Rick Searle, on his blog Utopia and Dystopia recently posted on Giordono Bruno, burned at the stake by the Roman Catholic Church in 1600 for speculation about the possibility of there being a plurality of worlds. I liked Rick’s post a lot, and wrote this response:
Your piece made me think about how I use science in my religious life. But first, I have to object to the idea that “Religions are above all ethical and philosophical orientations towards life on a human scale.” That’s certainly part of religion, but I think at base religions are a response to the numinous. People have had, and still have, experiences that go beyond rational explanation, that go beyond science, even. They need some way to think and talk about those experiences, and they find their way to religions, not because they’re rejecting science and its claims, but because they find that religion provides the language for what they need to say. I, like you, decry the way that religions can become intolerant. I would describe that intolerance as a kind of xenophobia – we become so immersed in the language of our faith that any other language seems threatening, other, strange. But if we reject these other “languages,” our own starts to die. English is full of French words, is in fact a strange combination of latinate and Germanic languages. But that’s exactly why I think it’s so beautiful. To my mind, religion only increases its beauty by allowing scientific words and phrases (by which I mean concepts) to change it. When I think about science, I think about it religiously. That doesn’t mean that I try to ignore its truths and make it conform to any dogma. It means that I encounter science through the lens of my faith. I seek to understand the natural world because doing so helps me to understand God. Like a scientist who really believes in the scientific method, I know that my understanding of God is incomplete, that I am merely proposing hypotheses in an attempt to speak about a mystery that is far beyond my comprehension. Some of the hypotheses I propose will be proved wrong. Some will stand, at least during my lifetime. But a disproven hypotheses doesn’t mean that I’ll abandon the language of religion, or the work of trying to understand the numinous. For me, the idea of other planets, other worlds, even other dimensions, is a very welcome one. It excites me to think that there are other words, other concepts, through which I can think about God. But always with the knowledge that God is outside of my understanding. I think that Bruno’s theological mistake was in trying to apply the concepts of “finite” and “infinite” to the nature of God. “Since a single Jesus visiting an infinite number of earths one at a time would take an infinite amount of time, there must be an infinite number of Jesuses. Therefore, God must create an infinite number of Christs.” God wouldn’t need to create an infinite number of Christs if God is Christ (Christ, in Christian theology, is uncreated and existed before creation, as God). God is outside of time. A triune God (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) who is outside of time can be on infinite worlds all at once, or play with time in any way that divinity can imagine. But here I am entering into Bruno’s mistake, claiming that my conception of infinity is applicable to God. The only way to move beyond speculation is to find other worlds, and to look for Christ on them.