Cosmotheology: Steven J. Dick

Cosmotheology: Steven J. Dick May 13, 2022

The Cosmotheology of Steven J. Dick

Some books stimulate kairos excitement. Like watching your favorite player hit a home run, I cheered when I first read Steven J. Dick’s Plurality of Worlds: The Extraterrestrial Life Debate from Democritus to Kant (Dick, 1982). Since its publication in 1982, others such as Michael J. Crowe have similarly documented the story of our terrestrial ancestors thinking about our extraterrestrial neighbors (Crowe, 1988). Dick’s Plurality of Worlds first substantiated for me how speculations about sharing our universe with off-Earth civilizations has been with us since the birth of our own civilization. Neither the Greco-Roman worldview nor the medieval Christian worldview would find sharing our universe with ET anathema. Dire tabloid predictions that alien contact would allegedly destroy our fragile inherited religious traditions go limp in the face of the kind of knowledge Dick makes available.

That’s history. What about the present? Steven Dick along with colleagues indefatigably produces the kind of scholarship that prepares us for the societal impact of astrobiology and its dramatic discoveries. His fine volume, Astrobiology, Discovery, and Societal Impactis a vivid case in point (Dick, 2018).

Dick is also a constructive thinker. For the last two decades he has been constructing a cosmic centered ethics along with his version of cosmotheology. [1] You can find a cosmotheology manifesto in the book we published at CTNS (Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences) in 2018, Astrotheology: Science and Theology Meet Extraterrestrial Life. (Peters, 2018, Chapter 14)

Astrotheology, Process Theology, and Cosmic Consciousness

The first week of May found me and some of my favorite colleagues conferencing at Willamette University on “Astrotheology, Exo-Philosophy, and Cosmic Religion.” This dialogue between astrobiologists and process philosophers was sponsored by the Center for Process Studies, headed by Andrew M. Davis.

The Smithsonian’s Constance Bertka opened with an overview of Astrotheology. She was followed by NASA historian Steven Dick, developing his Cosmotheology. The process philosophers responded, critiqued, and integrated. Look in the future for a published volume of the proceedings.

Astrotheology as Public Theology

Astrotheology is one form of public theology. Public theology may be conceived in the church and critically refined in the academy, but public theology‘s chief feature is that it is offered to the wider public for the sake of the common good. Steve Dick’s cosmotheology is offered to the wider public for the sake of the common good.

“In a nutshell, public theology (theologica publica) is concerned with the public affairs or institutions of society (res publica) to promote the common good in society” avers Lutheran public theologian Paul S. Chung (Chung 2022, 11). Or, in the words of South African leader, John deGruchy, “Christian witness in secular democratic society means promoting the common good by witnessing to core values rather than seeking privilege for the Christian religion” (DeGruchy, 2007). With the common good in mind, I observe that Dick’s cosmotheology is offered to the wider public rather than the church. And, it is offered for the common good of all Earth’s residents.

Meet Steven J. Dick

Steven J. Dick is a founding member of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Sterling, Virginia.  He served as the NASA Chief Historian and Director of the NASA History Office from 2003 to 2009.  Prior to that he was an astronomer and historian of science at the U.S. Naval Observatory for more than two decades. He was the 2014 Baruch S. Blumberg NASA/Library of Congress Chair in Astrobiology at the Library of Congress’s John W. Kluge Center. From 2011 to 2012 he held the Charles A. Lindbergh Chair in Aerospace History at the National Air and Space Museum. He is the author or editor of 25 books, including most recently Space, Time, and Aliens: Collected Works on Cosmos and Culture (Springer, 2020). Minor planet 6544 Steven Dick was named in his honor. He has two sons, Gregory and Anthony, and lives with his wife Terry in Ashburn,VA.  More information at http://www.stevenjdick.com/index.html.

TP. Steve, for a quarter century now, you’ve been developing cosmotheology. Please give us a definition of “cosmotheology.” How does it relate to astrotheology?

SJD. The terms astrotheology, exotheology, and cosmotheology are sometimes used interchangeably.  But to be more specific, I view astrotheology as the general field of assessing the impact of astronomy and cosmology on theology. Astrotheology was pioneered by Ted Peters in his edited volume Astrotheology (Peters et al, 2018).  Exotheology most recently is exemplified in Justin Parkyn’s personal attempt to reconcile astrobiology with Christianity in his book Exotheology (Parkyn, 2021).  And cosmotheology is my personal attempt at a theology based on what we know about the universe based on science (Dick, 2000a).  It is therefore a naturalistic theology that denies supernaturalism.  But it is not coextensive with scientism because it does not imply that science is the only way to understand the world. So in this sense exotheology and cosmotheology are subsets of the general field of astrotheology.  

