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Featuring guest Andrew Davison

Andrew Davison | Astronomical Divinity

Andrew Davison helps us explore the theological questions that would arise if we found life elsewhere in the universe.


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Artistic rendering of an exoplanet and stars

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Andrew Davison helps us explore the theological questions that would arise if we found life elsewhere in the universe.

Description

In the last couple of decades, we have solved the question of whether there are other earth-like planets in the universe by finding evidence of billions of them. But while we don’t know whether there could be life on those planets—or what it would be like if there was—we can still explore the theological questions that might arise if we did find life. These questions might seem like they don’t have much relevance for us, but besides being fun to think about, they help us to refine the theology of things like the incarnation and what it means for us here on earth.

Theme song and credits music by Breakmaster Cylinder. Other music in this episode by Pink Marble, courtesy of Shutterstock, Inc.

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  • Originally aired on November 30, 2023
  • With 
    Jim Stump

Transcript

Davison:

This is not about, as I say, sitting in God’s chair and working out what any sensible God would do. It’s about much more thinking back on what God has done, and saying how fitting, how suitable, frankly, how beautiful. I see it as an approach to theology that’s suffused with praise. Barth, Karl Barth said theology was an exercise in thinking back upon what God has done. And I think this view of what God is as being so suitable, it’s about thinking back and responding in wonder how fitting God should have worked that way. Hello, I’m Andrew Davison. I’m the Starbridge professor of Theology and Natural Sciences at the University of Cambridge in England. Currently, I’m a visiting fellow at the Center of Theological Inquiry in Princeton.

Stump:

Welcome to Language of God, I’m your host Jim Stump. Only a few decades ago scientists thought it was equally as likely that life supporting planets were astronomically very rare or very common. But, evidence from the last two decades through the Hubble and now web telescopes has quickly identified many such planets, so many that there are thought to be billions upon billions of planets that might be capable of supporting life. That might be exciting for some people to consider. But, for many, it will pose some questions that threaten some deeply held theological beliefs. These questions kept Andrew Davison awake at night, which he saw as a good reason to devote a career to exploring them. His new book, Astrobiology and Christian Doctrine, lays out a theological framework for many of the questions. Would other intelligent life forms be very much like us humans? Would they be fallen, or could they develop and survive in an unfallen state? If they are fallen, or maybe even if they aren’t, would the second person of the Trinity need to become incarnate in their species too? How would God culminate creation’s history with the new heavens and new earth if there are also other civilizations on other planets and in very different times.

These might sound like wild speculations that have no relevance to the here and now, but as Davison shows in his book and in our conversation, they force us to think more clearly about our theological commitments and perhaps come to new insights that are relevant to our own faith. And besides that, I just think they’re really interesting. These kept me awake last night thinking about them. 

Let’s get to the conversation.

Interview Part One

Stump:

Andrew Davison, welcome to the podcast. We’re very glad to be talking to you.

Davison:

I’m delighted to be joining you.

Stump:

We are talking to you at your current post at Princeton, at the Center of Theological Inquiry, but your accent betrays that’s not where you’re from. Tell us a bit about your background, where you grew up, what your family was like.

Davison:

I grew up in the northeast of England, in Yorkshire, in a village on a hill range called the Wolds. My father’s an engineer. My mother is a teacher and an artist, and I was a scientist. First of all, I went up to the university at 18 to read chemistry at Oxford and stayed on to do a DPhil, a Oxford PhD in biochemistry. And it was at that time that I started making the jump into theology.

Stump:

Did your family participate in church as you were growing up?

Davison:

They brought my sister and me up to be churchgoers.

Stump:

In the Church of England?

Davison:

Church of England, yeah, the local parish church, part Norman, goes back a thousand years, and there’s a town in Massachusetts called Rowley, or I think you pronounce it Rowley, which was founded by half of my village who took themselves off with the Reverend Ezekiel Rogers to found that New England place. It’s many, many times bigger than the little village where I come from. Yeah, so Church of England, and yeah, my parents brought us up to go to church, and I think once we decided for ourselves whether to go or not, they didn’t go to church quite as often. But they remained certainly involved with the local church.

Stump:

Then, what was this transition for you from the sciences into theology? What precipitated that?

Davison:

Well, it’s quite relevant for your podcast actually. It was that I went up to university having left the Church of England, and joined a local house church. It was a non-denominational charismatic church in the local town. And so, I went up to university thinking the world was made in six days, 6,000 years ago, and found pretty soon I was studying chemistry that there were reasons to think that wasn’t right. And it really felt to me like the rug had been pulled out under my faith, because the whole question of what you trust anymore, and what your sources are. I’d rather a dark night of the soul for a few years. And when the dust has settled, and I was in the Church of England, then I’d become more of an Anglo-Catholic sort of Christian. I realized all the things that had kept me awake in an anguished sort of way, were still keeping me awake, but in a fascinated sort of way, and that I was lying awake thinking about theology, and philosophical theology, and that sort of thing, and questions of science and religion.

And I thought, well, this is actually quite a good sign. The thing that you lie awake thinking about is maybe a vocational indicator. And as much though I love my biochemistry, it’s not what was keeping me awake in a happy way. I’d also started working in the local hospice as a volunteer. And that pastoral work seemed very satisfying. Towards the end of my doctorate, I was put forward as a candidate for ordination in the Church of England, which meant wonderfully I could go to Cambridge and read the undergraduate theology degree there.

Stump:

And then went on to complete a PhD as well at Cambridge?

Davison:

Yes, only once I’d finished my curacy, which is a sort of ministerial apprenticeship, and I didn’t quite make escape velocity from the university, and ended up back at Oxford teaching theology. And I thought, well, actually I’m very fortunate. It’s a wonderful blessing to be teaching theology when I don’t have a PhD in theology. I did a Cambridge PhD, which you can do part-time on the side whilst I was teaching. And yeah, I’ve been in the university since then. But, as a doctrine teacher, systematic theology teacher for the first, what, eight years of that, and only 10 years ago, did I take up the position in theology and natural sciences. I think you’ll notice from the book that I do try to come at it as a systematic theology practitioner, as a doctor in person, and as a scientist. My approach to theology and science is really to bring the two things at their characterful best into relation to one another.

