The Kingdom of God: Lessons from Exploring Earth and Beyond
Episcopal Priest and NASA Astrobiologist Pan Conrad reflects on what space exploration has taught her about the Kingdom of God, both here and beyond.
All living things explore their surroundings, from simple microbes to complex humans. Exploration informs the organism of both threats and opportunities in the environment. Examples of opportunities include available nutrients and water. Examples of threats include predators, temperature extremes, and too much competition for food.
I have explored some amazing “extreme” environments. Hot and cold deserts, the bottom of the ocean, and high mountains are examples. Why can some organisms live there while others cannot? How do these environments become habitable? What might make their habitability potential decline? These are some of the questions I seek to answer. Different kinds of life have different requirements. Life also modifies its environment, leaving clues long after it departs. I do this work to understand the relationship between living things and their home. Earth is not like the other planets in our solar system. I work to learn what might be relevant to the habitability of other planets.
I am not only an explorer of my physical environment like all living things. I am also a Jesus follower, so I am eager to explore beyond the material world. I thirst to understand more about the spiritual environment in which we live. This territory is even more interesting to me than potentially habitable planetary environments. Yet, it can seem harder to access for many people. We are dependent upon our physical senses for navigating the material world. And they are limited by design to that domain, so we need other approaches to explore the spiritual environment: the kingdom of God. But how exactly might we go about doing that?
I am not only an explorer of my physical environment like all living things. I am also a Jesus follower, so I am eager to explore beyond the material world…I thirst to understand more about the spiritual environment in which we live.
Exploration and the Church
Analog exploration is one approach I have adopted from my experience exploring both Earth and Mars. Scientists use this approach for environments that are challenging. We can explore field environments on Earth that have similar features to Mars such as polar deserts. We can also synthesize some environments in laboratory experiments. But analog environments are never exact duplicates, so their fidelity is always limited. Earth’s polar deserts don’t have the huge daily temperature extremes of even the most benign environments on Mars. Earth’s atmosphere protects its surface from powerful UV radiation. Fidelity limitations also apply to computer simulations which model environmental conditions by varying key parameters like temperature and rainfall. The models are only predictions, not direct observations, so models also have limitations.
Analog exploration is a powerful approach to explore any environment, including the kingdom of God, even if it is subject to the limitations of analog fidelity. And this is why I am as excited to explore the Church as I am to camp in the Antarctic Dry Valleys or to visit the floor of the ocean in a deep sea submersible. As a dedicated disciple, I come to the Church with love and joy: my contributions to the fidelity of this analog for the kingdom of God. I am not put off by the certainty that it cannot fully replicate the kingdom of God, because if the Creator offers us grace in our imperfections, then I assume that grace extends to the Church—our analog institution in all of its human frailty.
Analog exploration is a powerful approach to explore any environment, including the kingdom of God…I am as excited to explore the Church as I am to camp in the Antarctic Dry Valleys or to visit the floor of the ocean in a deep sea submersible.
As an explorer, I remain mindful that what I see through the lens of my material existence is filtered by it. This is especially true for a material being exploring a spiritual realm via a material analog. Even so, I regard the Church as the most promising analog environment through which I can explore the kingdom of God during my life on Earth. It is the place where I can investigate why this earthly analog [Church] is habitable for some people and not for others, and I can try harder to make it a more faithful representation of God’s unlimited hospitality and steadfast lovingkindness.
The kingdom of God is so much more than its material analog. It is beyond what my imagination can summon, yet my experience as a scientist and an explorer reassures me that the more deeply I explore, the more I will learn; I am committed to that process. What a blessing to be a scientist as well as a disciple of Christ. It affords me opportunities to reflect on what I have learned from being both. God’s grace reminds me to offer grace when I engage in the peer review process or mentor students and junior scientists. The grace and love of God make me a better scientist, and the tools of analog exploration that I have practiced make me a better Christian.
The Church is changing because its physical and cultural environment has changed. It is a living organism—the Body of Christ. Living things adapt to environmental stresses. Otherwise, they die. Thus adaptation is an indicator of the Church’s state of health. To be a high-fidelity analog for the Body of Christ, the Church must be resilient and adaptable. Sometimes, we Christians are resistant to change. However God is always doing a new thing (Isaiah 43: 19), and we must be alert to the new things!
The kingdom of God is…beyond what my imagination can summon, yet my experience as a scientist and an explorer reassures me that the more deeply I explore, the more I will learn; I am committed to that process.
The Greatest Expedition We Could Mount
I am responsible for a particular church because I am its pastor. I pray for guidance from God, and I use my head, my heart, and my imagination to consider how to tend to the needs of the individual members as well as the community. I now regard my scientific colleagues as a community much in the way I regard the Church. I try to show up for them and listen—to be the colleague they can count on when we are in a harsh and unforgiving environment. So being a disciple and a pastor has helped me in my scientific life as well, because sometimes the path to scientific discovery is arduous and perhaps tedious. Imagine what the scientific community could be if hospitality and steadfast lovingkindness were its core values. Imagine a church that recognizes itself as a place where we embark on expeditions to explore the kingdom of God.
I regard all of my life experiences as Christian formation. So I embrace the diversity of gifts that God offers us to fulfill our potential as adopted children, including curiosity and critical thinking. These and other gifts are “super powers” we bring to our discipleship.
We are moved to see the suffering in the world with the gifts of compassion and steadfast loving-kindness. And with the gifts of intellect and curiosity, we have developed science and technology to help us better understand the workings of the material world so we can seek remedies to some of the problems that cause human suffering such as climate change, disease, lack of access to food, and clean water and the pollution of our environment with our agricultural and industrial processes.
Imagine what the scientific community could be if hospitality and steadfast lovingkindness were its core values. Imagine a church that recognizes itself as a place where we embark on expeditions to explore the kingdom of God.
We are the gifts God has given to one another—the companions on the way. We have been equipped with the tools we need to be faithful members of the most exciting analog expedition we could mount…to the kingdom of God.
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About the author
Pamela "Pan" Conrad
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