Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Is it Christmas Everywhere in the Universe?

Is it Christmas everywhere in the Universe?  

Dennis Overbye, one of my favorite science journalists, has taken a stab at this question in a light-hearted and fun way in this article in the Times, asking himself, "would an alien know it is Christmas?"  I love how he manages to stimulate our thinking by posing some interesting questions with a few answers but without writing a treatise on the philosophy of science and religion.  How exactly does he do it?

First of all he's focused on one and only one aspect of the question.  For example, he avoids completely the obvious fact that aliens would be unlikely to mark the passage of time since Jesus' birth in terms of Earth years.  But he also sets aside the problem of objective "simultaneity" across the Universe, which would make it difficult for a hypothetical alien being to even agree on when the birth of Jesus occurred in the first place, even if they could then measure the passage of time in their own timeframe.  Instead, Overbye aims at the Universal significance of the event, bringing directly into focus the central claims of Christianity and the scientific postulate of an extraterrestrial "intelligence."

I was hooked.  This is fun.

I was pleased that Overbye puts this in context of the historical debate within Christianity on how to understand Jesus as the only son of God.  After all, this is not a new argument.  Even in the 4th Century Augustine worried about what kind of God would be content reaching him in Hippo, Algeria but not to millions of Africans or Asians?  Ten centuries later in the age of exploration and arguably the beginning of what we now call "globalization," this apparent injustice would compel thousands of well intentioned missionaries (and a lot of imperial infrastructure) to bring the message of Jesus' birth to the Americas as well as Africa and Asia, converting indigenous peoples everywhere with force if necessary.  It's also a matter of the historical record that Western Civilization lost much of this missionary zeal as knowledge of indigenous peoples grew, the messiness of empire became more apparent, and science and philosophies of the modern era reshaped our world view:  what are we to make of the wealth of non-Christian religious experiences and traditions?  Taking this to the level of the Cosmos makes the singularity of his birth even more difficult to believe, even for Christians. 

Guy Consolmagno, for example, an Astronomer at the Vatican Observatory and a Jesuit brother, agrees that "One [Universal] incarnation seems absurd" but adds that it's "not inconsistent with the data."


First of all, before we even get to what he said, isn't it great that there is actually a Vatican Observatory,  staffed by a Jesuit astronomer?  Overbye explained that "Brother Consolmagno spent 10 years working and teaching as a planetary scientist, specializing in meteorites, before joining the Jesuits."  And he's been recognized by his peers:  "Last year he was awarded the Carl Sagan Medal by the Division for Planetary Sciences of the American Astronomical Society, for communication in planetary science.”  He's even co-authored a book called “Would You Baptize an Extraterrestrial? ... And Other Questions from the Astronomer’s In-box at the Vatican Observatory.”

Overbye is awesome:  he actually found an authority on the subject!  On so many levels!!!

But what exactly did Consolmagno mean when he suggested that one incarnation "seems absurd?" Was the claim of the incarnation absurd or the uniqueness of that event?  Or both?  And what data?  What IS an "incarnation?”  How would we know if one were to occur?  How would we distinguish between such false and authentic claims?  Although I think Overbye would agree that the answers to these questions will continue to be a matter of faith, not data, he does not say...

In my opinion, this is by design;  it's not what this piece is about.  Instead, he redirects our attention back to the history of philosophy, science and religion.  Both Overbye and Consolmagno seem to agree that, despite what "originalists" might argue, religion, like science, is dynamic, always changing.  As we learn more, what we don't know also appears to expand.  And sometimes, what we thought we knew turns out to be incorrect in science, religion and philosophy.  Consolmagno said, "Science ... is stuff we understand about truths we only partially grasp.  Religion is trying to get closer to truths we don’t understand."  

I think this is rather nice.  Perhaps the "data" Consolmagno's referring to here is not the evidence of incarnation -- whether it happened or not -- but the history of this conversation between people who are struggling to understand what it all means.  Consolmagno is curious, like a good scientist, and tells us that the question was "fun" even though "he didn’t have any answers.”  

It's wonderful to see such a knowledgeable authority figure appreciating the importance of questions and approaching the unknown with humility, even within his own area of expertise.  However, I wish that they would take opportunities like this one to plainly and explicitly state that a simplistic, literal interpretation of scripture is silly and unreasonable given what we know of our Universe today.  Even at the time of Moses Maimonides (1135-1204) in Moorish Spain, it was already common for Jews, Christians AND Moslems, to insist on a figurative and active interpretation of scripture.  Living amongst learned Christians and Moslems, educated Jews could not interpret expressions like the “Chosen People” literally.  Instead they tell us clearly that they interpreted this as God’s choice of the Jews to receive the Torah.   In other words, they believed that God chose the Torah as a specific, physical and historical means to appear to Jews, leaving the distinct possibility for God to remain one and Universal by accepting the fact that, obviously, the Torah was not.   I would wager a bet that Consolmagno, for example, does not believe that the Earth is 4,000 years old.  And he probably DOES believe in vaccines, evolution and anthropogenic climate change.

The most important truth this reveals is simply that religious communities are more complex and diverse than they appear to secular outsiders.  In fact, theological debate continues within and between religious communities, many of which are open to ideas from other belief systems and science.  

If we loosen our grip on rigid stereotypes of religious beliefs and recognize the diversity of religious communities and changes over time, what EXACTLY can they agree on?  And what of non-believers?  What can we call common ground?  In the 1960’s Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote beautifully on this subject as he tried to bring Christians and Jews together in the struggle for Civil Rights based on what he called a “deep" theology.  He wrote about the individual religious EXPERIENCE of the prophets and in our everyday lives and sought to differentiate that experience from religious institutions.  "Theology speaks for the people; depth theology speaks for the individual.  Theology strives for communication, for universality; depth theology strives for insight, for uniqueness. Theology is like sculpture, depth theology like music. Theology is in the books; depth theology is in the hearts. The former is doctrine, the latter an event. Theologies divide us; depth theology unites us.”

In other words, abstraction is key.  And religious experiences -- and the texts that we use to communicate them -- require active interpretation, not a literal reading.  Perhaps this can help us see continuity in changing "truths" over time.

I would hasten to add, however, that the methods used to propel historical change in religious thought are not like those of science.  It's not as if we could run an experiment.  Science and religion describe different KINDS of truth, rely on different KINDS of evidence, different KINDS of arguments, and different WAYS of knowing.  And philosophy is the domain where these ways of thinking come together, where we can sort all this out.  Over time.  With some difficulty.

Overbye concludes his essay with Nancy Ellen Abrams, a lawyer, philosopher and author of "A God That Could Be Real: Spirituality, Science and the Future of Our Planet.”  Overbye writes, “[She] argues that God is an emergent phenomenon, a result of the complexity of the universe and human aspirations rather than the cause of them.”  Now THAT's interesting.  Clearly such an emergent, abstract God could be shared by believers and non-believers on Earth.  Perhaps this will work for alien creatures as well.  Abrams didn't think so.  She said in an interview, "Our god is the god of humanity; it has nothing to do with aliens."

That sums it up for me.  The Torah is for the Jews.  The Koran is for Muslims.  Christmas is for Christians.  All of them can be understood as approximations of some more fundamental human experience.  And God is our peculiarly human way of understanding emergent beauty and meaning in the Universe, a deep understanding that is somehow inside all of us and shared, not “out there” in the Universe.  Aliens, were they to exist, would be likely to conceive of the divine rather differently.

Merry Christmas!


  1. Lovely, well reasoned, and thought provoking, thanks (trying to post this comment a second time, hope it works!).