Life beyond Thulcandra

Lamentably our old friend James Penman has been unable to contribute here for a good while, for various reasons. But he has continued to send me a trickle of old sources on one of his church history interests – Christian beliefs about extraterrestrial life. I guess this is because it’s widely thought that Christian doctrine excludes life on other worlds (enabling atheists to anticipate, with bated breath, the first actual bacteria found on Mars as a final debunking of the Gospel). But it ain’t actually so.

It’s interesting to consider that, from the beginning of the Church’s history, it was scientific orthodoxy that more or less excluded the consideration of the possibility of ET life. Western science, and therefore the Church for the most part, was firmly geocentric along Ptolemaic lines, a scheme which more or less dictated that the stars should be on a sphere at a relatively low fixed distance of maybe 90 million miles. Observation, of course, supported this view, which was why Copernicanism was so slow to catch on amongst astronomers.

In the Old Testament period, as we have recently been exploring, the concept of “cosmos” did not yet exist, and so seeing the earth as a layer-cake with the heavens uppermost, and the stars as lights rather than objects, militated against speculations regarding other worlds based on them. The Hebrew Bible was concerned only with mankind and his world. In non-Hebrew cultures the stars were even divinities, and certainly not physical objects – and that included the Sun and the planets. The speculations of Greek heliocentrists like Aristarchus, originating between the Testaments but soon going out of fashion, therefore had little impact on Christian thought. It really took the Copernican revolution to make extraterrestrial life (as we don’t know it, Jim) thinkable, apart from the odd philosophical speculation.

The first writer to raise the issue practically was the mathematician Thomas Digges, the first commentator on Copernicus in English. Unlike Copernicus he saw that a moving earth made an unbounded universe plausible for the first time (though he was aware that the Pythagoreans had visited the idea before). The stars might well, then, be suns like ours at a great distance, and have similar planets orbiting them and containing life.

Sadly for the mythology of Church persecution of heliocentrism, Digges was a loyal Elizabethan Anglican of Calvinist bent – he saw the possibility of other stars and worlds being the abode of the elect, and the earth the low point of sin. And so on the schematic in his 1576 A Perfit Description of the Caelestial Orbes he wrote:

This orb of stars fixed infinitely up extends itself in altitude spherically, and therefore immovable the palace of felicity garnished with perpetual shining glorious lights innumerable, far excelling over [the] sun both in quantity and quality the very court of celestial angels, devoid of grief and replenished with perfect endless joy, the habitacle for the elect.

As another source says:

Digges’s geometrical vision was thus grounded in a rich stratum of metaphor, moral evaluation and religious commitment. But he did not seek to provide a firm disciplinary foundation for his mathematical astronomy through a systematic philosophical or theological justification of these assumptions.

In other words, unlike  Giordano Bruno, for Digges such a potential wealth of life was an exciting and orthodox possibility, and not a philosophical necessity based on Hermetic speculation about God’s omnipresence and infinitude.

As heliocentrism became mainstream, the “liberation” of the stars from their sphere led to quite a lot of discussion amongst Christians in the seventeenth century – it’s been argued that the opening up of the distant cosmos was more important to Christian thought than heliocentrism itself. A typical early example that Penman alerted me to long ago is the Puritan Richard Baxter:

I know it is a thing uncertain and unrevealed to us, whether all these globes be inhabited or not. But he that considereth, that there is scarce any uninhabitable place on earth, or in the water, or air; but men, or beasts, or birds, or fishes, or flies, or worms, and moles, do take up almost all; will think it a probability so near a certainty as not to be much doubted of, that the vaster and more glorious parts of the creation are not uninhabited; but that they have inhabitants answerable to their magnitude and glory.

In the following century the leading Reformed Baptist Andrew Fuller wrote on the matter (The Gospel its Own Witness, Part 2). Bruno had rather blithely said that since there were infinite worlds like ours, maybe half of them (ie another infinity) would inevitably have fallen into sin, and so God must have created an infinite number of Christs to redeem them. The Enlightenment’s Thomas Paine used such an argument to discredit the Gospel – what kind of Christ can be rushing from world to world repeatedly dying for sin?

