Christian Transhumanism

Two weeks ago, I attended a small gathering to talk about the intersection of faith, science, and technology called the Christian Transhumanist Conference. The conference, the first one put on by the Christian Transhumanist Association, explored ways that science and technology promise to make the world, including and especially humanity, better–and examined those promises in light of Christian theology and the Christian hope of eternal life and the renewal of all creation.

Transhumanism is a loose name for a philosophical movement that seeks to make humans something more than what we are–for better and worse–through technology. It’s the idea that things medicine prolonging life indefinitely, robotic interfaces with human bodies, augmentation of human intelligence with computers, and similar developments will make humans of the future effectively a different species from what we are now. In other words, for the first time in the long history of life on earth, science and technology will play a primary and active role in evolution. Christian transhumanism, then, links this philosophical outlook with the Christian understanding that God intends humankind to become better versions of ourselves–that eternal life and true human flourishing are, and always have been, God’s design for us. In this view, technology can be a means of participating in God’s work of renewing humankind and the whole cosmos. The implication is that Christian people ought to shape the use of technology, so that it might be directed toward God’s purposes in the world rather than lesser goals or just plain chance.

I discovered the conference because of a new Twitter follow I got a while back from an account called Christian Transhumanism (Check them out @xianityplus). “Interesting,” I thought. I looked them up, and found out that they are based for the most part here in Nashville, and that they were hosting a conference less than a month away at Lipscomb University, also in Nashville. The timing and location were great, so I decided to register and attend. If you’re curious, here is the list of speakers and topics from the conference.

The main reason I went was because of my interest in faith, physics, and space exploration. Certainly, the kind of technological advances that folks interested in Christian Transhumanism are paying attention to include those that will lead to humans inhabiting Mars and other worlds. In addition, it would be a great opportunity to meet other people who are asking similar questions to the ones I am interested in.

There was less talk of space exploration than I had hoped, but the conference was still inspiring. What I especially appreciated was how it turned me on to other innovations in the works that I hadn’t thought about as much. A human population in space and the discovery of extraterrestrial life are not the only major changes in human existence that will require a faithful Christian response. Artificial intelligence; dramatic increases in human longevity; inequitable access to technology driven by economic and social factors; these are some of the most important developments that the conference speakers and panelists highlighted.

I appreciated the opportunity to learn and think about these things in a Christian context, not least because doing so enabled me to think through their implications on space exploration and the Christian faith. If humans live to the age of 500 or longer, for instance, it may well bring travel to another star within the span of a single human life. (By the way, I discovered that anti-aging researcher Aubrey de Grey sees this as a very real near-future possibility.) If human bodies can be altered through robotics or biological manipulation, what changes will be beneficial as humans inhabit space or other planets? And how will such changes enhance or inhibit our ability to worship and connect with God; to grow into Christ’s likeness; to love?

I hope to write more specifically in future posts about some of these aspects of Christian Transhumanism. For now, I will stop at expressing my gratitude for a stimulating series of conversations, and how much I look forward to the next gathering.

Top Ten Memories of the Great American Eclipse

“The heavens are telling the glory of God;
and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.” (Psalm 19:1)

A year ago, people all across North America gathered on a Monday to view a total solar eclipse. The path of totality passed right over middle Tennessee, where I live and work, so my fellow Nashvillians and I got a real celestial treat, along with a lot of other people in the United States. Many communities across the country held viewing parties or at the very least paused to look up (wearing appropriate eclipse glasses, of course!). It’s fun to look back a year later and remember what a beautiful, inspiring experience that was. In that spirit, here are my top 10 memories from the Great American Eclipse. I invite you to share yours as well.

  1. My neighbor coming through last-minute with some eclipse glasses. I had the eclipse on my calendar for almost a year, I dare say well before the hype began for most of the country. But as excited as I was, I sort of dropped the ball on preparation. By the time I thought to buy some eclipse glasses, all the nearby stores were sold out. Thankfully I have the world’s best neighbor who had several extra pairs and happily lent us some.
  1. An excellent, festive viewing party at The United Methodist Publishing House, where I work. My company provided food and fun music, and invited families to come share the experience of viewing the eclipse. We even took a large group photo, and coworkers came together and shared this rare moment. We have a great community at work, and it was on display that day.
  1. Noticing that the sun was visibly dimmer well before totality. At one point during the afternoon, I wandered under a gazebo. After being there a few minutes, I looked out and saw that it looked cloudy. I was disappointed. “I hope those clouds move away before the totality starts,” I thought. Then I realized that there were still no clouds in the sky–it was a clear day. It just looked like there was cloud cover because so much of the sun’s light was being blocked. That was a cool moment.
  1. Sharing the experience with family. My parents came into town and joined me at the picnic at my work. My son got to come too. It was a special moment to share this unique experience with him, even though his 3-year-old attention span quickly turned to other things. He still got to look up at the sun and see a total eclipse, something I had to wait 34 years for.
  1. Being immersed in a sunset. For the few minutes of totality, it looked like sunset on the whole horizon, all around. Just breathtaking.
  1. Nature’s evening rhythms taking over at midday. As totality approached, it looked and felt like twilight. The street lamps came on. The cicadas and other insects began chirping, and I swear I saw a firefly or two light up. It was a reminder of how much our environment affects our behaviors, whether we are animals or humans.
  1. Just perfect weather for viewing an eclipse. It was hot but clear over most of Nashville, and my coworkers and I had an unhindered view of the eclipse for the whole afternoon.
  1. The moment of totality. I will never forget the beautiful image of the sun’s corona, or the moment the last bright point of light vanished and I could take off my glasses, or the “diamond ring” just before the sun emerged from behind the moon. I snapped a picture with my phone, and I made sure my son looked up to see it. But mostly I just stood there, looking up, knowing that I only a few precious seconds to watch this and wanting to take it all in.
  1. The cheers when the sun disappeared. The whole experience brought all of us who were viewing it together–it was a moment my family, coworkers, and I shared with happiness and excitement. Cheering, clapping, yelling out loud just felt like the right thing to do.


