Theologians were paid to think about extraterrestrial life. I’d rather they watch “Spaceballs.”


(RNS) — There is a saying in academia: “An idea without funding is a mirage. The corollary of this is that funding can turn a mirage into an idea.

Proof of this is a curious report on NASA and the theology of extraterrestrial life that took off around Christmas.

Three days before Christmas, Britain’s The Times newspaper published an interview with the Reverend Andrew Davison, “a Cambridge University priest and theologian with a doctorate in biochemistry from Oxford,” the Times said. Davison was among 24 theologians to have participated in a NASA-sponsored program at the Center of Theological Inquiry in Princeton, New Jersey, “to assess how the world’s major religions would react to news that life exists on worlds beyond our own.”

I heard about this story when I landed in Texas on my way to see my parents. When I turned off airplane mode, my phone exploded with text messages. I was expecting dogs wearing Santa hats. It was more about what theologians had to say about extraterrestrials.

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On the same day that the media headed into the information wasteland that is Christmas, it was announced that the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope had been delayed due to weather conditions. The telescope is already nearly 15 years behind schedule, for reasons that require decades of boredom and patience.

Space reporters and those who follow them had found a much more digestible headline: “NASA pays theologians to understand how people will understand extraterrestrials!”

Add to that that Davison, who has a book, “Astrobiology and Christian Doctrine,” due out later this year, was eager to speak to the press.

This was not the first time we had heard of the Center of Theological Inquiry program. In a 2016 article in Religion Dispatches, Michael Schulson explored relevant questions related to effort:

In the fall of 2014, NASA awarded CTI $1.1 million to launch a two-year investigation into the societal implications of astrobiology. This grant was followed by a $1.7 million gift from the John Templeton Foundation. “The purpose of this survey is to foster the dialogue of theology with astrobiology on its societal implications, enriched by the contribution of scholars in the humanities and social sciences,” said CTI director William Storrar, announcing the grant from NASA in May.

To sum it up: a NASA grant in 2014 to a think tank at Princeton facilitated a grant in 2016 from the John Templeton Foundation. Bad weather facilitated a winter news story that drew attention to the project and an Anglican priest whose forthcoming book was facilitated by the project.

As a professor of Christian ethics, one of my main questions is how Christians using media megaphones use their platforms. The story of NASA theologians, in which Christians are treated as authorities in a cool yet intimidating field of science, speaks volumes about what Christians in America and Britain think about Christianity. It is naturally a source of pride that a group of rocket scientists want to know what theologians think.

But for some of us, it was a palm-to-forehead moment. On the one hand, as Schulson pointed out in 2016, “Of the 24 scholars, at least 18 work for a Christian institution, have at least a degree in Christian theology, or both; none of the 24 seem to have a professional role in a non-Christian tradition.

A Congregationalist pastor from New England noted, “I tried to write about it for the church’s weekly newsletter, but I couldn’t find the right tone and decided that people came to me on Sunday to say they thought it was so great that NASA listening to Christians would only piss me off.

Many Christians seek to ensure that Christianity carries weight, that our authority figures have gravity. If NASA is paying to hear the words of an Anglican cleric about extraterrestrials, then, by God, it is tax money well spent.

Ten years ago I was asked to be on a panel on religion and bioethics at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. While a German academic was working overtime, I was mentally deleting slides from my presentation. One I saved featured the May 1958 cover of Together, a Methodist magazine, on which a white family appeared on a ski boat, an American flag waving. The cover line read, “Who should the moon belong to?”

Today we can see the purpose of the slide: Methodists in the post-war United States thought it natural that they should answer this kind of question. Think of Methodists like Dick Cheney, George W. Bush and Hillary Clinton: they were taught they were the decisions-makers. The question “Who owns the moon?” has no meaning outside of that particular culture, which is the culture of mainstream Protestantism in the United States

At the AAAS panel, I was attended by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz. He only had about five minutes left as I awkwardly left the podium. He first said he was under no illusions that his people would decide who owns the moon. He suggested, in response to the Together cover, that what we need most in our time are “useful trash cans”. He offered as an example of a useful trash can the original “Mad Max movie. Useful trash would help us think about things in a different way than “Who should own the moon?”

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Although Rabbi Steinsaltz was mischievous, it was the greatest wisdom I’ve heard in any academic presentation: when asked to speak on a pessimistic question about religion and science, or about who should own the moon, sometimes the most appropriate answer is to shift the frame.

Here’s what I would say to the idea of ​​NASA paying theologians: Move the frame. Before committing to how to respond as a Christian to an encounter between human beings and all life somewhere else, consider the sheer presumption involved in asking such an incomplete, broad, and ahistorical question. Consider who came up with a scheme to pay people to answer it.

Then maybe look at useful junk. I recommend “Spaceballs”.

(Reverend Amy Laura Hall has taught ethics at Duke University since 1999, and her most recent book is “Laughing at the Devil: Seeing the World with Julian of Norwich.” The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of the religion news service.)


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