There is always something rather fantastic and joyful about discovering mysteries of a land, a people and their faiths about how the world began and works today. A Journey gains a great deal of energy and fun from our journeys. We hope our readers will feel like a part of the exploration team. Like explorers through the ages, we rely on an audience of supporters and kibitzers.
In the Thirteenth Century Marco Polo’s Travels through Asia fascinated Europe. Polo’s travelogue also opened Europeans’ vision of the world and helped to propel them to greater exploration. The Christian explorer’s praise of Hindu Brahmin merchants “as the best and most honourable merchants that can be found” and other observations about Buddhists, Muslim and other religionists introduced Europeans to a first-hand experience of other religions. He also noted approvingly Kublai Khan’s religious tolerance as well as reports about Buddha as one who lead “a life of great hardship and sanctity.” More recently, the explorers of the most far out frontiers in outer space also have gripped the world’s imagination.
The moon shots seized the attention of the world in the 1960s. Who can forget the excitement as the United States traveled closer and closer to landing on the moon? The astronauts also discovered that religious discourse best fits the momentous scientific explorations. On Christmas eve in 1968 Bill Anders, Jim Lovell and Frank Borman read through Genesis 1 -10 as they circled the globe. Then, after the Apollo 11 Lunar Module landed on the surface of the moon on July 21, 1969, Buzz Aldrin asked the worldwide radio and television audience to contemplate and give thanks in their own way for the events that were unfolding. Privately, so as to allow the audience to commemorate the event in light of their own faiths, the astronaut took Christian communion, being the first to pour liquid into a cup (a silver chalice) in outer space. He silently read from John 15:5, “I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me, and I in him, will bear much fruit; for you can do nothing without me.” Aldrin recalled later, “I could think of no better way to acknowledge the enormity of the Apollo 11 experience than by giving thanks to God.”
Neil Armstrong then climbed down the ladder of the Apollo 11 Lunar Module and set his left foot on the surface of the moon . “That’s one step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind,” he declared. Scientific exploration of space was also linked to other faiths after the initial voyages.
In 1969 after overcoming anti-Semitism, Boris Volynov traveled on Soyuz 5, becoming the first Jew in outer space. The American Jeffrey Hoffman was the first astronaut to actually practice Judaism in space. Hoffman’s first mission on the shuttle Discovery departed shortly before Passover 1985, so he attached a mezuzah to his bunk. In December 1993, Hoffman became the first Jew to celebrate Hanukkah in space, and three years later he read from a small Torah he brought with him on the shuttle Columbia. It is now known as the Space Torah and
resides permanently at Houston’s Congregation Or Hadash. Hoffman bookended the reading of Genesis on Christmas eve by the crew of Apollo 8 by reading the same verses in Hebrew. Hoffman told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that reading the Torah on a journey is traditional Jewish practice. He said, “Wherever Jews have wandered, they have taken the Torah with them. Astronauts are human beings and when we travel, we take with us our culture and heritage. It is important to me to take my Jewish heritage with me as well.”
In 1984 the first Hindu astronaut, Rakesh Sharma, flew into space on board of a Soviet spacecraft. In 1985 U.S. astronaut Ellison Onizuka became the first Buddhist in space. In his space flight, Onizuka wore a medallion with the Japanese Buddhist Jodo Shinshu crest (a hanging wisteria). Sheikh Muszaphar was the first to celebrate a Muslim holiday while in outer space on the international space station. A Sunni Muslim from Malaysia, he utilized a handbook called "Guidelines for Performing Islamic Rites (Ibadah) at the International Space Station” that detailed the Islamic issue on how and when to pray toward Mecca while orbiting the globe during the holy holiday Ramadan. Afterwards, he handed out satay and cookies to the crew to mark the end of the holiday on October 13, 2007.
Similarly, we hope to open people’s eyes to a new vision of New York City, the world’s largest postsecular city, so that there will be a new round of exploration of the role of religion in urban life around the world. And, who knows, maybe we can inspire a journey through religions in outer space?