  1. Sneaking back outside to see the last remnants of the eclipse. About an hour after the totality, when the party was over and everyone had gone home or back to work, I walked outside, put on my eclipse glasses, and looked up at the sun. There was still a bit of the moon in front of it, though I knew it would soon return to normal. Of all the great memories about the 2017 eclipse, that’s one of my favorites. I wanted to soak up every last bit of the eclipse, knowing what a rare event it was. So I looked up, indulging a private moment of observation and contemplation. I felt close to God.

August 21, 2017 was the first time I saw a total eclipse, but it won’t be the last. I have already put the next eclipse, in 2024, on my calendar. And having experienced the total eclipse last year, I know it’s worth the short drive it’ll take to put me in the path of totality.

What about you? What are your favorite memories of the Great American Eclipse?

The 2017 eclipse as seen from The United Methodist Publishing House in Nashville.

A Story About Imagination

This past Sunday, I was invited to preach in my home town, at Balls Creek Campmeeting in Denver, North Carolina. It meant a great deal to me–I grew up attending campmeeting every year, and I have so many fond memories of family, friends, and the deep roots of tradition and community. It was great to reconnect with folks, even if it was brief. Here is the sermon I preached, on David’s anointing, God’s opening of Samuel’s eyes, and the importance of developing a godly imagination.

A Godly Imagination (1 Samuel 16:1-13)

This is a story about imagination.

When I was a kid, some of my favorite toys were Transformers. These were “robots in disguise,” which looked like cars, trucks, and other vehicles, but you could twist and turn and arrange them until they became robots. There was a cartoon series, which is now a movie franchise, but what I really liked was the toys. I loved manipulating them, turning them from one thing into the other—robot to car, car to robot, again and again. It was especially fun when my parents couldn’t figure out how to do it, so as a 6- or 7-year old I would get to show them how.

Transformers tagline was “more than meets the eye,” which is appropriate. Transformers required imagination. You had to look at one thing—say, a semi truck—and understand that it had the potential to become something else—Optimus Prime, which all experts agreed was the coolest transformer of them all in the late 80s and early 90s. You had to have imagination to see what this thing could become, and to see how it could get there. To play with Transformers, you had to see differently, with more than just your eyes.

The story of Samuel anointing David is a story about imagination, about seeing differently, about looking at something the right way, which might not be the way you’re used to. It’s about training your eyes, your heart, and your imagination to see things as God sees them.

Looking on the Heart

This story is probably familiar to most of us. God has just rejected Saul as king over Israel, because Saul disobeyed God. God tells Samuel to stop grieving for Saul, travel to Bethlehem, and find a man named Jesse. One of his sons, God says, is the one I have chosen to be king over Israel in place of Saul. So Samuel goes, and he sees Jesse’s son Eliab and thinks “Surely this is the LORD’s anointed.” But God tells him, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the LORD does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.” Eventually, after seeing seven of Jesse’s sons, Samuel discovers that God has chosen David, the youngest son. It was David who apparently had the kind of heart that the LORD was seeking.

But I don’t think it’s David’s heart that’s the main question in this story. David is soon going to emerge as the central character of the rest of 1 and 2 Samuel, and will be known as a man after God’s own heart. What’s in his heart will be important when he fights Goliath; when he’s on the run from Saul; when he refuses to kill Saul and take the throne by force; and when he sleeps with Bathsheba and has her husband killed. David’s heart will be the focus of all those stories, but it’s not the focus here. The focus here is Samuel’s heart—his attitude, his thinking, his feeling, his conscience, and most importantly, his imagination. Samuel is the main character in this story; Samuel is the one who needs to learn to see as God sees.

The whole story, in fact, is an account of God gradually opening Samuel’s eyes, until Samuel can look at a situation and a person and see more than meets the eye. It’s a story of Samuel, step by step, acquiring a godly imagination.