Fuller rejoined that there is no reason to suppose sin to be other than the aberration Genesis apppears to make it:

If our world be only a small province, so to speak, of God’s vast empire, there is reason to hope, that it is the only part of it where sin has entered, except among the fallen angels; and that the endless myriads of intelligent beings, in other worlds, are all the hearty friends of Virtue, of order, and of God. If this be true, (and there is nothing in philosophy or divinity, I believe, to discredit it,) then Mr. Paine need not have supposed, if he could have suppressed the pleasure of the witticism, that the Son of God should have to travel from world to world in the character of a Redeemer.

He goes on to argue (in a way reminiscent of the cosmos represented in C S Lewis’s Perelandra trilogy) that it is not extraordinary that one place should be chosen as the scene for a unique demontsration of God’s glory and goodness, and that rebellious earth should be that stage:

If any one part of God’s creation, rather than another, possessed a superior fitness to become a theatre on which he might display his glory, it should seem to be that part where the greatest efforts have been made to dishonour him. A rebellious province in an empire, would be the fittest place in it to display the justice, goodness, and benignity of a government. Here would naturally be erected the banner of righteousness; here the war would be carried on; here pardons and punishments to different characters would be awarded; and here the honours of the government would be established on such a bails, that the remoter parts of the empire might hear, and fear, and learn obedience. The part that is diseased, whether in the body natural, or the body politic, is the part to which the remedy is directed.

Note that this makes sense only where sin is seen as a spiritual prodigy: in those evolutionary theologies where sin is an inevitable and natural stage of things, Payne’s criticism holds good, and I for one don’t think that the (late) Christian singer-songwriter Larry Norman’s response really solves the problem:

And if there’s life on other planets
Then I’m sure that He must know
And He’s been there once already
And has died to save their souls

In the next century, Thomas Chalmers, founding father of the Free Church of Scotland and author of one of the Bridgewater Treatises, wrote in his Astronomical Discourses of 1817:

Why then suppose that this little spot, little at least in the immensity which surrounds it, should be the exclusive abode of life and of intelligence? What reason to think that those mightier globes which roll in other parts of creation, and which we have discovered to be worlds in magnitude, are not also worlds in use and in dignity? Why should we think that the great Architect of nature, supreme in wisdom, as He is in power, would call these stately mansions into existence and leave them unoccupied?

He adduces the very size of the cosmos, and the uniformity of its laws, as evidence:

Shall we say, that this scene of magnificence has been called into being merely for the amusement of a few astronomers? Shall we measure the counsels of heaven by the narrow impotence of the human faculties? or conceive, that silence and solitude reign throughout the mighty empire of nature; that the greater part of creation is an empty parade; and that not a worshipper of the Divinity is to be found through the wide extent of yon vast immeasurable regions?

Now, in itself his argument is inadequate to settle the matter: God might indeed decide to make life on earth a unique case, and the vastness of a cosmos uninhabited by other physical beings a matter for himself alone. Indeed, one of the intriguing aspects of cosmic fine tuning is the realisation that a vast universe is necessary to enable the conditions a tiny inhabited world like ours requires. God’s prodigality in doing so much for us would make as plausible, and inconclusive, a case. Yet Chalmers once more shows that extraterrestrial life poses no inherent problem whatsoever for Christianity. Neither, though, does a universe in which life is unique to the earth – a situation (presently the only one for which actual evidence exists) that in contrast poses a big problem for metaphysical naturalism.

Baxter, Fuller and Chalmers, it should be noted, all speak from the heart of orthodox Reformed faith, and accommodate without difficulty intelligent life on other planets, just as other Reformed people like B B Warfield and Asa Gray found no difficulty in accommodating darwinian evolution within their faith, without having to do injustice either to science or theology. The same is equally true of the last example Penman has (so far) given:  the great Baptist preacher C H Spurgeon, a whole generation later than Chalmers, for whom extraterrestrial life was something to raise even with his normal Sunday congregations:

All creation was meant to be a grand orchestra, the angels occupying the higher seats and sounding the higher notes, while descending in the scale, the inhabitants of the divers worlds, which are perhaps countless in multitude, taking their places in the one harmonious song.
Full Redemption. Delivered on Sabbath Morning, April 22nd, 1860.

