Tuesday, April 21, 2009

330. extraterrestrials and the Body of Christ

A few weeks ago on MSNBC's show, Hardball, there was a discussion between atheist Christopher Hitchens (who wrote God is Not Great) and senior fellow at the Family Research Council (a conservative, christian organization), Ken Blackwell. The discussion was about whether America is having a crisis of faith - a Newsweek poll shows that 68 percent of those surveyed believe that religion is losing its influence in America.

At one point, the host asked why it is that religion (particularly Christianity) is losing its hold on growing swaths of the American landscape. Blackwell said that faith in America has always gone up and down. Hitchens suggested that people's skepticism towards faith may have to do with the fact that one of the greatest threats to global peace and stability is terrorism which is itself driven by faith.

If I had to answer the question of why Christianity is losing its influence in America, I have a few ideas but the one I want to talk about here is this: The church really needs to make peace with science. In particular, the whole anti-evolution thing just needs to be dropped.

Crack open any book critiquing the theory of evolution (Google "intelligent design" for examples) and there's one word that you'll see over and over again and it's the word, "impossible." For example, they'll say that it's impossible for evolution to account for the flagellum of certain kinds of bacteria. Or they'll say that while microevolution happens all the time, it's impossible to find the sorts of transitional species required to prove the existence of macroevolution. Most commonly, they'll say that it's impossible for random mutation alone to account for the exquisite intricacy of even the most basic unicellular organism.

I won't go into countering those "impossibles" here because that's already been done in many books. One book in particular that I'll point out is The Language of God by Dr. Francis S. Collins - a christian biologist who headed up the Human Genome Project (when it comes to biological street cred, it doesn't get much better than that). If you want to see those "impossibles" I listed above dismantled, check out Dr. Collins' book.

In this post, I want to argue the more general point that christians need not fear the claims of science - that the church needs to make peace with the scientific world. Now I won't go so far as to say that we need to embrace all of science because just as there are questions and issues that the Bible isn't designed to take on (what's the atomic weight of helium?), there are questions and issues that science cannot tackle (what's my purpose in life?). What I am going to try to say is that religion and science cover two different aspects of the world and they both have a lot that they can learn from one another if they could just get along. I'm no scientist so I'm ill equipped to make the case that science needs to learn from religion, but as a christian, I do want to make a plea to the church to listen to and learn from our friends, the scientists.

Because I believe that there is much that God is trying to show us through them.

I suppose there are a lot of ways I could make the case for the church needing to accept the claims of evolution and other areas of science but I want to try a route that hasn't been tried before - at least I've never heard of anyone taking this tack.

I want to make my case by talking about...

Extraterrestrial life.

Now before you think I've gone all Coast to Coast AM and resign me to the lunatic fringe, conspiracy shelf, I'll have you know that a great many scientists across different fields believe that finding life outside of earth is just a matter of time.

Two reasons why I believe we'll find life outside of earth in the near future:

  1. Turns out the universe is teeming with planets.

    Planets orbiting around stars other than our own sun used to be just a theoretical possibility but today, with scientific tools specifically designed to detect them, planets and solar systems outside of our own are being found with increasing regularity.

    According to the Drake equation, the greater the number of planets circling stars, the greater the possibility of there being life outside our own planet. And so as we continue to find planets, the chances of finding life goes up as well.

  2. Used to be that scientists thought life outside of earth would be rare because twenty or thirty years ago, they thought that life was delicate and required a cushy environment in order to survive. For example, marine biologists used to think that the deep sea was a desolate, underwater dead zone, completely devoid of life because of the lack of light and the extremely high pressures. Then they started sending probes and cameras down and started finding hundreds of new species lurking in the deep. Similarly, scientists have found entire ecosystems living next to hydrothermal vents on the ocean floor - a highly acidic environment where temperatures can reach 750 degrees F. In fact, biologists have found so many creatures living in extreme environments that they've created a category for them called extremophiles.

    The fact that life can be found in such extreme environments makes it all the more likely that life may exist in some of the extreme environments found in our very own solar system.

Just these two factors alone lead me to believe that it's very likely that we will find evidence of life in our own solar system in the very near future and by that I mean in the next few decades if not sooner.

My guess is that we'll find evidence of past life on Mars or one of Jupiter's moons and this life will likely be simple in nature. I suppose it's entirely possible that we will find complex multi-cellular life and/or creatures that are living, but that's almost too good to hope for.

And what will the church say when such life is found?

I'm sure some in the church will do their best to deny the findings as long as they can and as more and more evidence pours in, they'll finally they join in with the Flat Earth Society.

But what if, between now and the then when extraterrestrial life is found, the church were to make peace with science?

Because here's the thing. I'm having trouble finding links to back this up but I know that many of the first scientists were christians. For them, studying the world was a way to learn about God. Romans 1:20 tells us that "God's invisible qualities . . . have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made. . ." In other words, God has revealed himself not just in his Word, the Bible, but also in the universe he created. The first scientists saw this and figured that if they could better understand the world that he created, they might learn more about God.

Then somewhere along the way science and religion began to drift apart. And when Darwinian evolution entered the scene, things really went ape snatch. Some people in the church got it into their heads that scientists were conspiring to debunk the Bible and once their guard when up, all kinds of scientific claims became suspect. I've known christians who railed against quantum mechanics, claiming that the random, chaotic universe it describes is an affront to God who created an ordered, rational universe.

