch pad. But eventually, the U.S. did not just get even with Russia — we got way ahead.
Upon his celebrated return to Earth, Gagarin was quoted as saying, “I looked and looked, but I didn’t see God.” It is a quote that one can imagine left the Soviet Politburo beaming, and Americans, especially Christian Americans, boiling.
Much time and scholarship has passed since then, and reliable sources from official biographies and personal acquaintances state that Gagarin never said those words. The research further seems to indicate that, in fact, Gagarin was a believing Christian. He was baptized in the Russian Orthodox Church and had his children baptized as well. It is not so hard to imagine the offending quote as the creation of a nameless apparatchik trying to promote a vision of a brave new, and Godless world.
But a few years later, in 1961, that quote got under the skin of the celebrated writer C.S. Lewis.
Just a few months before he died, Lewis penned an essay titled “The Seeing Eye,” written as a direct response to the misquote from Gagarin. Though Lewis was unaware at the time that the quote was inaccurate, his response was poignant, truthful, and just as applicable today as it was then.
Like most things Lewis, the essay is filled with a perfect blend of succinct prose and easy- to-digest theological argument. His goal was not so much to make the case for God (he did that so well in many other works), but rather to guide readers, and hopefully Gagarin in particular, on how best to go about seeking him.
To Lewis, a man thinking they might see God in space is like a man who believes he should see Shakespeare in Hamlet. Shakespeare is on every page of his plays, just as God is everywhere in the universe he created. For Lewis, to believe that God can be “found” in a specific time and space when he exists outside of time and space is folly.
Of course, he does not leave it there. Lewis summed up his essay with: “Space-travel really has nothing to do with the matter. To some, God is discoverable everywhere, to others, nowhere. Those who do not find him on earth are unlikely to find Him in space. (Hang it all, we’re in space already; every year we go on a huge circular tour in space.) But send a saint up in a spaceship and he’ll find God in space as he found God on earth.”
Those words came to mind when a few weeks ago, celebrated professional soccer player Megan Rapinoe played the last game of her career before her planned retirement. Rapinoe hasn’t shied away from immersing herself in off-the-field debates over the years, from pay discrepancies between male and female soccer players, to her advocacy in favor of allowing biological males to participate in women’s sports. Her retirement came sooner than she expected when she tore her Achilles tendon.
It is not the way any professional athlete wants to go out. A disappointed Rapinoe afterward stood before the press and suggested her injury was “proof that there isn’t a God.” She followed up with, “I’m not a religious person or anything and if there was a God, like, this is proof that there isn’t.”
One can hope that Rapinoe might walk the quote back some day — after all, the muddled syntax could have had something to do with the pain medication she was given due to her serious injury.
Regardless, both quotes, according to Lewis, contain the same error: to believe one can pursue God in a particular time and space and on a human timetable and human conditions. Lewis knew differently. “Send a saint up in a spaceship and he’ll find God in space as he found God on earth.”
Or maybe on a soccer field.