Astrotheology

(February 12, 2002)

 

By now we've all heard the term "astrophysics" and about scientists who are described as "astrophysticists" -- scientists who specialize on the composition and characteristics of stars and other objects in outer space.  More recently, there is even an emerging field of "astrobiology" as astronomers become more and more convinced that there are other planetary systems obiting other stars, planets which may provide the conditions for the appearance of life.  If this keeps up, could we end up have astrophilosophers and astrotheologians as well?

       It may come as a surprise to some, but there long have been such thinkers, long before the term "astrophysics" much less "astrobiology" was ever thought of.  Cardinal Nicolas von Kues (Nicolas of Cusa) was writing about this possibility of other inhabited worlds around 1440, as was the Franciscan theologian William of Vaurouillon (1392-1463).    This was nearly a century before Copernicus. Then closer to the time of Galileo, the Dominican scholars Thomas of Campanella and Giordano Bruno both held for a plurality of inhabited worlds. In fact, it is often believed, especially by those who like to highlight the conflict between religion and science, that it was this particular belief of Bruno's that got him burned at the stake by the Roman Inquisition in the year 1600.  But if so, then why wasn't Campanella also torched?

       The likelihood was that it was a combination of Bruno's vitreolic personality and his denial of the doctrine of the Trinity, a heresy that got Spanish theologian Michael Servetius burned at the stake, this time by the Calvinists in Geneva in 1553, that was the major cause of Bruno's demise.  Fact is, that despite Luther's condemnation of Galileo (for once Luther thought the Pope was right) there have been quite a few Protestants -- particularly those along more liberal American lines -- who have seen no conflict between the Bible in belief in extraterrestrial life.

       Closer to our own time, the German theologian Joseph Pohle, who once taught at Catholic University in Washington DC, even wrote a book  "On the Starworlds and their Inhabitants" that went through seven editions (in German) by the time his death in 1922. So while the term "astrotheologian" may not have surfaced up to now, it is obvious that such thought is hardly new.

       As for my own thinking on the subject  We know that there are over a hundred million galaxies in the visible universe, with hundreds of billions of stars in each, most of them probably, as it now appears, with planetary systems of their own, with the odds that at least some of them (one in ten in the case of our own solar system) are capable of being the home of intelligent life. Although we may never come in contact with any of life outside of that on our own planet because of the vast distances involved, to suppose that it isn't out there would mean that the human race is either entirely an accident or freak of nature or that God, as a creator, is rather incompetent.     

       This obviously poses problems for Christian theology and its claims of a universal redemption through Christ. Would such creatures even need redemption?  How could an original sin of Adam have affected them?  Or even if we are only talking not about an inherited sin but simply a creaturely condition, how could any of the Gospel "good news" ever reach them?  Long before the people mentioned above began to wonder about such things, the biblical scholar and teacher, Origen of Alexandria (185-254) had speculated about successive creations and hence, multiple worlds.  Maybe it was in light of Origen's thinking that the assembled bishops in the year 325 carefully penned the famous phrase "for us men (i.e. humanity) and our salvation" (emphasis mine) into the Nicean Creed.  If so, "astrotheology" has been around for a very long time.