I’m not that interested in methodological questions about science and religion, or in science and religion as its own kind of little bubble. I think you should just get science, and you should think about it theologically, and you should let the theological perspectives speak to the science. I think sometimes theologians come from very wise traditions with all sorts of philosophical resources, and they can offer those for thinking about the world as well. But yeah, that’s sort of what happens when you think theologically about specific questions in science is what I see, see my work revolving around.

Stump:

Well, let’s turn to some of that work then, because as you mentioned, there is a new book that has come out, Cambridge University Press that you have authored called Astrobiology and Christian Doctrine: Exploring the Implications of Life in the Universe. Began fairly generally for those in our audience who are new to the term astrobiology. Give us a little bit of description of that field, what it’s aiming for, maybe what disciplines or fields of study are involved in it.

Davison:

Well, I think this suits people who are interdisciplinary. And if you’re working between theology and science, you’re interdisciplinary already, because it brings in astronomy, and biochemistry, chemistry, earth science, planetary science. It’s inherently very interdisciplinary. The earlier term, in fact, it was exobiology. It was the biology of any life that lay beyond earth or outside the solar system perhaps, but it could also be in the solar system. And then there was a bit of a revolution when people realized that rather than thinking about all that stuff that we don’t actually know about, that lies beyond earth, we should change from exobiology to astrobiology, which is the study of the place of life in the universe, because with exobiology, we don’t have any other examples yet. But, with astrobiology, we do have one great example, which is our own planet.

And that has really transformed the discipline, and it means that people think about planetary science in terms of what we know about the earth, and the earth in terms of what we know about planetary science. It’s been a great interdisciplinary move. And as I want to show in the book, Christian theology is not at all a newcomer to thinking about life beyond earth, although sometimes you wouldn’t know it. Sometimes it looks like people are being expected to reinvent the wheel when actually there’s a long history of thinking about life beyond earth. It goes back to about 1450, I think.

Stump:

We’ll perhaps hear from some of these big names in the tradition over the course of our conversation who have thought about this. But, there are some fairly recent scientific developments that have given, shall we say, new life to this conversation. Can you give us a few of the statistics about exoplanets, particularly those where we think may be capable of sustaining life, what we’ve found, and what we expect we may find in the future that is relevant to this?

Davison:

Absolutely. Well, the big date is 1995 when a couple of guys, one of them is Swiss National now working between Zurich and Cambridge, Didier Kalo, who is a colleague, discovered the first planet around another sun. Until then, we didn’t really know whether there were planets around other stars. There was one model which would’ve made it incredibly rare, such that we might’ve been the only solar system in the galaxy, that was if you only get them when one star crashes into another. Or there was another theory associated in fact with Immanuel Kant, the philosopher, which would’ve made forming planets absolutely part of the same process that just formed stars. And the balance was shifting away from the rare theory to the more plentiful theory, but it really wasn’t known. And that idea that we were very, very rare had been dominated, dominated in the 19th century. But, once we discovered the first planet around another star, then we could be more confident that we’re not just some extraordinarily unlikely thing.

But, I think even the people who maybe veer towards thinking that there were a lot of planets out there have been surprised, really taken aback by how many there are. It just seems that the formation of stars naturally throws up the formation of planets. And wherever we look, we find them. The James Webb Space Telescope is another great date, recently launched, which is going to give us fantastic capacity to discover planets around other stars, but even more excitingly to look at the composition of their atmospheres, because previously perhaps we thought we’d have to wait to receive some kind of signal from intelligent life elsewhere, or perhaps even be visited, or I think the difficulties of traveling those sorts of distances can’t be underestimated.

But, now that we can look at the atmospheres around other planets, around other stars, we can look for anomalies. We can look for the imbalance of gases, which if you looked at the earth from a long way away, you’d say something very strange is happening. There’s all this oxygen, oxygen’s very reactive. There’s also methane in the atmosphere. How can those things hang around? Something’s perturbing the balance, and which we know is life. We’re absolutely poised towards being able to look for these signs of life in the atmospheres of other planets. And that’s really the inspiration for writing the book, for teaching it in my undergraduate course that I think it’s time for us to be ready to meet the news if we come across it of life elsewhere in the universe.

Stump:

If I may dwell just on this point a little bit further, some of the statistics you give at the beginning of the book that really jumped out are, it could be that something like two billion planets in the Milky Way would be somewhat earthlike. When you look at the percentage of stars that could be like our sun, and maybe up to half of those stars would have planets around them, and the number of planets that may be habitable just because of the sheer numbers in our galaxy, that leaves us with an awful lot of potential life supporting planets, right?

Davison:

Yeah, I think that’s a great statistic, and it’s another reason for thinking about this area that I’m plucking these figures off the top of my head. But, I think it’s something like 20% of stars are relatively sun-like, and about 20% of them have a somewhat earth-like planet. These statistics, they’re refined all the time. But, last time I did the calculation, it ended up as something like 16 billion, billion earth-like planets around sun-like stars in the observable universe.

Stump:

16 billion billion.

Davison:

16 billion billion. Now, it might be that the emergence of life, and that’s why I work on this is a new research project, is to be involved with a center in Cambridge to have a hand in setting it up on the origins of life. Well, maybe life getting going is very rare. But, even if it only happened in one in a billion cases of potentially habitable planets, that would still be 16 billion examples of it in the observable universe. The figures here are astronomical, we say, and I think that we might never discover any of that, which of course, is this fascinating question that might be out there, but we don’t discover it. But, it certainly does to me make it a topic worthy of some attention.

Stump:

And as you mentioned with the shift to talking about astrobiology, we do have a sample size of one, of life that has developed, and increasingly, it seems like that happened fairly quickly after the planet cooled and life developed. And is there any reason to think that, that wouldn’t be happening elsewhere, that it should be a much more rare process? I guess, I’m talking about the science here still in particular.

