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Thursday, September 30, 2010

DENNIS STILLINGS: THEOLOGY OF THE ATOM BOMB

What is below is like that
    which is above,
and what is above is like
    that which is below,
to accomplish the miracles
    of the one thing.

— From the Emerald Tablet of Hermes Tresmegistus

What follows is a review essay of Peter Wyden’s book, Day One: Before Hiroshima and After (New York: Warner Books, 1985).  It is a remarkable book in that it addresses the spiritual and psychological reactions the development and detonation of The Bomb elicited from those individuals most closely associated with its birth.  Whether we feel that way or not, we have entered a new period of widespread nuclear threat, which is why I am drawing attention to Wyden’s classic work.

At no other time has the nuclear threat been as real as it is now.  A number of Second- and Third-World powers have, or soon will have, deliverable nuclear devices. For example, Iran now has enough uranium for two bombs, and is expected to have the bombs made and attached to delivery systems within, at most, two years.

In retrospect, it is arguable that the notorious Cold War and the M.A.D. (Mutual Assured Destruction) policies of the post-World War II superpowers—the United States and the U.S.S.R.— created a pax atomica (nuclear peace) that was unlikely to give rise to any actual, deliberate thermonuclear exchange. 

If nuclear attack were to take place, it would be due to accident, not to a planned decision. Survival was a mutual consideration.

Matters are no longer so simple.  Now there are strongly motivated terrorist organizations with considerable resources which, having once acquired nuclear weaponry and opportunity, will attack without provocation.  The leaders of  some of these countries or terrorist groups may not necessarily be concerned with survival, or may be delusional about the consequences of their acts.

It is passing strange that the media and the public are in no way gripped with the kind of gut-wrenching fear of nuclear attack that was part of daily life in the Cold War period.  People had bomb shelters and “duck and cover” exercises.  Dozens of novels and movies competed for the creation of the most horrific images of nuclear blast and radiation effects.

*   *   *

It is not common knowledge that the history of the development of the atom bomb is steeped in traditional religious symbolism.  

In Wyden’s Day One, the Bomb is given a life of its own.  It is a genie that tricks the scientists of Las Alamos into pulling the cork out of its bottle.  Robert Wilson, one of the early scientist recruits to the Los Alamos laboratories, recalled that: “Our life was directed to do one thing, it was as though we had been programmed to do that.”  

Little was known about the radiation effects or, for that matter, the probable blast yield; however, the radiation effects of the Bomb were expected to be negligible compared with the blast effects.  Consistent with the pervasive modern contempt for all things invisible, the gross effects of the atomic blast were emphasized, while the deadlier invisible effects of the Bomb were mostly disregarded.

It was possible, according to calculations, that the explosion of the Bomb (always referred to at Los Alamos as “The Gadget”) could ignite the nitrogen in the earth’s atmosphere, thereby burning up the world.  The chances of this occurring were calculated at three in a million.   This was considered a reasonable risk.

The scientific team at Los Alamos incorporated a number of eccentric individuals worth discussing in this essay but for the sake of brevity, we will focus on Robert Oppenheimer.

Oppenheimer, lionized by nearly everyone, is portrayed by Wyden as an intellectual parlor-pinko and “bodyguard” to the Bomb.  Wyden emphasizes Oppenheimer’s instinctive ability to divert the Los Alamos group away from any personal concerns about the construction or use of the Bomb.  Among the other scientists, Edward Teller (Dr. Strangelove, in the movie of that title) seemed to be the most conscious of what development of the Bomb meant.  In a letter to Leo Szilard—another team member—he wrote:

TREASURE ISLAND - COINS AND PRECIOUS METALS

 

 

I have no hope of clearing my conscience. … The things we are working on are so terrible that no amount of protesting or fiddling with politics will save our souls. ...  Our only hope is getting the facts of our results before the people.  This might help to convince everybody that the next war would be fatal.  For this purpose actual combat use might even be the best thing. ...  The accident that worked out this dreadful thing should not give us a responsibility of having a voice in how it is used. ...  I should like to have the advice of all of you whether you think it is a crime to continue to work.  But I feel that I should do the wrong thing if I tried to say how to tie the little toe of the ghost to the bottle from which we just helped it escape.

In a somewhat tardy reflection on similar matters, Oppenheimer put it thus: “In some sort of crude sense which no vulgarity, no humor, no overstatement can quite extinguish, the physicists have known sin, and this is a knowledge which they cannot lose.”