Asking the Ridiculous Question

At the beginning of the story, Samuel is grieving over Saul. But God helps him see a better future, the possibility of a new king. Then Samuel wonders how he can do it, because if Saul hears about it, he will kill Samuel. Again, God shows Samuel what to do, how to travel to Bethlehem safely by offering a sacrifice and inviting Jesse’s sons to the sacrifice. And when he’s there, God helps Samuel see that the LORD’s choice for a king will depend on the man’s heart, not on his outward appearance. One step at a time, God opens Samuel’s imagination, enabling him to see differently. He comes to see new possibility where before there was only failure; he comes to see a way past what looks like an insurmountable obstacle; he comes to see people the way God sees them, acquiring an ability to look at the heart and not only with his eyes.

But the real test of Samuel’s new imagination is what happens when Samuel sees all of Jesse’s sons and realizes that the LORD has not chosen any of these. He asks a ridiculous question: “Are all your sons here?” I say this is a ridiculous question because Samuel had invited “Jesse’s sons” to the sacrifice—not just some of his sons, but all of his sons. And Jesse made 7 of his sons pass before Samuel. In the Bible, 7 is the number of perfection or completion. So symbolically, all of the sons are here—the number 7 suggests it. What it seems like is that all of Jesse’s sons are here. Samuel had no reason to believe otherwise. I want you to understand what a leap of imagination this must have been, to wonder if there might be something more. From everything his eyes and his prior knowledge told him, Samuel had every reason to conclude that all of Jesse’s sons were standing in front of him. And God had told Samuel that one of Jesse’s sons would be anointed king.

Most of us probably would have thought “I must be misunderstanding something.” Either the LORD sent me to the wrong Jesse, but probably, one of these guys is the new king and I’m just not hearing the LORD right. Most of us would have looked at the choices in front of us and picked the best of the available options. Maybe it’s Eliab after all—he’s got a royal vibe, seems like a strong leader.

But Samuel had the imagination to see more than what was standing in front of him. He had the imagination to ask “Are all of your sons here?” He had the ability to envision something new, to ask an unexpected question that opened the way for still another new possibility. “There is still the youngest,” Jesse said, “but he is with the sheep.” “We won’t eat until he gets here,” Samuel said. And when he arrived, Samuel saw that this was the LORD’s chosen one. And he anointed David as the new king—the beginning of David’s dynasty, the ancestor of Jesus the Messiah.

God was making a way, but it required Samuel to have a godly imagination to find and follow that way.

This is a story about imagination. It’s a story about Samuel’s imagination, Samuel’s ability to see the present and future as God sees it, unhindered by the limitations of everything he thinks he knows and sees.

And like so many stories in the Bible, it’s also about you and me—it’s about our imagination, our ability to see our own lives, our circumstances, our society as God sees them, not letting our own preconceptions or attitudes hold back our ability to envision something better that God has in store for us.

Now Is the Time for a New Imagination

If God’s people ever needed to develop a new imagination, that time is now. We want to think that it’s only non-Christians who need to change, who need to learn to see better, who need a renewal of their hearts and lives. But the fact is, we followers of Jesus in the 21st century are the ones who need a new and better imagination.

Samuel was the Lord’s prophet, the holy man of Israel, the one everyone recognized as a trustworthy spokesperson for the Lord. Samuel was called a “seer,” for crying out loud, and his vision was faulty until the Lord spoke to him and showed him the right way to look at the world.

There’s a lesson here for us, the ones who think we see the world rightly because we speak Christian things and talk about the Bible. The sad truth is, we religious people are just as susceptible to spiritual blindness as everybody else. We lack a godly imagination even though we’re the ones who are supposed to have it. If you don’t believe me, just look at the hateful rhetoric that Christians spew on the internet toward people of other faiths, the very people Jesus commands us to love. Just look at the religious leaders, priests and preachers, who abused their authority so they could abuse people they were supposed to serve. Just look at the way Christian stuff is marketed using the same techniques as all the other stuff in this world, because so much of it is a business. (I work for a Christian publishing company, I’m pointing fingers at myself here too. We do good work and I believe in our mission, but sometimes I wonder.)

If you don’t believe we in the church need a new imagination, just look at the way our churches divide and split along lines of political ideology, mirroring the divisions in society when we ought to be finding a better way. Both liberals and conservatives claim the name of Jesus, and claim God’s support for the policies of their party of choice. Is one half of the Church mistaken? Never my half, always the other half, right? Or do all of us lack a godly imagination? I think all of us, in the church and out of the church, tend to be see dimly with a vision that would crown Eliab king because we focus on outward things like money, or power, or pleasure, or a thousand other things. Even we in the church need to learn to see as God sees.

If there was ever a time when God’s people needed a new imagination, that time is now. God wants you and me to have a new imagination, to be able to see our lives and this world as God sees them—to be able to see the future of life and hope that God wants to bring about—because God does want to bring about such a future, where the law of the land is truly love of God and love of our fellow humans.