Davison:

I’m sure that there are mathematicians listening who will have expertise in knowing how much you can extrapolate from a very small, minutely small dataset. But, it is true. We’ve got this other little bit of information, which is that life seems to have got going on earth really at the very end of the Hadean epoch. The Hades like epoch that looks unbelievably unconducive to life almost as early as it’s conceivable that life could have survived, it’s got going. Make of that what you will, but it’s perhaps another little data point towards suggesting the prevalence of life in the universe.

Stump:

The point of your book is not really to work through all of the current science of astrobiology, but as your subtitle says, to explore the implications for Christian theology of there being life elsewhere in the galaxy or the universe. And you’re really specifically homing in on intelligent life elsewhere, right? The existence of moss, or trees, or even animals elsewhere doesn’t pose much of a problem theologically?

Davison:

Well, I’m not sure that very much at all poses a problem for theology. But, here I’m in a bit of a position of attention because I think theologically, the really interesting questions get posed once we start thinking about beings that have memory, and intellect, and will, and moral capacity, and capacity to have a relationship with God, or to muck that up, and so on. Whereas the scientists that I’m working with are really almost allergic to those sorts of questions. They really want to focus on this transition from unliving matter into living matter. I feel like a theologian has to address the questions that are theologically interesting. But, if our center of gravity keeps moving towards intelligent life, then I think it’s also important to say yeah, but there are some really interesting questions about the origins of life at all. But yeah, the book does focus on basically life that might have some kind of capacity for a relationship with God consciously.

Stump:

Good. You say that you don’t think even that kind of life poses much of a problem, and that comes through in your book. But, it stands in some tension to what we often hear, at least popularly, often from other scientists who are not themselves believers, who think that this would be the death knell of Christian theology in general. Maybe give us just a little bit of your overview of this central point of theology, having the resources and capacity to deal with this question, and then we’ll start zooming in on some of the particular issues that emerge out of it.

Davison:

Well, there’s a general point to be made, which is that I think it’s so uncharacteristic of the Christianity that I know to be intimidated by very much at all. I think it’s important that Christian theology has been, well, for one thing, a great inspiration for science down the centuries, and maybe the perspective that I particularly live within, particularly studied Thomas Aquinas, which is in the theology of the Middle Ages. This was theology that absolutely thrived by asking itself questions.

There’s this thing we call the scholastic method, which is advancing your theological understanding precisely by posing yourself difficult questions. That seems to me an illustration of Christianity that’s open-hearted, open-minded, that feels like this basic position is not being threatened, and always wanting to have a conversation. Generally, that’s what Christianity looks like to me, or Christian theology looks like to me. And then specifically on this question of the origin of life, or let’s say the presence of biological life beyond Earth, it’s been a huge topic in Christian theology.

As I mentioned, I can think of two figures. One of them is the very great theologian, Nicholas Puser from the 15th century who write about it. And then, it’s pretty much there being discussed in every century since. And if there’s one thing that’s frustrating about that corpus of literature, it’s not that anybody was—well, perhaps some people were—but it’s not that generally people were afraid or intimidated, and so they rather took the idea of life beyond death, and they destroyed such a lot that they didn’t really give it very much attention. You tend to find somebody writing a sentence here, a paragraph there, maybe a page at most. John Ray, for instance, is often described as the father of British natural history writing. He has a wonderful book called something like the Wisdom of God and the Wonders of Creation, something like that. And just almost out of the blue when he’s talking about other planets, he says, “Well, they have other life. The other stars have gotten the planets around them, and they’re full of life,” and he makes a couple of theological points in passing.

But the point I want to get over there is if there’s not much writing about it of any depth, it’s just because they didn’t think it was a problem enough to write about it. The idea that somehow this is suddenly jumping out of left field, and is going to knock us off balance, is I think, generally not true in terms of the way Christian theology operates, and certainly specifically not true in as much as people have been thinking about this for a very long time. Maybe around the reformation, there are a lot of tensions. I can point to some people when the lights on, and the reaction to Bruno where people are a little bit more defensive. But, once the tensions have died down a bit and you’re into the what, maybe the 17th century, people are writing about it again without any worries at all.

Stump:

Yeah, that’s fascinating. One more preliminary question before we get into the meat of your book here, because I’d also like to hear you address the analogy from the history of our own planet of finding people groups that were very isolated from Western civilization and the Judeo-Christian story in the ancient Near East in the Roman Empire. Is there a consideration of astrobiology similar to what theologians had to grapple with when it was learned that people had been living, say on the other side of the planet for centuries, even millennia, without any contact or knowledge of the revelation of God in Jesus Christ? How is that situation similar to the question of astrobiology, and maybe how is it different?

Davison:

Well, there’s certainly a sense of encounter there, and of an unexpected expansion of one’s horizon. I think there’s an analogy there. The disanalogy, the difference is that, at least at its best, people recognize that these were human beings, that it’s not a fundamentally different kind of being. I know that the story of so-called discovery of these places is full of some pretty awful scenes where people aren’t recognized in their humanity. But, there were theologians happily who were arguing for the whole idea of human rights. An international law is arriving at this time from scholars of Aquinas, in fact, who are saying, we recognize these people as human beings, and they have rights and dignities that can’t be taken away from them.

There are similarities and differences. It’s interesting that there’s an example already, a theoretical example from even the time of the church fathers where they’re asking what if there are people on the other side of the earth, they called them the antipodes, who are separated from us, and they’re asking some of the same sorts of questions about the effects of death of Christ, the resurrection, questions about whether they would necessarily fall them, what their relationship to us is?

And so, I think that question of the antipodes offers something of a example from actually quite a long time before we did Europe, a European perspective come across these other people. Aquinas is interesting on this, because he thinks that pretty much everybody is either a Christian, a Jew, a Muslim, or as he would call it, call it some kind of Christian heretic. And so, he asked himself, what if somebody was to grow up outside of any of those communities, and didn’t know about God? And he thinks that God would probably send them some kind of angelic visitation to make them aware of the gospel. He thinks that these are extremely rare cases, but God would mercifully respond to mopping up operation by sending angels. Just shows how unprepared the medieval mind was in terms of just what they thought was out there once that expansion happened.

