An Electronic Baptist Journal Bridging Yesterday and Today
[Vol. 14, No. 1]
Editor: Bruce T. Gourley, executive director, Baptist History and Heritage Society
The Baptist Studies Bulletin (BSB) is a free online journal produced by the Baptist History and Heritage Society (BH&HS) and offering scholarly analysis, informed editorials, book reviews, and special features for subscribers. You may access previous issues to or subscribe or unsubscribe from the BSB. Republishing of articles is allowed, but please provide credit and a link back to the Baptist Studies Bulletin.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
“Christianity in a Posthuman World”
Part Three: Beyond Humanity
by Bruce T. Gourley
“Why I am a CBF Baptist”: Voices of Young Baptists
by Aaron Weaver
Communications Manager, Cooperative Baptist Fellowship
BH&HS Annual Conference 2015
April 20-22, 2015 / Nashville, Tennessee
Theme: “Seeking Justice: Baptists, Nashville and Civil Rights”
CHRISTIANITY IN A POSTHUMAN WORLD
Part Three: Beyond Humanity
by Bruce T. Gourley
This is the third of a three-part series on a vast, mind-boggling and already-unfolding seismic shift in the story of humanity and life, a chapter that many scholars and observers have dubbed “posthumanity.” In the third part of this series, we survey the likelihood of life beyond humanity.
The first television set I recall as a child was black and white, while I have no memories of computers until the early 1980s. By way of contrast, my daughter is growing up at a time in which technology is melding with humanity in a way only science fiction writers could have dreamed of back in the 1960s.
Smart phones. Wearable computers. Artificial intelligence. Exoskeletons. Cyborgs. All are now realities that collectively are redefining humanity.
The morphing of humanity into a dimension unknown in prior generations has led to the skyrocketing of the posthuman conversation since the year 2000. Embedded within and alongside this posthuman conversation is the question of the nature of human life, as well as a rapidly expanding search for extraterrestrial life.
For thousands of years humans have wondered if life exists beyond planet Earth. In 1960 the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) established an Exobiology Program in order to scientifically assess the possibilities of extraterrestrial life. As the prospects of life apart from Earth evolved from an unknown to a distinct possibility, the 1990s witnessed a re-orienting of NASA’s efforts to the field of astrobiology, “the study of the origin, evolution, distribution, and future of life in the universe.” So central to the mission of NASA is astrobiology that it is now considered “a cross-cutting theme in all of NASA’s space science endeavors, knitting together research in Astrophysics, Earth Science, and Heliophysics as well as Planetary Science.”
As the search for extraterrestrial life has evolved from the 1960s to the present, the definition of life has also evolved. Reflecting the contemporary complexities associated with the question, there is currently no universally, agreed-upon definition of life. NASA’s work is based on a working definition of life as “a self-contained chemical system capable of undergoing Darwinian evolution.”
The biggest breakthrough in rethinking life is unfolding just a short drive from my home. Yellowstone National Park is known for its thousands of hot springs, pools and geysers. Within these extreme environments are microscopic thermophilic viruses, functioning organisms that somehow manage to exist in conditions that, until recent years, were believed to be far too harsh for life. Are these viruses a form of life? There is no scientific consensus yet, but like other life forms, thermophilic viruses pass along genetic information from one generation to another.
The thermophiles that exist in Yellowstone’s extremely harsh environments, having forced scientists to reexamine the very definition of life, now propel NASA’s search for extraterrestrials. Yellowstone, in short, provides a hands-on model for identifying seemingly-hostile planetary conditions in which the hardiest of simple life forms can exist.
Astrobiologists, however, do not limit their search to simple rudimentary organisms. The larger goal is the discovery of complex multicellular beings.
Until a few years ago, it was commonly believed that the universe (that is, the cosmos; all existing matter and space) harbored few planets potentially capable of hosting complex multicellular beings. The launching of the Kepler spacecraft in 2009, however, soon blew away that supposition.
NASA’s first spacecraft specifically tasked with finding Earth-like planets orbiting distant stars, Kepler soon rocked the scientific world. On November 4, 2013, astronomers reported the results of some four years of Kepler space mission data: according to the data, as many as 40 billion Earth-sized planets exist in the habitable zones of sun-like stars and red dwarf stars within the Milky Way Galaxy. (The Milky Way Galaxy, our own, is just a tiny fraction of the universe, spanning a mere 100,000 light years within a universe that is 13.8 billion light years across. Until fairly recently, scientists were uncertain that planets existed outside of our solar system, which is but a tiny part of the Milky Way.)
Translated, almost one in every four stars within our little galaxy may be accompanied by near-Earth sized planet(s) that receive the right amount of sunlight capable of producing life. This number is theoretical, based on hard data extrapolated for what we currently know about the entirety of the Milky Way. To date, over 1,400 planets beyond our solar system have been concretely identified. Of those, 28 have been confirmed as Earth-size planets located in the habitable zone and thus capable of hosting life. Of those 28, twelve were confirmed this month.
So what does all of this mean?
