Christopher Smith is social-distancing on Venus
Just when I thought that 2020 had given all the hilarity it could possibly offer, I found my eye drawn to a headline declaring, ‘Signs of alien life detected on Venus’. Ah, yes, of course. ‘Microbes unlike any life on Earth could be thriving high in the clouds of Venus, according to a new discovery by astronomers.’
It did at least spark a jolly debate with my colleague about the likelihood of the existence of life on other planets, of whose existence Fr Eddie is, on theological grounds, unconvinced. The Sky News report wasn’t entirely convinced either, I felt, evidenced by the word ‘could’. Here it is again: ‘Scientists have discovered a rare molecule in the clouds of Venus, which suggests colonies of living microbes could be thriving in the oxygen-free environment high in the planet’s atmosphere.’
I amused myself by wondering whether this new life-form was being required to refrain from mingling in groups of more than six at the moment, but I suppose that merely illustrates my current internal hysteria. Yet stories about life on other planets do throw up important questions about the human condition. I often think of the science-fiction trilogy by C.S. Lewis, with its voyages to Mars and Venus, imagining worlds beyond our own where there has been no fall, where there is no word for ‘evil’, and where it would not enter anyone’s mind to do something they knew to be against the will of God. It’s a useful scenario to help us think about original sin: what if the fall had never happened? No Babel, perhaps, so that we would all understand each other. No predation? Certainly no war.
Some grown-up thinking about original sin might help to keep interplanetary matters in perspective, and plenty has been done. We might start with the Letter to the Hebrews, whose author begins by placing Jesus in the context not of men but of angels. He uses texts from the Psalms to show how Jesus is not an angel, but is in fact higher than the angels, and makes the point that redemption has been brought about not by an angel, but by Christ.
And so it is revealed to us that the consequence God endures as a result of creating even angels is that some of them rebel. The angels have free will, like us, and some of them rebel. There is war in heaven, and there is a fall in the cosmos. And man, instead of resisting that cosmic fall, eats the fruit of the forbidden tree, and falls too. Now we know evil as well as good, and a god who didn’t unconditionally love his creation might have left it stewing in its own juice. For the first time, the material part of the universe had contravened God’s will for it. Eric Mascall said that the first sin was like a crack in a vase: ‘Like a microscopic crack in a china vase, it initiated a process of disintegration and corruption whose consequences spread far beyond the area of their origin’. And the crack leads to a breaking of unity, of Adam’s unity with God, of our unity with God and of our unity with each other. People not only turn their backs on God, but are unable to live at one with each other.
But something remarkable happens, and it can happen because even sin cannot destroy our relationship with our creator. ‘Those who deny thee’, chant the chorus in T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral, ‘could not deny, if thou didst not exist; and their denial is never complete, for if it were so, they would not exist.’ ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life’, writes S John.
It’s worth keeping in mind, then, that Christianity is not a rule-book, a systematic answer for every question about how we might live, or a set of statements about the nature of ultimate reality. First and foremost, it is the announcement of what God has done and continues to do in Jesus Christ. At one special moment in time, God cut into the process of human history in an act of unique and decisive significance. We inevitably comprehend it back-to-front: we work out that God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit from what we know about Jesus and the consequences of the Incarnation; in fact, God the Holy Trinity takes the initiative in sending the Second Person of that Trinity to unite himself with human nature in the womb of a Virgin.
And so we come to understand that the course of history is not, as the pagan world believed and believes it to be, ‘an endless series of cyclic processes, an infinite sequence of civilisations, cultures and individuals… without any ultimate purpose or any real meaning’. It is very tempting to embrace that idea of cycles: the Babylonians have come and gone, the Egyptians, the Chinese, the Greco/Roman world, and so on, and wasn’t Western Christendom fabulous while it lasted, but, like any other civilisation, it’s now in decline. Life is just one damned thing after another.
But if such a cycle were ever real, the Incarnation has exploded it, as God’s answer to the Fall. We call it Redemption. And it is not a sticking-plaster fix of a problem unanticipated by God. It is the fulfilment of a promise that is built into creation itself. It is the event which opens up for us the invitation to be united with God through the human nature of Jesus Christ. And if there is such a thing as ‘post-Christian’ history, it is the as yet unfinished story of the incorporation of human beings as individuals into the manhood of Christ through the Body of Christ which is his Church. Venus will have to wait.