If you ever wondered just how weird a Baptist theologian can get, just keep reading.

One of the things I’ve done since I was sixteen is read through the Bible in its entirety each year.  This is not a difficult task since I spend less than fifteen minutes each day doing it; as big a book as the Bible is, when you split it into 365 parts, each of those pieces is pretty small.  I like to do this primarily because it keeps me aware of the “big picture.” I don’t lose sight of the overall context of any given passage in the Bible.  Additionally, it forces me to look at passages that I otherwise might be tempted to skip, such as the genealogies or the garment and sacrifice regulations in Leviticus.  One of the key things in scripture reading is to understand the words in their context, to allow them to speak as the authors intended, rather than to use the Bible as if it were a motivational poster or a book of runes and epigrams.  It is better, when you need encouragement or help on a problem to be able to think of the overall thrust of the scripture, to bring passages to mind, or to be reminded of things, than in the midst of desperation to start hunting for something to make you feel better.  Odds are, if you’re looking for something to fit your current circumstance, then you’ll yank things out of context, like the woman who wondered what she should do about paying her bills and started flipping through the Bible until she lighted upon the Book of Job and took that as the answer to her prayers.

All that being said, I still get tempted on occasion to look at passages in skewed ways.  For instance, I recently came upon Ephesians 3:14-15.  I’ve obviously read it many times before, but this time it struck me just how odd a passage it is:


“For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name.”


The obvious question raised by the passage: who is “every family in heaven?”  There is no real consensus among commentators on the question.  Some suggest that it refers to the Jewish people and the Gentles—the Jewish people as the family in heaven, the gentiles as those on earth.  Others have suggested that families in heaven are the angels.  Some have proposed that it refers to Christians here on earth, as well as believers who have passed on in death.

Given my interest in astronomy and science fiction, and my general oddneit should not be shocking to any regular reader that I am tempted to imagine that should we ever discover extraterrestrial civilizations, Paul’s words could easily be twisted into applying.  Sooner or later we theologians are likely to have to find a way to fit extraterrestrials into our theological frameworks.  I suggest that a passage like this from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians might be useful in this regard.  After all, we need to think about how God would relate to non-human intelligence.  Obviously (it seems to me) the Bible was written to and for human beings; it was not written for angels, it was not written for animals, it wasn’t written for infants, and it wasn’t written for Klingons.  Thus, the questions we might have about the ultimate fates of animals and infants, for instance, are not answered explicitly in the text.  Likewise, the text of the Bible does not deal with a question that is of interest to us in the twenty-first century—alien beings—since the concept of other worlds and their inhabitants was not something that Paul would likely have thought about or even imagined.  The chances that Paul was thinking of alien beings in his words to the church in Ephesis in the first century AD is highly improbable from a historical and cultural context.

Nevertheless, I suspect that once First Contact occurs, this is one of the texts that will get used as we adapt to that new reality.  Likewise, I believe this passage will serve as an opening to a future theological/academic discipline: comparative Christianity.  That is, I suspect that we will find analogues of Christianity (not to mention other religions) in alien garb simply because I suspect that it's the only way for God to reconcile sentient creatures.  If you think it impossible that Christians could decide that God’s Son could die an infinite number of times on an infinite number of worlds for an infinite number of species, I have a two-part question: first, on what basis is such a scenario impossible?  I don’t believe the Bible addresses the question either way.  Second, is God’s arm too short to save all life in the universe?

Assuming extraterrestrial intelligence piles on to another problem, if you would: the incredible naiveté of how most Christians think about eschatology and the Second Coming.  Already, thanks to space travel, the popular image of Jesus’ return (from a Christian context) is obviously not correct.  Human beings have lived continuously in space for the last ten years (on the International Space Station); the ashes of two people are not on Earth at all and more are likely to follow, which complicates our picture of the resurrection: Eugene M. Shoemaker’s ashes are on the moon (they were deposited there by the Lunar Prospector space probe in 1999) and the ashes of Clyde W. Tombaugh (the American who discovered Pluto) are currently bound for interstellar space after New Horizon’s flyby of Pluto next month.

As I’ve told my students, theology is mostly about our questions, not about the answers.  Given an infinite, eternal God, there are more things we don’t know or understand than we do, or ever can.  God and his relationship to us and the universe do not fit into tidy little boxes: there aren’t any boxes big enough. All we can manage is a bare outline, with few certainties, such as “God loves us.” Basic things.  But there is so much else we are clueless about, and some of our certainties are likely wrong or at best incomplete and confused.

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