Stump:

Okay. Let’s now dig into some of the possible theological scenarios of finding intelligent, morally responsible life elsewhere. And in your book, you have a chart on page 188 that puts these into a diagram, and the major division on it, is whether those creatures are fallen or not. And I’ve read the C.S. Lewis space trilogy in Perelandra where the species has experienced temptation, but did not succumb to it. And I guess, I find that interesting, but not very plausible. Are there many theologians working in the field who take it as a serious possibility that we could discover life on another planet that has developed without sin ever entering that world?

Davison:

I think it’s always dangerous to talk about generalities when one hasn’t read absolutely everything that’s been written. But, I think as approximation it’s generally Catholic writers who are more open to that prospect than Protestant ones.

Stump:

Why would that be?

Davison:

Well, I think partly it’s because of the absolute centrality, sometimes the danger of overpowering everything else of a sense of sin and redemption in Protestant theology. Like I was saying, to know Christ is to know his benefits. It’s all about your sinful state. It’s all about your redemption, and things like the doctrine of creation perhaps falling a little bit into the background, although happily theologians have really covered a doctrine of creation in recent decades. That’s part of it. I also think it’s because, again, from Aquinas, I’m afraid he’s getting quite a good showing today, he had this idea that the human being is a kind of animal, and we’re material, and as an animal with desires and so on, as a material thing, it was almost inevitable that, that kind of blood perhaps was inevitable, that, that kind of creature would go astray. Material things can fall apart. Animals have passions and so on.

He doesn’t think that the state that we fell from was a natural one. He thinks it was a fall from a more than natural state. He thinks it’s definitive of what first made anything a human being, that they were given this gift of grace, which he calls original righteousness, which would’ve given the human being this capacity to hold things together basically. And so, our fall is a fall in a sense back into a merely natural state. If you have that idea that God would give to creatures who are capable of it, of receiving it, this gift of a supernatural, a graced capacity not to sin, although that doesn’t take away our capacity also to do the wrong thing, then on that ground perhaps, you can imagine that there’ll be other creatures that had that gift, and decided not to throw it away. I think that’s quite an important part of the picture.

Stump:

Okay. Well, then I guess as a Protestant myself, I find the other side of the diagram a little more interesting, and we’ll spend more time there.

Davison:

Can I say one more thing about the unfallen state though?

Stump:

Yes, please. 

Davison:

I said that one of the reasons I think for being interested in this topic, writing about it, reading about it, teaching it, is that we’re in a position where we might find evidence of life beyond Earth. But, even if we never do, I think coming at old questions from new angles is very useful.

Stump:

Yes, yes.

Davison:

I think this is a great example that I might say to students, so if there was life beyond Earth, and it perhaps because it had this gift of grace, and decided not to blow it, it remained in an un-simple state, I might say to them, what does the incarnation of Christ offer for them? Or we might later on talk about the prospect of even incarnation in that species. And quite often, people will say, “Well, nothing. The incarnation is about putting things right.”

But, this is a wonderful counterfactual example where you say, “Well really, does receiving the very personhood of God within one’s nature, is that not a gift that would be extraordinary even for an unfallen race? Doesn’t Christ give us something that’s so much more than just a restoration of wrongdoing? To be participants in the divine nature is reading them to Peter, or to be made sons and daughters of God, this is more than just putting right something that went wrong. And so, even if it’s just a thought experiment, the idea that there might be life elsewhere that isn’t fallen, it’s interesting the number of questions that still remain open, in particular for me, how the incarnation adds something to that which takes it beyond its similar state.

Stump:

Yes, for sure. And it definitely comes through in your book that this is not just idle speculation that has no import for us here and now, right, that working through these different scenarios forces us to sharpen our own theology and what we think about such things. I didn’t mean to dismiss that as not worth further consideration. But, I will turn to the other side of your chart. Are these creatures that we come across, or that perhaps exist and we never do come across, but creatures that are fallen, and in need of salvation? And for the sake of completeness, I guess you include the possibility that well, maybe they’re just damned and have no possibility of salvation. Does anyone defend that view?

Davison:

Goodness, off the top of my head, I can’t think of anybody, but there’s almost in reverse. You have—now who’s the Puritan? Baxter. Baxter writes about it rather in reverse that he says, “Maybe the Earth is just this absolute suspect of damnation, but actually that’s okay, because it’s just like God chopping off a wart, he says or something like that.

Stump:

Oh, dear.

Davison:

And so he’s a very interesting, though a Protestant writer, he’s assuming in that argument that perhaps there’s lots of life beyond Earth that hasn’t fallen, and that we are the extraordinary bad case. And if most of us are just disposed of, then elsewhere, someone, some creature might be thinking, oh, I wonder if there’s a planet where it’s just a terrible degree of formness. But, I can’t think off the top of my head of someone. I think that’s partly because the people who are going to ask these sorts of questions about life beyond Earth, just I think they tend to be people who really put the priority on God’s mercy and ingenuity.

Stump:

Right. Okay, so let’s go to that section of the chart. We have these creatures that are fallen, and in need of salvation, and there is some plan for their salvation. The tricky part becomes that our understanding of salvation is so closely tied to Jesus Christ, the second person of the Trinity who has always been fully God, but then at one point, also became fully human in the person of Jesus Christ. One of the really important questions we’ve discussed before on this podcast is whether human and our species, Homo sapiens mean the same thing. Maybe they don’t. And I take it that Aquinas, to whom you again refer quite often, would be fine with saying that humanity or the rational nature that we Homo sapiens possess is the same nature as any other intelligent species would possess. If that’s the case, when God becomes human, God essentially becomes incarnate to all rational creatures. Is that a correct description of his view, or at least the implications of his view? And how does that solve the salvific question for aliens?

