THIS time last year, I paid a visit to the town of Lambertville, on the banks of the Delaware river, known for its cafés and expensive craft shops. I was on research leave, thinking through the theological implications of life elsewhere in the universe. I went into a church to say a few prayers, and was stopped in my tracks by a statue of the Virgin and Child. As a work of art, the statue was neither offensive nor greatly accomplished, but it arrested me, this depiction of a woman, holding out her son.
The Christmas story shows us something totally beyond our expectations, but, at the same time, marvellously fitting: God with us, as we are. If the universe contains a glorious variety of life, my instinct is that God’s dealings with it are correspondingly varied and glorious — and fitting.
FEW scientific discoveries of recent years outshine the detection of planets around other stars. The first confirmed evidence came in 1992 — before that, we had no idea whether planets were common or extraordinarily rare. So far, we have observed about 3800.
It seems that most stars are circled by planets. A decent proportion are somewhat Earth-like, which is to say, rocky, with liquid water. If that applies to only one in 20, that still leaves a remarkably large number of nurseries for life, given that the observable universe contains perhaps 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 stars: one followed by 24 noughts.
Only a fraction of planets are Earth-like; a small but clearly non-zero proportion harbour life; some of that has probably evolved to sentience — knowing itself, and its creator, and its responsibilities, and perhaps sinning, and being redeemed. That is a fraction of a fraction of a fraction — but of 1 stars.
With this ambiguous earth
His dealings have been told us. These abide:
The signal to a maid, the human birth,
The lesson, and the young Man crucified.
But not a star of all
The innumerable host of stars has heard
How He administered this terrestrial ball.
Our race have kept their Lord’s entrusted Word.
So wrote Alice Meynell (1847-1922), in her poem “Christ in the Universe”. Our story is known only to us. Likewise, if there is life elsewhere, God’s work there remains hidden from us, wonderful though it surely is:
Nor, in our little day,
May His devices with the heavens be guessed,
His pilgrimage to thread the Milky Way
Or His bestowals there be manifest.
Of those other “bestowals”, what can we say? Some theologians tackle the question by asking what might be possible. Could the eternal Word, for instance, have been incarnate there, too? Theologians who focus on possibility tend to favour fine doctrinal detail. Others, in contrast, are drawn by the broad sweep of Christian belief. Their starting-point is to ask how the incarnation — for instance — fits into the bigger picture. They ask questions about necessity: would other incarnations, for instance, be necessary, to achieve the same ends?
Each of these two approaches yields insights, but there are risks to reducing theology to considerations, either of the possible or the necessary. On the one hand, the human mind can get only so far in thinking about what is possible for God. On the other, God is no passive respondent to necessity — not least because the divine work shows more art than that.
ALONGSIDE possibility or necessity, a third category suggests itself, beloved of medieval theologians. They called it convenientia. It is the conviction that whatever God does is always truly fitting, or suitable: suitable both to the situation, and to who God is. It reminds us that God’s action is neither necessitated nor an arbitrary choice between possibilities.
Fittingness strikes me as the right way to shape theological thinking about life elsewhere in the universe. I am surprised that, to my knowledge, it has never been invoked explicitly for that purpose. I do not know whether there is any life elsewhere, or whether it is sentient, or sinful. I am sure, however, that God will deal with it entirely fittingly.
WITH that in mind, we can return to our story, with our eyes opened to see that God’s work among us has that mark of supreme fittingness or suitability. God deals with us according to the kind of thing we are, all the way to taking up our human life and nature. In doing so, God not only deals with sin, but unites our life to divine life. Neither possibility nor necessity grasps that; only in terms of suitability can we begin to appreciate its majesty.
Exploration of how God’s love has so fittingly taken form is an inexhaustible task. Consider, for instance, that we were not given a message from afar. Rather, God, the supreme communicator, came to as we are — bodily, culturally, historically — and taught us as one human being to another, tangible to our senses. The Christmas preface to the eucharist highlights this:
In this mystery of the Word made flesh you have caused his light to shine in our hearts . . .
In him we see our God made visible
and so are caught up in the love of the God we cannot see.
Our story also tells us that God does not wipe things out and start again. It was far more wonderful to have worked in and through creatures — and as a creature — to bring restoration, redemption, and that union beyond imagination. In coming to the Virgin’s womb, God did not abhor history or culture, in all its particularity. He endorsed it and redeemed it.
In innumerable ways, God’s dealings with humanity have been fitting. Whatever theological story is to be told about life elsewhere, something corresponding could be said. God’s dealings will be different in detail, precisely because life will be different, and because God’s works are always thoroughly fitting.
How exactly that plays out for life elsewhere — if there is life elsewhere — we do not know. With the idea of fittingness newly impressed on our minds, however, we can rejoice all the more that, for us, God dwelt in a womb, was born, had an infancy, belonged to a culture, learned a trade, ate, drank, danced no doubt, trod a road, lived with friends, and was nailed to a tree. He died — as we do, if we are nailed to a tree — but rose to a transformed life, which is still our life transformed.
That whole story of fittingness is itself perhaps most fittingly summed up in a statue of a young mother, holding out to us her child.
Canon Andrew Davison is the Starbridge Lecturer in Theology and Natural Sciences at the University of Cambridge, and a Fellow of Corpus Christi College. He spent the 2016-17 academic year at the Center of Theological Inquiry in Princeton, on a NASA-sponsored project to consider the societal implications of astrobiology.