(RNS) — There’s a saying in academic circles: “An idea without funding is a mirage.” The corollary of this is that funding can make a mirage into an idea.
The proof is in a curious news story about NASA and the theology of extraterrestrial life that took flight around Christmas.
Three days before Christmas, the British newspaper The Times ran an interview with the Rev. Andrew Davison, “a priest and theologian at the University of Cambridge with a doctorate in biochemistry from Oxford,” said the Times. Davison was among 24 theologians to have taken part in a NASA-sponsored program at the Center of Theological Inquiry in Princeton, New Jersey, “to assess how the world’s major religions would react to news that life exists on worlds beyond our own.”
I heard about this story when I landed in Texas on my way to see my parents. When I turned off airplane mode, my phone exploded with texts. I expected dogs in Santa hats. It was instead all about what theologians had to say about aliens.
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The same day as the media headed into the news desert that is the Christmas holiday, it was announced that the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope had been delayed due to weather. The telescope is already nearly 15 years behind schedule, for reasons that require plodding through decades of tedium and patience.
Space reporters and those who follow them had struck upon a much more digestible headline: “NASA pays theologians to understand how people will understand aliens!”
Add to this that Davison, who has a book, “Astrobiology and Christian Doctrine,” due out later this year, was anxious to talk to the press.
This was not the first time we heard about the Center of Theological Inquiry’s program. In a 2016 article in Religion Dispatches, Michael Schulson explored pertinent questions related to the effort:
In the fall of 2014, NASA awarded CTI $1.1 million to start a two year-long Inquiry on the Societal Implications of Astrobiology. That grant was followed by a $1.7 million donation from the John Templeton Foundation. “The aim of this inquiry is to foster theology’s dialogue with astrobiology on its societal implications, enriched by the contribution of scholars in the humanities and social sciences,” CTI director William Storrar said in announcing the NASA grant that May.
To sum up: A 2014 grant from NASA to a think tank in Princeton facilitated a 2016 grant from the John Templeton Foundation. Inclement weather facilitated a winter news white-out story that brought attention to the project, and to an Anglican priest whose forthcoming book was facilitated by the project.
As a professor of Christian ethics, one of my key questions is how Christians with media megaphones use their platforms. The NASA theologians story, in which Christians are treated as authorities in an area of science that is both cool and intimidating, says a lot about how U.S. and U.K. Christians feel about Christianity. It is understandably a source of pride that a group of rocket scientists wants to know what theologians think.
But for some of us, this was a palm to forehead moment. For one thing, as Schulson pointed out in 2016, “Of the 24 scholars, at least 18 work for a Christian institution, have at least one degree in Christian theology, or both; none of the 24 seem to have a professional role in a non-Christian tradition.”
One Congregationalist pastor in New England noted: “I tried to write about this for the church’s weekly newsletter, but I couldn’t get the tone right and decided that people coming up to me on Sunday to say they thought it was so great that NASA is listening to Christians would only bum me out.”
Many Christians seek assurance that Christianity carries weight, that our authority figures have gravitas. If NASA pays to hear an Anglican clergyman’s words about aliens, then, by God, it is tax money well spent.
A decade ago I was asked to be part of a panel on religion and bioethics at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. As a German scholar went way overtime, I was mentally cutting slides out of my presentation. One I kept featured the May 1958 cover of Together, a Methodist magazine, on which a white family appeared on a ski boat, an American flag rippling. The cover line read, “Who Should Own the Moon?”
Today we can see the point of the slide: Methodists in the postwar United States thought it was natural that they must answer that sort of question. Think of Methodists like Dick Cheney, George W. Bush and Hillary Clinton: They were taught they were deciders. The question “Who should own the moon?” does not make sense outside of this particular culture, which is the culture of mainstream Protestantism in the U.S.
At the AAAS panel, I was followed by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz. He had only about five minutes left as I awkwardly left the podium. He said first that he was under no illusion that his people would decide who owns the moon. He suggested, in response to the Together cover, that what we most need in our era is “useful trash.” He offered as an example of useful trash the original “Mad Max“ movie. Useful trash would help us think about things in a different way than “Who should own the moon?”
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Though Rabbi Steinsaltz was being mischievous, it was the most wisdom I’ve heard in any academic presentation: When asked to weigh in on a ponderous matter about religion and science, or about who should own the moon, sometimes the most fitting response is to shift the frame.
This is what I would say to the idea of NASA paying theologians: Shift the frame. Before you engage with how to respond as a Christian to an encounter between human beings and any form of life from somewhere out there, think about the sheer presumption involved in asking such an inchoate, broad and ahistorical question. Consider who came up with a scheme to pay people to answer it.
Then maybe watch some useful trash. I recommend “Spaceballs.”
(The Rev. Amy Laura Hall has taught ethics at Duke University since 1999, and her most recent book is “Laughing at the Devil: Seeing the World with Julian of Norwich.” The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)