We need a new imagination. It’s very easy to miss what God wants to do in our lives and communities because we’re too busy wallowing in the past and worrying in the present. I think we all have regrets. We look at the church of the past, and wonder why the church of the present isn’t as good as it used to be. We probably think it’s better than it really was, but the fact is that church attendance is declining, and the church has far less influence in society than it used to. It’s easy to look at the past with regret or sorrow, or to look at the present with despair.

Or maybe our personal story takes a bad turn, whether through mistakes we made or bad things that are totally out of our control. We face obstacles; we have setbacks; we fail. We get exactly what we want, only to discover it’s not as good as we thought it would be. You know what that’s like; we all do, those experiences are part of life, part of being human.

Going Beyond Regret and Despair

That’s where Samuel was at the beginning of this story. Samuel is grieving over Saul, he was looking with regret and sorrow at the past and present. Saul had been the king, and Samuel was Saul’s friend. Samuel had anointed Saul to be the first king over Israel, so Saul’s failure was Samuel’s failure. But God has rejected Saul for disobeying him, and as God’s prophet Samuel had delivered this harsh news to the king. And so Samuel was in his hometown, grieving Saul.

God’s first step is to get Samuel to see beyond Saul’s rejection and recognize the possibility of a new and better future. Samuel is wallowing in disappointment and regret. But God has seen the potential and promise of a new king among the sons of a man named Jesse in Bethlehem. God needs to lift up Samuel’s heart, to lift up his imagination.

And God needs to do that in our lives too. The hope in this story is that God meets us in those places of regret and despair and calls us forward into something new. “Get up, take your horn of oil, and go!” God says. And if we focus too much on the bad things of the past—or if we spend too much time missing the past—we risk missing out on what God has in store for us in the present and the future. So our first step has to be Samuel’s first step: we have to stop grieving, get up, and start following God’s lead. We have to listen to God, open ourselves to a new imagination by going where God tells us to go.

Listening to God

How do we know where God wants us to go?

We listen to God. That means reading the Bible, not just talking about the Bible; it means praying; it means going to church, worshiping God; it means receiving Communion; it means talking with your fellow Christians in a godly way so that you build each other up. It means doing all those things John Wesley called the means of grace, the ordinary channels through which the Holy Spirit speaks to us. Because here’s the thing: a lot of things are going to speak to you pretending to be God. A lot of those things are going to come through your television or your smart phone. That stuff is not God—even the news, even the Internet personalities you love and trust—those things are not God. Listen to God, through the means of grace, and it will help you see all those other messages for what they are. When Samuel listened to God, God began to open renew his imagination.

God saw something better for Samuel and the people of Israel than a failed, disobedient king. God sees something better for you and me too, and God wants to renew our imagination to help us see it.

You’re Dead Anyway

There’s risk to Samuel in following God. “How can I go?” Samuel asks. “If Saul hears about it, he will kill me.” Samuel’s life is in danger. God’s next step is to help Samuel see past the risk of his own life and help him envision a way to carry out this what God has called him to do. So God instructs Samuel to celebrate a sacrifice, and to invite Jesse and his sons to the sacrifice. God moves Samuel from “this is impossible” to “If we do it this way, maybe it can work.” And God gives Samuel courage to try even though it’s risky.

I have a friend who used to talk about hard things God calls us to do—the way our commitment to following Jesus makes us uncomfortable, leads us to places we’d rather not go, requires some sacrifice from us. My friend would often say about these things, “You’re dead anyway.” What he meant by that is that we who are baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into his death, we have died with Christ so that we might have the hope of being raised with Christ. We’ve died to sin, we’ve died to our old self, we’ve died to our faulty way of seeing the world. So we can take risks, we can be creative in our pursuit of God’s will, and maybe we’ll fail, but we’re dead anyway. Because we’ve died with Christ, we have the hope of eternal life anyway. When we realize that, it changes the way we see the world, we start to get a new imagination. We begin to see the world as God sees it, and we begin to act accordingly.

Don’t Settle for Less Than God’s Will

And finally, when Samuel followed God, Samuel developed the confidence and the imagination not to settle for less than God’s will. When Samuel looked at Jesse’s 7 oldest sons, conventional wisdom and observation told him that these were all the possibilities. But Samuel knew that God’s will was not there, and he didn’t settle for what was possible; he opened his imagination to something that seemed impossible and asked a ridiculous, unexpected question. “Are all your sons here?”

If we want a godly imagination, we have to commit ourselves to God’s will and risk asking ridiculous, unexpected questions of our lives and of our world. Is this really it? Are these all the possibilities? Isn’t there anything else we can do? Isn’t there any other choice we can make?

When we relentlessly look at the heart and ask after God’s will, then we have an opportunity to find surprising, creative answers to these questions in our lives and in our communities. We can find answers that truly look like faith, and hope, and love, that truly result in peace, and joy, and generosity, and truth.