TP. What are cosmotheology’s key tenets or principles?

Cosmotheology as I have developed it over the last 20 years (Dick, 2018a) has six principles:

 1) Humanity is in no way physically central in the universe. This is not controversial to anyone who believes in science.

2)  Cosmotheology must take into account the probability that humanity is not central biologically, mentally, or morally in the universe. This is more controversial, since science has certainly not proven this.  The evidence is circumstantial, based on the uniformity of nature and advances in astrobiology.

 3)  Cosmotheology holds that we must take into account the probability that humanity is near the bottom in the great chain of beings in the universe.  This follows from 13.8 billion years of cosmic evolution, and the fact that planets and life could have formed billions of years before our Earth originated 4.5 billion years ago.

4) Cosmotheology must be open to radically new conceptions of God, not necessarily the God of the ancient near-East, nor the God of the human imagination, but a God grounded in cosmic evolution. In other words, a non-supernatural God.  It is entirely possible that natural beings have evolved in the natural course of the universe with many of the traits we attribute to God, including omnipotence, omniscience, and so on.

5)  Cosmotheology must have a moral dimension, extended to embrace all species in the universe—a reverence and respect for life in any form, an extension of Albert Schweitzer’s famous credo. This principle — a challenge even in our relations with animals on Earth—gives rise not only to astrotheology but also to the related field of astroethics (Dick, 2018b).

6) Human destiny should not be couched in supernatural terms, but linked to the process and endpoint of cosmic evolution, which depends on whether we live in a physical or a biological universe.

TP. Religions are based on revelation. You believe that astrobiology has provided us with new revelations regarding outer space. What do you mean by this?

SJD. Over the last century astronomy has revealed that we are in no way central in the universe, that our Milky Way Galaxy is one of trillions of galaxies, and that the universe is 46 billion light years in extent.  That is compared to the belief around 1900 that the universe was 3,600 light years in extent.  That’s what I call a Revelation!

Moreover we now know “the Master Narrative of the Universe,” that we are the result of 13.8 billion years of cosmic evolution.  That is also part of the new worldview, and so we know humanity’s place not only in space but also in time. The interesting question is do we live in a purely physical universe in which we are a fluke, or in a biological universe full of life?  For much of the 20th century, many clung to the notion that we might still be biologically central, perhaps even the only life in the universe.  It has always been possible, of course, that these galaxies are devoid of planets and life. But thanks to the revelations of astrobiology we now know that planets are everywhere, a normal byproduct of stellar evolution.  Since 1995 more than 5,000 planets have been discovered beyond our solar system.  And that is the tip of the iceberg based on a small sample; there is little doubt that there are billions of planets just in our Galaxy.  Not all of these will have life, and not all will have intelligent life, but they have the potential. Some say none of these planets will have intelligent life.  But my fundamental assumption, based on the uniformity of Nature’s laws, is that what has happened here on Earth will happen out there.  This assumption of Nature’s uniformity has worked well in the past.

TP. How will the classic Abrahamic traditions have to change in light of Astro-revelations?

SJD. Christianity, Islam, and Judaism will each have to deal with the implications if their own way. There is a long tradition of discussion on this subject in the Christian tradition (Dick, 1996, chapter 10; Dick, 1998, chapter 8).  Sporadic ruminations of the past have now grown into a nascent field of astrotheology.  As early as 1995 Ted Peters took up the challenge of what he then called exotheology (echoing exobiology), arguing that the discovery of extraterrestrial intelligence would present no significant challenge to theology (Peters, 1995). That is seriously questioned by some theologians, including former Jesuit Vatican Observatory director George Coyne, as he made clear already in a Templeton Foundation meeting two decades ago. In particular Coyne pointed to the Christian doctrines of Redemption and Incarnation, concluding that with the discovery of extraterrestrial intelligence, “theologians must accept a serious responsibility to rethink some fundamental realities within the context of religious belief” (Coyne 2000b, 187). Among those realities are the nature of a human being, and whether Jesus Christ could exist on more than one planet at one time. These particular doctrines have since been examined in more detail in relation to astrobiology, most recently by Peters (2018, p. 271) and Russell (2018, p. 303).