The Bomb as God

In giving us an account of the reactions of well-known people of the time, Wyden makes it clear that the Bomb was not regarded as just another weapon.  Secretary of War Henry Stimson did not regard the Bomb as a new weapon “but as a revolutionary change in the relations of man to the universe.”  It would be “a final arbiter of force.”  He added that the Bomb must not become “a Frankenstein [monster] which would eat us up.”  Those working on the Bomb apparently could not do so without making religious references to nearly every aspect of the weapon’s development and use.  Trinity, the code name used for the initial test at Alamogordo, N.M., was derived, by Oppenheimer, from one of John Donne’s (1572–1631) Holy Sonnets.  In this sonnet, Donne asks God to tear him from the clutches of the Devil. (Tritium, an important component of the first thermonuclear device exploded at Eniwetok in 1952, is a radioactive isotope of hydrogen with a mass three times that of ordinary hydrogen—an apt representation of three-in-oneness.  Carl Jung, the famous Swiss psychiatrist, relates the Divine Trinity to the microphysics of the creation and destruction of matter in his 1958 essay, “A Psychological Approach to the Trinity.”)

The Trinity test was scheduled for 4:00 a.m. Monday, July 16, 1945, near Alamogordo, N.M., on the bleak desert plain known as the Jornado del Muerta—the Journey of Death.  On Sunday the 15th, toward mid-afternoon, thunder was heard.  Wind and rain collapsed tents in the base camp, ten miles from ground zero.  Mist enveloped the test tower, and storms were reported heading for it.  Rumors were circulating about the possibility of the Bomb setting the atmosphere on fire.  At 2:30 a.m. the storm reached ground zero and knocked out the principal searchlight, leaving the test area in pitch darkness.  With the very tiniest tendency toward superstition, one might suspect that something miraculous was in the air.  An ancient reader of signs and portents would have cancelled the whole operation on the basis of such events, clearly announcing a birth of forces hitherto unknown on earth. Participants noted a zombie-like alteration of consciousness at this point, as though ruled by a force demanding that they continue. Oppenheimer himself evinced this state quite clearly.  The test was rescheduled for 5:30 a.m.  Oppenheimer waited for the hour of the Trinity test, his face “white and lifeless,” thinking, “I must remain conscious.”

At the time of the explosion, 5:29:45 a.m., July 16, 1945, William L. Laurence of The New York Times, prone on his belly, thought of the Lord’s command, “Let there be light!”; Isidor Rabi feared that the intense light would burn “forever.”  With clear perception of the case, General Farrell exclaimed, “The long-hairs have let it get away from them!”  Miles away, a blind woman saw the nuclear light.  Kistiakowsky, another of the Los Alamos self-admitted “science-slaves,” remarked, “I am sure that at the end of the world, in the last millisecond of the earth’s existence, the last human will see what we saw.” 

Thus the Bomb imagery encompasses the light of the beginning and the fire of the end of the world.  This “Death Light” represented one aspect of the Bomb phenomena “where theoretical calculations had been off by a big factor.  Much more light was produced than had been anticipated.”

The bomb is Alpha and Omega.  It is, as Winston Churchill remarked, “the second coming in wrath.”  More than mere human agency seemed to infuse the technology of the Bomb: it was considered miraculous that something with the extraordinary technical complexity of the first nuclear device should have worked exactly right on the first try.  Oppenheimer, whose very soul was tuned to the essential meaning of this godlike weapon, came forth with a line from the Bhagavad Gita: “I am become death, the shatterer of worlds!”

On hearing of the success of the Trinity test, Truman remarked, “It may be the fire destruction prophesied in the Euphrates Valley Era after Noah and his fabulous Ark.”

The code name for Tinian, the island from which the nuclear strike against Japan would be launched, was “Papacy.”  At the first Tinian briefing, the projector went haywire and shredded the film of the Trinity test.

The Bomb as Jahweh

The Bomb as “the second coming in wrath,” i.e., the return of Christ to judge the world as told in Revelations points to a return of Jahweh as well.  It is characteristic of Jahweh to be wrathful.  Since God the Father (Jahweh) and Christ are one theologically, symbolic manifestations incorporating aspects of both divine figures may be expected.

Jahweh manifests as a cloud and a pillar of fire.  

Leona Marshall Libby in her book The Uranium People, notes that “Army searchlights were laid on to follow by simple triangulation the ball of fire by night and the mushroom cloud by day … .”  Compare this with Exodus 13:21:

“And all the time the Lord went before them, by day a pillar of cloud to guide them on their journey, by night a pillar of fire to give them light, so they could travel night and day.” (See also Numbers 14:14 and Nehemiah 9:12).

The references to divine fires that burn “forever,” that burn cities, that are “unquenchable” are too numerous to cite.  

From a description in Day One of the condition of some of the victims of the Hiroshima bomb:

Their faces were wholly burned, their eyesockets were hollow, the fluid from their melted eyes had run down their cheeks.

From Zechariah 14:12:

"And this shall be the plague wherewith the Lord will smite all the people that have fought against Jerusalem; Their flesh shall consume away while they stand upon their feet, and their eyes shall consume away in their holes, and their tongue shall consume away in their mouth."

