Anne Marie Reijnen is a CTI Research Fellow in 2015-2016. A Protestant theologian, Reijnen is the Kairos Chair of ISEO, at the Institut Catholique de Paris. She was ordained in 1986 and has been a commissioner of Faith and Order. She is the past president of the Frenchspeaking Paul Tillich Association (APTEF), and since 2010 a member of the Groupe des Dombes.
Josh Mauldin: What attracted you to the current Inquiry on the Societal Implications of Astrobiology?
Anne Marie Reijnen: The Center of Theological Inquiry consistently lives up to its motto: “A Environment for Fresh Thinking,” as I well knew from my previous (shorter) residencies here at CTI. The Center affords its members the joys and challenges of long and intense collaborations, combined with the promise of individual study with relatively few interruptions. The emblem of the Center’s tree resonates profoundly with me: it is rooted in theology, and open to all branches of inquiry. Birds of differents plumage may come and feel welcome here.
The theme of the current two-year Inquiry seemed, at first sight, fairly exotic. On reflection, it offers a rare opportunity to interact within a group of members who come from diverse disciplines, and to experience the debates of that group— which is already so rich internally— with yet another group, the scientists mandated by NASA for the dialogue with us at CTI. To say the least, “astrobiology” is not very well known in Europe. Yet is has evolved already over five decades, and a considerable corpus of writings and data is now readily accessible. Astrobiology is not a discipline (e.g like organic chemistry or quantum theory or microbial biology…): it is better understood as a field, or an endeavor. Those words indicate the reality of interdisciplinary work within astrobiology, since it draws on astronomy, geology, physics and other natural sciences. As the term “endeavor” also indicates, astrobiology is an open-ended inquiry and as such, it allows for the integration of traditions that might seem far removed from the laboratory, the space missile and the telescope. Astrobiology can be defined as a two-pronged investigation: one, regarding the origin of life on our planet, and second, the current search for forms of life elsewhere in the universe. The two problems are connected because life on Earth evolved as result of events in space: “we are made of star-dust”. These questions mobilize biologists and astronomers; but the questions of meaning, which are more typical of the humanities, especially of theology, are not unwelcome. That is the necessary and sufficient common ground for work across the boundaries.
I also venture the thought that the “young” field of astrobiology and the “old” Christian faith have a shared vulnerability in today’s public space. They are assailed and embattled because of their perceived societal effects (pernicious or frivolous…).
As a theologian, I especially welcome the “rescaling” that results from the dialogue. In my discipline, we are used to thinking about human beings and societies, over a time-scale of roughly a few millenia. It is jarring and refreshing to learn to think about geological eras, and about time in deep space, “light-years”. The natural “space” of theology has been the world, and the Church in it. “Heavens and earth” are present, but probably not foremost in our minds. Astrobiology bids us think about life on microscopic and on astronomic scales, “dislocating” our customary perception of the place of human beings within the cosmos.
Astrobiology is fascinating because it is not that much older than most of us (for instance: my first first name, Laika, was a tribute to the adventure of the Sputniks, October-November 1957). It is also a field which is acutely alive in the collective consciousness. Since having received the invitation to come to Princeton, I naturally am especially attuned to press coverage of astronomy and astrobiology. I have the impression that hardly a day goes by without some discovery in space, on Mars or one of the exoplanets, reported by the media. Who would have thought that “Kuiper Belt Objects” were to become household names? At the same time there is a lively public debate about the usefulness of these explorations. What are the benefits of these investigations by the space agencies, and how much of the taxpayers’ money should be invested in them? As Nicholas Kristof writes in the New York Times in his op-ed column of October 15: “Half of These Kids Are Stunted”: “India is a vigorous democracy that has sent an orbiter to Mars. Yet its children are far more likely to starve than children in far poorer nations in Africa”. The funding of astrobiology (or exobiology as it was sometimes called) is controversial because for some, “it is a science that still has to prove that its subject matter exists”. That may be true for the part that adresses the possibility of discovering forms of ‘life’ in space, not for the part that investigates the origin of life on planet Earth. But astrobiology is also under attack because of the societal problem of deciding how to allott funds for research. That is the thrust of Kristof’s critical remark: India, which is faced with the malnutrition of its children, should not be spending money on space programmes. Who would be so callous as to discount this apparent contradiction? First, one might reply by pointing out the modest price of space missions, relatively. The ambitious programme of NASA represents a mere 0.5 of the total federal budget. Second, as I have said elsewhere, everyone needs ‘not only bread, but also roses’. Who has never gazed at the starry sky? Who has never wondered about the vastness around us? Is there a limit to the universe, or is it boundless? Finally, the remark by Kristof implies that as long as there are children facing starvation in a nation, that nation should not deploy missions to the orbit of Mars. It is my opinion that the health and education of all citizens should be a priority for all nations, including for the United States of America where scandalous inequalities remain. But one cannot quench the curiosity of human beings. We have an irrepressible desire to explore the extremes: the deep bottom of the Ocean, mountain peaks above 8.000 meters, and, increasingly, outer space/deep space. Every nation participates to some extent in scientific investigations that have no immediate practical relevance: they express no less and no more than the human thirst for understanding.
