Is your theology ready for other worlds?
I am an enthusiast for the insight of the reformation – the principle that finding truth in faith is about continually returning to the source – back to the Scriptures endorsed by Jesus – and asking afresh, “Have I read that right?!” The trauma of the Reformation is testimony to how difficult that dynamic can be.
The history of Christian thought is scattered with moments where a paradigm shift has occurred in society at large, sending devout believers back to the texts with fresh eyes, to come away wondering, “Why did we not see that possibility before?!”
C20th Albert Einstein and C13th Bishop Robert Grossteste
Consider, for instance, the discovery of the properties of light as primordial to the functioning of the universe. It recast our notion of the first moment of creation, relegated time to the realm of contingency, and put the language of God squarely back into scientific conversation. For C20th believers it was a mind-bending intellectual journey. Yet seven centuries before Einstein, the bishop and astronomer Robert Grossteste, had already flagged that an attentive reading of Genesis 1.3 might have brought us to the same conclusion 700 years earlier. We should have known! At least we should have been readier to re-think.
For another example, take the slow, slow shift away from the American slave trade. This was forced upon many in the churches who saw the contemporary social order, enmeshed with the slave trade, as something intrinsic to the way God had ordered human society. Jefferson Davis (president of the Confederate states) summarrized the views of many Christian believers when he stated, “Slavery was established by decree of Almighty God…It is sanctioned in the Bible.” Once the paradigm had shifted, many believers may well have returned to Galatians 3.28 with fresh eyes. We should have seen it before! At least we should have been readier to re-think.
Another example would be plate tectonics. The suggestion of continental drift scandalized many orthodox Christians when it was first mooted in the C16th by Abraham Ortelius. People were not much more ready for the idea when Antonio Snider Pellegrini developed the theory further in the C19th, nor yet when Alfred Wegener championed the cause in the early C20th. Yet even today’s Bible translators shy away from the option of a more direct reading of Genesis 11.1 which – in the plain meanings of the words – states that the “land” used to be “one” and that there was originally only one “shoreline”.*
(*The story, about the fragmenting of society and the multiplying of languages, provides translators purely contextual reasons to choose “people” rather than “land” and “language” rather than “lip/shoreline.” In the first instance there is only a very inexact precedent for such a rendering of the Hebrew word, and in the latter case there is no precedent at all! It is an a priori worldview assumption about the formation of the planet that has decided the common translation. The most direct translation of the words aligns with the now-accepted understanding of continental drift. Translated simply and straightforwardly the Bible therefore raises the possibility of either a dramatically more recent geological timeline for tectonic movements, or a dramatically more ancient timeline for the human race. Or both.)
Plate tectonics has rightly sent us back to the work of our translators to ask, “Have we read that right?!”
Conversely scientific discovery sometimes sends us back to the Scriptures with fresh confidence. For instance DNA evidence sends us back to the Genesis story of global repopulation through a single family with fresh confidence.
Whatever the cause, it is good to be sent back to our Scriptures to ask honestly and open-mindedly, “Have I been reading that right?” Then we must allow our re-reading to reform our thinking further! This continual process tests our readiness to be believers in reform – ecclesia semper reformanda. As creatures of habit few of us can be wholly comfortable with our universe changing!
It’s a perpetual challenge: how ready are we to wake
up in a different world to the one we fell asleep in?!
So to return to the question of cosmology; is your theology large enough to allow for a busier universe than the one we have known to date?!
I ask because over the last decade there has been an acceleration of unusual disclosures around the world,from government agencies and other significant sources. From the 1940s on, until just the last decade, governments and military around the world employed senior personnel whose jobs were to collate accounts of phenomena, such as UFO’s and close encounters where an extra-terrestrial explanation seemed the most obvious explanation. All these officials had the same remit; to publicize all the cases which could be explained or debunked and classify all those that couldn’t. From around the turn of the new millennium, all these offices around the world were vacated.
But it is what has happened since that has spoken volumes. Because, from 2008 onwards, a significant proportion of those former officials were permitted to form an independent international body dedicated to campaigning publicly for the total disclosure of all government and military UFO files.
What has resulted from that campaign is also surprising. Because from 2008 to 2013 a huge volume of material has been released by governments around the world. Previously classified cases of phenomena, publicly witnessed, filmed, examined by military and civil authorities; cases where an ET explanation was unavoidable were now in the public realm – with no official debunking. Given the clarity and coherence of the materials now disclosed we can only ask what that would leave still to be disclosed.
President Truman c.1947
To date the USA has not participated in these disclosures. It still enforces the National Security Act of 1947 signed by President Truman specifically to classify UFO investigation following the incident that year at Roswell, New Mexico. Before the Roswell incident investigations and discourse about the phenomena had been undertaken in the public arena and were commented on openly by military and government alike.
Project Mercury Astronaut Gordon Cooper
Apollo 14 Astronaut Edgar Alan Mitchell
Professor John Mack – Harvard Medical School
In the same time-frame statements supporting ET contact began to be made by a great number of figures but, significantly, without the previous well-established pattern of challenge, debunking by authorities. The era of violent gag orders, such as had been suffered by the witnesses at Roswell appeared to be put in the past.
Voices that have spoken freely in the last decade include former intelligence operatives, military personnel, surgeons (echoing the work of Harvard Professor John Mack) eyewitnesses, commercial and military airline pilots, and NASA personnel.