By the 18th century reason and science had evolved to the point of seriously challenging traditional religious dogma. In the Western world Enlightenment principles enthroned freedom of conscience for all and advocated church state separation (both principles earlier championed by Baptists). In the 19th century Darwin supplanted direct divine creation with evolutionary processes, while the 20th century witnessed the victory of science over religious dogma to such an extent that many religious conservatives set about re-defining science in order to make it compatible with biblical literalism. By the end of the century young Westerners were trending away from organized religion, partially reflective of disinterest in religious fundamentalism on the one hand, and faith in science on the other. (It should be noted that the Enlightenment largely bypassed the Eastern world, however. Some scholars today point out that Islamic fundamentalist terrorism reflects a pre-Enlightenment Muslim worldview.)
Presently, the rapid advance of technology-enabled knowledge in the 21st century has elevated the religion and science debate to an entirely different level. Traditional religious belief, broadly-speaking, limits life to planet Earth. This ancient belief yet enshrined in much of modern human consciousness, however, is now challenged by a vastly more expansive view of life itself.
So confident is NASA in the data now being mined from the universe that last year the space agency announced that extraterrestrial life will likely be discovered within the next twenty years, thanks to technological advances in the field of astrobiology. Some astrobiologists are convinced that technology will enable us to identity intelligent extraterrestrial life by about 2040. Such “life” will likely be in the form of advanced robots whose intelligence is far superior to ours, according to some astrobiologists and philosophers.
In short, not only is the definition of life expanding due to new discoveries on planet Earth, but somewhere among the estimated 40 billion Milky Way planets potentially capable of harboring life are, almost certainly, other intelligent beings. So assured is NASA of life beyond Earth that in September 2014 the space agency and the Library of Congress hosted an astrobiology symposium entitled, “Preparing for Discovery: A Rational Approach to the Impact of Finding Microbial, Complex, or Intelligent Life Beyond Earth.” Philosophers and theologians were well-represented among the participants from around the globe. The goal of the symposium was to begin preparing the public “for what the implications might be when such a discovery [of extraterrestrial life] is made.”
The seemingly impending discovery of life, and quite possibly intelligent beings, beyond planet Earth raises big questions about life and the cosmos. Religion, including Christianity, has a history of trying to discredit new discoveries that contravene traditional religious beliefs. NASA is already engaging theologians in conversations regarding the implications of life beyond Earth. Many persons reading this essay will almost certainly live to witness the discovery of extraterrestrial life. In the coming decades, how will Christian communities and individual Christians greet news of life beyond Earth?
In conclusion, here are a few questions for congregations to ponder:
- How might Christianity re-imagine the relationship between faith and science in the decades to come?
- How might technologically-immersed, scientifically-driven younger generations help Christianity (and other religions) move beyond the limitations that scriptural literalists place upon knowledge?
- How might theologians prepare new generations of believers for future paradigms of life?
- How might Christianity image God within the context of life beyond Earth that includes intelligent beings?
With these words, Walter Rauschenbusch, the renowned Baptist pastor-theologian from Hell’s Kitchen, N.Y., and father of the Social Gospel Movement, began a series of articles 110 years ago articulating why he chose to be a Baptist.
“There is no use in denying that our family relations and the training of our childhood exert a very strong influence on all of us,” Rauschenbusch wrote in the prelude installment of his “Why I am a Baptist” series in November 1905.
I resonate with Rauschenbusch’s opening line. My dad is a Baptist minister (uncle and late grandfather too). While I didn’t follow exactly in my dad’s footsteps (I’m not ordained), I did catch his love for the Baptist heritage and Baptist higher education — my Baylor diplomas attest to this. Who can deny that the influence of family is often a real shaper of one’s faith identity?
“We are Americans by birth, but we must become Baptists by conviction,” Rauschenbusch continued. “And no person is a true Baptist until his inherited tendency has been transformed into conscious purpose. In a big freight yard you can watch a locomotive distributing a freight train over the various sidings. It will bunt a car along and let it roll along by itself. The car moves, but it moves by the power of inertia. It has no living energy in it. By and by it will slow up and stop.”
“No Baptist boy or girl ought to grow up to resemble that car,” Rauschenbusch added. “They must develop their own Baptist convictions and run under their own steam. They have inherited a great legacy of truth. …I began by being a Baptist because my father was, but today I am a Baptist, because, with my convictions, I could not well be anything else.”
This is a powerful truth. It’s a simple statement that reminds us that for faith to be authentic it must be free. Authentic faith can’t be passed down from generation to generation. The “experiential” faith that has characterized the Baptist tradition is free and voluntary. The inner experience that sparks the formation of one’s convictions, to quote Rauschenbusch, “has to be free and spontaneous.”
Realizing this truth some years back confirmed for me my place in the Baptist family. This truth — that faith must be free — led me to find a home in the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. I identify with CBF because the Fellowship professes its commitment to an unfettered conscience and an uncoerced faith, to be the presence of Christ in the world as free and faithful Baptists.