It’s my hope that you, and I, and all of us will have a godly imagination, that we’ll be capable of seeing the things that God would bring about and how God is calling us to be a part of them—because as one of my favorite poets once said, “Nothing can save us that is possible. We who must die demand a miracle” (W.H. Auden, For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio). It takes imagination to demand a miracle. And this is a story about imagination.

A Prayer of Lament

Deliver us, Lord, from lofty aspirations
That fool us into thinking we can outrun ourselves.

“If I ascend to heaven, you are there.”
Thank God, because we are there too.

With the heavy weight of humanity
An inclination toward selfishness and violence
Honed over all the generations of our species
Birthing all our polite little vices
And our acts of unspeakable evil.

We rail against some
And silently feed others
And call others good, and celebrate them.
All the while, little ones suffer and die.

Deliver us, Lord, from lofty aspirations
That fool us into thinking we can outrun ourselves.
That promotion, or education,
or spiritual achievement, or public policy, or outer space
Will somehow make us more than what we are.

Deliver us, Lord.
We cannot deliver ourselves.

“If I ascend to heaven, you are there.”
What if I stay on earth? Are you here, too?
Where are you?

Come, Lord Jesus.

Science and Faith: Encouraging the Next Generation

There’s a great documentary on Netflix called The Mars Generation. It follows a group of teenagers at Space Camp, showcasing their excitement about all things space, the things they are learning, and how that fits into the past, present, and future of the American space program. The central message is, this is the generation who will land humans on Mars. They are passionate enough and talented enough to get us there, if we can just support them and avoid squashing their dreams. It’s an inspiring movie. (I *might* have teared up during the trailer.)

The Mars Generation stresses the importance of nurturing among young people a love for science and exploration. It issues a call to us adults to do well by these teenagers by giving them avenues for growth and learning, as well as opportunities to put their knowledge and skills to use in the best possible way. It’s our responsibility to enable them to flourish and allow society to benefit from their contributions now and in the future.MarsGeneration

This is a message that resonates quite strongly with the Christian faith. Our tradition places a high value on teaching and nurturing children, enabling them to grow up in faith and love God with their whole being. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, used to ask the Methodist preachers if they would “diligently instruct the children in every place.” This was one of 19 questions they were required to answer “yes” to when they became preachers; those ordained in The United Methodist Church today still must answer yes to this question.

Wesley recognized, it seems, the importance of caring for our children spiritually and intellectually, as well as physically. He no doubt learned this from his mother, Susanna, an incredible woman who invested much of herself in educating and nurturing her children. He also probably learned it from Jesus, who told his disciples to “let the little children come to me,” and from the Old Testament, where the importance of teaching children to keep God’s covenant is impressed upon the Israelites time and time again.

The Old Testament writers, as well Jesus and Susanna Wesley, recognized that children keep the faith alive into the future. If you don’t instruct the children, the faith might just die with your generation. But if you do instruct the children, investing yourself in their care and tending to their spiritual well-being, the faith will grow into the future and adapt in a way that is, well, faithful.

Of course, I also resonate with the desire to foster in young people a love for science, math, and engineering, and I believe it’s possible to do this while also raising them in the Christian faith. In fact, I believe that giving young people the tools for exploring the world provides them an opportunity to encounter God, and to grow in their love of God through the natural world.

That’s why I was so impressed when my son told me that he’d enjoyed the science part of Vacation Bible School a couple weeks ago. This was Caleb’s first year of being old enough to attend, and he had a great time. He learned a lot of Bible stories, as well as some great songs (he’s treated us to several performances). He really enjoyed seeing his church friends during the week. But his favorite part was the science.

“Huh?” I thought, when he told me that. Science at VBS? Turns out, I wasn’t hearing it wrong. A friend of mine from church had been in charge of the science at VBS this year. This particular VBS program includes a science component, with some experiments and demonstrations for the kids to try that line up with the week’s theme. “Caleb’s favorite part was science,” I told my friend who led that part of VBS. “Oh, that’s great!” she said. Then she paused. “Well, actually that’s pretty typical. It’s easy to be the favorite when you’re the one leading all the cool experiments!”

I’m so glad that VBS gives kids the opportunity see that science and faith can go together and reinforce one another. I’m also very glad that the 2019 VBS theme from Cokesbury is “To Mars and Beyond.” (Yeah, I’m probably going to have to volunteer for that one!)

If the up-and-coming generation is bound for Mars, I’d like to think that at least some of them will carry with them a love for God and neighbor that grows out of a deep faith in Jesus Christ. That thought alone is reason enough to diligently instruct the children in every place–in science and in faith.

Finding Water and Life

Here is a prayer I wrote in response to the discovery of what appears to be a subsurface, liquid lake on Mars last week.

You are the God of water and life.

Your Spirit hovered over the waters at creation,
before you separated light from darkness
and fixed a boundary between the waters of heaven and earth.

You sent a flood in the time of Noah,
destroying and cleansing the earth,
yet sparing a few by your great mercy.

You parted the Sea and the River
so your people could pass through safely
on their way home.

You made streams spring up in the desert
to turn the arid expanse into a meadow,
a passage of safety and sustenance on their way home.

