Posted by: dacalu | 2 December 2010

Other Sheep? Astrobiology and Christianity

“I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.” John 10:16

Humans have long been fascinated with the concept of life…out there. It has profound implications for our self-identity, our philosophy, and yes, our theology. Like extra-terrestrial life, those implications might not be what you were expecting. We live in a particular time and place, for many of us a wonderful and exciting time and place, but Christianity constantly reminds us that there are other times and other places, other ways of looking at the world. Christians call it the virtue of humility – not devaluing self, but seeing the self as a part of a larger whole, an integral and unique part of something infinitely more than the sum of its parts. Thus we must talk about the question of our role in the universe, our role as people, as humans, as Christians. What’s at stake in the question of extra-terrestrial life? Our place in the world.

Tomorrow, the NASA Astrobiology Institute will announce “an astrobiology finding that will impact the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life.” It’s a rather technical way of saying they have news about life in space, or at least a new and amazing type of life here on Earth. I don’t know the details of what it will be, but I think it will be interesting and important – because I think it will tell us something new about ourselves.

In my years studying and teaching about astrobiology (the study of life in space – including Earth, which after all is in space), I’ve noticed that some Christians express anxiety about life outside Earth. I suspect this comes primarily from concern about human exceptionalism. While I understand these concerns, I also think that this new discovery, whatever it may be, will prove through hope to be far more wonderful than worrisome.

The problem of human identity arises equally in astrobiology and evolutionary debates. People want to know whether humans are special and, if so, how? Do we have immortal souls? Are we made in the image and likeness of God? Are we different from other animals? And are we alone in our specialness? If we were to discover life on another planet, it would make it much harder to think of ourselves as unique, and uniquely in God’s favor. After all, we were given dominion over the Earth. What about other planets; are there other dominions? Other intelligent stewards of God’s world(s)? Actually, I enjoy thinking about those kinds of questions, but I do see how they could impact faith. Jesus, very God of very God, became human. Doesn’t that mean that we’re special?

I like to compare this question to a young child asking their parent, “do you love me best?” The doting mother replies that she loves him best, just as she loves his brothers and sisters. It’s possible to be special, just like everyone else. The good news of Jesus Christ lies not in the announcement that humans are in some way better than all other species; it lies in God’s love for us regardless. Just as Jesus was born in a small town far from the center of Roman power; just as God cares for the last and the least; just as heaven belongs to the poor in spirit; so God loves us, regardless of our objective importance in the universe.

“When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?” Psalm 8:4

Prophets have long known the wonder and joy of God’s special concern. It comes not from our deserving but from God’s grace. We need not be threatened by the existence of alien life or other intelligence because God loves us deeply and truly for the sake of love. If we do discover life out there, it can only lead us to a fuller understanding of this truth, a greater knowledge of God’s power, and a deeper appreciation of grace.

The Bible says very little on the subject of extra-terrestrial life. It does say, repeatedly, that God’s vision and creation extend far beyond human understanding. Christians watch the universe in awe and wonder, marveling at the creativity of God who made all things seen and unseen. As a friend of mine once said, Christians are very comfortable with non-human intelligence – we’ve been talking about angels for millennia. It’s possible that Christ lived and died for us alone, but I suspect, indeed I know in my heart of hearts that he did more than that. He ushered in a whole new creation.

The discovery of life on another planet, or strange new life on Earth can never compromise the good news of Jesus Christ. We are worthy because he loved us (and never the other way around). What it can do, what it must do, is tell us something about the great love of God who made the heavens and the earth. It can tell us something important about what it means to be alive, and perhaps what it means to be redeemed. I cannot say what it would mean for Christians to discover that God had created elsewhere. I do not know whether they would have their own image of God, or in some way borrow ours. I do not know whether they would suffer as we suffer, or rejoice as we rejoice. I do not know if they would have their own scientists and theologians, but if they do, I’d love to meet them. Strangers on the road tell us the most fascinating things of distant lands. They remind us of the greatness of creation beyond our own little valley, and the presence of God in each and every place.

With you, I’ll be awaiting the news on astrobiology tomorrow morning. I hope that you can share with me my Advent excitement of awaiting a Lord who exceeds our expectations, who stretches us to be fuller, deeper, and more grace-filled than we could possibly imagine. Christianity teaches us that we are most fully self when we are with others. This applies to families, nations, the world, and even beyond the Earth.

May we see ourselves more clearly in the eyes of others, so that we might more clearly see the One who made us all.

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Responses

  1. Oh, this is nice!

    I do not know whether they would have their own image of God, or in some way borrow ours.

    Yes…fascinating to think about what it means to be created in the image of God while contemplating Creations that might be beyond anything we can understand.

  2. What wonderful news! Tidings of comfort, joy, and knowledge of the marvels of Creation.

    You probably already are well aware of this quote, but it feels appropriate here. It’s from Dr. J. B. S. Haldane, and I came across it years ago in the writings of Arthur C. Clarke, who referred to it as Haldane’s Law. Since then I’ve encountered variations on it and seen it attributed to others as well, but whoever first said it stated a universal truth: The universe is not only queerer than we imagine; it is queerer than we CAN imagine.”

    Dr. Haldane was, he said, an atheist. But he knew more, spiritually, than he KNEW he knew, because he knew this fact. All of creation, other worlds, forms of life that we semi-blind humans may not even recognize as alive, multiple dimensions… anything we can imagine is going to be a drop in the reality, which is forever beyond our comprehension. All we can do is glory in it, and praise the Creator.

    Thank you.


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