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Extraterrestrial Life

Posted in Christianity, life, philosophy by dingodonkey on November 11, 2009

I am a Christian with many highly-overthought theological opinions.  I am also something of a scientific researcher through my day job.  And I believe in the likely existence of something that is recognizably life outside our planet.  None of this is in contradiction.

As I’ve written before, defining life is itself difficult.  I know that I’m alive, and I accept on a combination of faith and reason that my fellow men are also alive.  It seems only sensible to me to say that other animals are alive, especially with my modern worldview that says there is no intrinsic physical difference between us.  When I come to microorganisms, I have much less confidence in the proclamation, and with plants I’m flat-out skeptical.  What are the qualities of life?  Try to list them, and then watch this video of Theo Jansen’s beach creatures.  Are they alive?

Of course not.  Likewise, other structures exhibiting lifelike properties — whether engineered or not — are similarly dismissed.  Perhaps it is a certain holiness, a divine sanction, that separates life from the lifelike.  Or perhaps it is merely our delusion.

Some would put forward that certain well-characterized biological structures (DNA, etc) must be present for something to be considered life.  I see no reason for this arbitrary physical distinction.  In fact, I believe it is simply wrong.  Life as it has evolved on earth has centered around these structures, because it was through them that life in this self-contained system was realized.  There is no reason to believe this must be so in foreign systems (although there are reasonable arguments based on self-organization of their constituent atoms, but even that may not hold up in other regions of the universe).

So anyway, from a purely physical perspective, the case has been made many times by people smarter than me that life probably does exist out there.  I’m not completely convinced, especially because I’m still uncertain of what life is in a physical sense, but I’m reasonably enough persuaded to go along with it.

As a Christian, I believe that life on this planet is, regardless of the physical mechanisms by which it has been realized, created and sustained by an act of divine will.  I see nothing in that formula that insists life was only created at one time and in one place — in fact, it is created repeatedly, continually, in many places on earth.  Christians even believe in the creation and sustenance of unphysical lives in the angels and demons, and in the life of God Himself.  It’s all the same “life”.  What in this contradicts God’s creating life, or allowing/causing its physical forms to assemble, elsewhere?

I’m not the only one thinking about this and failing to find an argument against it.  The Vatican has also taken an interest in astrobiology.  The burden of argument is on those who say extraterrestrial life is impossible, and, until they may convince me theologically, I’m not jumping ship.

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Is America a Christian Nation?

Posted in Christianity, philosophy, political by dingodonkey on September 9, 2009

Every now and then, I get into a debate over whether America is a Christian nation.  Pres. Obama says we’re not, but also seems to imply that we used to be.  I actually more or less agree with him on both of those points, but I’m quite certain that our reasons are very different and fundamentally irreconcilable.

Most people who say we are not a Christian nation are referring to separation of church and state.  I would urge them to distinguish between “nation” (unit of society) and “government” (system of imposing order on that unit of society).  Our government is not Christian.  It derives from Christian ideas about God, man, government, and rights, but it’s not a Christian institution in anything approaching the same way the Church is, and neither is its legitimacy derived from the Church.  Christianity has historically recognized a clear distinction between between Church and State, something that other major world religions (Islam in particular) have not done.  Even Christian kings claiming divine authority (with the nod of the Church, I might add) were not understood to preside over the affairs of the Church, and vice versa (of course this has not stopped individuals from stepping outside their roles).

Nevertheless, we have, and historically have had, a Christian nation with a secular government.  The government derives its authority from the consent of the governed (i.e. the Christian nation), so all this stuff about the government’s authority having its root in Christian thought is perfectly sensible despite its being essentially a secular government.  And that’s a good way for it to be.  It works for America and it works for Christianity.

This distinction has been lost, and that’s something I like to argue with people about.  But I’m beginning to look at that debate as largely academic, at least within this context (government vs. nation more broadly is still a very important distinction, one that I think lies at the heart of our political divisions).

The real question, as was pointed out by Monte Kuligowski, is whether or not we are still a single cohesive Christian nation (give me the benefit of the doubt for now on that nation vs. government distinction).  And that’s a question I’m not yet ready to answer with confidence, but, as my opening suggested, I lean toward “no, we are not”.  I’m still working through that, though, so I’ll save it for another day.