Robert Sawyer, Canada’s most celebrated science fiction novelist, begins Calculating God thus: “The alien’s shuttle landed out front of what used to be the McLaughlin Planetarium, which is right next door to the Royal Ontario Museum.” More surprising is the purpose of the alien’s visit: to enlighten humanity as to the scientific fact that God exists.
The alien insists that “the primary goal of modern science . . . is to discover why God has behaved as he has and to determine his methods.” Then the story gets interesting. Sawyer is in good company. Last November, the Winnipeg Free Press ran the headline, “Vatican Asks: Are Earthlings Alone?” followed by the subhead, “Discovery of aliens wouldn’t conflict with belief in God.” Rev. José Gabriel Funes, a Vatican astronomer, observes, “Just as there is a multitude of creatures on Earth, there could be other beings, even intelligent ones, created by God. This does not contradict our faith, because we cannot put limits on God’s freedom.”
The voice of science, if not precisely concurring, is not contradictory. Chris Impey, an astronomer from Arizona, is quoted in the same article saying, “Both science and religion posit life as a special outcome of a vast and mostly inhospitable universe. There is a rich middle ground for dialogue between the practitioners of astrobiology and those who seek to understand the meaning of our existence in a biological universe.”
You gotta love it: a priest and a scientist, both speaking biblically without quoting the Bible.
Underlying their comments are three more questions, implicit in The Big Question: What is the nature of God? What is the nature of the universe? What is the nature of us?
In the introduction to The Case for God, Karen Armstrong states what clergy and theologians have always known but are hesitant to declare. “We are talking far too much about God these days, and what we say is often facile. In our democratic society, we think that the concept of God should be easy. . . . People of faith admit in theory that God is utterly transcendent, but they seem sometimes to assume that they know exactly who ‘he’ is and what he thinks.”
The Scriptures tell a quite different story; and stories are what we live by. Story is to religion as math is to science: foundational. The Bible, in all its stories, knows nothing of the current trend toward chumminess with the Creator. Au contraire: the Scriptures grasp the essential truth that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”
Creation is not ours but God’s. Yes, God loves us; but God loves everything God has created, hence the relentless refrain in the creation story in Genesis: “And God saw that it was good” (Genesis 1:3). That same creation narrative and its echoes in the Psalms and Job 38:40 (“Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?) provide the clear and inviolable message that God, as Creator, is beyond the universe, not a part of it.
Perhaps if we had emphasized this essential insight that “the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof,” we would have avoided the worst of the climate crisis. Instead, we seem to be inclined to tame God as we imagine we have tamed creation, mistaking the art for the Artist, the play for the Playwright.
That brings us to the nature of the universe. The awe and terror with which the people of Israel experienced the universe is reflected in a Russian cosmonaut’s observation that “not only is the universe stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine.” Strange, but not entirely unknowable: both theologians and scientists are convinced that creation is subject to “natural law(s),” though they may attribute different origins to those laws.
But what is the nature of us? What is the truth about our place in God’s universe? The only way to discover the answers to those questions is in relationship. For Christians, the language of revelation, incarnation and community describes our relationship with God. But the Christian faith does not restrict our neighbours from different forms of faith and knowledge.
That applies whether our neighbour lives in Brampton, Bhutan or on a planet orbiting Beta Centauri.
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