Davison:

Well, I think you’ve jumped there very eloquently into a very important, I say, option or way of thinking about this, which is to say that in taking up human nature, the word, The Son takes up, let me use the idea of being a rational animal. The kind of thing that we are, we’re rational animals, and by taking up our nature, Christ takes something up that could be shared beyond Earth. And this is an important way of talking about why the one incarnation in Christ could avail for the whole universe. And I’m absolutely happy with saying that.

And rather than saying, “Well, God just became this one kind of thing, and for some reason or other, that just gets applied extraneously to lots of other sorts of things, my instinct is to say, there’s not an extraneous application. It’s because God in Christ already shares with those other things by becoming the kind of thing that they are, which is a rational human being, a rational animal rather. They haven’t got the connection by dissent, but they have a metaphysical connection that Christ has assumed himself or in Christ God’s assumed himself, that kind of nature.

And especially if you take a view of the atonement that takes this idea of participation, this one is called the Greek model of atonement, although that’s not really a fair way of describing it. It’s very important to the West as well. It’s not a view of the atonement that takes the incarnation very seriously as redemptive in itself, including the death and resurrection of Christ. But, it’s by taking up our nature that God breathes new life into it. And then, on that kind of view, it’s quite important to say that these other things that would benefit from Jesus Christ’s incarnation as Jesus Christ, they also would have life breathed into their nature as death and sin will be overcome in their nature because they share a nature with us.

[musical interlude]

Interview Part Two

Stump:

There are lots of rabbit trails we could go down here in exploring that question further. And you go through many of these in the book, and I don’t want to do all of them so that people won’t go out and buy your book, because they should. But, just a little bit further on this one of whether we share this same nature, and so that Christ, so that the second person of the Trinity becoming Jesus Christ is efficacious in that sense for all. There’s some science we could appeal to this, namely the sort of evolutionary convergences that you point to. Simon Conway Morris, who’s been on our show before, has described it’s not settled by any means, but neither is it ridiculous to think that biological beings who are capable of rationality and moral responsibility, et cetera, that they’re going to end up a lot like us, right? But, this option still seems incredibly anthropocentric, or maybe we say Homo sapien-centric, given all of these other planets and potential for intelligence species. It was God coming to Bethlehem here on our planet that they must somehow now identify with this.

Later in your book, you refer to a Star Wars version of the Gospel, which for them, would have to begin with that beginning scroll in Star Wars, A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, God was born as a human in Bethlehem. That doesn’t strike me as particularly good news for these other species. And it does bring me back though to thinking of this analogy with isolated cultures here on Earth and think that must sound pretty similar when missionaries and conquistadors came to the new world to evangelize, to say, “This is what happened a millennium ago on the other side of the planet, but why it’s important for you?” Am I making too much of this anthropocentrism, that the feeling like the incarnation would only happen one time, here on Earth, in our species, and that’s what God planned for these potentially billions of others of species throughout the galaxy?

Davison:

Well, you’ll know from the book that I, in as much as I have a, what would you call it, a sympathy or an instinct, it’s certainly that I would want to take the idea of multiple incarnations seriously, and we can get around to that. But, I think just to take the other side for a moment, I have this idea in Christian theology. It’s been around for a century or so of the scandal of particularity. And although some people have put it forward as a scandal in the sense it’s something that makes things difficult to believe, there are plenty of Christian theologians who embrace this as a very positive thing. But yes, it is the case that in one moment in time, in one place, in one culture, God becomes incarnate.

And that’s just the corollary of the fact that God doesn’t deal with us through obstructions and generalities, but by taking human flesh, and a human life is in one place, at one time, from one religious context, and so on. I think it’s really important that we embrace that and say, “For me, in America, or in Britain, in 2023, the absolute center of my life is one particular human being who was born of a particular human mother who probably didn’t look very much like me, who didn’t dress like me, who was from a Jewish religious background, and this is God incarnate.” I’m wary of anything that in that sense diminishes the particularity of Christ because it’s absolutely the flip side of the fact that God becomes a human being, and not just an idea.

Stump:

Yeah, so that’s really interesting. We ourselves that are that far separated from that particular event perhaps might want to say, “Well, why doesn’t God become incarnate in 21st century America to show us what that would really be like?” I guess there’s some argument there against that. I still find myself, as you say, you seem a bit sympathetic to the option of multiple incarnations. And perhaps that’s related to the point you made earlier where in my example of the analogy of other isolated cultures, we’re still the same species. We’re still the same species here, and I can’t help but feel that other species on other planets may be significantly different than we are. And so, then it maybe becomes fitting—this is a term we’ll come back to in a little bit—but fitting for God to incarnate multiple times. Some people are nervous about that, particularly because of metaphysics of the incarnation, and of the Trinity, that second person become incarnate in other species too. How does this work, and what’s the nervousness that some people have with regard to allowing for that as a possibility?

Davison:

Well, I’ll respond to that point, because I’ve given one side of the argument. You mentioned the Star Wars analogy that we open the Gospel, and it says in whatever it was ninth month the angel Gabriel was sent to the virgin whose name was Mary. And it’s something that is completely recognizable to us, and we don’t read the Gospels like perhaps some other putative civilization would have to do if there’s only one incarnation, and find A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away. Something that you can’t really understand, happens to creatures that you can’t get your head around.

For me, the instinct towards thinking about multiple incarnations is that God doesn’t just do a minimal job. I think it’s perfectly true that one incarnation somewhere can redeem the whole world. But, it’s notable that great theologians down the centuries have talked about the incarnation as doing many different things, and it does sort out sin. But, it also communicates God to us in a absolutely extraordinary way.

God, the technical term is accommodation. God accommodates himself to our nature, and we see God face-to-face, and in human gestures and within the context of human life in the most communicative way. And that’s where it seems to me, if I was the only incarnation, and all another group of people can know is that this thing happened here, but that maybe their bodies are different, that form of life is different. The Last Supper doesn’t speak to them because it just seems completely unrecognizable to them. If God is not just redeeming us from our sin, but also drawing near to us, and revealing himself to us, that’s where it seems to me that an incarnation that takes the particularity of their body, and life, and culture equally seriously seems to me so important. Yeah, so why do people find it problematic? Well, I’ll say again, I think that asking these sorts of questions is just a really great way to come at all theological questions from new angles.

