The Most Interesting Conversation I’ve Had This Year image

The Most Interesting Conversation I’ve Had This Year

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The most interesting conversation I've had this year took place with three New Testament scholars, in a pub on the Strand, in June. It was on the subject of life on other planets.

Doctoral examinations are strange affairs. One minute you are sitting across a table from two experts you barely know, scared to your boots that you will say something dim and expose yourself as the ignorant fraud you are; the next minute they are congratulating you, inviting in your supervisor, and heading to the nearest pub for a couple of pints and a wide-ranging chat. In my case, the scholars in question were Simon Gathercole (Cambridge), Jonathan Linebaugh (Cambridge) and Eddie Adams (King’s College London), the pub was The Wellington, the pints were excellent craft IPAs, and the wide-ranging chat was very wide-ranging indeed.

We were talking about research interests, as academics always do, and then somebody mentioned that a colleague of his had recently been given funding by NASA. That, as you can imagine, is not something that happens very often in biblical studies. Why on earth, we all wanted to know, are NASA funding post-doctoral research in theology? And what is the project? Well, he replied: the project is on the theological implications of life on other planets. (I’ll let that sink in for a moment. NASA are funding a biblical studies project into extraterrestrial life.)

Why? Because, he continued, they are all-but-certain that they will discover evidence of life on other planets within the next twenty years. And when they do, they are all-but-certain that the American evangelical community is going to go absolutely bananas. So they are investing (what for them is a very small amount of) money to research the implications of such a thing happening—for anthropology, for the doctrine of creation, for theology proper—in the hope that it will stave off whatever furious apocalypses might otherwise result.

On hearing this, my first thought was: what? We are all-but-certain to find life on other planets within twenty years? Much of the rest of the day was spent pondering that concept, even as I tried to get my head round having passed my viva. My second thought was: wait, what are the theological implications of life on other planets? It turned out I was not the only one to be wondering that. By common consent, we all ended up looking at Simon Gathercole for an answer.

Simon put his beer back on the table. “So far, I don’t think I’ve got much,” he said, “but for now I’d go with C. S. Lewis. If it does turn out that there is life on other planets, Lewis said, then I will simply have to conclude that he has been there, too.”

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