About Providence, Divine Action and the Church


In this blog, Terry J. Wright posts thoughts and shares research on the Christian doctrine of providence. This doctrine testifies to God’s provision for all things through creation’s high priest, the man Christ Jesus. However, the precise meaning and manner of this provision is a perpetually open question, and this blog is a forum for discussion of the many issues relating to providence and the place of the Church within God’s action.

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Jesus is a Silicon-based, Hairy-hoofed Tetrapod

In the latest Church Times, there’s an interesting article written by Adrian Low, Professor of Computing Education at Staffordshire University in the UK. His argument is that, given the probability of life in other parts of the universe, it would be improper to suggest that Jesus became incarnate only on this planet. Here are some quotations from Low’s article:

Creation cannot be anthropocentric. We cannot be alone, although we can only imagine the nature of life elsewhere.

And what of Jesus of Nazareth: is the world his limit? Yes, it is – at least, in the sense of an incarnation here. It is theological sophistry to talk of the Jerusalem cross’s saving some random other advanced species on the other side of the universe, when no one there knows, or can ever know, about it.

So … I predict some silicon-based, hairy-hoofed tetrapod with inbuilt radio communication and a honeycomb of eyes to be Jesus, albeit with a different name, bursting, right now, into the poverty and religious bigotry of some other planet, becoming as one of them. Jesus brings God and them – whoever or whatever they are – together, for the much the same reasons as God incarnate here.

[The dynamism of the universe] implies a new incarnation happening somewhere, many times every day, over much of the past ten or more billion years. It means that God in Jesus is continually giving himself/herself/itself to recover swaths of lost creation. Every day is probably a new Christmas somewhere.

We each walk with a Jesus who is being born again into other societies on other planets; Jesus whose cross is yesterday, today, and tomorrow somewhere; whose body was broken before our world began, and whose body will be broken after humanity is gone.

Adrian Low, ‘Every day could be a new Christmas somewhere,’ Church Times, 2 March 2012, p. 14

In many respects, Low could be right. There could be life on other planets; and, as Low comments elsewhere in the article, whatever creatures there are could require the services of a saviour on account of their ‘freedom and opportunity for failure’. If creatures elsewhere have evolved to the point where they can be said, like humanity on our planet, to have been made in the image of God, then presumably there is the possibility of sin and the possibility of redemption. None of what Low says here especially troubles me. But perhaps this is because, unlike Low, and unlike many others, I have no problem with the idea that it is only this planet of ours that does have life. I see no reason why the universe can’t be regarded as a vast work of art, a kind of drip-art project whereby God splatters the universe into existence and watches the way each drip runs.


Where I do see a problem is in the idea of multiple incarnations. Conventionally understood, the incarnation of the eternal Son of God presupposes God’s act of covenant-making with the people of Israel, a covenant that is extended to the whole of creation through the obedience of the aforementioned incarnate Son. It’s humanity that the eternal Son assumes; the eternal Son doesn’t become a stoat or a hippopotamus or a dolphin. But arguably just as important is the fact that the eternal Son assumes flesh, matter, the stuff of created existence. So while, in some respects, the logic of Christianity suggests that where there are silicon-based, hairy-hoofed tetrapods in need of salvation, the eternal Son of God should assume silicon-based, hairy-hoofed tetrapod ‘flesh’; in other respects, the logic of Christianity also suggests that because the eternal Son of God assumes the flesh of humanity and so the stuff of created existence, there is absolutely no need for the eternal Son to assume the ‘flesh’ of silicon-based, hairy-hoofed tetrapods as well. What angle should we adopt? You can guess mine.

There are other questions, too. Can the eternal Son of God take to himself human flesh and, if they are made in the image of God, the flesh of silicon-based, hairy-hoofed tetrapods so that he is incarnate as both simultaneously? And suppose there exists on yet another planet a species of creature, also in the image of God according to the evolutionary processes of that planet, that look like our own elephants but have two tails, tusks protruding from above the single eye in the middle of the forehead, and a propensity for communicating with one another using binary? On the assumption that these creatures, too, have fallen, does the eternal Son of God don their flesh alongside the flesh of humanity as we know ourselves, and alongside the flesh of silicon-based, hairy-hoofed tetrapods? And how does all this mesh with the idea that God covenants Godself to Israel and to the whole universe through the faithfulness of the man, Jesus of Nazareth? Does Low presume that although life evolves differently on other planets from how it has on earth, the scheme of fall and redemption is pretty much identical or consistent throughout the universe? That is surely a step too far.

In many respects, it seems that Low’s picture of life on other planets, with all the potential strangeness and wonder of life that is here implied, is similar to the idea of life in the multiverse, which I’ve discussed elsewhere. But the differences calling for a newly developed Christology are, on Low’s account, manifest in one universe, rather than throughout a range of universes. Consequently, my provisional conclusion is this: On the basis of what has been revealed by the Spirit of God in and through Jesus, and on the basis of what has been attested in the biblical witness, God has deliberately entered into covenantal relations with the inhabitants of this planet – covenantal relations that, realised through Jesus, also have implications for the rest of the universe. And on the basis of our current knowledge about the universe, I don’t see why this should pose a problem for Christian belief. Jesus is Lord of all.

4 comments:

  1. Some difficulties with your argument: If the Incarnation through which God is covenanted to humanity through the Jewish people applies in itself to the whole cosmos, that rather leaves any other inhabited planet with no way of knowing what has happened, nor any way of making sense of the drama or pageant of salvation. (and what if there are multiple universes - is our historical incarnation supposed to cover them as well?) What chosen people? What promised land? What Suffering Servant? What crucifixion? And where are those sent to deliver the message?

