24 February 2017
NASA announced this week that the Spitzer Space Telescope has revealed the first known system of seven Earth-size planets around a single star. This discovery sets a new record for the number of habitable-zone planets, found around a single star, outside of our solar system.
Astronomy and the physical sciences are transforming the picture of the cosmos and of our galaxy and our planet’s place within it. To date, astronomers have found more than 500 solar systems; and each year new ones are being discovered. There may be tens of billions, perhaps even a hundred billion, solar systems just in our own galaxy; and astronomers now estimate there are at least one hundred billion galaxies in our observable universe. Add to that the recent findings that our universe is expanding and changing at an accelerated rate.
Reflecting on the age and size of created reality, our image and conception of God takes on new forms as well. Do we have a spirituality for God of the expanding cosmos? Are the old theistic anthropomorphisms adequate for today’s believers? Years ago I read that Albert Einstein had started asking these kinds of questions. He wrote about “A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, our perceptions of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty, which only in their most primitive forms are accessible to our minds – it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute true religiosity.” He added: “and in this alone, I am a deeply religious man.”
A new expanded consciousness, I suggest in these trumpish chaotic days, must become operative in our thinking about ultimate realities such as God, Jesus Christ, humanity, and how we relate to each other. A new cosmic consciousness demands a more encompassing terrestrial engagement. How do we implement, down the street and around the globe, the Christian values of love, mercy, forgiveness, justice, and concern for the poor? New challenges for the world’s religions. New challenges for world politics as well. Who is master of our planet? Who should be Earth’s master? Can we continue to discuss but ignore climate change and simply wait until the seas rise? The current best estimates predict that sea level will rise 6.6 feet, or 2 meters, by the year 2100. That’s about 80 years from now. Then, the problem will not be immigrants but refugees from seacoast cities like New York and Amsterdam. What does it mean to take charge of people and their lives? What does it mean to make a country great? Is one race naturally superior to another? Can one race, or one country, or one religion ignore and/or denigrate the rest?
In my more than seven decades being a student and a teacher, I have come to realize that a good teacher is not necessarily the answer person, but the one who raises questions and helps students think and act within a broader and deeper horizon. Now I realize more than ever that all of us on planet Earth are called and challenged to be students and teachers for each other. We are one human reality and one human family. We need to begin restructuring how we relate to one another. We are believers and unbelievers, Muslims and Christians, Republicans and Democrats, trumps and immigrants, gays and straights, and all the in betweens….. We either learn to live together or perish together. The clock is ticking on planet Earth.
As I mentioned briefly last week, televangelist Pat Robertson announced recently that people who oppose Donald Trump are really revolting against God. I find this an interesting statement, when one looks at the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. Drawing from a distinctly Jewish tradition, we see God as the one who assures justice for those who are defenseless and oppressed. In his words and actions, Jesus proclaimed a God whose goodness and graciousness are expressed in liberation of the oppressed and vindication of the weak and helpless. Jesus was no advocate for deceptive lying, racism, and xenophobia. Does Reverend Robertson need remedial Bible study? He certainly has a strange perspective on Gospel values.
Cosmic consciousness? God is the creator of everything and the lover of all human beings, together as a group and individually as members of the species we call human. Yes, today we also see human beings caught up in negative situations of ignorance, sin, suffering, and death. We are members of a single humanity. Our human solidarity should prohibit anyone from conceiving or hoping for a salvation that would leave others behind. Is it conceivable that God would love some and not the others? Is God’s truth up for grabs in a society of alternative truths.
The solidarity of humankind as creatures of one God is central to an authentic Christian vision. We need to remember this, when we observe modern western cultures promoting a privatized notion of salvation: looking out for my salvation, whether or not others are saved. A distorted idea of self-righteousness leads to an arrogant corruption of Christian belief. It’s happening around the world, not just in Washington.
Across Europe, I see a new and troublesome political arrogance, especially in countries like Austria, Hungary, Italy, Romania, and France, which have ambivalent relationships with their fascist and Nazi pasts. I hear echoes of a fundamentalist Christian conservative-reactionary agenda in Poland, Bulgaria, Croatia, and even in Belgium. Political leaders in these countries fear Islam and want to “make their country great again.”
As a theologian, with a special interest in ethics, I am alarmed by how easily governmental leaders get away with consequential ethics: an approach to human behavior that says the end justifies any means. We see it with revived interest in waterboarding and approval of other forms of torture to get “dangerous people” to talk. We see it with the arrests and crackdowns on “dissidents” in Turkey. We see it in the Philippines, where a new president’s government has hired vigilantes and secret death squads to combat drug sales and eliminate drug users. There is nothing Christian, just, or humane in any of this.
Terrestrial engagement is our calling, our mission, and our urgent responsibility today. Our churches, schools, colleges, voluntary organizations of all types, and cultural groups constitute the primary places where we should be actively engaged. Protests are often good and appropriate; but by themselves, they are not enough. We need structural and institutional change. Christians properly understood must be social change agents.
In the United States, Jesus is used to prop up politics on both sides of the aisle; yet in his preaching and action, Jesus revealed and announced the Reign of God: salvation that comes from God and is at work now on our planet Earth. The Jesus message challenges all political parties. In his day, Jesus, the Jewish prophet, bothered both the Romans as well as certain Jewish authorities. The Gospel of Mark (1:14-15) summarizes: “After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. ‘The time has come,’ he said. ‘The Reign of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!’” The Reign of God, the salvation Jesus preached and exemplified is a mission that must be taken up by Jesus’ followers and acted out in their history: in our history as we move beyond pious words and old Christian clichés. If there is no liberating practice from social oppression, by the followers of Jesus, it is nonsense to speak about salvation in this world. We urgently need to implement a liberation theology for the poor and politically oppressed; a feminist theology, that confronts and disables all androcentric forms of patriarchal misogyny, denigration, and abuse; a queer theology, that values and sustains people regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity; an inter-religion theology, that values all the great religious traditions and promotes dialogue and collaboration…. The list is long.
These are matters of belief and ethics not politics; but they challenge all politicians and all church leaders.
Next week — the first week of Lent 2017 — some reflections about Jesus and world religions.
Dr. J. A. Dick
Geldenaaksebaan 85A, 3001 Heverlee, BELGIUM