He brought the universe into existence, was instrumental in providing the spark that produced life on our world, and will be there when our universe fades into nothingness once more. He forgives his enemies, and yet fights for good and stands against evil, defeating even the devil. When his enemies killed him, he appeared again alive, although changed in appearance. Although things can seem pretty desperate at times, he is always there, watching over us, ready to intervene, even at the last minute, to save us from disaster. Yet most people neglect him and do not even know he exists.
I am, of course, talking about the Doctor, the famous Time Lord from Gallifrey. Now that I’ve had the chance to watch last season’s finale, I can understand why Marc Goodacre highlighted the religious overtones of the episode and the series in general. The episode (without giving anything away) even addresses the efficacy of ‘prayer’ (provided the human race is united in offering it, and connected by a low level telepathic field, of course). The series continues to provide much basis for reflection on religion and our scientific present and future.
For me, the most interesting and challenging questions for religion are raised not by biology and cosmology but by technology. Already we find preachers and authors bemoaning our tendency to rely on technology rather than on God. But is this not making a virtue out of a necessity? In Biblical times, no one had any choice but to cry out to a supernatural helper for healing, for food, for justice. Today we can do many things that were thought to be divine prerogatives: allow barren wombs to bear, feed the hungry and provide fertility and abundance of crops, heal and prevent diseases, and kill an individual or a thousand on a whim, all using the wonders of technology. Even though there are many critics of technology in our postmodern age, since science has thus far been unable to provide perfect solutions to all our problems. But rarely would anyone of these critics choose to go back to the lives we had before, eking out an existence through subsistence farming, subject to polio and typhoid and other diseases whose nature was not understood and which could thus be neither prevented nor treated.
The biggest challenges, I’d suggest, are not the necessity of rethinking our understanding of God in light of growing cosmological knowledge. If anything, as Carl Sagan put it, what we see through the Hubble Telescope is ‘better than Genesis’ and inspires more awe than the tiny three-tiered universe of the ancient Israelites. But when technology allows us to be even less worried about where our meals will come from than we are today, and perhaps even will extend our lives to such an extent that when death finally comes, it will seem natural and welcome. What, in that technological future, will the place of religion be? Some will say that there simply won’t be a place for religion, but I’d suggest that in fact there will most certainly be a place for the conviction that life is meaningful, that transcendence and beauty are real and not just tricks played on us by our flawed perception. If so, then much as the rationalists of the Enlightenment foresaw, religion will focus on morality and values, and not on hopes for supernatural assistance to meet our needs. Ironically, these were the values of many of America’s Founding Fathers, who would perhaps view the religious ideas of many “modern” Americans today as a step backwards, in spite of our more advanced technology. We need to find ways to think appropriately about God, about our values, in a way that takes completely seriously the ways in which our world is different than ever before (or different than we knew it to be in earlier times, at the very least) because of and as a result of science and technology. We need to hear once again the famous insights of Dietrich Bonhoeffer about humanity come of age and what it might mean to live as mature children of God.