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Book review: God and Astrobiology by Richard Playford, Stephen Bullivant and Janet Siefert

28 June 2024

Keith Ward reviews a different angle on universalism

THIS short but authoritative and scholarly book deals with the effect on religious beliefs of the possibility that there are perhaps millions of life forms on other planets throughout the universe. It shows that this is not a new problem, though modern astronomy, with the discovery that there are billions of planets in the universe, has given it a new impact.

Hinduism and Buddhism have few problems in this area, but Christianity has issues with the unique incarnation of God on one planet and with the apparent redemption of the whole universe by one human being. The authors argue that there are problems, but there is a range of ways of resolving them. Thinking about such responses may well expand our theological understanding.

The authors briefly discuss Judaism and Islam, again offering a number of non-dogmatic but positive suggestions that could resolve any problems that arise, such as God’s covenant with the Jews or the finality of the prophet. They also discuss various modern movements — for example, Scientology — which claim contact with alien life forms, and some that think that the gods are, in fact, alien visitations. Such views go far beyond any scientific evidence and are not parts of the respectable science of astrobiology.

This is a scientifically and philosophically informed account of how theology can respond to our knowledge of the vastness of the cosmos. I think that the theological re-thinking needed might be a little more radical than they suggest, especially with regard to the return of Christ and the re-making of creation, which they do not explicitly address. But that does not alter the fact that this is an excellent treatment of how religious belief can regard the possibility of created life on alien worlds.

Canon Keith Ward is Emeritus Regius Professor of Divinity at Oxford.

God and Astrobiology: Elements in the problems of God
Richard Playford, Stephen Bullivant and Janet Siefert
Cambridge University Press £17
Church Times Bookshop £15.30

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