At its birthing nearly 25 years ago, CBF leaders publicly committed the Fellowship movement to a series of Baptist principles: soul freedom, Bible freedom, church freedom and religious freedom. With these principles, the Fellowship was founded on affirmations of the freedom and responsibility of every person to relate directly to God without imposition of creed or control of clergy or government, the freedom and right of every Christian to interpret and apply scripture under the leadership of the Holy Spirit, the autonomy of every local church, and the freedom of religion and its essential corollary, the separation of church and state.
As a Baptist by conviction, this freedom identity of CBF is compelling. It’s an identity that has defined the Baptist tradition at its best over the past 400 years. It’s an identity that we see embodied in the lives of Baptist giants from Thomas Helwys to Roger Williams to Lott Carey to Muriel Lester to Barbara Jordan to Jitsuo Morikawa to Carolyn Crumpler. It’s an identity that calls us to be advocates in society, to seek peace and justice in our communities. It’s an identity that encourages ecumenism and togetherness. It’s an identity that requests respect for differing viewpoints — rejecting orthodoxies found on the left and right that demand conformity and rely on coercion. It’s an identity that aims to show what unity in the midst of diversity looks like.
I am a Baptist, because, with my convictions, I could not well be anything else. I find myself at home with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship because it is a fellowship that seeks to live fully into this all-important commitment to authentic faith and a freedom identity.
Theme: “Seeking Justice: Baptists, Nashville and Civil Rights”
The Baptist History and Heritage Society is pleased to partner with American Baptist College and First Baptist Church Capitol Hill for our 2015 annual society conference.
Conference speakers, presenters and panelists will focus on the theme of “Seeking Justice,” with significant attention focused on Nashville Baptists’ contributions to the Civil Rights movement.
Program personalities include Dr. Forrest E. Harris, President of American Baptist College, Nashville; Rev. Dr. Kelly Miller Smith, Pastor of First Baptist Church Capitol Hill, Nashville; Dr. Robert M. Franklin, Professor of Moral Leadership, Emory University; Dr. Bobby Lovett, Retired historian, Tennessee State University; Dr. Pamela Smoot, Professor of African American History, Southern Illinois University, and BH&HS Vice President; Rev. Bonnie Oliver Brandon, ordained minister, National Baptist curriculum writer, Memphis, Tennessee and Secretary and Conference Coordinator, Baptist History and Heritage Society.
An outline of the full conference program is available online here.
Some conference breakout sessions will include a focus on the Nashville story of Civil Rights. Others will examine the history of social justice, and current social justice issues, in other communities and/or states.
Approximately 30 breakout papers are anticipated.
Nashville Civil Rights Tour
The conference will include an afternoon tour of Civil Rights sites and/or repositories in Nashville.
Fellowship of Baptist Historians Dinner
Immediately prior to the conference’s opening on Monday night, the Southern Baptist Historical Library and Archives will host the annual Fellowship of Baptist HIstorians Dinner.
The guest speaker for the dinner will be Dr. Ed Crowther, Adams State University.
Travel and Lodging Information
Online registration will open in late January via the BH&HS website.
We hope to see you in Nashville in April.
Historian and author John Ragosta penned an excellent essay this month in honor of Religious Freedom Day, noting the contributions of Baptists in securing religious liberty for all and church state separation in America.
February is Martha Stearns Marshall Month of Preaching. Since 2007, Baptist Women in Ministry has invited Baptist churches to participate in Martha Stearns Marshall Month of Preaching by having a woman preach during the month of February. This annual event has been a deeply significant source of joy and discovery for many women and churches. Your church is invited to participate.
The Center for Congregational Health is celebrating the new year with New Beginnings. Learn about new ways that the CCH can contribute to the healthy lifespan of both congregations and ministers, including how congregations can enhance their vibrancy in the community as the very real presence of Christ.
March 19-20, 2015 — Cooperative Baptist Fellowship North Carolina General Assembly, Providence Baptist Church, Charlotte. Theme: “Transforming Together.” More information.
April 7-8, 2015 — 2015 Walter B. and Kay W. Shurden Lectures on Religious Liberty and Separation of Church and State, Mercer University, Macon and Atlanta, Georgia. Guest Speaker: Alan Brownstein, professor at the University of California, Davis, School of Law. More information.
April 20-22, 2015 — Annual conference of the Baptist History and Heritage Society. Location: Nashville, Tennessee. Hosts: National Baptists – American Baptist College and First Baptist Church, Capitol Hill Theme: “Seeking Justice: Baptists, Nashville, and Civil Rights.” More information.
June 15-19, 2015 — Annual national Cooperative Baptist Fellowship General Assembly, Dallas, Texas. More information.
July 13-18, 2015 — Nurturing Faith Experience: Glacier, Montana. Adventure and Inspiration. More information.
July 22-26, 2015 — 21st Baptist World Alliance Congress, Durban, South Africa. Theme: “Jesus Christ, the Door.” More information.
September 28-October 2, 2015 — Nurturing Faith Experience: Coastal Georgia. Adventure and Inspiration. Featuring theologian John Franke. More information.