“When you pass through the waters, I will be with you.”

The raging flood,
the impassable sea,
the dry desert
have all become Baptism.

In the earthly water we meet you,
because you came to meet us in the River.
fulfilling all righteousness.

In the heavenly water we meet you,
because you made the universe,
and the firmament you set is no barrier to your presence and power.

Should we marvel to find water on other worlds?
Lakes and oceans on celestial bodies,
Europa, Enceladus, Mars?

Even across the reaches of space,
Nothing is beyond you.
You’ve brought forth water from a rock before.

The icy worlds,
the cold worlds,
the dry worlds,
may yet become Baptism.

You are the God of water and life.

Space, Theology, and Reaching Our Potential

“I can see the rover,” my dad joked.

I looked in the eyepiece again, trying to find the tiny piece of human machinery somewhere on the moon’s surface–one of the “moon buggies” used during the last Apollo missions. It was my first time using a telescope, which I’d gotten as a gift (I think for Christmas), and my family and I had chosen the easiest, most obvious target in the night sky to try it out. The moon’s features had come into focus in more detail than I’d imagined was possible. It took me a minute to realize my dad was joking. Even with a much more powerful telescope than what we had, we wouldn’t have been able to pick out one of the lunar rovers.

In retrospect, it strikes me as strange to look at a celestial body and expect, even for a fleeting moment, that one might find a man made object up there. But ever since the Apollo 11 mission, which touched down on the moon 49 years ago today, seeing evidence of humans on the moon has been possible in principle if not in practice. The moon is now a place humans have been before.

Because I grew up the 1980s, I never knew a world in which humans haven’t been to the moon. For my generation and those who are younger, the moon doesn’t feel quite as far away as it did to those who came before us. The moon isn’t exactly old news, but neither is it the next thing over the horizon of experience. It doesn’t matter that people haven’t been back since 1972. We have proven that the moon is within the realm of human reach. People will no longer wonder if it’s possible for a person to walk on the moon. Our pioneers have already been there.

That’s the beauty and excitement of space exploration. It shows us what humans are capable of.

That question, “What are we capable of?” is one where science, engineering, and adventure bump up against theology. The other day, I made a list of questions like that to guide my thinking and writing—big questions of life that both theology and space exploration help us address. The usual ones come to mind immediately: “Are we alone?” “Where did we come from?” “What is our purpose?”

But that question of human potential—what we’re capable of—is just as important. Space exploration shows us what human beings can do by pushing past our limits, discovering new ones, and figuring out ways to push past those. Can we survive without gravity? (Yes.) Can we survive the vacuum of space? (No.) What about with a space suit? (Yes.) Can we walk on the moon? (Yes.) Can we orbit another star? (TBD.)

Theology, too, helps us understand human potential. Through theology, we discover that humans are capable of virtues such as love, joy, and peace. Study of the Bible and the lives of the saints shows us the full potential for human flourishing, which we begin to experience as we open ourselves to God through Scripture, prayer, and the imitation of Jesus. Can we love others? (Yes.) Even our enemies? (Yes.) Can we feed the hungry and care for the sick? (Yes.) Can we rise from the dead? (Yes.)

Space exploration shows us our potential goes at least as far as the moon. The Christian faith shows us that our potential extends beyond the grave. Because we live in the year 2018, we inhabit a world where Someone has been resurrected. We have never lived in a world where resurrection is not a reality we can hope for and look forward to, if we dare to believe it. And even if the evidence of it is invisible to our telescopes, we know that it has happened, and we look toward the future with a different posture. It’s not old news by any means, but neither is it a totally unknown experience. Resurrection and eternal life are within the realm of human experience. Our Pioneer has been there, and he goes to prepare a place for us.

What are we capable of? We are capable of landing on the moon, which we did 49 years ago . We might be capable of orbiting Venus, living on Mars, or leaving the solar system. But let’s not forget that we are also capable of experiencing God’s grace, even on the moon. We are capable of sacrificial love. And if the promises of Scripture are to be believed, we are capable of living forever, shining like the stars themselves. It is my hope that as we continue to push the limits of human technology and exploration, we also carry forward our potential to live and love as Jesus lived and loved.

If we do, maybe the evidence of our potential will be visible to distant future observers, whether they look through telescopes or through the eyes of faith.

Driving on the Descartes

The Night Sky Sings

Creator of the heavens, the night sky sings your glory.

Look at the stars,
each a different world larger and farther away than our minds are able to consider.

Yet you, O God, know their number.
Does each one have a God-given name?

You made them all many millions and billions of years ago.

But what does that even mean?

What is a year?
Once around the sun.
Three hundred and sixty-five turns from light to darkness and back again.

Our measurements of time are earth-bound,
tied to that nook of the Universe that is everything we know.

Yet even this limited knowledge is a gift from you,
who set lights in the heavens to mark days and times and seasons and years.

But you, O Lord, are eternal.
A nanosecond is a moment that stretches forever,
and galaxies form in the blink of an eye.

