Terra Australis Incognita

I dig explorers. People who go where no one has gone before. Pioneers who were the first to reach summits, cross oceans, circle globes, walk on the moon, fly. In 2007, a Canadian named Jason Lewis completed the first human-powered circumnavigation of Earth. It took him 13 years. I used to check his progress occasionally. I wanted to be him.  

I think there is something uniquely human about the drive to explore. It seems hardwired into our species. We aren’t content with the shire. We long to go somewhere. Mobility is a key element in our flourishing. Trapped, stuck, imprisoned, becalmed, or stranded are always negative circumstances, whether they are imposed by poverty, weather, or correctional officers. Other species don’t gaze at the stars and imagine how they appear on other planets; but we do. We tell stories of great adventure. We celebrate journeys. Southwest Airlines teases at more than embarrassing situations when they posit, “Wanna get away?”  

But there is something else we long for in the going: order. Here’s an example: for centuries before the expeditions of Captain James Cook, maritime explorers believed that there was an enormous land mass somewhere in the South Pacific. Surely, they thought, there had to be more than water between the Straits of Magellan and the Cape of Good Hope. They even named this imaginary land: Terra Australis Incognita. The Unknown Southern Land. Cartographers put it on maps and globes. When they discovered a continent that was later named Australia, they were nonplussed. It was too small. There had to be a bigger continent out there somewhere, they insisted. There had to be more land.  

There was no exploratory evidence to suggest such a land mass, of course. The reason explorers believed in it? Global symmetry. They thought, surely, that there had to be some southern land to balance out the known continents. Surely the Earth couldn’t be so asymmetrical, so random.  

I find this fascinating for two reasons.  

First, it suggests our human tendency to favor belief over evidence. To insist that “it must be so” despite testimony that it mustn’t.  

But it also reveals something about our desire for order. I think such desire is also hardwired in us. Explorers, conquistadors, and missionaries endure their taxing journeys not just to visit other lands but to civilize them. To bring them to order. This, of course, may not always be well-advised, but it is, nonetheless, a constant theme in our history. We aren’t satisfied with the world we’ve been given. We seek to build a better one.  

Last summer, while playing one of my favorite local golf courses, I met an older gentleman who had emigrated to America from Fiji late in life. He discovered that I’m a pastor and launched into a stream of obliquely antagonistic assertions about politics and religion. He was polite, but he wanted a rise out of me. At one point in the conversation, the exchange went something like this: 

Him: I just think you can’t make laws that impose morality on people.  
Me: Well, I think you have to be careful about what laws you make, but really, all laws impose morality to some degree.  
Him: No, not all laws. I mean, I just think some laws are there to promote order.  
Me: Right. So order is a moral value worth promoting. You would agree that order is better than chaos, right? That’s a value judgement. That’s a declaration of morality.  
Him: I hadn’t thought of it that way.  
Me: Also, you should move the ball back in your stance.  

Ok, it didn’t go exactly like that. I fumbled with my words more and didn’t sound nearly so wise or eloquent. I also didn’t give him swing advice. But the story illustrates the point. Order is in our DNA. Whether we’re from America or Fiji, whether we are believers or unbelievers, whether our particular cultural order makes sense to the next tribe or not, we humans seek out tidiness.  

As my friend John explains brilliantly in his book, there is a reason that the story of humankind begins in a garden and ends in a city. Our species was born into a world that was threatening and wild and chaotic and fierce. And the very first command we received was “fill the Earth and subdue it.”  

You can believe, as many do, that that command is part of a creation myth imagined by people to explain the desire they found in themselves. You can believe that order is an evolutionary accident, something humans stumbled onto and instinctively keep because it helps perpetuate the species. But you can’t deny that order is a moral value for humans, that it is part of our global collective ethic, that anarchists are an aberration and, most likely, probably not entirely honest or self-aware of their internal relationship with chaos.  

For my part, I see enough evidence to believe that order is something given to us; part of what C.S. Lewis called the “moral law,” the sense of value written on each of our hearts that whispers our thoughts about right and wrong, light and dark, kindness and cruelty. I believe that the command given in Genesis was given by a God with an ordered mind to people who were meant to be his allies. Our species strives for symmetry because of our commission. We are called to be regents of order in a fallen, chaotic world. Nuncios of a new kingdom. Emissaries of the good news sent into untidy, unexplored realms of darkness, injustice and sin. Explorers. 

And I dig explorers.