William P. Brown is William Marcellus McPheeters Professor of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary. Brown has abiding interests in the use of Scripture in the life of the church and in contemporary theological discourse. Some of his specific interests include Psalms, wisdom literature, Genesis, and creation theology. His most recent books are Wisdom’s Wonder: Character, Crisis, and Creation in the Bible’s Wisdom Literature (Eerdmans), the edited volume Oxford Handbook to the Psalms (Oxford), and Sacred Sense: Discovering the Wonder of God’s Word and World (Eerdmans).
Joshua Mauldin: As a biblical scholar who has thought extensively about religion and science, what do you see as the possible societal implications of astrobiology?
William Brown: Among the sciences, astrobiology is the most interesting to me because it is the most aspirational, if not audacious. It is the one science that has yet to demonstrate that its subject matter exists! Nevertheless, astrobiology is also the most integrative, or better “transgressive,” of the sciences as it seeks to break down divisions between cosmology and biology, and everything in between. It is proving to be the most inclusive of the sciences. Perhaps astrobiology will prove itself to be the new “Queen of the Sciences,” a position theology held long ago.
Astrobiology, simplistically put, is the study of life from a cosmic perspective, a thoroughly decentering context, since it entertains the possibility of life beyond Earth. Astrobiology invites us to look at the “big picture” and at the same time beckons us to examine life down to its molecular constituents.
As I see it, astrobiology is driven by an irresistible sense of wonder, or what I call “inquisitive awe.” The yearning to explore but not to conquer, the desire to discover life as we do not know it and appreciate it for what it is in its planetary context, whether microbial or intelligent. In either case, if life is found, say, on Titan or Europa, or even Mars, such a discovery will be a testimony to life’s resilience amid challenging conditions. Resilience, of course, is a critical matter for us earthlings, as we confront the mounting ravages of environmental degradation.
Existentially, astrobiology entertains the question of whether we are alone in the universe. Its hope is that we are not alone. Such hope, I think, is driven by a yearning to find connection with an unimaginably immense universe populated by billions of galaxies, each populated by billions of solar systems, and yet all of it so distant from our vantage point. This is what I call the “cosmic paradox,” namely that the universe, on the one hand, reflects creative abundance, with its rich population of solar systems and galaxies of all shapes and sizes, and, on the other hand, is beset by seemingly insurmountable physical limitations for humanity to explore, given the great distances that prevent close interstellar contact with life beyond our solar system. The cosmos, in short, is marked by remarkable plentitude and severe constraint.
Life elsewhere in the universe, if it exists, would conclusively demonstrate that we’re not the “only game in town,” that it’s not all about us and our “pale blue dot.” Such a thoroughly decentered perspective might be disturbing for some. Indeed, for some people of faith, the discovery of extra-terrestrial life would be met with fear and mistrust. For others, I hope, such a discovery would engender wonder and awe in a God whose attention extends far beyond us Homo sapiens. The main challenge for NASA as it communicates with the general public is to prepare the public for the latter. From my end, much of it has to do with how Christians interpret the Bible (see below). If alien life is discovered, that is, life utterly unconnected genetically to life on Earth, the challenge for people of faith is to make the theological connection. If theology is all about relating the world to God but ignores the findings of science, including the potential findings of astrobiology, then theology fails.
JM: What led to your interest in this inquiry at CTI?
WB: I have been developing for several years now what I call a hermeneutic of wonder in my work with the ancient scriptures, and learning about astrobiology at CTI only broadens my interpretive lens. I have already thought much about the relationship between science and biblical theology, both its promises and its pitfalls, and the potentially constructive dialogue that can be conducted between them. CTI, I have found, is a place in which such constructive conversation thrives and mutual support is fostered. This year has been no exception. CTI is a place for cultivating wonder.
JM: You have studied the “lesser-known” creation traditions that are found in the Bible. Can you say a bit about these traditions and what theological resources they might provide?
WB: I heard Marilynne Robinson recently participate in a moderated dialogue with an astronomer at Emory University, and during the Q&A period someone from the audience asked whether the Bible had any other story or perspective on creation other than Genesis 1. She mentioned the Garden story in Genesis 2-3. I wanted to add that there are at least seven different accounts of creation, each one unique, in the Hebrew Bible. Taken together, these various accounts and perspectives offer a multi-textured, richly nuanced perspective on creation.