Spurgeon adds another (typically Calvinistic) consideration on why God would be so extravagant in his salvific response to the sins of lowly mankind on Planet Earth:

He is the Governor of all worlds, and must maintain his government. There may be tens of thousands of races of creatures all subject to him, and governed by the same law of immutable right and justice, and if it were whispered throughout the universe that on so much as one solitary occasion the Judge of all the earth had winked at sin, and exercised his sovereignty to suspend his moral law, and to deny justice its due, it would not matter how obscure an object the tolerated sinner might be, he would be quoted in every world and mentioned by every race of creatures, as a proof that divine justice was not invariable and without respect of persons.
Man’s Thoughts and God’s Thoughts. Delivered on Sunday Morning, February 18th, 1866.

Spurgeon’s sermons include a number of such themes. Perhaps most remarkable is that he was commenting on the possibility of interplanetary travel almost as soon as science fiction began to become a popular genre. Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon was published in 1865. Only 4 years later Spurgeon wrote:

If he should give us commissions to distant worlds, as perhaps he will; if he shall prepare us to become preachers of his truth to creatures in unknown orbs; if he shall call us through revolving ages to publish to new created myriads the wondrous grace of God in Christ, with what ardent pleasure will we accept the service! How constantly, how heartily will we tell out the story of our salvation by the precious blood of Jesus!
Christ with the Keys of Death and Hell. Delivered on Lord’s-Day Morning, October, 3rd, 1869.

With this in mind, perhaps it should be less surprising that my own first astronautical hero, Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future, of the 1950s boys comic The Eagle, was first conceived by the paper’s founder, Rev Marcus Morris, as a space-age chaplain. How did Sci-Fi ever become secularised?

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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5 Responses to Life beyond Thulcandra

  1. Noah White says:

    Hi Jon!

    A bit off this admittedly frustrating and fascinating topic, but have you by chance read much from Stephen M. Barr? I stumbled on his writing last night and he’s really fascinating. In particular, this article on randomness may be of interest to you (nothing you haven’t said or reasoned through here on the blog, but still):

    Additionally, an interesting book review:

    • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

      Yup, Noah – I’ve read a fair number of articles by him. He’s considered a “friendly” by the IDM, except (I think) in this question of randomness. He’s in total agreement with me on epistemological v ontological randomness (by other names), and with Joshua Swamidass in insisting that science only properly deals with the latter.

      Yet (as I’ve said) it’s one thing to distinguish speaking scientifically from scientists speaking unscientifically, but in the end no more useful than asking if a president is acting legally to tap phones or not – if he gets away with it it’s academic, because the non-presidential act will give advantage to the president.

      So barr quotes Fransciso Ayala, speaking scientifically about chance – but Ayala is on record (even in a BioLogos article) of denying that many outcomes of evolution could be God’s work in terms of their “morality” and their “good design”. So it’s clear that behind his epistemological randomness he does not grant a governing providence.

      The same confusion, you’ll recall, has regularly occurred at BioLogos, as my series on chance pointed out.

      Of course, a president breaking the law can be impeached, which clearly demonstrates he was acting unpresidentially. And if scientists were always called out and sanctioned on their confusion of scientific usage with atheistic usage, the confusion would soon disappear. But both seldom seem to happen in the real world, including the world of school textbooks.

      “Evolution guided by God” is regarded as an index of scientific ignorance by the Pew Survey!

      • Noah White says:

        Thanks for the thoughts, Jon!

        Yes, the Ayala quote caused me to raise my eyebrows, and I found it was an imperfect argument, but ultimately refreshing. His articles on quantum theory, multiverse, etc. are super interesting as well.

        Also read a couple of reviews by Nagel this morning. One recent one, on Dennett’s new book, and one from 2012 on Plantinga’s Where the Conflict Really Lies. The Plantinga one especially:

        Here’s the conclusion, should you not want to wade through the lengthy review:

        “I say this [that Plantinga’s critiques of Dennett et. al. is valuable] as someone who cannot imagine believing what he believes. But even those who cannot accept the theist alternative should admit that Plantinga’s criticisms of naturalism are directed at the deepest problem with that view—how it can account for the appearance, through the operation of the laws of physics and chemistry, of conscious beings like ourselves, capable of discovering those laws and understanding the universe that they govern. Defenders of naturalism have not ignored this problem, but I believe that so far, even with the aid of evolutionary theory, they have not proposed a credible solution. Perhaps theism and materialist naturalism are not the only alternatives.”

        It can’t be said enough that we need more people like Nagel and Plantinga!

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