Is your theology ready for other worlds?
I am an enthusiast for the insight of the reformation – the principle that truth in faith is about being continually sent back to the source – to those Scriptures endorsed by Jesus – to ask afresh, “Have I read that right?!”
The trauma and violence of the Reformation itself is testimony to how difficult we in the churches sometimes find that dynamic. And 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
Take, 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, relegating time to the realm of contingency, and putting ideas of God squarely back into scientific equations. For twentieth century believers it was a mind-bending intellectual journey. Yet seven centuries before Einstein, the bishop and astronomer Robert Grossteste, had already flagged that a different and attentitve reading of Genesis 1.3 might have brought us to the same conclusion 700 years earlier. We should have known! At least perhaps we should have been readier to re-think.
Or consider the slow, slow shift away from the American slave trade. This was forced upon many in the churches who often 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.
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” with only very inexact precedents.). 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 actually no precedent at all! It is essentially an a priori worldview assumption about the formation of the planet that has determined the prevailing translation. The most obvious translation of the words affirms the now accepted understanding of continental drift – albeit with either a more recent timeline for tectonic movements or much more ancient timeline for human history.)
We have gone back sometimes with fresh confidence. For instance DNA data sends us back to the Genesis story of global repopulation with fresh confidence. Other times we return to our sources puzzled by fresh questions. At times debate in society at large may send us back to our Biblical texts with a questions for which the texts may never have been intended. For example I may be very interested in the precise age of the planet, the processes of creation and the apparent succession of species. These, however, may not be the questions Genesis was written to address. What is good, though, is to be sent back to oue Scriptures to ask honestly and open-mindedly, “Have I been reading that right?” and then to allow the texts and their context to reform my thinking further!
Archeology, geology, cosmology, medical research, DNA research, research into human sexuality – these fields and who knows how many others have the potential to challenge us afresh as to our readiness to be believers in reform – ecclesia semper reformana. 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?!
My own theology has been periodically challenged, revised, reformed or re-booted on a number of fronts through the years – not least on eccelesiology, baptism in mission, women in leadership, the authority of Scripture and eternal destinies. On all fronts I hope I am truer to our sources than I was before. But I am always in process! On a wider canvas, I wonder what else might we have known before? How ready are you or I to shift our paradigms as new data comes to light?
I wonder, is your understanding of God big enough to allow for a busier universe than the one we have known to date?! I ask because there has been a rapid succession of unusual disclosures around the world from government agencies and significant sources over the last decade. From the 1940 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 had the same remit; to publicize all the cases which would be explained and manage all those that couldn’t. From around the turn of the millennium these offices around the world were vacated.
It’s what happened next that particuarly drew my attention – because from 2008 onwards a significant proportion of those office bearers were permitted to set up an international body dedicated to a campaign for the declassification and total disclosure of all government and military UFO files. What then resulted from that campaign is also rather surprising. Because from 2008 to 2013 a huge volume of material was indeed released by governments around the world. Essentially these were the now declassified cases of phenomena, publicly witnessed, filmed, examined by military and civil authorities; cases where an ET explanation was both obvious and unavoidable. Given the clarity of the materials that have been disclosed we can only ask the question as to what that leaves still to be disclosed.
As yet the USA has not yet participated in these disclosures. It still enforces the National Security Act of 1947 which was brought in under President Truman specifically to classify UFO investigation following the famous incident at Roswell, New Mexico. Before that incident investigations and discourse about the phenomena had been undertaken in the public arena and were commented on openly by military and government.
Throughout the same period statements supporting ET contact began to be made by a great number of figures but without the previous well-established pattern of challenge, correction or official debunking by authorities. Those voices included former intelligence operatives, military personnel, surgeons (echoing the work of Harvard Professor John Mack) local eyewitnesses from the famous crash site at Roswell, NASA personnel – including Mercury and Apollo astronauts Gordon Cooper, Buzz Aldrin and Edgar Mitchell; an array of intelligent, authoritative, credible people, including figures as eminent as the current Russian Prime Minister Medvedev.
Needless to say, no individual gains any kudos or credibility, nor any kind of positive publicity from making such statements. Quite the reverse. People make these statements against their own reputations. So this pattern change caught my attention.
Project Mercury Astronaut Gordon Cooper
Apollo 14 Astronaut Edgar Alan Mitchell,
Professor John Mack – Harvard Medical School
Then in 2009 under Pope Benedict (formerly Cardinal Ratzinger) the Pontiffical Academy of Sciences convened an international colloquium specifically to discuss the theological ramifications of contact with extra-terrestrial people. This followed a sudden sequence of statements and interviews beginning in 2008 issued by senior Vatican theologian, Fr Gabriel Funes, (Director of the Vatican Observatory). The gist of these authoritative statements indicated that Christian believers ought to be ready in our theology and practice “to love our extra terrestrial brothers and sisters.” Particularly being given by such an authoritative spokesperson these statements represented a sudden, significant and surprising departure for the Vatican.
Then in 2011 came a very public spat between US and UK governments over demands being made by the USA for the extradition of Gary McKinnon. McKinnon had evinced data, images and text from NASA computers which seemed to indicate a level of ET contact and collaboration. The matter was discussed publicly in parliament and the British Government responded with a refusal to extradite Gary McKinnon and by quickly passing a bill that changed the UK’s extradition laws with the USA in order to protect Gary McKinnon. The very public handling of this conflict – without extensive reference ever being made to the data itself – was, to say the least, curious and surprising!
Russian PM Medvedev
Fr Gabriel Funes
The above are facts. They are easily confirmed. They are 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. The policy shift and these public disclosures strongly suggest to me that we believers may need 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 needs to peel away “truth’s protective layers”. Given the material now 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.