Monday, September 30, 2013

Theological implications of exploring interstellar space

The U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration announced in early September of this year that its Voyager I probe has become the first human made object to enter interstellar space. The announcement came after scientists reported evidence that the unmanned spacecraft has crossed the magnetic boundary separating our solar system from the rest of the galaxy. Voyager I was launched more than thirty-six years ago, embarking on a journey to give us close-up views of Jupiter and Saturn before heading toward deep space.

Following that announcement, a friend and former parishioner wrote to me with some thoughtful questions:

To me, this [the exploration of interstellar space] has cosmic and religious ramifications – does space go on forever? If not, what? What is out there? What faith is out there, if any?

The questions evoked memories of a sermon that I preached almost three decades ago entitled, “How big is your God?” The sermon, with more questions than answers, inquired:

·         Is God was one among many gods, each with a part of creation?

·         Do the life forms that almost certainly exist on other planets have religious figures or saviors similar to Jesus?

·         How can we set aside anthropocentric (humans at the center of everything) and geocentric (the earth at the center of creation) biases (astronomers tend to think that our solar system is to one side of the cosmos, not its center)?

I’m not sure that most of the congregation understood the sermon; one couple who did told the senior chaplain that they would not return to the chapel if I were to preach again, they were that distraught over the content of my sermon.

What can we say?

First, we must begin with our ignorance. Neither the Christian tradition nor scriptures say anything about life on another planet, let alone life outside this solar system. Judaism offers a constructive example at this point. Jews have a clear understanding of what their tradition teaches (or, more accurately for most Jews, the spectrum of teachings). Judaism, however, makes no statement about non-Jews, finding their scriptures and tradition silent on the subject. Christians can be clear that in Jesus they recognize what is for them God’s definitive self-revelation. We do not need to invent or hypothesize about whether the God we worship is the only God, etc., but will do well to learn to live with our unanswerable questions.

Second, we can reject as human inventions any claims about God or gods and life on other planets. For example, the claim of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (the Mormons) that faithful males can become a savior, similar to Jesus, for their own planet is at best wild conjecture and more probably simple foolishness. We simply do not have any sources of verifiable information about life outside the solar system nor, for that matter, about God (belief in God depends upon trust in others or personal experience, as I have previously argued in Ethical Musings posts).

Third, the best religious and spiritual teachings consequently emphasize implications for life in the present. How can I, you, or anyone else live more abundantly, completely, and fully today? Questions about what is over the horizon – whether the horizon marked by physical death, the horizon demarcated by the solar system’s boundary, or the horizon of our knowledge – have utility only in shaping our inquiries into the unknown. Genuine religion (or spirituality) gives one courage to live in the face of the unknown, wisdom to discern what is knowable from the unknown, and love with which to embrace the life and the good.

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