Students of pop culture will recall what happens to the Nazis present at the opening of the Ark of the Covenant in the movie Raiders of the Lost Ark.
This notion of a future Judgment Day with the horrible features described above was elaborated in the eighteenth century by the theologian Friedrich

Christoph Oetinger (Theologie der Elektricität).  According to his conception, this plague will be the result of the withdrawal of electricity from living matter. (In Oetinger, for the first time, electrical forces come to be associated with Judgment Day; one suspects that Oetinger would have developed some very interesting imagery about nuclear radiation.)  According to Oetinger, this withdrawal of the “primordial light” (electricity) from the damned will give rise to the picture described in Isaiah 66:24:

And they shall go forth, and look upon the carcases of the men that have transgressed against me: for their worm shall not die, neither shall their fire be quenched; and they shall be an abhorring unto all flesh.

And in Ezekiel 29:9, 11–12:

"… I will make the land of Egypt utterly waste and desolate. ...  No foot of man shall pass through it, nor foot of beast shall pass through it, neither shall it be inhabited forty years . ...  And I will make the land of Egypt desolate in the midst of the countries that are desolate, and her cities among the cities that are laid waste shall be desolate forty years. ..."

According to the legendary psychiatrist, Carl Gustav Jung:

"[I]t is in war that the sheep [read: people] are sacrificed.  The Christian herd of sheep is now without a shepherd. ...  So to the extent that we deny a personal divine being, we now have the dark gods of the state. … The essential truth comes back to us; whatever has been in a metaphysical heaven is now falling upon us, and so it comes about that the mystery of Christ’s sacrificial death, which has been celebrated untold millions of times by the masses, is now coming as a psychological experience to everybody.  Then the lamb sacrifice is assimilated in us, we are becoming the lambs, and the lambs that are meant for sacrifice.  We become gregarious as if we were sheep, and there will surely be a sacrifice."


We bunch up in systems-dependent cities where the single blow of the bomb can be most closely analogous to the traditional quick, accurate cut of the sacrificial knife.  The movement from the country to the city in this century has been no accident.  According to Zola, the big cities are holocaustes de l’humanité.

The War in Heaven

In periods of great historical transition, when one ruling principle strives to supplant another, the image of the War in Heaven emerges.  A battle is waged above the earth in which the contending spiritual forces battle it out for dominion over the time-bound world.  The chaos of the War in Heaven is commemorated on earth by our ritualistic unruly behavior at the New Year.  In earlier times, a period of ritual chaos reigned after which a new order was established.  We are now in a period of interregnum (a transitional period when there are no ruling principles), and out of this chaos a new ruling principle is trying to establish itself.  Until this is done, we may expect a great deal of disorder, both political and social.  The new gods must destroy or subjugate the old before they can take over.

Since we are in an age when these very old myths are being reborn within the world, we are driven to develop technological analogues to this cosmic strife—Star Wars technology being one of the more dramatic of such manifestations, and the one that contributed heavily to the collapse of the Soviet Union.  

Pax Atomica

At the close of his remarkable book, Day One, Peter Wyden notes a common response to the work: “We’ve had forty years of nuclear peace.  We must have been doing something right all this time.”  To this, Wyden replies, “Wrong.  Anyone able to bring a measure of objectivity to the realities laid out in these pages can surely agree that we’re here today less by design than by the grace of luck.  Sheer dumb luck.”


“Sheer dumb luck” explains nothing, of course.  We have not had nuclear war simply because it is so terrifying a prospect that we avoid almost any kind of major confrontation at all costs.  Since World War II there have been a dozen—perhaps three dozen—incidents that a short time earlier, with only conventional weapons, would have been considered more than serious enough to justify launching full-scale reprisals. No, our “sheer dumb luck” would have run out long ago, if that were all there was to it.  Like Zeus in Aesop’s fable of the stork and the frogs, the universe answered our prayers for a “king,” a “charismatic leader” who will prevent any more world wars—a king much more effective than any United Nations.  The King was the Bomb.  It provided a world-wide order centering around itself and exacting a vast tribute in gold.  Perhaps some day the Bomb will transform itself into a man, a man who centers everything around himself and also extracts a vast tribute in gold.  Could happen.

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Comments

Avatar for Judy Stahl

Interesting thoughts on religious symbolism of the bomb.  I always thought that in the Bible the passage about eyes falling out of their sockets and tongue being consumed in the mouth would have to be caused by some kind of radiation.  I am surprised that God even allow mankind the agency to experiment with nuclear power.  It is probably a necessary risk to take to allow us to learn and grow to a new level. He knows the final outcome, of course.  I think he has his “eye on the sparrow” or we would have blown ourselves to bits long ago.

Judy Stahl on October 3, 2010 at 10:26 pm
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