JM: As a Protestant theologian teaching at the Catholic University of Paris, I would think you have a lot of opportunities for ecumenical dialogue and are thus familiar with debates across ecclesial and theological boundaries. What do you see as the value of interdisciplinary dialogue between theology and other disciplines?
AMR: Yes, in my daily work at the Institut Catholique de Paris, and especially within its department for ecumenical studies called ISEO (Institut Supérieur d’Etudes oecuméniques, which translates as Paris Institute for Advanced Studies in Ecumenism), I have the good fortune of interacting with colleagues and students from all Christian confessions. The world of Orthodoxy is well represented at ISEO because of the close ties with Saint-Serge.
The value of the guided inquiry at CTI is the sustained dialogue with fellow members and neighbours who come not only from different ecclesial backgrounds, but also from a variety of disciplines and fields. There are two outstanding biblical scholars ( Old Testament and New Testament), and several scholars in Christian ethics, in gender studies and philosophy. Neurosciences and cognition is another field represented, as is genetics. We are fortunate to have one (astro)biologist on our team, plus a specialist in management and finally the discipline of systematic theology, which is my own contribution to the potlatch. Each of us is invited to the ongoing dialogue with cosmology and astrobiology, in which some of us are relative novices, while several scholars in this group have themselves already contributed to these fields. You can imagine what demands are made on our time! It is a constant challenge to listen to colleagues who specialize in disciplines one is acquainted with, such as the Scriptural exegetes and the philosophers, and to the scholars whose research could be relevant to one’s own, but is a priori unfamiliar, such as microbiology and artificial intelligence. It is a balancing act between not wanting to miss the opportunities for “fresh thinking” and the need to attend to one’s own line of inquiry. In my study I leaves notes to myself: the old admonition Res tua agitur.
JM: What is the focus of your research during the year at CTI?
My project is called “Impulses from the interface of inner space and outer space”. I was puzzling at first about the difficulty of bringing together the apparent disparities of place/space: the inner space of human consciousness, holy cities, sacred solitudes, and the cosmos as living space. I will try and give an account of the interface of these different experiences of space. One classical approach is to describe the human being as the “microcosmos”. In many regards, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was exemplary in his work and life. Others in the sciences who think cosmically about the adventure of life are Owen Gingerich and John Polkinghorne. In the field of theology, I will explore the work of Ted Peters, Thomas O’Meara and Catherine Keller.
In some earlier work of mine, I explored the birth of the technological space-age: what did it mean to see, for the very first time in the history of humankind, a picture of our own Earth from outer space? I draw attention to a remarkable statement by Sir Fred Hoyle, the British astronomist, who in 1948 said the following: “Once a photograph of the Earth, from outside, is available…a new idea as powerful as any in history will be let loose”. But I deem it equally important to underline that well before the advent of the technology that made space rockets and jet propulsion possible, the space-age existed in the human imagination! I go as far as saying that space-age is coextensive with human civilization. From immemorial times, human beings have observed the skies to compute time and to “read” there what the future had in store.
Thank you for your questions, Dr Mauldin. I hope to be able to share more ideas on this research later in the year.