Christ and the Universe

The central historical truth-claim of Christianity is that God actually “became man,” (that is, took on human nature) in the person of Jesus Christ, who is, according to the Nicene Creed, “the only son of God.” However, in terms of our vastly expanded knowledge of the universe, is this belief possible or even plausible today? This would seem to be the theological question, still unanswered, that lurks behind the Vatican ’s decision to host group of astronomers, biologists, and theologians at a weeklong conference in Rome early in November 2009 on the subject of the possibility of life, especially intelligent life, elsewhere than on our planet.

When that profession of faith was composed, nearly seventeen centuries agohumans still imagined that the earth was the physical center of the universe. Copernicus questioned that belief in 1530 and by 1613 Galileo, by means of his telescope, had proved that Copernicus was right. But at least we still had the consolation, at least for a few centuries, of thinking that our type of solar system, and our planet, Earth, with its ability to sustain life, was entirely unique. This is no longer the case. At last count, astronomers have discovered nearly 400 other stars in our region of our galaxy that appear to have at least one planet orbiting them. But since they are detecting what is probably only the very largest planet in these other solar systems, we can probably conclude, that if our solar system is at all typical, there are probably about ten times as many planets orbiting these 400 stars, some of which may have atmospheres capable of supporting life. Now, given that there are well over a hundred-billion, perhaps twice that many, stars in our Milky Way galaxy and that there are at least a billion or so other galaxies in that part of the universe that we can so-far detect, then, as anyone can see, the possibility of life, even intelligent life existing elsewhere in the universe, is truly immense.

This is not to say that we will ever make contact with such other intelligent beings, or they with us, despite the continued efforts of the SETI (the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) project with its array of radio telescopes. The vast distances involved make it an extremely long shot—or as the by-now tired joke goes, if extraterrestrials have already come in contact with our TV broadcast signals, they have probably concluded that planet Earth harbors no intelligent life!

But seriously, if we believe God has so loved creation as to become incarnate within it, then the idea that God has done so only once, and this only for the sake of us Earthlings, stretches our powers of belief to, or even quite beyond, its limits.  If God’s decision to “become man” is vital for our salvation, must not have God become an “ET” (and still will become such in many forms) many times over to complete the job?  Or having done it once, would that suffice for all?

That is the question that perplexed the Catholic evolutionary scientist and thinker, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin from the 1920s (when Edmund Hubble proved that other galaxies exist) until Teilhard died in 1955.  For Teilhard, who took the description of Christ as “the first-born of creation … in whom all things hold together” (Colossians 1:15,17) and through whom God will “become all in all” (1 Corinthians 15:28) quite literally, the possibility, even the probability of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe was a major challenge (and still is) to Christian claims.  The closest that Teilhard came to giving his own answer seems to have been a question or suggestion in one of his private notebooks that I saw in the Jesuit (Paris Province) archives in France back in 1970.  Dated  Sept. 28, 1953 it read (and here I have reproduced the note, the best I can, line by line, just as I found it in his rather cryptic jottings):

                En fait, je n’ai pas decide au fond de moi-même, de quelle mesure le

                Jesus historique, de Galilee, est le Xrist Réel, — ou une project. +

                virtuelle du “trans-Christ”….

                = Jesus a “declenché” le X?...

What Teilhard seems to have been asking himself is to what extent Jesus of Nazareth was the sole or unique appearance of what John’s Gospel calls the Logos (Word) or what Teilhard called the (here) the “trans-Christ.” Could there not be the possibility of multiple incarnations, one for each planet? Teilhard seems to have started to lean in this direction in a footnote that he added to his June 1953 essay “A Sequel to the Problem of Human Origins: The Plurality of Inhabited Worlds” (See Christianity & Evolution, London: Collins, 1971, pp. 235-36) but as the above transcribed note attests, he still, some three months later, seems to have remained uncertain.

However, in the note itself, the word declenché  (especially enclosed by quotation marks),  caught my eye.  According to my Larousse dictionary, the verb déclencher  means “to activate, to set off,” or (more figuratively) “to trigger,” or “to launch,”—something like a rocket or a space ship. If so, then what Teilhard seems to have been thinking about is not just a revelation to us here on Earthbut instead a release of a cosmic power of transformation throughout the whole universe. This becomes clear in his final essay, “Le Christique,” finished only a few weeks before his death, where this “trans-Christ’ is described as “the cosmic Christ” who through his incarnation “acquires and develops, in all fullness, a veritable omnipresence of transformation,” indeed extending to a “universal transubstantiation” which involves “the whole mass of joys and sufferings produced by the Convergence of the World as it progresses” (The Heart of Matter, London: Collins, 1978, p.94)

While I assume that by “World” in the above passage means the whole cosmos or universe and accept Teilhard’s far-reaching vision of a universe in evolution towards God in Christ, I still find it hard to imagine that this Christ was fully revealed in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Instead, I have tended, as I have gazed at far-off galaxies in the cold night sky through my telescope in past years, to favor the multiple incarnation theoryafter all, how could we ever expect to convey the message of Jesus over millions, even billions, of light-years to creatures elsewhere in this vast universe? But as I have pondered again, early this morning, the possible meaning of Teilhard’s use of the word declenché, I must admit the word itself has “triggered” second thoughts in my mind. In any case, it seems that not only the Vatican’s theologians, but also Christians around the world have a lot about which to “wonder as we wander out under the stars”—especially during these coming years as the far reaches of this vast universe continue to expand and new stars, and with them new planets, come into being.

R W Kropf       12/4/09                                                        Christ & Universe.doc