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Thinking theologically about the inevitable death of our home planet

Milky-way

There are two creation stories in the book of Genesis (they don't exactly agree). In both cases it's clear that God is in charge and is bringing the world, including Earth, into existence as an act of will and love.

Black-holePart of the liturgy at an Episcopal funeral I attended recently put it this way: "From before time you made ready the creation. Your Spirit moved over the deep and brought all things into being: sun, moon and stars; earth, winds and waters; and every living thing. You made us in your image, and taught us to walk in your ways. . ."

Many other faith traditions offer a similar story -- and almost every culture has some kind of creation story. I especially like some rooted in Native American spirituality.

Well, the cosmos now is about 13.8 billion years old, scientists say. This estimate, of course, differs wildly from what Young Earth Creationists contend. According to them (they read the Bible literally, not seriously), Earth was created just 6,000 to 10,000 years ago. But you can set aside such silliness. The best scientific evidence is that Earth is about 4.6 billion years old.

The question raised by either age estimate, however, is the same: How long will Earth last? (And rest assured that even Jesus said the answer is not "forever." Here's what he said in Matthew 24:35: "Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away." Wait. Even "heaven" will pass away? So eternal life isn't exactly eternal? Let's get some help with such questions. Moving on.)

A good deal of the answer to the question of the timing of the demise of our planet depends on how long our sun will last (and even on how we humans treat our planet home). Those are good questions to think about in light of the recent first photo (seen above here) of a supermassive black hole at the center of our Milky Way Galaxy (pictured at the top of this post). Whatever falls into a black hole never escapes, by the way.

In his new book, The Universe: A Biography, British astronomer Paul Murdin outlines what scientists currently know or, on the basis of evidence, conjecture about the future of the sun and the Earth. It's not a happy story.

First, the sun "will warm and brighten" until it "will be at its hottest 2.55 billion years from now." All that heat "will cause the Earth to bake, at about the same time that it loses its magnetospheric defense against solar cosmic radiation. It's hard to see that life could continue on our planet."

Murdin warns of further upcoming dissolution and chaos from that point on that take a few billion more years until he describes the Earth this way: "Baked, dried, crumbled, engulfed, vaporized in the atmosphere of a fading star: the likely future of our fragile planet is a progressive path through successive stages of destruction on the way to oblivion."

The challenge for people of faith is to wonder whether this violent, sad ending is what God had in mind from the beginning. Or is there a divine plan to mitigate what scientists now believe is inevitable?

Murdin is willing to acknowledge that such speculation isn't worthless. He notes that some people postulate that creation "may have been organized by a powerful, beneficent being, who created the Universe for us. This is logically possible and is an argument that appeals to theologians because it provides a scientific context for the First Cause."

He also suggests that perhaps the idea of a "Multiverse" offers "a possible escape route from the rather pessimistic conclusion" he described above (in bold letters). We yet don't know much about all that, however, though theoretical physicists and others are exploring the idea.

So why should we -- apparently several billion years from Earth's demise -- worry about all of this? Well, if God is a loving creator, what does such a dark, predicted end of life on Earth say about that God? How does our theology account for such end-times thinking? As a Christian, I don't have any clear answer to that question, but I do have the conviction that death -- even of a planet, a solar system, a galaxy, a cosmos -- is not necessarily the end of the story. And I have the conviction that, in the end, God somehow intends to redeem the whole creation, as the former Anglican bishop of Durham, New Testament scholar N.T. Wright, reminds us in his writings again and again.

What Wright describes, however, is faith, not science. But if we ignore science, the theological questions with which we should wrestle are not nearly as deep and significant. And why would we want to worry about shallow, meaningless things?

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THE MASSIVE SOUTHERN BAPTIST SEX ABUSE SCANDAL WAS PREVENTABLE 

The devastating report released this week about sexual abuse in the Southern Baptist Convention confirmed what many already knew: the denomination's leadership and culture did very much what Catholic leadership originally tried to do with its own abuse scandal -- hide it, prevaricate about it and treat the victims with contempt.

As former SBC leader Russell Moore, who had demanded this independent report before he left the denomination, fed up with its obstinacy on this subject, put it in this response to the report's release: "The investigation uncovers a reality far more evil and systemic than I imagined it could be. The conclusions of the report are so massive as to almost defy summation. It corroborates and details charges of deception, stonewalling and intimidation of victims and those calling for reform." Moore's conclusion: "I cannot help but wonder what else this can be called but a criminal conspiracy."

You can get access to the full report and its two appendices here.

As the RNS story to which I've linked you in the first paragraph says, the new report, done by a company called Guidepost Solutions, "reveals a callous disregard for abuse survivors and a relentless commitment to protecting the denomination from liability. Guidepost Solutions found that SBC leaders were well aware of abuse cases in the church and even compiled a list of offenders but took no steps to find out if alleged abusers remained in ministry, instead focusing on protecting the SBC from liability."

Here, by the way, is the story about this report published by Baptist Press.

And here is a piece in The Atlantic by staff writer David French, who broadens the view to see a problem much larger what is contained in the new report about the Southern Baptist scandal. He writes: "I highlight reports of abuse in the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, in one of its largest Christian camps, in one of its largest Christian universities and in its most prominent apologetics ministry because it is past time to recognize that the culture of American evangelicalism is broken at a fundamental level. How many times must evangelicals watch powerful institutions promote and protect sexual predators before we acknowledge the obvious crisis?"

Oh, and thanks again to the Houston Chronicle, which in 2019 ran this series of articles pointing out that 380 pastors affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention had been accused of sexual abuse. That finally brought this scandal to light.

So once again we find religious leaders damaging not only their own brand but doing serious injury to religion generally by failing to practice what they preach. Maybe all of these abuse scandals in religion will be forgotten by the time the Earth reaches the inevitable stage of oblivion, but forgetting about them or ignoring them now isn't the answer.

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P.S.: Rosemary Radford Reuther, an early leader in feminist theology, died this week at age 85. Here is an NPR story that includes an interview with her from a few years ago about her career. She led the way for lots of people. And from the National Catholic Reporter, here is an appreciation of her life and work.

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