In and Beyond: How Cosmic a God?
When distinguished ASU professor Paul Davies gave our annual Fran Park Memorial Lecture at Pinnacle Presbyterian on January 31, he talked about his perspective as a scientist on what Christian theologians might need to think about in light of contemporary research in both human origins and the possibility of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe.
Davies called out what he described as twin biases in Christian theology, if the work of God's redemption in Christ Jesus is located in and for humans. One is a species-bias, revealed by science that's now showing how intermingled early humanoid species were. Did Jesus die for Neanderthals as well as Homo Sapiens? How about the others? And what happens if the lines are intermixed, as they seem to have been (with many of us having some amount of Neanderthal blood flowing in our bodies)? And on the far side, did Jesus die for other planets too? Or will they have their own savior? How would an earth-bound story located in Palestine be efficacious (to use a theological term) for another world, especially if the sin it heals is the sin of Adam and Eve?
Interesting questions, maybe. But I learn something a little different from them than what I think I was supposed to.
As often happens in the theology and science dialogue, even among persons who hold high regard for the other (which includes Davies), scholars can often see the complexity of their own fields even while they are not so able to see the full complexity of another's. Some of that happened here as Paul Davies took a rather particular theological tradition to be definitive of the whole of Christian theology, and so suggesting that one might need to go outside the Christian tradition to deal with what science is showing.
Well, he's right in some ways. But he's also quite wrong, too. But his error is not his fault, I think.
Let me explain. First, what he describes as a speciesist and terrestrialist presumption in Christian theology may well be accurate for a stream of Christian thought that's tended to drive much of popular Protestant thinking. But that stream is not the whole river. For right back in scripture (see Colossians, Ephesians, John), early theologians were already expanding the effect of Christ beyond one world and one species. They began to describe Jesus as the Christ, the "alpha and the omega" (beginning and end), pre-existent and present at the creation of all that is, coeternal with the "Father" and the Spirit, healing all of creation in his self-sacrificial love, revealing of the love that created all things. That stream of thinking has no real trouble with the possibilities that Professor Davies lays out. One might not agree with the perspective on Jesus taken in a more cosmic theology, but one can't deny that the tradition holds within itself plenty of ideas that can embrace a lively cosmos and a complex origin to intelligent life. After all, if we carry Neanderthal genes within our Homo sapiens cells, so did the historical Jesus. And the Apostle Paul spoke of a natural impulse toward God among persons who haven't encountered Jesus or heard his story. How far does that extend? God only knows.
In his response to Davies during that event at Pinnacle, theologian Ron Cole-Turner spoke of St. Francis, who used to preach to animals, and to trees, and to rocks—not because they could understand, but simply because they are also created, and if they are created they also display the glory of God and so deserve to be honored by hearing the Word too. Now I don't make a habit of following Francis' example. But, who knows, maybe I should.
So why is ignorance of a more cosmic tradition of theological thinking not really Davies' fault? Well, because I think preachers might share the blame by being too content with preaching a theologically thin gospel, by not opening the richness of the Christian tradition to their hearers, by speaking too often to "felt need" and not often enough to folk's "capacity to hear." The Christian tradition is so very rich, so very alive, and so very nuanced. One doesn't need to give theological lectures from the pulpit, but perhaps we can still do better to open the church to the whole of the gospel, and the world at large too—and maybe even the cosmos, for that matter!