    God left this world to the vicissitudes of missionary journeys to spread the Gospel. As Paul said, “How can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can they preach unless they are sent?” If our own incarnation is meant to cover all the races of the universe, then they will not have the slightest knowledge of it until we manage interstellar flight and search them all out. And there could be about 10,000 million million million stars out there. Probably quite a few with inhabited planets. Are they all supposed to wait until we get to them? Then there are those possible parallel universes.

    Jesus the Messiah is Lord of all the Earth, but it is as the Eternal Word and as God the Son that he is Lord of all the Universe. When John and Paul say that through him all things were created, they aren’t claiming that the historical Jesus as a human being was physically present at the creation and brought the universe into being, but that the Word was the agent of creation, the Word that John could say “our hands have touched” in the historical figure of “the Word made flesh”.

    If it is through incarnation that redemption takes place, and if the Eternal Son of God must be united with humanity in order to redeem us, then other races on other worlds would seem to need that same unity with God through their own incarnations. As you say, “It’s humanity that the eternal Son assumes; the eternal Son doesn’t become a stoat or a hippopotamis or a dolphin.” If we could not be redeemed through any other creature, then how could our incarnation redeem anyone but us? That does not limit or depreciate the incarnation of God on Earth, but allows that it will find its expression as appropriate on every world among every race that God has made. Multiple incarnations simply means that the same principles applied on Earth are made known and made effective on every inhabited world, according to their need. Jesus is one with all of that.

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  2. Thanks for taking the time to comment, Ron.

    I guess where we part company is on the issue of what kind of life is on other planets. I don’t doubt that some planets have life forms, but it’s a step further to say that these life forms are intelligent in the way we believe ourselves to be. But suppose that they are: must these life forms – let’s call them ‘twergs’ for shorthand’s sake – must these twergs also be fallen and sinful, as we are? And must redemption work in the same way for them, that is, through the intwergation (so to speak) of the eternal Son of God? If there are no twergs, but just life similar to pre-human life on our own planet, I don’t think there’s a need for them to know the pattern of redemption on earth. There are a lot of assumptions here, of course, though I dare say it’s the nature of this kind of speculation to make such assumptions! There’s room for debate.

    But I don’t agree with your comment that Jesus the Messiah is Lord of all the Earth, but it is as the Eternal Word and as God the Son that he is Lord of all the Universe. I take your point, of course, about the man Jesus not being present when God created in the beginning; but in taking human flesh the eternal Son of God became a man, was resurrected as a man, and now rules as Lord of all things as a man. There’s a whole host of issues here, of course; and one day, I hope to treat them more adequately. But it’s because of what I believe is the irreversibility of the incarnation of the eternal Son as a man that I can’t accept the idea of multiple incarnations.

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  3. My own point of view on this is that I'm disturbed by the need for replication of the same pattern across the cosmos.

    The assumption that God HAS to do something because he CAN do something. Has to replicate a specific type of creation on multiple planets around multiple suns.

    It's clear from the Bible and Creation that God is not limited to producing one form of life both from the multitude of lifeforms on our planet with differing levels of sentience and intelligence (dolphins, for instance having a high level of interpretative skill so that they are unique amongst mammals outside our own species in being able to recognise 2 dimentional images as representing 3 dimensional objects and have a strong sense of family and community) and in the brief biblical glimpses we get of angelic beings which in some cases hint at beings of higher dimensions or existing in a higher dimensional plane (Ezekiel's 'wheels within wheels' description, for instance, came to mind while I was watching this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5xN4DxdiFrs ) - I think a lot of angelic descriptions may be human attempts of describing seeing things in a few more dimensions than the human mind is easily able to comprehend.

    But what we see on earth and in the few descriptions of heaven is a diversity at every level. Looking briefly to the angelic again we see creatures with four faces six wings and a hundred million eyeballs and other beings which merely look like men. Why should we assume that just because God has made beings in his image on one planet he MUST therefore make them on thousands of others. Even if there ARE others in his image would they have to be in his image in the same way we are? If their physical form can be of hairy silicon of the hoofed tetrapod variety then why should their spiritual form comply directly with ours?

    Why should such a being be assumed to have had fallen and need redemption or even to have existed within a spiritual framework which produces the same form of freewill and propensity to fall in the first place?

    My own view is that, while living in a potentially infinite physical universe which latest theories consist of ten or more dimensions must we assume that our great artist must plaster his signature across its entirety of the canvas?

    Would it also not be just as much his remit to sprinkle a few angels here and there and otherwise create a vast array of rolling spheres to inspire awe and wonder on life which, for reasons of his own, he has placed on a tiny little planet in the corner as a signature?

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  4. Good to hear from you, Tim.

    You make some good points. I'm not convinced, either, by what you refer to as the 'replication of the same pattern across the cosmos'. I guess that's partly why I wrote this post. I really see no reason why the universe can't be a great work of art, which happens to have sentient beings in a small corner of the painting.

    One thing that bothers me, though, is the idea of an infinite universe. I was watching Horizon the other night, and some mathematicians were arguing that if the universe is infinite, then somewhere out there there'll be another world exactly like this one, with exactly the same history, exactly the same events, and so on. But I guess there's always the possibility that if the universe is infinite, the duplicate earth will actually be the same earth, because you'd have travelled round in a big loop. Perhaps!

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