With all due respect to christians who fear science, the fact of the matter is that we have to live in the world that is, not the world that we think the Bible paints for us. Christians have nothing to fear from the theory of evolution because there's nothing in the theory that contradicts the creation account of the Bible. The important thing to realize about the first few chapters of Genesis is that it is NOT meant to be a step by step, blow by blow account of how God created life, the universe, and everything. The main point of those chapters is to show that it was God who did the creating - how he did it is nowhere near as important as the idea that he was the one doing it. At the same time, the Bible does describe God as being wise and in control of what's going on. That doesn't mean that randomness and strangeness at the quantum scale is any threat to God's sovereignty.

To take this idea even further, what if God is trying to teach us things about himself through the things we are learning about his creation? For example, what if through the ideas of evolution God's trying to show us that change isn't such a bad thing after all and that maybe we should be a bit more generous in our orthodoxy - allowing time and "natural selection" sort good theology from bad? Similarly, what if the chaotic nature at the quantum scale is God's way of showing us that even though christianity can get messy and strange on the personal scale, the body of Christ (his church) as a whole can remain solid and firm in the same way that quantum messiness is all but transparent to us.

If the church makes peace with science, it need not be embarrassed when evidence of life is found outside of earth. And mark my words, this will happen whether the church is ready for it or not. If the church sees science as a partner and an ally, it will be able to celebrate with the rest of the world at the discovery that our universe is thriving with life - glory be to God!

And okay, here's where I get really wacky - way outside the box and off the reservation. What if many, many years from now we make contact with intelligent, sentient beings - an entire civilization of them somewhere out there? Wanna know what I think might happen?

While I suppose it's possible that their religious ideas might line up neatly with ours (perhaps with their own visitation from Jesus) I think it's more likely that God (yes, the same God that we know, love, and worship) will have revealed himself to that civilization in a way uniquely suited to them just as he uniquely reveals himself to us here, today. And my speculation is that while elements of their idea of God will differ from ours, the main points will be the same - that God created everything, God loves us and is trying to help us (our unruly selves) to live and thrive in his creation - to right wrongs and to help the needy, the oppressed, and the marginalized.

Hopefully, by the time we get to this point in our own civilization, the various denominations of our own churches will have learned to get along and accept one another. Because if we're as divided and divisive amongst ourselves then as we are today, that's going to make for very thorny inter-galactic ecumenical communications.

In closing, I just want to suggest that maybe, just maybe, we should get some of our best theologians together to think and talk a bit about how our understanding of our place in the universe as informed by the Bible will change if/when evidence for life outside earth is found. I suggest this not just so that the church can be better prepared to respond to such a discovery, I also suggest this because by viewing theology in this broader context, we may find some clues as to how to be the Body of Christ here, today, now. But even without this extraterrestrial theology conference, the church as a whole really needs to make peace with science.


Kacie said...

Amen! I had a friend warn me against delving too deeply into reason and science yesterday, and I am aghast. Reason is not opposed to God - He defines true reason! So, we have no need to fear reason or science, so long as we do it well in light of the truth of God.

I have been writing about these things all week on my blog 9http://wellthoughtoutlife.blogspot.com/), so your post is timely.

Anonymous said...

As my seminary professor said, "If you let science do it's job, and religion do it's job, the two will never contradict."

I have posed the question to my friend who is much more up to date on modern theology than I am: is there any talk about an 'alien Jesus'? I mean, the Son of God visited earth in human form, so can we assume that Jesus came and lived on other planets, with life forms, AS those life forms? An infinite God is capable of loving infinitely, which mean He can reach out to all people, cultures, planets... and species, no?

It's all speculation at this point, but my God wouldn't truly be God of all if He only cared about one planet in this cosmos.

Ashland Jones

Sylvia said...


The real reason religious influence is waning is that Christians simply refuse to be separate from the world. Take the civil unions controversy for example. Homosexual marriages -- which I'm not in favor of, by the way -- do not destroy traditional marriages, as religious types claim. What destroys the unified mother-father household is pure indulgence in sexual immorality and irresponsible pursuit of selfish gratification.

Adultery has broken up more homes than gay people have. Fornication has resulted in more single parent families than gay couples marrying has. Simple heterosexual immorality that religious people refuse to give up, whether it occurs in their adult children or themselves. The sexual fantasies people engage in, the behavior that leads to sexual relationships outside of marriage -- religion has lost its influence simply because religious people don't want to be separate from the non-religious people.

Religious people want all the things non-religious people have: the money, the material comforts, the status in society, the sexual pleasures, the influence, the praise, whatever, the prerogative to get even, to get back, to complain, to treat others badly, whatever. That's why religious influence is waning -- because of massive unwillingness to take up the cross and be conformed to Christ's image.

My favorite class in my zoology major, and the class I got the highest science grade for in college (the 4.0, tops in the class) was Vertebrate Zoology. As I read our two textbooks, I was continually struck by how perfect each creature's design was, how the function and structure of their anatomy was so thought out. Over and over I concluded what joy God must have had designing and creating each animal, and how in doing so it pleased Him to give us humans something to occupy our time with (studying nature and biology).

Well contrary to the idea that people who love God cannot love science, the church I belonged to in Scotland was full of scientists -- professors, teachers, nurses, doctors -- and was in its own league as far as devotion and commitment to Christ.

The intense opposition evangelicals had to Barack Obama, who was educated in a Protestant school, because his father was Kenyan, (aren't missionaries supposed to go to all countries and not be prejudiced against people?), and even more insane, the notion that he was going to ban homeschooling when he himself was homeschooled by his mother, shows that the evangelicals simply aren't thinking.