Thank you to Bill Brown and Neil Arner for thoughtful and provocative responses to my paper. Before anything else, I’m deeply grateful for their engagement and insight. To further the discussion, I will simply make a few remarks on my own thoughts as I read their responses.
Brown highlights the immense importance of this question for our understanding of God and our ethical responsibilities to Earth and the cosmos. He then asks a related question. How are we to think of God’s understanding of us in relation to Earth and the cosmos? Does God care for the non-human, the non-terrestrial? For my own part, I would answer with an unequivocal yes; I believe God cares deeply for the non-human and may, at times, even be willing to order the world in ways that benefit them at the expense of us (as in Job). I believe God calls us to self-sacrificial love of all creation in a way that challenges many of our current social and economic practices (as in Jonah). We build community on the basis of this love and this living-together (or symbiosis) with bacteria and creatures both small and large.
How far we take this will be, perhaps, the greatest ethical question of the 21st century. Do we have obligations to the billions of micro-organisms that live on and in us? Studies suggest we have ten times the number of bacteria (and archaea, protists, and tiny insects) living on and in us than we have cells with our Homo sapiens DNA. We are environments in our very selves. And we are increasingly shaping our larger environment as well. Human beings have unprecedented control over the species of Earth, shaping them through breeding, habitat shifting, and genetic manipulation. What will we do with this power? And, more troubling to me, as an astrobiologist, do we have a right – even an obligation – to take this power to the stars? Does God give us dominion beyond Earth (Genesis 1:21)? Are we to be gardeners of the stars?
That brings us to Arner’s great question about human motivation. Perhaps we seek, not to understand, but to control – to possess, use, and bend to our will. He reveals a bit of his Calvinist theology in highlighting aspects of our depravity. Interesting that he also invokes a celestial metaphor in speaking of the “better angels of our nature.” Both ‘angel’ and ‘nature’ say something about our anthropology and whether we see ourselves as fundamentally good, with bad tendencies, or fundamentally bad, with good opportunities. This is very much a question of how we understand our life – biological life, mental life, and spiritual life. I agree with Arner. Astrobiologists (and environmentalists) have been uncritical in making ethical claims on the basis of scientific observations. We have also been uncritical of the social and financial systems that fund research. But this leaves open the harder question. How should we generate ethical claims? And what aspects of our nature can we trust? For my part, I find myself with Paul, “forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:14). I think that takes looking inward (at soul and gut) as well as outward (at community and stars), but I will trust in and speak for the fundamental goodness of humanity and the hope we share with all creation.