David Wilkinson is an extraordinary person. He is Principal of my theological seminary, St. John’s College in Durham University, England and is both a theologian and a scientist. His background is research in theoretical astrophysics, where he earned a PhD in the study of star formation, the chemical evolution of galaxies, and terrestrial mass extinctions. He is a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society. After his research he trained for the Methodist ministry. He also holds a PhD in Systematic Theology where he explored the future of the physical universe. I try to read everything he writes, even when I can’t understand all of it!
His latest book is SCIENCE, RELIGION, AND THE SEARCH FOR EXTRATERRESTRIAL INTELLIGENCE. He sets out the scientific arguments undergirding the search for ETI, with particular attention to the uncertainties in arguments and the strength of the data already assembled. Science fiction and movies imagine all sorts of scenarios for extraterrestrial life. Throughout history there has been much speculation about the universe and whether human beings are the only life-forms. Wilkinson reviews all the theories and relates them to Biblical teaching. What struck me was his description of how big the universe really is. The vastness of space is a real problem for encountering other life-forms if they exist. The total diameter of our galaxy, the Milky Way, which consists of some 100 billion stars, is 100,000 light-years. Some parts of the universe may lie outside the observable universe. Space travel is rendered improbable because of the vast distances and the span of normal human life. Our nearest neighbor in terms of star systems is Alpha Centuri. It is a mere 4.3 light-years away but it would take 72,000 years to travel there.
It seems that our Earth is uniquely created to sustain life as compared to other planets. We are situated in the Solar System so that the other planets protect us from being destroyed by asteroids and other cosmic particles. Human beings have a special though non-exclusive place within the creation. Psalm 8 rejoices in the place given to human beings by God. In order to understand human beings in the context of creation you need God’s revelation. Extraterrestrial intelligence does not pose a problem to Christian belief that men and women are special in the eyes of God. It may even increase the sense of awe at how great God is, who loves his creatures so much. Human beings are not at the center of the universe. God is the center of all things, and we are creatures given status by his love.
Current scientific insights lead Wilkinson to the tentative conclusion that we are alone as intelligent life in this Milky Way galaxy. It is hard to imagine that we are so special, but that seems to be the case. What God is doing in human history and in the cosmic salvation of Jesus Christ appears to be the only game in town. We may find evidence of life on other worlds since God is an extravagant creator of such a great diversity of life-forms, but it is likely to be primitive.
He recounts Buzz Aldrin’s description in his book, Magnificent Desolation of his landing on the Moon. Aldrin took some bread and wine from Webster Presbyterian Church, Houston, where was an elder, read from John’s gospel and took Holy Communion. Every July, Webster Presbyterian Church holds a “Lunar Communion Sunday”, where the tape of Aldrin on the Moon is played and Psalm 8 recited. The breaking of bread and sharing of wine is an affirmation of God’s gift of the physical world. It is an encounter with the risen Lord in the presence of his new community, the Church. It is a retelling of his death and resurrection and the offer of new life to all. And it is a foretaste of the new creation.
“The affirmation of the physical universe is a reminder of the importance of science. It is a reminder of humanity’s embeddedness in the story of what God has done in Jesus Christ, giving confidence that whatever the universe turns out to be, human beings are loved. It is an invitation to others to learn from such a story and take part in it. And it points to God’s purposes being beyond just this universe.”