On Thursday of this past week, 31 people, including myself, enjoyed a real treat in Chicago’s Loop: a free public lunchtime lecture by Dr. Marvin Bolt, Director of the Webster Institute for the History of Astronomy at the Adler Planetarium & Astronomy Museum. Bolt’s topic was “Theology and Extraterrestrials: Reflections on Life in the Universe,” the first of three lectures in a series on extraterrestrial life co-sponsored by the Adler and The Chicago Temple, also known as the First United Methodist Church at the Chicago Temple.
Among other things, the Temple has the distinction of being the oldest church in the city (it was organized in 1831).
The Adler was the first planetarium built in the United States (est. 1930) and it contains the Western Hemisphere’s largest collection of historic astronomical instruments.
In addition to many other accomplishments, Marvin Bolt is one of the world’s leading authorities on early telescopes. He’s also an historian of science with a keen interest in the ways that religious belief systems intersect the idea of life beyond Earth.
One of the remarkable things about the occasion was the co-sponsorship arrangement between these two highly visible Chicago institutions – one scientific with a focus on educating and encouraging young people, particularly women and minorities, to enter careers in science, and the other religious with a focus on spiritual education and building a community grounded in faith while “committed to a transforming tradition connected with what’s going on in the world.”
I value this kind of partnership because I understand how comparatively rare it is today. For about 150 years, Westerners have tended to separate the religious and the secular, matters of faith and science. This wasn’t always the case, of course, but that’s a subject for a different post.
Another remarkable aspect of the program was the topic itself. I’ve been interested in the impacts of discovering life off our planet for a long time, but I never imagined having an opportunity to hear a presentation on the theological dimension of the extraterrestrial life debate right in my own back yard.
Not only did I enjoy learning new information through Bolt’s talk, I gained fresh perspectives on some of the fundamental questions raised within Christianity by a surprisingly broad collection of astronomers, philosophers, theologians, and literary figures who thought and wrote about the idea of beings living on various worlds beyond Earth. (Examples of these questions were provided by Bolt: Did God create more than one world with living beings? If so, are they intelligent? If so, did they fall into sin? If so, how does redemption take place? Is there a unique incarnation? A Jesus for each world? Or is there one Jesus for the entire universe?, etc.)
My new perspectives include an even deeper appreciation for the depth and breadth of the plurality of worlds debate as it has played out so far, and a clearer recognition of the importance of searching for similarly fundamental questions concerning the prospect of life beyond Earth that that have been raised in other religious traditions and contexts.
Not bad for a Thursday afternoon.
The ability to make connections between apparently different ideas or even objects is at the heart of creative inquiry. Understandably, it often leads to surprising results. We know this from our own personal experience but it’s often easier to recognize when we observe the process in others. Or read about it happening to others.
This short article is a “connect the dots” case in point involving Bolt, a colleague, and visits to several German museums that took place a couple of years ago. The piece speaks for itself, and what the historian of science says about his subject at the end of the article is worth re-reading several times:
“If we understand that today, too, science has economic, legal, political, artistic and religious dimensions, then we can do science in an integrated, ethical way.”
Coming next:The largest international science project you probably never heard of
Banner bus photo created by Dorothy Delina Porter