Musings of a Non-Supernaturalist
Although I sometimes say I am an atheist, of course I am technically an agnostic: there is no way to fully know if there is already a God or Gods now, or if it is up to us to build God. Since it is Easter, I wanted to think aloud about what I think it would mean if Jesus was, in fact, resurrected.
Nichole Nordeman has a song on exactly this topic. As background music for these musings, I recomend that you click on the video above of her song “What If?” and continue reading. The video shows the lyrics, but if you want to see the lyrics all at once, they are here. And if you want to see Nichole singing the song live, you can see that here.
A Plausible Miracle. Let me say first that if any of the miracles in the Bible are real, the resurrection of Jesus seems to me one of the most likely. Many of the other miracles mentioned in the Bible are the sort of thing someone might have written in as a matter of literary license. But the resurrection of Jesus seems to have been quite shocking and jarring to those who attested to it, and not something they understood the meaning of at first, even afterwards. And there seems to have been quite a broad consensus in the Christian community–say around 50 AD or 70 AD–that many people then still living claimed to have seen Jesus after he returned from death.
Going a different direction, a return of Jesus from death need not be supernatural. Barring an apocalyptic disaster, it would be surprising indeed if human technology 1000 years from now could not bring someone back from the dead as Jesus was claimed to have done. (Remember that I am leaving aside most of the other claimed miracles, and sticking with Jesus’ resurrection itself, which is what there seems to have been the most witnesses for.) In “Teleotheism and the Purpose of Life” I write
Mormon theology, put into a hard science fiction straightjacket, is reminiscent of the idea that we are watched over by benevolent aliens from an advanced civilization. Not only is this plausible, it is even possible to argue that it is likely. There are a lot of stars in the Galaxy, but even at a fraction of the speed of light, it would take only a small fraction of the time since the Big Bang to get from one end of the Galaxy to another. If evolution often favors intelligence, why couldn’t intelligent life arise several times in our galaxy? If any intelligent life has arisen before us, chances are it arose many, many millions of years before us, simply because it has been billions of years since the Big Bang. So it is not a big stretch to have aliens from an advanced civilization reach Earth. The big issue would be Fermi’s paradox: “Where are they?” “If they are here, why are they hiding themselves from us?” and whether they are benevolent or not. If they are here, they don’t seem to have destroyed us, which is something.
To me these are important religious questions, but science fiction is not always recognized for the serious theological speculation that it often is. A truly open-minded search for God would consider as many possibilities like this as possible, but instead, the focus is usually the much narrower one of whether certain ancient religious texts are true or not. Looked at without preconceptions, and without regard to which will get you laughed at in polite company, which is harder to believe? The possibilities laid out in hard science fiction, or the god of the Bible? By all means, let’s be open-minded about whether God exists or not, but not just about the God of the Bible.
I want to pursue this line of thought, being clear that I am going far afield from orthodox Mormon theology, which sticks much closer to the Bible than I will.
The Story of the Sages. To give the members of the posited advanced alien civilization a name, let me call them the Sages. I want to spin a story–one that is possible, but most likely not to be true, even in outline–simply because of the large number of possibilities that exist given our current ignorance.
The original Sages in this story evolved on a planet circling a star within the Milky Way, and gradually spread through the galaxy at sublight speeds over the course of hundreds of millions of years. As part of an almost universal precondition for being a long-lasting advanced civilization (with a few exceptions scattered here and there in the universe, far, far away), the original Sages have developed profound principles of nonviolence and love among themselves. What is more, by human lights, they are mostly what we would call “good,” though they have certain motivations that would seem quite alien to humans–so alien that I personally do not have the eloquence to describe those alien motivations.
The original Sages put a great value on other intelligent species. When they encounter another intelligent species, it is their practice to bring a critical mass of members of that species immediately into their galactic civilization–so much so that the designation “Sages” has been extended to members of many species who have taken on the values of this galactic civilization.
Although a critical mass of members of each intelligent species is brought into full knowledge of the galactic civilization of the Sages, most of those on a planet such as Earth are left in place because the development of a genuinely native high-level culture for that species is seen as precious. (Of course, there is a limit to how long those on a species’ home planet can effectively be kept in the dark about the galactic civilization, and humans in the 21st century are beginning to approach that limit.) Waiting for native cultural development requires enormous patience on the part of the Sages, but the need for patience is nothing new for a galactic civilization limited to sublight speeds, and there are many other interesting pursuits for the Sages besides their dealings with the home planets of intelligent species. It is not as if this is the main thing they are doing, but many of their other pursuits are difficult to describe.
To the Sages, within their interest in native cultural development, one of the most important aspects of high-level culture is religion. But here the Sages face a dilemma. On the one hand the Sages want those members of each species who were reserved in ignorance on that species’ home planet to develop religions that are (a) genuinely native to the extent possible, since that will serve that species’ needs and foster that species’ potential best. But on the other hand, at the end of the day, the Sages want the species to come to a set of religions that (b) are in accord with the truth of how the Universe works (which from the standpoint of the vast knowledge of the Sages is nonsupernatural) and © promote nonviolence and love (since a species that had not embraced nonviolence and love would be a danger to the galactic civilization).
Given the objective of encouraging the development of religions that are as close as possibly to being genuinely native to a species, while being in accord with truth, peace and love, the Sages typically end up intervening in the religious development of a species, but sparingly. They do not routinely do anything in the open that is so technologically advanced that it would be viewed as a miracle, but they do so when necessary for the appropriate intervention in the religious development of that species. The interaction of the Sages with Jesus, including his resurrection, was in this story one of the few times the Sages intervened in an openly technologically advanced way that would be viewed as miraculous by humans on their home world, Earth.
As I wrote in “The Teleotheistic Achievement of the New Testament,” the overall effect of Jesus and those he is said to have interacted with after his resurrection (including Saul of Tarsus) did a lot to push the development of religion on Earth toward a greater emphasis on nonviolence and love. And Rodney Stark argues in a series of excellent books that Christianity has helped to foster rationality and science as well. Other religions have also contributed a great deal to the positive arc of human history, but few of them required a seeming miracle as big as the resurrection of Jesus to accomplish what they did. (Here I am leaving aside miracles from earlier times that are less convincingly attested than Jesus’ resurrection, which itself is uncertain.)
Making Our Own Story of the Sages. Let me step back now from the story of the Sages. I want to argue that if the story of the Sages is not true, that we should strive to make our own version of it true. If we are the first advanced civilization to arise in our galaxy, we can strive to be exactly like the Sages in the story. If other advanced civilizations hem us in some way, we should do the best we can. One way or another, we should try to make our home planet, Earth, and the galaxy beyond, a place of peace, wonder, truth, brilliance and love.
In the words of her song, Nichole Nordeman contrasts a miraculous resurrection to the best that can be said if there were no miracles for Jesus. But if Jesus did not come back from the dead–either through supernatural means or through the intervention of alien Sages–I see a far greater accomplishment than Nichole sees in Jesus being “another nice guy,” in the deepest sense. And to the song’s question
What if he takes his place in history
With all the prophets and the kings
Who taught us love and came in peace
But then the story ends [without his rising from the dead]
I say I see grandeur, since Jesus helped to put us on the path to a future for our species that can change the galaxy for the better–if we keep onward and upward in our embrace of all that is good.