The first weekend in Lent 2021.
My wife and I are avid readers, whether books in hand or on Kindle. I like Ken Follett’s historical fiction; but this past week I read a new book I had wanted to read for some time: Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth by Avi Loeb.
Abraham “Avi” Loeb, a Professor of Science at Harvard University is a researcher in astrophysics and cosmology. Extraterrestrial deals with the outer space evidence he and colleagues collected over eleven days starting on October 19, 2017. They observed what they believe was the first known interstellar visitor to Earth: evidence of an intelligent civilization not of this Earth. I won’t go into all the book details right now, but his book started me thinking about new ideas and mindsets.
I started thinking about poor old Galileo who struggled, and suffered, with his open exploratory mindset. In his 1610 treatise Sidereus Nuncius (“Starry Messenger”), Galileo declared his agreement with the heliocentric understanding of the solar system. Heliocentrism ran directly counter to the teachings — the mindset — of the Catholic Church. In 1633, Galileo was found guilty of heresy. Due to advanced age and ill health he was not tortured but spent the rest of his life, nearly a decade, under house arrest.
Today astrophysicists, of course, not only affirm heliocentrism but confirm that our Sun is one of hundreds of billions of stars in the Milky Way. They report as well that the universe is still rapidly expanding.
I remember April 12, 1961, when the Russian astronaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human to journey around the Earth in outer space and reported “I see no God up here.” Gagarin was reacting to his perception of an earlier mindset. Certainly our understanding of the universe and of the anthropomorphic God had already changed. We had moved far beyond the Hebrew and early Christian image of God seated on a throne up above the clouds.
When Yuri Gagarin made his historic journey in 1961, I was making my rather ordinary journey from high school to college. When I recalled this recently with a classmate from back then, he asked what I thought the church and the world would be like sixty years from today. That provoked more thoughts about mindsets.
I am an historian not a predictor of the future. Sixty years is a long time, especially for a guy who passed his own sixty years, seventeen years ago. I do see some significant societal trends, however.
The big issue that is tearing us apart today is our highly polarized society. I don’t like the words “conservative” and “liberal” nor the devision into “traditional” and “progressive.” One side of our polarized society has people with, what I prefer to call, a “static rigid” mindset. The other side has an “exploratory” mindset.
Being a theologian, I see the static rigid believers as people who consider change a great disruption, a great distortion, or downright evil. They are locked in the world view of an earlier age. They have age-old answers for every age-old question, even if no one is really asking those questions anymore. They are incapable of understanding contemporary Christianity in the light of ongoing human growth, development, and understanding. This explains of course their frustration and problems with contemporary sexuality and gender issues.
Exploratory mindset believers, on the other hand, experience human life, and therefore Christian life, as an open-ended discovery journey. They don’t have ready-made answers for every question. They see Christian life as a process of individual and communal discernment. Tomorrow may bring new and exciting discoveries, as Galileo of old observed with his telescope or perhaps as Avi Loeb considers with perceived signs of extraterrestrial life. New developments and discoveries, like Covid-19 or climate change (as I watch news reports about the devastating winter storm in Texas), can of course bring anxiety, fear, and misery. Throughout it all, nevertheless, we can eventually make progress. Life is stronger than death. Perspectives change and we mature. We move ahead, more humble and a bit wiser…..
Overcoming polarization requires concerted action on both sides. Neither side is justified in denigrating and demeaning the other. Our goal must be constructive and respectful dialog. I know the situation very well, because I once had a very static and rigid Catholic mindset.
In 1965 my bishop – very rigid and dogmatic — sent me as a seminarian to study at the Catholic University of Louvain (Leuven). After my first month of classes, I was rather upset and thought a few Louvain professors were much too freewheeling in their theology. I expressed my concerns to a likable professor. He reacted very calmly and said “we need to discuss this.” With a few other students, we began monthly seminars with him to discuss “contemporary theology”…. The professor, Albert Houssiau, is now 96 years old. I greatly respect him and appreciate his influence on my life. (A few years ago, when I met him again during a university dinner, he sketched, on the back of the menu, the profile I often use on Another Voice. 😊) Gradually Houssiau had opened my eyes and my mind. I found him a genuine believer and I trusted him. He helped me realize that asking questions is healthy and that everything we believe deserves critical examination, research, and reflection. I became a more open-minded person with a different “mindset.” My Dad, who died in 1996, loved to tell people, with a twinkle in his eyes, “Jack was never the same after Louvain.”
Yes, constructive dialogue is essential; but right now I foresee polarized clashing and loss of institutional credibility contributing to a further dissolution of large institutional churches. I foresee more and more splintering into smaller independent faith communities (churches); but I also foresee more faith communities interested in collaboration and open dialogue: open to women; open to gay, bi, and trans; and open to new historical and biblical discoveries. I foresee more faith communities without hierarchical distinctions between ordained and non-ordained: communities that simply acknowledge, as did the early Christians, a variety of roles and responsibilities, shared by men and women, within Christian communities.
I foresee faith communities with a clear and accurate historical and biblical understanding that simply eliminates a number of inter-church and intra-church problems. Some key examples would be: that the historical Jesus did not ordain anyone; that women did preside at early Christian celebrations of Eucharist; that Jesus did not institute seven sacraments; that Jesus did not establish an institutional church; that Jesus said absolutely nothing about birth control or homosexuality; that ordination does not confer any kind of sacred power; that ordination is about ensuring competent and trustworthy ministers; that there were men and women who were apostles; that the Body of Christ is much larger than the Catholic Church; and that Peter the Apostle was never a bishop of Rome.
I hope to see prophetic church communities that challenge ignorance, hatred, misogyny, and racist behavior.
Because of people leaving the large institutional churches, there may very well be major financial problems for the once affluent institutional church. It would be unable to maintain its real estate, institutions, and services. In the Catholic Church, for instance, there could be even more dioceses going bankrupt. I would not say I rejoice in this; but could simply acknowledge it as a fact of life.
Nevertheless, all in all I am optimistic in my ecclesiastical realism. I enjoy being an exploratory believer. The Spirit has not abandoned us. And we must not abandon the Spirit. Certainly, I foresee a major reconfiguration of the Christian Church, because what we are already experiencing is far greater and much more revolutionary than anything springing from the sixteenth century Reformation. Christian institutional structures will change in major ways yet to be seen.
Regardless what happens sixty years from now – or ten years from now – the important issue is what’s happening today: how we read the signs of our own times and how we allow that understanding to shape and enliven our own lives, ministry, and witness.
And a final observation: We can and should ask if Avi Loeb and his colleagues really did witness an extraterrestrial “spaceship” operated by intelligent life from outer space. Personally, I think this could be very exciting. I am not fearful. Our faith is our strength and the greatest wisdom in view of such awesome possibilities. I wonder, actually, how intelligent beings from another planet would understand God, Jesus Christ, and the Trinity. I wonder how they would understand values like compassion and mutual respect and collaboration.
Contemporary astrophysicists stress that there are billions of galaxies in the universe, containing even billions more stars. With an exploratory mindset, I resonate with Psalm 19: “The heavens proclaim the Glory of God.”