Anthropology, Astrobiology, and the Bible

“Do I view the cosmos with a certain sense of terror? I’m glad you asked that question,” asked William P. Brown, Columbia Theological Seminary’s William Marcellus McPheeters Professor of Old Testament. With the audience at Union Presbyterian Seminary’s Howie Lectures in anticipation after this question, Brown continued to address the wonder that is discovered when theology, art, and science interact and overlap.

“Wonder is whatever takes your breath away and then restores your breath,” Brown said. “We learn to breath anew, gasp and then intake.”

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William P. Brown, Columbia Theological Seminary’s William Marcellus McPheeters Professor of Old Testament, smiles after sharing a photo that features three stars and hundreds of galaxies.

Brown offered a seminar and conversation on the topic “From Ardi to Adam: How Anthropology Rewrites Genesis.” Grounded in Genesis creation narratives, groundbreaking scientific theories, and even a video of a starling murmuring, Brown ushered the participants into an understanding of the wonder of all of creation, which he called a “tangentially overlapping magisteria.”

The notion of collaboration between theologians and scientists “assumes that conflict and caricature are not an option,” said Brown. “Instead, it suggests that both the theologian and the scientist proceed from a common point of departure:  wonder. Wonder is what drives science as much as it lies at the heart of theological inquiry.”

Later,  Brown delivered a lecture entitled “From Ash Heap to Asteroids: How Astrobiology Rewrites Job.” He asked the audience “How do we read life that we are not familiar with?” and offered a response “consider alternative pathways to life a kind of ‘biological thought experiment.’”

“I’d like to look at the bible through one more lens, astrobiology,” said Brown. “God the creator of all is cosmic, Christ which all things are made is cosmic, the spirit which hovered over the deep is cosmic. We might even be able to talk about God’s preferential option for life itself.”

Through this cosmic lens, Brown offered an interpretation of Job that considered Job’s comfort in the interconnectedness between Job and all of God’s created order. “God is inviting Job to reimagine himself for just a moment… to see life, to see creation through the eyes of the wild – to receive something of the wisdom of the wild,” said Brown.

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Brown led the audience in an exercise that immersed participants in the interconnectedness to creation through a poetic midrash that highlighted the creatures of the deep waters. In a way, the crowd seated comfortably in Watts Chapel experienced first hand what Brown called “Job’s baptism into nature.”

“Job’s comfort lies in a world that is cosmically queer and seductively divine that is made with him.”

You may access a recorded copy of Brown’s lecture here.

The Carl Howie Center for Science, Art, and Theology sponsors presentations through which church leaders, including seminarians, recognize and engage the insights and implications of the interplay of science, art, and theology for theological expression and the practice of ministry. The center generously provides funding for lectures, seminars, and displays at Union Presbyterian Seminary once or twice a year, featuring artists, scientists, and/or theologians in conversation about a particular topic.

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