And it really forces us, I think, to be clear, precise about what we mean by the incarnation. Some recent writing about the idea of multiple incarnations, you hear people talking about the idea of Christ hopping from planet to planet. And this actually turns up in Thomas Payne, I think, Common Sense. One of your great American writers who I’m afraid really doesn’t get Christianity at this point. And this is one of the arguments against Christianity is that he’s a deist, I imagine, is that surely there’s other life elsewhere, and surely, God would have to become incarnate.

But, what he thinks by that, is that Jesus Christ would just keep popping up, and dying, and then rising and having to die elsewhere. And so, that was just ask what we mean by the incarnation, and the traditional view from the fathers and the Council of Nicaea, and then develop further Council of Chalcedon, is that the person of the Word, the Son, takes up a human nature so that God who in eternity, is this person with a divine nature, comes to be the divine person with a divine nature united to a human nature.

And so, that produces…God being human is Jesus of Nazareth, and he doesn’t lack anything human at all. What he did not assume, he did not heal, says Gregory as yet. He has a human soul, and mind, and principle of action, and will, and so on. There’s absolutely nothing that’s human missing from him. And I think on the basis of that sort of precision and a lot more could be said about it, what I call the Christological detail, then it really helps us to articulate what we would mean by another incarnation, which is not another Jesus of Nazareth, but another person, another creature whose person is the second person of the Trinity, but taken up united to a different nature, which is complete also according to that nature.

I started to get into, I imagine, into the weeds, and that’ll be particularly interesting. But, I do think it really matters to articulate what you think the incarnation means. I’m talking about it’s called hypostatic union, the union of these two natures, human and divine, in the one person, the Son. And only once we’ve got clear what we mean by the incarnation, can we really think about whether it does or doesn’t make sense to talk about multiple.

Stump:

Does this nomenclature that we’ve developed for the Trinity and the incarnation continue to work where we say the Trinity is three persons, one nature, Jesus Christ, one person with two natures. Do we now have to say the second person of the Trinity could have more than two natures?

Davison:

Well, I prefer to talk about multiple twos than I would about going beyond two. In a Martian Christ, we would say, “This Martian who is complete in Martian nature, who he, or she, or it is, the person, is the person of the Son.” And of course, the word is not exhaustible. Jesus Christ is the absolutely perfect expression of what it means for God to be human. But, I don’t think that that precludes the possibility of the son uniting himself, taking up another nature. And some people say, “Well, what’s the problem about if these incarnations were to meet one another?” But, I think the really important thing there to say that Jesus is completely human to us being divine, and this other creature is completely what that creature is. And so, maybe there’s a mystery to it about God meeting God, but God is present to all things.

Stump:

There’s even some question which you bring up in the book as to whether our understanding of God as a Trinity is just our own culturally conditioned concept of God or whether that is a more absolute view. And you come down pretty strongly that all aliens should end up seeing God as a Trinity as well. And given the religious plurality on our own planet, I suspect we’d find even more diversity in concepts of God on other planets. But, is the response to that, that each planet would have the equivalent of a Christian religion through which revelation primarily came, and that other religions there are incomplete without that?

Davison:

Well, that chapter on the Trinity is a response to a book by Keith Ward, I think one of the most serious and in depth books on life beyond Earth, in which he really questions whether the language of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the Christian vision of Trinity really touches upon who God really is in the sense that he thinks it’s communicative enough, but that other creatures would have a very different understanding of God.

And I push back about that, on that little bit and say, “Well, this idea of generation, the Son being generated from the Father, wherever other creatures have got one creature that gives birth in whatever sense to another, they have the language to talk about what we think is absolutely going on there. And with the Holy Spirit, in the West, we talk about the Spirit’s nature being the bond of love between the Father and the Son, for instance.

Wherever there’s that sense of love and a gift, again, another creature would have the language to talk in their own way about what we mean about the Trinitarian relations. Now, that’s a really important question about other cultures on earth. And if there’s diversity on earth, wouldn’t there be diversity elsewhere? And I think I’ve got two things to say about that. One is that the idea of threefoldness in God is more widely encountered in the world’s religions than perhaps I had expected before I read, for instance, David Bentley Hart’s excellent book, the Experience of God.

I don’t want impose a Christian perspective on other religions, but he works through the ways in which, certainly in certain forms of Hinduism, and to some extent, in Jewish and Islamic traditions, some writers, something a little bit like the idea of the Son—well, let’s say something like the idea of an origin, and knowing, and loving are witnessed to elsewhere. I absolutely don’t want to be monopolizing other religions and saying that their form of monotheism or polytheism is just like Christianity. But, even on Earth, there are grounds of conversations about threefoldness.

Stump:

Interesting.

Davison:

But, I also want to say that, as a Christian, I do think that God has revealed something to us in Christ revealing himself as Trinity, which I think is true, and I expect other members of other religious traditions to hold their own traditions of true, and then we can have an interesting conversation about it. I don’t think that every religion ought to think that every religion is equally true, whilst being absolutely respectful and friendly amongst ourselves, and similarly elsewhere in the universe, wherever there’s religion, they’re going to be all sorts of competing, not entirely compatible views. And different people will hold to the truth of their own perspective. The last thing I’d say also is that there’s a very rich Christian tradition of saying that something of the threefoldness of God is revealed in the world. But, you wouldn’t be able to jump from that to saying God is Trinity unless it’s revealed to you. Anyway, I think I find it interesting discussion of that idea in the book. I’ll leave it to people to follow that up.