The stars tempt us with new ways of understanding,
a hint of reality that stretches out in every direction of time and space.

Dare we ask for a deeper understanding of what else you might intend for these worlds so far away?

Dare we yearn for them, to understand them?
To visit them?

Would it be a rebellion against your love,
to push our eyes and our minds beyond their limits?

Or is it a holy and good desire to know you
and the Universe you have made?

Creator of the heavens, the night sky sings your glory.
Loosen our tongues to join in its song, on earth as it is in heaven.


On June 18, President Trump announced that he was directing the U.S. military to establish a 6th branch of the military, which would be known as the Space Force. While there is some uncertainty as to when, how, or even whether this change would become effective, the intent seems to be to give military space operations more independence and focus—and likely more prominence and a bigger budget.

As expected, much of the Internet ridiculed and/or vilified the idea. Some saw the announcement as attempt to distract the public from the important–and still-ongoing–issue of immigrant children being separated from their families at the US/Mexico border. Others said the move was outright illegal, pointing to an international treaty governing the use of space, the Outer Space Treaty. The military seemed resistant to the idea, thinking that the restructuring would be burdensome and unnecessary.

And of course, people had fun with the prospect of something called the Space Force. Memes sprung up likening Donald Trump to Darth Vader, and there were references to the parody movie Space Balls. I’m proud of you, Internet. The hashtag #SpaceForceRecruitmentSlogans even became popular for a bit. My favorite was “You too can pew pew.”

Many people, though, think there’s at least some merit to the idea.

The military is already involved in space—satellites are vital for both surveillance and communication—so it’s is not like this would be a brand-new realm for military operations. The move would be more about streamlining the chain of command and opening the way for procedures and decision-making that are most appropriate for the unique environment of space. The best analogy, which most commentators have already recognized, is the creation of the US Air Force in 1947, which established a dedicated branch for the air in addition to the land and the sea.

As Neil deGrasse Tyson pointed out in an interview, part of the military’s purpose is to protect one’s national assets, and the United States has a number of valuable assets in space. GPS and communication satellites are critical for our infrastructure. There are important scientific instruments operating in space, as well as expensive, proprietary equipment developed by US-based private companies. A dedicated space force would, presumably, ensure protection of these assets and interests against potential threats.

These potential threats are not hypothetical. Other nations, notably China and Russia, have highly developed technology along with interest and investment in space. They have demonstrated the ability to affect or destroy satellites in orbit. These have not been used in an antagonistic way, but it’s easy to see how they could be. Again, creating a dedicated military branch for space operations would allow the US to keep pace with these nations and guard against space-based threats.

There is a trend toward more overall activity in space, not less, which will almost by default lead to more military activity in space. I think the creation of something like a space force will turn out to be inevitable in the long term, and military minds would probably prefer to be on the front end of that trend rather than playing catch-up when it’s years too late. The idea of a space force isn’t be a futuristic pipe dream, but a practical step, albeit a big one, to respond to realities in the present and near future.

What does this mean for people of faith and how we should think about space and its implications for human life? How will the existence of a space force shape Christians’ thoughts, attitudes, and behaviors with respect to space?

In many ways, it’s too soon to answer these questions. We don’t know what a space force will look like, when it will begin, or what its primary focus will be, exactly. One thing does seem clear, though. Christian attitudes, values, and virtues–chiefly love, joy, and peace–must inform national conversations about the space force, along with exploration and scientific discovery related to outer space.

The fact that the US is even considering a dedicated space force (combined with other nations’ activities) ought to dispel any notion that space exploration is an inherently peaceful endeavor. Very often, when we talk about space exploration or imagine its eventual habitation, we imagine a future characterized by peace, cooperation, and the best of humanity. There are good reasons for this. The International Space Station represents a cooperation among many nations, and the Outer Space Treaty regarding the use of space strives for peace and collaboration.

At the same time, human nature doesn’t fundamentally change when we leave the ground or the atmosphere. Much of the advances that have made space exploration possible also have fully-developed military applications—rocket technology and ballistic missiles are a prime example. Humans fight one another, and human societies have wars with one another. I suspect that space exploration has thus far been largely peaceful because there have been few reasons and opportunities for wars in space, and there have been benefits from international cooperation because space exploration is hard. But if things change, and access to space becomes easier and more competitive, conflict will likely follow in some form or another.

That’s not to say that space exploration can’t be peaceful. I believe that it can, but doing so will require hard work and purposeful commitment on the part of governments and citizens. What I mean is, we can’t just allow things to run their course and assume that something about space will straighten us out and inspire peace. Human history has shown that war, not peace, is what tends to come about naturally. If we want peace, we will have to work for it.

That is where people of Christian faith ought to focus our attention. I believe Christians can and should lead the way toward ensuring a more peaceful existence both in space and on earth.

Father’s Day, Faith, and a Love of Learning

“Daddy, what are those circles?” Caleb asked.

