Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Way, Way Up…

My inner seven-year old boy came rushing out in gleeful giggles last week. It began when I heard that the European Space Agency was landing a probe on a comet. All my dormant astronaut dreams bubbled to the surface, and I marveled loudly, “Wow! A comet!” I’m sure Tabitha got annoyed with my constant, dramatic enthusiasm. I didn’t care. This was Too Cool.

Sadly, while the probe landed safely, it also bounced, settling under a small cliff face. Because it’s solar powered, the resulting shadow means it probably won’t be sending info for long. Nevertheless, that we encountered something so wildly Outer Space seems a wonderful achievement! Next thing you know, we’ll be mining those comets, or sending them Bruce Willis to take selfies.

Again, this is very exciting to me, in a youthful, mouth-gaping way. But I didn’t grow up to pilot space shuttles; I’m a pastor. So it’s my job to think about (cue cheesy music) what it all means… Fortunately, I received a prompt last Sunday, when one of our youngers said- “Shane, your next sermon should be about alien life and God. What do you think?” Awesome question! But since I’d already chosen my next (several) sermon topic(s), I only had this letter available to answer.

I think the comet mission provides a good framework for considering that theological quandary. Because at one level, what space agencies do, and what religion does are incredibly similar. Don’t get me wrong; there are obvious differences! For instance, one reason for launching the probe was determining if comet mining is economically viable. Call that “Exploring reality to see how easily we can exploit places we don’t live.” Religion has done some of that before, of course, with tragic results. But it’s not our core mission, nor what we do best.

Still, another aspect of this story should sound familiar. The probe was also sent to gather knowledge of unknown places. Call that “exploring reality to learn more about what we don’t know.” Another way of putting that is- We’re searching for truth. And isn’t that search also critical to worship, spiritual growth, faith? I think so. Jesus didn’t call himself The Truth so we’d become less curious. We’re described in Genesis 1 as “made in God’s image.” In other words, we’ve created to be co-Creators with God, participants in the exploration and truth-mining business.

And I bring that up because astronomers claim our planet is one among many millions. The universe is massive, and our solar system exhibits no discernibly unique quality. Therefore, the law of averages begs for the conclusion that our earth isn’t the only place life exists. Perhaps even conscious, intelligent life. Indeed, it would be most surprising, given the numbers, if we were alone among the stars. The question isn’t if we’ll encounter life elsewhere, then, but when and what kind.

To which the religiously less-imaginative might shout with horror, “That impossible! It’s not in the Bible!” But neither are solar systems or black holes, and both are real. Or maybe they’d say, “Jesus saved humanity!” Absolutely true, but why couldn’t God reveal Godself to, even redeem, alien civilizations? After all, God reached out already in multiple ways on our earth- Islam, Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity. And more important than all that is the mission we’ve always had as religious folk: searching for and celebrating truth. Why does that matter? Because every truth teaches us more about this God we worship and claim created all.

Thus, my answer to our younger one’s question- What do I think about alien life and God? A) I’d bet some kind of life exists beyond this planet, and b) we’ll encounter it eventually. And most important c) that won’t be a problem for religious folk, for it’ll be a tale as old as time. We’ll be discovering new truths about Creation, and by extension, the Creator, who we’ll still believe loves us and guides us with grace. As long as we don’t revert back to those exploitative ways, in fact, we might learn enough new things about life we’ll sustain ours longer on this fragile planet God gave us to cherish, and protect.

Grace and Peace,
Read more!