In August 2012, the Sloan Digital Sky Survey released “A Flight Through the Universe,” a simulated tour of intergalactic space, in realistic scale, composed from real galaxy location data. Each point of light in the video is a galaxy containing roughly 100 billion stars. The video captures almost 400,000 galaxies.
The total number of galaxies in the visible universe is estimated to be 100 to 500 billion. This means that the Sloan Survey captures about 0.00008% of all galaxies in the universe. Put concretely, if the universe were the size of the Continental United States, the Sloan Survey would cover an area about the size of your bathroom. Now blow the video up to full screen, and imagine it extending from your bathroom to the other end of the country.
Here is a new assumption to integrate into your worldview: Life is abundant in the universe. A trillion sentient worlds exist.
What does this mean from a theological perspective?
Theology – the study of God and God’s relation to the world – must be greatly affected by God entering into relation with a trillion worlds instead of one. Yet many who practice theology from a one-world perspective can already sense the mounting theological tension that a trillion worlds confirm. When people sense that the world contains a plurality of separate but equal religions, the Revelation of God – the disclosure of how God relates to the world – is viewed as multifarious. People sense it happens often – in different cultures, in different eras, with different expressions and interpretations. God’s Revelations can become so manifold that their variety confuses God’s claim to Oneness and universality. This is a central theological tension of our era. This tension is greatly exacerbated by those who deny it by constructing walled gardens of religious exclusivism, each with claims of access to the One Revelation, which makes the others ancillary at best and sacrilegious at worst. In aggregate, of course, this only deepens the fragmentation of God’s Oneness and heightens the theological tension of our era.
One consequence of the abundance of life in the universe is that it negates the main premise behind religious exclusivism. When the question of God is restricted to one world, it is intellectually easier to interpret God’s Revelation as exclusive to a particular time, place and prophet. The idea is that the power of this one locus of Revelation will eventually win out over the course of history to finally envelop the peoples of Earth. Yet as soon as the cosmic scale is invoked – and the trillion worlds therein – the vision of God’s Revelation spreading out from one central locus becomes completely antiquated and useless.
In order to avoid the hubristic assumption that Earth is the one chosen world in a trillion full of castaways, it is incumbent upon theologians to assent that Revelations of God happen across the universe, through an infinite number of prophets and scriptures, without having an exclusive bond with any of them. The challenge that confronts this perspective is how to uphold these Revelations as cohesive, as unified in their infinite expressions. The challenge for theology tomorrow is how to nurture an inclusive understanding of God’s manifold Revelations.
Failure of the comparative approach
An inclusive understanding of the infinite Revelations of God across time and space cannot come about through aggregated knowledge of each of them. Across a trillion worlds, each Revelation of God cannot be analyzed and compared to find what is common between them.
The field of comparative theology, along with a movement toward interreligious dialogue, is searching for unity in God’s manifold Revelations on Earth through the “analyze and compare” method. Participants mine and excavate voluminous expressions of God throughout history and across traditions; they imitate the microscope with their minute focus on the etymology of vital words; they are aggregators of common threads across which to speak on panels at summits. But the abundance of life in the universe negates the efficacy of this method by making its sample size infinitesimal. By this method alone, our understanding of Revelation could only amount to a dubious, fractional insight into how God relates to one in a trillion worlds.
For an inclusive understanding of how God relates to all worlds, something must be said about the dynamics of Revelation itself, dynamics that apply to all possible Revelations of God across the universe. That is a challenge for theology tomorrow. Below is a short musing on how that challenge might be met.
Although I may live on one of a trillion isolated planets, as one of an infinite variety of species, in one of an infinite variety of cultures, I necessarily belong to the all-inclusive being called God, whose body is the whole universe. All instances of sentient life belong to this One Being, all live inside its breadth and depth.
When I remember that I belong to this Universal Being, its Inner Awareness comes upon me – it remembers itself through me. The dawning of this Awareness is called a Revelation of God.
When the Universal Being remembers itself through me, my individual being is both dissolved and sustained. My individual awareness – my ego – is dissolved into Awareness of the Universal Being. But my individual body is sustained as a focal point of Revelation for the Universal Being. In this way, God relates to the world through me.
When the Universal Being remembers itself through me, I act humbly and compassionately to express that my own body is a vessel for the life of the Universal Being. When I do this, I do not act arbitrarily by my own will alone, but in alignment with a will that exists through and beyond me – the will of God itself. I do not act only according to my particular situation, but also according to a universal situation that enables and defines the character of my action.
Historically poignant Revelations occur when God remembers itself through someone, when someone learns to express their Awareness of the Universal Being, when this Awareness broadens and a community enters into its ray of meaning, and finally when the world itself is funneled into this beam and people everywhere readily remember and express who they are. That is how God relates to every world.
Nick Astraeus received his M.A. in theology from Union Theological Seminary. He is a freelance writer. You can reach him for queries at Nick.Astraeus@gmail.com.