Sithouette of masjid dome (mosque) on red sky background

The implications of the new world view have reached into the domain of theology in many forms. The American Catholic theologian Thomas F. O’Meara fills his book Vast Universe: Extraterrestrials and Christian Revelation with topics such as “salvation histories amid Galactic evolution” (O’Meara, 2012).  The British biochemist and Anglican priest Sir Arthur Peacocke has called cosmic evolution “Genesis for the third millennium,” arguing that “any theology – any attempt to relate God to all-that-is –will be moribund and doomed if it does not incorporate this perspective into its very bloodstream” (Peacocke 2000b, 92).  Michael Dowd and Connie Barlow, who consider themselves, “evangelists of cosmic evolution,” have proposed an “evolutionary Christianity” featuring evolution as a central concept (Barlow 1995; Dowd 2008). These are admirable efforts within the Christian tradition, and follow, each in their own way, what many others have attempted.

We now know that similar question occur not only in the Western world; historians have recently shown that science fiction, UFOs, and extraterrestrials are also an integral part of Islamic history, although perhaps not with such deep historical roots (Iqbar, 2018; Determann, 2021). Islam will therefore have to deal with the question of other worlds in its own way based on its unique doctrines.

Even religions without such doctrines as Redemption and Incarnation will be challenged. Speaking of extraterrestrial intelligence Rabbi Norman Lamm, for example, noted that “this challenge must be met forthrightly and honestly,” and called those who shrink from pursuing it “parochial and provincial.” Citing astronomers who emphasize our peripheral place in the new universe, Rabbi Lamm noted that “Never before have so many been so enthusiastic about being so trivial.” Cautioning that extraterrestrial life is far from proven, Lamm explored “a Jewish exotheology” and concluded that “A God who can exercise providence over one billion earthmen can do so for the billion times that number of creatures throughout the universe” (Lamm 1978; Samuelson, 2018).

TP. Why do you reject supernaturalism in favor of naturalism?

SJD. Cosmotheology is a theology based on science. And, science does not embrace supernaturalism.  Cosmotheology thus fits comfortably within the tradition known as religious naturalism. In the words of its premier historian, Jeremy Stone, religious naturalism “affirms a set of beliefs and attitudes that there are religious aspects of this world which can be appreciated within a naturalistic framework. There are some events or processes in our experience that elicit responses that can appropriately be called religious. These experiences and responses are similar enough to those nurtured by the paradigm cases of religion that they may be called religious without stretching the term beyond recognition (Stone 2010).” In short, religious naturalism denies that an ontologically distinct and superior realm including God, the soul, and heaven is required to give meaning to the world.  So does cosmotheology.

As the God of the ancient Near East stemmed from ideas of supernaturalism, our concept of a modern God, if needed at all, should stem from modern ideas divorced from supernaturalism. The billions of people attached to current theologies may consider this no theology at all, for a transcendent God above and beyond Nature is the very definition of their theology. The supernatural God “meme,” which we should remember is a historical idea the same as any other (Armstrong, 1993), has been very efficient in spreading over the last few thousand years, picking up new memes such as those accepted by Christianity and other religions, including the divinity of Jesus, the Incarnation and Redemption, Trinity, Satan, salvation, and heaven and hell – all concepts with well-known histories and very human motivations (Rubenstein, 1999). The denial of supernaturalism that is the bedrock of cosmotheology has many implications, including that the Bible cannot be divinely inspired, a conclusion even many Biblical scholars have reached (Kugel, 2007, pp. 662 ff). 

The denial of supernaturalism is a show-stopper for many religious people.  But Cosmotheology also fits within the tradition of process theology, which denies supernaturalism and yet is a theological tradition promoted at places like the Center for Process Studies at the Claremont School of Theology.   In fact one of the Claremont process philosophers, Donald Ray Griffin, has written several books on this subject laying out the case for Religion without Supernaturalism (Griffin, 2001). He attempts to reconcile theism and naturalism by arguing that naturalism is not equivalent to atheism, and theism is not equivalent to supernaturalism.  He sees Alfred North Whitehead’s process philosophy as a means to reconcile naturalism and theism, and thus to reconcile science and religion. 

TP. By appeal to the Copernican Principle and similar reasoning, you contend that we human beings on Earth are not central to the cosmos. Process philosopher Andrew Davis criticizes you on the basis of Alfred North Whiteheads’ cosmology. Davis inverts your position: “Humanity is not physically central to the universe.” → “Humanity exemplifies metaphysical principles that are utterly central to the universe.” How do you respond?

SJD. At the recent meeting of the Center for Process Studies of the Claremont School of Theology (https://www.processastrobiology.com) Andrew Davis characterizes his comments on cosmotheology as a deepening, not a rejection, of its principles.  I have taken a cosmological approach based on what we know about astronomy and cosmology.  Andrew’s point is that there is a deeper metaphysical approach to be taken, and indeed that Whitehead’s process theology may be key to that approach, so that instead of the principles of cosmotheology being negations of humanity, humanity and all life could be deeper metaphysical exemplifications.  There are many deep metaphysical/ontological questions involved in cosmotheology.  I  am very much open to that discussion.