We were reading a library book all about the planet Uranus, and Caleb as usual was interrupting me with questions. My son’s 4-year-old mind has a habit of jumping ahead rather than waiting on explanations the book may or may not offer.

“Those circles are the orbits of the planets,” I told him. “Each one is the path a planet follows as it goes around the Sun. See, Mercury moves in this circle closest to the Sun. Venus moves in this circle. And here goes Earth.” I continued through the rest of the planets, showing how each one follows the path of its circle (actually ellipse) around the Sun.

“But why do they move in those circles?”

I’m discovering that you don’t get very far into an explanation with a child before the inevitable why comes up.

“It’s because of gravity,” I answered.

“What’s gravity?”

Dang. I should’ve seen that one coming. “Gravity is what makes things fall down toward the Earth.” I picked up one of Caleb’s stuffed animals and held it out over the floor for a demonstration. “What’s gonna happen if I let the animal go?”

Caleb smiled and his eyes sparkled as he put out his hands, ready to catch it. He knew instinctively what would happen; he didn’t need to put it into words.

“No, we’re not going to catch it, we’re going to do an experiment,” I said. I asked again, “What will happen when I drop it?”

“It’s gonna fall to the ground,” Caleb said. He continued to smile with his eyes fixed on the stuffed animal.

Caleb’s hypothesis was correct. I let the animal go, and it fell to the ground. He jumped down off the bed and picked it up. “I wanna try!”

“What will it do when you drop it?” I asked.

“It’s gonna fall again!” he said. Sure enough, when he let it go, it fell to the ground. Two for two on his predictions.

“So why does it fall?” I asked. “Why do things move toward the ground when you let them go?” Caleb stopped and thought about that. Now I’d turned the tables and given him the why question.

“It’s because of gravity,” I said. “Gravity is a force that pulls everything toward the Earth. The bigger something is, the more gravity it has. Since the Earth is the biggest thing around, everything we see around us falls down toward the Earth.”

I continued, getting back to his original question. “But out in space, the Sun is the biggest thing around. It’s way bigger than anything else in our Solar System. So in space, everything falls toward the Sun. Except all the planets are moving so fast that they don’t fall in, they just keep going around and around the Sun.”

“The planets are moving really fast?” Caleb asked. He loves cars, and racing, and running. Speed is his jam. “Like, this fast?” He moved his hands in rapid circles around each other.

“Even faster than that,” I said. Caleb smiled. Speed and space are fun, and he’d just learned something new.


This Sunday is Father’s Day, and that has me thinking about my role to nurture in my children a love of learning. I know that being a good father involves teaching good things. But even more than that, it involves living in a good way. It means giving my children a good example to follow, because as I’m discovering, they are going to imitate me a whole lot more than they listen to my wise musings on life. So I want to tell them, but also to show them, how important it is to learn, to ask questions, to be curious about the world and enjoy finding out new things. I want to help Caleb conduct experiments on gravity. I want to help his younger sister try things out, watch what happens, and repeat them with delight when the same thing happens again and again.

Fostering a love of learning is something both of my parents did for me, both in their teaching and example. Mom always pushed my brothers and me to do well in school, making sure our homework got done and helping out when it was needed. She taught us that learning was important because she invested so much of herself in our learning.

My dad modeled for us a practical knowledge and curiosity about things. I got from my dad a love of science and math, and a fearlessness in asking big questions and wondering about the world. I remember one night, he and I were riding home from my grandparents’ house, just the two of us. My mom and brothers must’ve been in a different car. Somehow we got to talking about the stars, and the nature of matter, and what a tiny universe of atoms must reside in our own bodies, and if that’s true, what bigger thing our own universe might be a part of.

Now that I’m a father myself, I want to pass along that same love of learning to my own children. On the one hand, it’s just fun–a great way for us to spend time together. On the other hand, it conveys an important way to look at the world. I want my kids to understand that big questions aren’t scary, but enjoyable. They should be asked fearlessly and pursued with curiosity and diligence. That’s a gift my parents gave me. It’s a gift that I, as a father, want to give to my children.

The other gift I want to give is the reassurance that faith and science aren’t enemies, but go together naturally and beautifully. I don’t recall ever thinking otherwise, and I suspect that’s also due to what I saw in my parents. For as long as I can remember, my mom has woken up early every morning to pray. As a teenager, I’d see my dad reading his Bible in bed every night before he fell asleep. They showed me that praying and reading the Bible are important, and that these practices and the attitudes they nurture can stand alongside learning and knowledge just fine. I want to give my children the same message, by my teaching and by my example.

When Caleb and I finished talking about gravity, I sent him to put the Uranus book back on the bookshelf. He set it down, then picked up the book of Bible stories we read from every night before. We read the story of Daniel and the lions’ den, always one of his favorites. Then he turned to walk into the living room, to get Amy to come in and say his prayers with him.

“Caleb,” I said before he got out the door. “What makes things fall to the ground?”

He smiled. “Gravity.”

What a wonderful early Father’s Day present.