Stump:

Yeah, lots of other questions that we could go there, but I want to get to a couple more before we’re out of time. There’s another question related to multiple incarnations that you give some consideration to, which is just what kind of other animal natures Christ could become incarnate in? And here you switch the terminology from what is possible, or necessary, to what is fitting, again, I think drawing on Aquinas. But, describe a little bit of why you think it’s better to talk about what is fitting for God to do in these scenarios in particular, rather than what is necessary or impossible for God to do.

Davison:

Well, one of the fruits of writing this book for me was really to think through these ideas of fittingness, suitability, necessity, and to realize that in writing, in this case, especially about the incarnation and life beyond earth, people are following very different tracks. There’s one conversation, and it’s about whether more than one incarnation could be possible. And there’s another conversation, and it’s about whether more than one incarnation is necessary, and they’re a little bit like ships that pass in the night. They’re pretty sealed off conversations from one another.

And I do think it’s worth asking about questions of possibility. I don’t think that I can sit in God’s place and say what God can and can’t do. But, especially on the creaturely side of things, we don’t really do theology any favors by talking about just patiently observe things. I think the question of possibility and what I call the question of getting into the detail of the Christology is a good one.

When it comes to necessity, I’m a bit less sympathetic to that. I think really there’s something hubristic about saying what God must or must not do. And in fact, there’s a tradition that goes way back to Augustine, for instance, of saying that God is not bound to redeem the world one way or another. It’s not that God’s painted himself into a corner and is happily clever enough to work out one thing that can be done. I’m not that enthusiastic about the idea of saying what God must or must not do.

But, Aquinas, these are just not his major categories. The thing he really is driven by is the idea that God does the most fitting or suitable thing. And so, this is not about, as I say, sitting in God’s chair, and working out what any sensible God would do. It’s about much more thinking back upon what God has done, and saying how fitting, how suitable, frankly how beautiful. I see it as a kind of approach to theology that’s suffused with praise really. But, Karl Barth said theology was an exercise in thinking back upon what God has done. And I think this view of what God is, is being so suitable, it’s about thinking back and responding in wonder, how fitting that God should have worked that way.

Stump:

Let me see if I properly characterize the view that you’ve come to regarding this, which is that yes, God could save the entire universe of beings through the one incarnation of Jesus Christ, but it’s more fitting that God would incarnate to each of these different species. Is that correct?

Davison:

Yeah, so I’ll say it helps me in a way to articulate a agnosticism on this topic, which is the one thing I’m absolutely sure is that God will do a supremely fitting thing, and in a sense, I could stop there. But, if I articulate where my instincts lie, I can see the beautiful fittingness of God being as intimately involved in the lives of other species as through Christ, God has been involved with us. But, God will do the supremely fitting thing.

And there are plenty of theologians. I think Augustine is one of them, he’ll say, “Well, God could have redeemed the entire world just by choosing to forgive us.” But, by becoming incarnate, by living our life, by facing death down, by showing the seriousness of sin, by doing everything that the incarnation is, God has done something more fitting than just acting by fiat. Already within Christianity, an example of Augustine and those who follow him, we’re saying that there’s something supremely fitting about the incarnation. That category is already very important.

Stump:

And I think, as you mentioned, beautiful factors in there as well.

Davison:

Yeah, it’s inherently an aesthetic category really.

Stump:

Okay. We are getting close to the end of our discussion, which means there’s one more topic that we should talk about, which is the end of all things. I’ve spent a bit of time in theological literature about astrobiology, and really like thinking about all these different possible implications we’ve already talked about. But, I don’t think I’ve come across or thought much about the question you bring up at the end of the book about eschatology, specifically the arrival of the eschaton, and how this would be impacted by the existence of other people across space, and even throughout time. And you say this strikes you as the most disruptive challenge that astrobiology poses to the articles of Christian belief. What’s the problem here to start with?

Davison:

Well, I’ll begin with where I think Christian theology is and has been, which is that the end of the universe is not seen as something that happens just by natural processes. As far as we know, if time runs on, probably the universe will just carry on expanding as the idea of heat death when everything gets so cold that basically nothing can happen anymore. The alternative would be another crunch, like the opposite of the big bang if gravity was big enough to pull everything back together.

There are different cosmological ways about talking about the distant future, and it seems to me that Christian theology doesn’t mean either of those things, or anything cosmological, when it’s talking about the end. I think I say in the book, it’s something interruptive. It’s God calling time on the universe. We have this idea in British pubs that the landlord and lady shouts historically was “time gentlemen please.” There will be men and women that have seen it. “Time, ladies and gentlemen, please”, calling time on the universe, and knowing that the trumpet or trombone historically, actually of the last trumpet is that, is God calling time on the universe, not just letting things run their course.

Now, naturally enough, Christian theologians have thought that this interruptive calling time on the universe is the angel, isn’t there, in Revelation, it’s quite difficult to know exactly how to translate it, but there shall be time no longer. Now, this is a moment in human history. We wouldn’t think anything else, because it’s about the return of Christ. But, if the universe is full of civilizations, and especially if God has dealt with them as intimately as with human beings through an incarnation, then I think it becomes more of a clay to think that the end of all things happens in human history, because we would just be one of many, many, many civilizations that God has dealt with in an equivalent way.

And I think that is, as I say, disruptive to traditional Christian thought, not in a way that we can’t cope with, we can’t think through, but it is where I feel like my bearings have been shifted. And of course, it’s all hypothetical. We don’t know whether there’s life beyond Earth. But, if there’s life beyond Earth, and if God has dealt with it as intimately as us, then I think imagine that the end of all things is human history is a bigger claim.

Stump:

Okay, so I got thinking about this late into the night last night, and wonder, a few of the scenarios that you gesture toward at least, I wonder about, maybe you could comment on briefly. Could the eschaton, the end of all things, the end of time, happen at different times for different planets and different civilizations? It doesn’t seem reasonable to expect that all cultures would be developing at the same pace across the galaxy. Some of these could have been billions of years ago, and some could be billions of years in the future. But, perhaps the consummation of God’s salvific plan is not perfectly synchronized across this time as we market now, but that we would all find ourselves in eternity at once and together. Is that one way of resolving this?