TP. Do you believe Big History should aid us in worldview construction?

SJD. Yes, cosmic evolution is not just some abstract astronomical theory; it involves humanity to our very core and should affect our thinking in a variety of areas.  One attempt to incorporate this grand evolutionary epic into human history is what is now known as Big History (Christian, 2004). And as the author of a recent book suggests, the emerging and related fields of Big History, astrobiology, and cosmic evolution may hold the key to new unifying frameworks for knowledge (Crawford, 2021) and building a new worldview.  Big History unites the sciences and humanities and places humans in the context of 13.8 billion years of cosmic evolution.  The online Big History Project, funded by none other than Microsoft founder Bill Gates, provides detailed curricula that bring home to students of all ages our deep history in cosmic evolution (https://www.bighistoryproject.com/home).

TP. What else do you wish to say?

SJD. People have objected that cosmotheology and the religious naturalist view in general are not really theology.  But if theology is defined broadly as that which gives meaning and value to life in a cosmic context, then in my view even a naturalistic cosmotheology is indeed a theology, although one without the standard God.  Some philosophers argue the cosmos itself may indeed be a source of value (Lupisella, 2020). On the other hand, if people want to call my thoughts a cosmophilosophy, I have no objection.  We each search for the meaning of life in our own way.

Conclusion

TP. It appears that Steve and I are at odds. On the one hand, I have held that our new awareness of the immensity of our magnificent cosmos and even contact with extraterrestrial neighbors would not significantly change the Christian worldview. Nor the Jewish and Islamic worldviews either. Steve, in contrast, contends that I have underestimated the impact of cosmic consciousness on our inherited religious worldview. Cosmic consciousness, Steve says, will constitute a new revelation which will revolutionize our religious self-understanding. Are these two positions irreconcilable? Could they link arms?

Despite this difference, Steve rightly warns us of a potential conflict on the horizon. An encroaching cosmic consciousness replete with the address of new space neighbors just may precipitate religious resistance. Some traditionalists may dig in their heels and resist the new more comprehensive worldview.

We learned this with the ecological crisis. Despite prophetic warnings by scientists and the World Council of Churches in the 1960s, we could not persuade Christian theologians to transcend their party spirit to embrace a planetary ethical perspective. Liberation theologians and feminist theologians vehemently decried the eco-theologians for siding with the scientists. The scientists, liberationists complained, were in league with patriarchy, colonialism, and imperialism. The poor and the marginalized must stand against the oppressors. Not with them. In short, we could not get Christian leaders to think in terms of the common good of planet let alone the galaxy.

With the clear exception of the process theologians, of course. John B. Cobb, Jr., tried to pave a road to ecological ethics in the early 1970s. Along with Charles Birch, Cobb published The Liberation of Life in 1980. But, no traffic followed this road. Instead of a vision of a single planetary society oriented toward a common good, Christian theology became beset by multiple irreconcilable pluralisms. Today, a half century later, many shepherds in the liberation fold have finally begun to take the fecundity of our planet seriously. Nevertheless, this suggests that our best theological thinkers will not rise into the responsibilities of cosmic consciousness.

Be that as it may, the astrotheologian simply must press forward into the horizon of cosmic consciousness.  Space is calling.

 

.▓

Ted Peters directs traffic at the intersection of science, religion, and ethics. Peters is an emeritus professor at the Graduate Theological Union, where he co-edits the journal, Theology and Science, on behalf of the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences, in Berkeley, California, USA. He authored Playing God? Genetic Determinism and Human Freedom? (Routledge, 2nd ed., 2002) as well as Science, Theology, and Ethics (Ashgate 2003). Along with Martinez Hewlett, Joshua Moritz, and Robert John Russell, he co-edited, Astrotheology: Science and Theology Meet Extraterrestrial Intelligence (2018). Along with Octavio Chon Torres, Joseph Seckbach, and Russell Gordon, he co-edited, Astrobiology: Science, Ethics, and Public Policy (Scrivener 2021). He is also author of UFOs: God’s Chariots? Spirituality, Ancient Aliens, and Religious Yearnings in the Age of Extraterrestrials (Career Press New Page Books, 2014). See his website: TedsTimelyTake.com.