Most students of Scripture learn about the two creation accounts in Genesis, and they are, admittedly, the most well known. But there are at least five others, and they are just as significant theologically. Psalm 104 and Job 38-41, for example, present breathtaking poetic accounts of creation that offer a distinctly non-anthropocentric take on creation. Whereas humanity is created “in God’s image” in Genesis 1, these poetic accounts present humanity as one species among many others. In Proverbs 8, creation is fashioned by God for Wisdom, not for humanity. These “lesser-known” creation accounts provide an anthropological, if not theological, balance to the more narrowly focused creation traditions in Genesis. Coupled with Genesis, these creation accounts together testify to creation’s glorious complexity.
JM: How might the current inquiry at CTI influence not only your further research interests but also your teaching at Columbia Theological Seminary?
WB: As a biblical scholar, I consider astrobiology to be an inherently hermeneutical adventure, for how to recognize alien life, to “read” it properly, that is without bias, is its central question. It is also inherently interdisciplinary. Part of my teaching vocation involves fostering for my students a hermeneutic of adventure. In astrobiology, to look for “life as we do not know it” is to be open for surprise, to expect the unexpected, to consider alternative pathways for life, and perhaps even to find them. It means being aware of our own interpretive biases as we go about searching for “otherness.” Perhaps that’s the best definition of astrobiology in a nutshell for me is the “search for sheer otherness,” cosmic otherness. In biblical interpretation, to look for meaning in the text is also to be open to surprise, the unexpected. To treat the text as the great unknown has its advantages, for to do so resists projecting our own biases upon it. How to read the text as we do not know it lies at the heart of biblical exegesis, in my opinion. Exegesis provides an opportunity to explore alternative “pathways” toward meaning and, yes, transformation.
We biblical scholars are like zoo keepers: we try all too often to capture and lock up the meaning of the text. But perhaps our task, in addition to exploring the text’s “original intent,” is to track the text’s various trajectories of meaning, as the text takes on a life of its own throughout the history of its reception. In short, astrobiology inspires me to take account of the “wildlife” of the text, its “alien” meanings, meanings that catch us by surprise and question our presuppositions but were there all along. The goal of teaching exegesis is to present the text, as familiar as it may seem, as something new.
JM: By way of intellectual biography, how did you develop lifelong interests in biblical studies, theology, and science?
WB: My intellectual biography has been punctuated by moments of wonder, or inquisitive awe, whether it has come from reading the Bible or scanning the night sky. In high school I built my own six-inch reflecting telescope through which I scanned the clear skies of southern Arizona, looking for star clusters, galaxies, planets, and planetary nebulae, always straining the limits of my modest scope. Sometimes I wonder why I didn’t turn out to be an astronomer. But that keen sense of observation has, I think, spilled over nicely into my work as a biblical exegete, as I look for subtle nuances, structural patterns, and new meanings in the text. But the crossover is much more than analytical in nature. As the night sky inspires a sense of awe, so also the cosmic reach of the biblical drama. The Bible, I came to experience early on, is a sweeping, all-encompassing drama of salvation that pulls its readers in, inviting them to join in the work of God in the reconciliation of the world. Such is the Bible’s gravitational pull. The Bible itself is a universe filled with its own diversity of genres, characters, and testimonies. The lively intersection between biblical studies, theology, and science has directed my attention particularly to the creation texts of the Hebrew Bible. No surprise. And so I continue with them, noting that the Christian Bible is bookended by creation, and in between the bookends the psalmists, sages, and prophets inquired of the natural world in their testimonies to God’s providence. “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers . . .” (Ps 8:3; cf. 19:1). “I turned my mind to know and to search out and to seek wisdom and the sum of things . . .” (Eccl 7:25). “It is the glory of God to conceal things, but the glory of kings is to search things out” (Prov 25:2). “When we look to . . . .” begins the first sentence of the first chapter of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. Looking, seeing, searching. That is the task of both the exegete and the scientist, and I am happy to discern the parallels.