Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Scope of God: Boxed Up, Armed to the Teeth, or Far Out?

Theology is by definition deity-talk, and lots of deity believers (Christians or otherwise) are pretty well convinced they have a lock on who God/god/gods is/are. Not surprisingly, however, God/god/gods identity(s) is/are quite confusing in religious circles, much less from the perspective of outsiders.

Within the Christian world, myth-maker David Barton has reconstructed history and God to make the Creator an American deity who crafted America as his very own special nation. Barton and his followers are now intent on forcing Texas to teach their version of God in Texas public schools, a step along the way to creating a theocracy in America.

Among monotheists alone, many religious versions of God are quite bloody. In an earlier era, colonial theocracies in America persecuted and killed secularists and Christian dissenters (including Baptists). Later, many American white Christians worshiped a God who had chosen white people over black people - and they were willing to kill fellow Christians and others who refused to accept their racially-divisive God and his divinely sanctioned racially-structured society; the killings continued into the 1960s as some white Christians turned to terrorism to prevent racial integration. Today, some American Christians believe the war in Iraq was mandated by God. In Ireland, Protestants and Catholics have long waged deadly warfare against one another. In the Islamic world, some Muslims worship a God who demands that his followers kill "infidels." And the bloody warfare between Jews and Arabs may never end, as each side claims the will of God in killing the other. Other examples could be offered from the world of polytheists/etc., but the listing above is representative of theologies that incorporate holy killing.

So just who is/are God/god/gods and what is/are God/god/gods really about? While the Bartons of the world carry God around in a box of their own making, and many God/god/gods believers express their faith through machine guns, grenades and bombs (of the home-made or industrial variety), many others find peace and harmony within the same religious traditions that too often breed violence and murder. Religious insiders turn to various formulas to try and explain the hate vs. peace elements of their own religion, and some contemporary outside observers have offered detached answers, including Robert Wright in his fascinating volume, The Evolution of God.

And yet all of this divergent God/god/gods talk and too-often-deadly God/god/gods action tends to focus on the human level of existence. But is there a more universal (literally) scope to the God/god/gods equation?

In very recent years, astronomers have come to realize that there are large numbers of planets in the universe. Today's planet count is 424, but within a decade it may well be in the tens of thousands (or more), as our scientific planet-hunting technologies mushroom. It is a matter of years, maybe even months, until astronomers identify an "earthlike" planet. Scientists have already determined that the conditions for life exist in other places in the universe; the question for 2010 is, "when (not if) will other intelligent life be found" on an earthlike planet? That is, more and more scientists are convinced that in an infinite universe inhabited by many planets, other intelligent life must exist somewhere.

So what will happen to God/god/gods talk when other intelligent life is discovered? What theologies will be able to accommodate such a discovery, and what theologies will be most threatened? How will God/god/gods be redefined and reshaped? How will our religious history be rewritten?

And perhaps even more interestingly: how will religious beings (if there are any) existing among other intelligent life be forced to rethink their images and definitions of God/god/gods? Or are they already aware of us, and wonder why we do the things we do in the name of our God/god/gods? For that matter, do they kill one another in pursuit of and devotion to their God/god/gods?

While the discovery of other intelligent life will change the thinking and course of humanity on a vast scale broad and deep, to religious thinkers will fall the debate over whether to craft a narrative of an earth-centric God/god/gods or a more universal deity or deities and a somewhat-displaced earth. Although this task may seem distant and far-fetched to many, the Catholic Church is already addressing it. In addition, the David Barton's of today's planet earth may offer some insight into how religious earthlings will one day be forced to reshape earthly religious foundations. And one might dare hope that discovery of other intelligent life will nudge humankind to abandon violent expressions of religious faith.

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