 

[1] The term cosmotheology, along with the term “ontotheology”, was coined by Immanuel Kant “in order to distinguish between two competing types of “transcendental theology”. Kant defined the relationship between ontotheology and cosmostheology as follows: “Transcendental theology aims either at inferring the existence of a Supreme Being from a general experience, without any closer reference to the world to which this experience belongs, and in this case it is called cosmotheology; or it endeavours to cognize the existence of such a being, through mere conceptions, without the aid of experience, and is then termed ontotheology.” DBpedia. 

References

Armstrong, Karen. 1993. A History of God: The 4,000 Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. New York: Ballantine Books.

Barlow, C. 1995. Evolution Extended: Biological Debates on the Meaning of Life. Cambridge. Mass: MIT Press.

Christian, D. 2004. ‘Maps of Time’: An Introduction to ‘Big History’. Berkeley, CA, University of California Press.

Coyne, G. V. 2000. “The Evolution of Intelligent Life on Earth and Possibly Elsewhere: Reflections from a Religious Tradition,” in Dick, (2000b), pp. 177–190.

Crawford, I. 2021. Expanding Worldviews: Astrobiology, Big History and Cosmic Perspectives, ed. by Ian Crawford. Cham, Springer

Dick, Steven J. 1996. The Biological Universe:  The Twentieth Century Extraterrestrial Life Debate and the Limits of Science. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Dick, Steven J. 1998.  Life on Other Worlds.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Dick, Steven J. 2000a. “Cosmotheology: Theological Implications of the New Universe”, in Dick (2000b), 191-210.

Dick, Steven J., ed. 2000b. Many Worlds: The New Universe, Extraterrestrial Life and the Theological Implications. Philadelphia: Templeton Foundation Press.

Dick, Steven J. 2018a.  “Toward a Constructive Naturalistic Cosmotheology,” in Peters (2018), pp. 228-244.

Dick, Steven J. 2018b.  Astrobiology, Discovery, and Societal Impact. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Dowd, Michael. 2008. Thank God for Evolution: How the Marriage of Science and Religion Will Transform Your Life and Our World. New York: Viking.

Griffin, David Ray. 2001. Reenchantment without Supernaturalism: A Process Philosophy of Religion. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press

Iqbar, M. 2018. “Islamic Theology Meets ETI,” in Peters (2018), pp. 216-227.

Kugel, J. L. 2007.  How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now.  New York: Free Press.

Lewis, James R., ed.  1995. The Gods have Landed: New Religions from Other Worlds. Albany: State University of New York

Lupisella, Mark. 2020. Cosmological Theories of Value: Science, Philosophy, and Meaning in Cosmic Evolution. New York, Springer.

O’Meara, Thomas F. O. 2012. Vast Universe: Extraterrestrials and Christian Revelation. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press

Parkyn, Joel L. 2021. Exotheology: Theological Explorations of Intelligent Extraterrestrial Life (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications).

Peacocke, A. 2000. “The Challenge and Stimulus of the Epic of Evolution to Theology,” in Dick (2000b), pp. 89-117.

Peters, Ted. 1995. “Exo-Theology: Speculations on Extraterrestrial Life,” in Lewis (1995), pp. 187-206.

Peters, Ted, with Martinez Hewlett, Joshua M. Moritz and Robert John Russell. 2018. Astrotheology: Science and Theology Meet Extraterrestrial Life (Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books).

Rubenstein, Richard E. When Jesus Became God:  The Struggle to Define Christianity during the Last Days of Rome (New York: Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt)

Russell, Robert John. 2018. “Many Incarnations or One?,” In Peters (2018), pp. 303-316.

Samuelson, Norbert. 2008. “Jewish Theology Meets the Alien,” in Peters (2018), 208-215.

Stone, Jerome A. 2010. Religious Naturalism Today: The Rebirth of a Forgotten Alternative.

About Ted Peters
Ted Peters directs traffic at the intersection of science, religion, and ethics. Peters is an emeritus professor at the Graduate Theological Union, where he co-edits the journal, Theology and Science, on behalf of the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences, in Berkeley, California, USA. He authored Playing God? Genetic Determinism and Human Freedom? (Routledge, 2nd ed., 2002) as well as Science, Theology, and Ethics (Ashgate 2003). Along with Martinez Hewlett, Joshua Moritz, and Robert John Russell, he co-edited, Astrotheology: Science and Theology Meet Extraterrestrial Intelligence (2018). Along with Octavio Chon Torres, Joseph Seckbach, and Russell Gordon, he co-edited, Astrobiology: Science, Ethics, and Public Policy (Scrivener 2021). He is also author of UFOs: God's Chariots? Spirituality, Ancient Aliens, and Religious Yearnings in the Age of Extraterrestrials (Career Press New Page Books, 2014). See his website: TedsTimelyTake.com. You can read more about the author here.

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