I’ve been writing this blog for a month now, so it seems like a good time to write about what led me to start it. Why writing? Why now? Why the topic of space and theology?
As I’ve said before, both theology and physics (especially astronomy, cosmology, and everything associated with space) have been interests of mine since I was a teenager. When I had to write research papers in high school, they were either about the biblical story of the Exodus from Egypt or how time and space are bound together as four dimensions of what we can call spacetime. (Why yes, I was a nerd in high school. Why do you ask?)
Physics was always the stronger interest in my teenage years, but when I got to college I discovered academic study of the Bible, and I was hooked. The techniques I learned of reading the Bible through literary and historical analysis opened up a new world to me, a new way to find deep meaning in the scriptures that had shaped my faith. Reading the Bible in this way challenged my faith, drove me to pray, caused me to grow, and helped me refine what I believed. Studying the Bible and theology became my life’s work as I got a master’s degree and then a Ph.D. in theology, and then became an editor who shapes Bible studies for teaching and learning in church settings.
After I’d been out of the academic world for a few years, I found to my surprise that I missed the deep kind of questioning that I’d done in my research. Spending hours in books and articles and writing technical papers had always just felt like work while I was in school, even more so when I was writing my dissertation. But now that I wasn’t doing those things anymore, I found that something was missing from my spiritual life. Without me realizing it, reading the Bible and inquiring of it, digging deeply into it and drawing on an ever-increasing collection of tools to interpret it, had become an important spiritual practice for me. Theology was how I involved my mind in my relationship with God. My faith thrived when I was doing theology—not just reading the Bible regularly, but living in it and asking hard questions of it and allowing it to ask hard questions of me.
When I discovered that exploring deep theological questions was an important part of my spiritual life, I knew I needed to find a way to keep doing it even though I haven’t been in school for 5 years. I needed to read hard things, pull ideas together, form arguments about them, and make new, beautiful intellectual connections about my faith. It was a vital part of my relationship with God, a matter of my own spiritual well-being.
I decided that forcing myself to write regularly would help me do this. Not only would it keep me accountable, but it would help me shape my thoughts and ideas. It would make me put things just the right way, put them in exactly the right words, realize that I needed to think one thing because that other thing wasn’t quite right when I saw it on the page.
The problem was, what on earth would I write about? I’m not just full of random ideas, after all. (Ok, maybe I am. But I needed to decide which of them to write about!) Would I just pick a different biblical passage each week? Or go through one biblical book at a time? Either of those were valid options and I knew they’d lead me to some good places. I love the Bible, after all, and I’m confident it’s an inexhaustible source of meaning and inspiration. But those two options just didn’t seem like the right fit. I needed an overall focus, a line of inquiry that would guide my exploration and searching. I needed some driving question or set of questions to lead me through the Bible and the waters of theology. And I needed those questions to matter, because only then would they stretch my mind and engage my intellect in spiritual things.
What would I write about? I wrestled and prayed about this a lot, actually. The answer that came to me was surprising: space and theology. Weird, huh?
When I started studying theology full-time, my interest in physics and space diminished but never went away. I ended up minoring in physics in college, and I took a couple of extra physics courses just for fun. As I went on to graduate studies in theology, I tried to keep up with contemporary science, especially anything involving space, through the internet and a subscription to Discover Magazine. I’d find little ways to challenge myself with math to keep up those skills, like refusing using a calculator or solving simple word problems in my head. (Sad to say it didn’t work as I’d hoped. I have forgotten way too much trigonometry and calculus.) I also read my fair share of sci-fi novels to stoke my imagination. And I maintained an ongoing fascination with the stars. On clear nights I’d sometimes find myself just standing outside and looking up for a while, feeling a sense of awe and longing at the knowledge that they were so immense and so far away.
As I was asking myself what I’d write about (and read about, of course), that interest in space and physics suddenly resurged. I’d been reading more sci-fi, which was probably part of it. But there was also an sudden, intense awareness that the intersection of space and theology are important. I realized it’s a real possibility that humans will colonize Mars in the next 50-100 years. It’s not guaranteed, but it’s also not out of the question. Whenever that happens, for the first time in the history of our species, humankind will inhabit two planets instead of one. That might occur in my or my children’s lifetime. What will that mean for people of faith, who believe God created the heavens and the earth? Either we’ll have to say people live in “the heavens” or that there are two “earths.” Which is preferable? How do we decide? Even now, humans who spend time in space have a view of earth from above, the kind of view that for most of human existence we thought only God could have. Does that make us somehow more Godlike? Does it make God seem nearer, or farther away?
Astronomers tell us that in the next 50-100 years, humans will have a more informed answer about whether or not there is intelligent life, or even any life, elsewhere in the universe. We won’t get a definitive “no,” because it’s hard to prove a negative, but we might search extensively, find no life, and conclude that it must be rare, if it exists. Or we might get a definitive “yes.” Either way, it will say something theologically important about our place in the universe and our relationship with the God who created us.
These questions matter, and the answers aren’t easy to find. How can they be? Space is so vast, and space exploration is still so new. And yet, in the Bible and the Christian tradition, along with our ability to think and question, we have the resources to begin looking for those answers. It will stretch our theological minds and imagination. So, I’m asking these questions and thinking about them. And, yes, reading and writing about them.
For me, it’s an exercise in spiritual growth, because I meet God when I’m asking tough questions from the standpoint of faith seeking understanding. It might also be an opportunity to contribute to larger theological conversations, if my thinking and writing leads to new insights about God and the Christian faith. I hope they do. And if you’re reading this, I hope my writing will inspire you to look for God where the stars meet the Christian faith.