Davison:

Well, I think in terms of where we get to in the end, which is the penultimate chapter of the book, I don’t see any problems there. It’s about the arrival of the end. And I think the move in Christian theology to think about things on a cosmic scale, I think that’s already in Paul. It’s already there are plenty of the Fathers. To think about these on the biggest possible scale. I think we do think about the end of all things as a wrapping up, and then a rebirth, a recreation of the whole cosmos. And the idea of that happening locally just doesn’t seem to quite take the apocalyptic splendor and terror of what we’re talking about seriously. But, the elements being dissolved with fire, and the heavens being rolled up and so on, it doesn’t seem to be talking about local ends.

Perhaps, some Christian traditions that have, I don’t know, this is not my area of specialty, and it’s not my own tradition, but perhaps some of the millennial traditions that have thought about it very much in terms of political structure, Christ coming back, maybe they could imagine local ends. But even then, they’re going to have, I think, a pretty cosmic universe embracing vision of things. I think the idea of the end is a big enough category here that it doesn’t really quite work out for it to happen here and there at different times locally.

Stump:

Part of the problem though too, is that traditionally, as I understand the biblical theology of this, it’s not that we get transported off of this planet to go somewhere else, but rather that the Kingdom of God comes to Earth. Is that another part of the problem, or could there be multiple of those, instead of us existing for all eternity with these other creatures, does God’s kingdom come to each of the places individually? I guess I’d be a little bummed if we’re not all there together experiencing those different creatures. But, could it be that we’re so far separated in the here and now, there’s never going to be any meaningful contact between us, so God just treats each of us separately in that way?

Davison:

I think I see eschatology, the theology of the end, that just being so transformative about really the dissolving of physics and the recreation of … The only thing that it’s really comparable to is the creation of the world with continuity and especially, continuity of persons. But, I think that’s just such an apocalyptic, all-encompassing vision that my instinct is not to see it working out locally, and it’s very important to be humble about the life of the world to come. We don’t know what it’s going to be like.

But, the line that I pursue in the book is really the centrality of the vision of God, and that all creatures everywhere resurrected, redeemed, will be united in sharing together in the vision of God. The question is then about what form of relationship there might be between them. But, Christianity has always had a bit of a problem with that anyway, that the vision of God is seen to be so absolutely perfect that seeing what room there is for inter-human relationality in the life of the world to come, so just a bit of a stretch. But, I think you do have to say that it is a communal experience, and I think it could be readily expanded to the participation of all sorts of creatures.

One of the things I say in the book is that it’s always been important for Christian theology to hold two things together when it comes to the end, which is one, this belief that the end of the universe isn’t a natural end and that God does something interruptive, and recreates all things, but also that everyone up until now has come face-to-face with their end and with God through death. Even if we thought that there were reasons why the end of all things might not be a moment in human history, you would still have that really strong Christian imperative that you need to be ready to meet your maker and judge. And that doesn’t go away.

But I think the other thing that really doesn’t go away is I’m not changing the belief here that the end of the universe is not a natural end. One still would be aware that at any moment, the end could be called, and okay, so that’s on a much wider timescale. But, the principle still holds that one needs to be ready for the end to come, either through death, or through the last trumpet. And I don’t think that either of those imperatives really changed, even if you think that the timescale and a geographical scale that we’re thinking about that gets massively expanded.

Stump:

Well, sadly, we have come to the end of all of the things related to this podcast episode, and I want to thank you so much, Andrew, for talking to us here, and for writing this book. It’s such fertile ground for thinking more clearly about our theological commitments, and beginning to prepare for what many of us think is the inevitable discovery, that we are not alone as creatures in the universe. Thank you so much, Andrew. What’s next on your agenda? What other projects do you have going now?

Davison:

Well, there’s the work on the origins of life. We’ve got a new center in Cambridge, which is mainly scientists, but they’re also arts and humanities contributions, which I’m coordinating at the moment on origins of life, so I’m doing some work on that. I started writing a bit more on AI. That’s another field where I think some of the, I think, quite philosophically precise theology of Aquinas has got something to offer.

Stump:

Oh, good.

Davison:

And then, a couple of years ago, I wrote a book on participation, the idea of themes of sharing from and receiving from as absolutely central in Christian theology. And I always thought there will be a companion volume to that one on the theme of mediation. There’s some of the things that I’m working on.

Stump:

Well, very good. Perhaps we will have occasion to talk again sometime in the future. But, let me just thank you again so much for this hour you have spent with us now.

Davison:

Thank you, and thank you for all the really important work that you’re doing with this podcast and more widely BioLogos.

Stump:

Thank you.

Credits

BioLogos:

Language of God is produced by BioLogos. It has been funded in part by the Fetzer Institute. Fetzer supports a movement of organizations who are applying spiritual solutions to society’s toughest problems. Get involved at fetzer.org, and by the John Templeton Foundation, which funds research and catalyzes conversations that inspire people with awe and wonder. And BioLogos is also supported by individual donors and listeners like you who contribute to BioLogos. Language of God is produced and mixed by Colin Hogoworth. That’s me. Our theme song is by Breakmaster Cylinder. BioLogos offices are located in Grand Rapids, Michigan in the Grand River Watershed. If you have questions or want to join in a conversation about this episode, find the link in the show notes for the BioLogos forum, or visit our website, biologos.org, where you’ll find articles, videos, and other resources on faith and science. Thanks for listening.


Featured guest

Andrew Davison Headshot

Andrew Davison

Andrew Davison is the Starbridge Associate Professor in Theology and Natural Sciences. He has undergraduate degrees in both science and theology and practiced as a chemist before teaching. He is also the Dean of the Chapel at Corpus Christi College. Andrew was appointed to serve as the Distinguished Visiting Fellow in Science and Theology at the Center for Theological Inquiry in Princeton New Jersey in 2022 to 2024. His book Astrobiology and Christian Doctrine: Exploring the Implications of Life in the Universe was published by Cambridge University Press in 2023.

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