NASA personnel who have publicly testified to ET contact include Mercury astronauts Gordon Cooper, Scott Carpenter, and Donald Slayton; and Apollo astronauts Eugene Cernan, Buzz Aldrin, Dr Brian O Leary, Edgar Alan Mitchell, Lt Col Onizuka; and recently Leroy Chiao, the former commander of the International Space Station.
In short we have now heard testimony supporting ET contact from an array of intelligent, authoritative, credible people, including figures as eminent as the current Russian Prime Minister Medvedev.
Russian PM Medvedev
Needless to say, no individual gains any kudos or credibility from making such statements. Quite the reverse. People make these statements against their own reputations. In the past people have lost their jobs simply by speaking about what they had witnessed and experienced. This was especially true of commercial airline pilots. So this sudden pattern-change caught my attention.
Dr Edgar Alan Mitchell – 6th man to walk on the moon – speaking about the need for disclosure regarding ET contact and the movement of various governments around the world towards disclosure of ET files.
Then in 2009, during his brief tenure as Pope, Benedict XVI (formerly Cardinal Ratzinger) called upon the Pontiffical Academy of Sciences to convene an international colloquium specifically to discuss the theological ramifications of contact with extra-terrestrial civilisations.
Fr Gabriel Funes
This unusual and internationally publicized event followed a sudden sequence of statements and interviews that began the year before. These were issued by senior Vatican theologian, Fr Gabriel Funes. Fr Funes is the Director of the Vatican Observatory.
The gist of these authoritative statements was that Christian believers need to be ready in our theology and practice “to love our extra terrestrial brothers and sisters.” That these statements were made under so conservative a Pope, by such an authoritative Papal spokesperson, signalled a sudden, significant and surprising departure for the Vatican.
Then in 2011 came a very public spat between US and UK governments over demands made by the USA for the extradition of a computer hacker, Gary McKinnon. McKinnon had evinced data, images and text from NASA computers which appeared to indicate a level of ET contact and collaboration.
The matter was discussed publicly in parliament (you can watch it on YouTube!) and the British Government responded with a refusal to extradite Gary McKinnon to the USA where he faced a potential 60 years in jail. In fact Britain quickly passed a bill through parliament which changed the UK’s extradition laws with the USA in order to protect Gary McKinnon. The very public handling of this conflict – without any official reference ever being made to implications of the data itself – was, to say the least, very curious and surprising!
Theresa May MP as British Home Secretary in 2012, discussing the need to change British law in order to swiftly block Gary McKinnon’s extradition
The above are facts. They are easily confirmed. They are all matters in the public domain. All would seem to point in the same direction. A certain level of disclosure has been agreed across many nations – as evidenced by the case studies that have been released and the liberty now allowed – even to some officials and government related personnel – to participate in the public conversation. Even without a parallel declassification of UFO files by authorities in the USA, similar liberty is being exercised by similar levels of personnel in the USA too.
This unusual succession of events in the last few years has completely reversed my previous views. They strongly suggest to me that we believers may need – as Fr Funes says – to be ready sooner rather than later to make room in our theology for E.T.
In a cryptic public remark in a speech marking the 25th anniversary of the first moon landing, the reclusive Apollo 11 Astronaut Neil Armstrong issued a call to the next generation to peel away “truth’s protective layers”. Given the material already in the public domain, one has to ask what will further disclosures bring to light?
Apollo Astronaut Neil Armstrong
In the light of a more populous universe, how would we then read the Adam and Eve narratives? What would shift in our understanding of the Incarnation and the Cross? What would change in our vision of heaven and of human society? Would such a revelation send us back to Psalm 8.3-4, or Genesis 6.2 or John 10.16 to ask, “Why didn’t we see that possibility before?”
You might want to ask me, “But, Paul, why is it important? Why even raise the question on a theological blog?” Because, like Gabriel Funes, I would not want to see Christians blind-sided by new information they can’t find room for in their theology.
Considering the struggle of previous paradigm shifts, we can see on reflection that a faith is an impoverished faith if it can be blown out of the water by the revelation of a spherical planet, or a solar system with the sun at the centre, or a planet whose land masses move, or a climate that can shift, or a society of racial and gender equity! I hope that my Christian brothers and sisters have a faith that is thoughtful enough to be ready – in the way Gabriel Funes encourages – to accommodate new revelations about the universe. If there are further material disclosures to come I just wouldn’t want believers to be blind-sided by them.
Of course I may be wrong in my expectations on this topic. You may read the last decade of disclosure and declassification differently, and draw different conclusions. But in the end, whatever our current suppositions, our Christian faith is something more than a canon of propositions and conclusions. Orthodox faith is, ultimately, not about having a thought system replete with orthodox conclusions. It is essentially about having in Holy Scripture an orthodox source to be sent back to, time and again to ask afresh, “Have we been reading this right!” That is the renewal of our minds (Romans 12.1ff) that transforms our world. That is the business of being ecclesia semper reformanda.
For further reading…
Christian thought has many times been at the cutting edge of significant paradigm shifts in the past. For a fascinating view of the historic interplay between science and faith let me recommend Margaret Wertheim’s illuminating work: Pythagoras’ Trousers: God, Physics and the Gender Wars.