Part of the Hubble Deep Field; every speck of light here is an entire galaxy. Copyright NASA.
Space is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly hugely mindbogglingly big it is. I mean you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist, but that’s just peanuts to space. – Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
The Bible includes many claims that are difficult to believe–talking animals, a worldwide flood, divine appearances, and of course the resurrection–but Paul’s claim that “creation waits with eager longing for the revelation of the children of God” (Romans 8:18-23) must rank fairly high. Perhaps that made sense to those who believed “the heavens” were a hard dome overhanging the earth, but what about today?
People have always recognized the universe is big, but we now know that “big” does not even come close to doing it justice. In truth, the universe is so unimaginably vast that nothing in our experience can even provide a suitable analogy. You could imagine the whole earth were the size of an atom (but can you really imagine how small an atom is?) and the universe would still be bigger by comparison than anything can see.
Remember the famous image of Earth as a “pale, blue dot”? This picture was only taken from the edge of our own solar system, and our sun is just one of more than a hundred billion stars in our galaxy alone. How many is a hundred billion? If you started counting stars today, one per second, it would take you three thousand years to finish our one galaxy. Imagine how long it would take to visit all those, much less the uncountable multitudes of other such galaxies that we know must exist. The idea that the inhabitants of this one tiny speck could have a central role in such universe is, on the face of it, patently absurd.
Stargate Universe well illustrates the problem (watch it on Hulu). The show follows a group of people who have been transported to an ancient starship hurtling through the far reaches of the universe, “several billion light years from home.” The ship, called The Destiny, has been travelling faster than light for hundreds of thousands of years to get this far, yet even its fantastically long voyage has only brought the ship through an infinitesimal portion of the universe as a whole. You could imagine its entire journey as a single thread dropped into the Pacific, and you would barely approach the vastness of space though which it has traveled. The point should be clear: humanity could spend millions if not billions of years colonizing the stars, and we would still fall far short of visiting–much less remaking–the whole of creation.
Of course, Paul was certainly not thinking of converting aliens in distant galaxies when he wrote of creation awaiting “the revealing of the children of God,” but that doesn’t really solve the problem of the incarnation in such an unimaginably vast universe. Paul’s point was that God’s coming in Christ–and the gift of God’s spirit–had fundamentally changed the game–the universe as a whole is different this side of the incarnation. That Paul didn’t realize how small a part of the universe the Earth actually occupies doesn’t make his claim any easier to swallow. Whether he realized it or not, there is simply no way we have the ability–in ourselves–to play such a central role in the cosmos.
Then again, the biblical authors were hardly unaware of the absurdity of humanity’s place in the universe, even if they would not have described it in the same terms we do. After all, it wasn’t as though we needed to learn about distant galaxies to realize that, in the grand scheme of things, humanity is a small thing. As the Psalmist put it:
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established, what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? (Psalm 8:3-4)
In other words, the significance of humanity relative to the rest of the cosmos–if we have one–rests not on humanity’s inherent prominence or abilities, but solely on the grace of God. Nor is it so absurd that a small or rare thing could have such significance. Children are common but invaluable; diamonds are valued precisely because they are rare.
On the one hand, if intelligent life is unique to earth after all, then our small size relative to the whole is totally inconsequential. If, on the other hand, humanity is but one among many races of thinking beings spread across the universe, then things are more complicated, but until we actually go out and see for ourselves what those others are like–or if they even exist–we cannot really know whether our religious conceptions will stand up to the encounter, or only be revealed as wild hubris. But we can speculate, and perhaps no mainstream science fiction has gone further with such speculation than the Stargate franchise.
Stargate, admittedly, has not always been friendly to religion. The basic premise is that the ancient gods were actually highly advanced aliens who transplanted humanity across the galaxy (if not the universe). A major theme of the first Stargate series (SG1) was the attempt to free the galaxy from slavery to these “false gods” and their armies of brainwashed followers. Still, the idea that humanity might not be restricted to Earth does suggest a broader significance that is explored in a variety of ways in the first two series. As the story progresses, humans from Earth are indeed instrumental in saving the peoples of several galaxies, human and non-human alike.
As far as Christianity itself is concerned, the previous series have been notably ambivalent, as seen especially in season 3 episode Demons and in the transparent caricatures of fundamentalist Christianity in the season 8 episode Icon and the Origin story-line in the final two seasons. Stargate Universe, however, has so far taken a much more positive approach.
For instance, the two most recent episodes, titled Darkness and Light, include characters praying the 23rd Psalm and the Lord’s Prayer at key points in the narrative and embody a fairly clear, if symbolic, death and resurrection story-arc. Like Battlestar Galactica (to which it owes a great deal), SGU clearly recognizes that religion will not simply disappear as technology advances and new frontiers are opened, and its effects need not be negative. Also like BSG–and rather unlike previous incarnations of Stargate–our heroes here are broken people, variously prideful, needy or both, and as much in need of enlightenment as they are likely to bring it to the superstitious masses. In other words, they are just like us: clinging to their religious heritage, and interpreting their experiences in its light, no matter how far from home they get, not because they have it all figured out, but because it is the best they know.
The more interesting question is whether their religious conceptions have any merit beyond psychological comfort, and here again SGU is more like BSG than previous incarnations of Stargate. This was particularly seen in the third part of the Pilot, titled Air (spoilers follow). When the ancient ship’s life support system begins to fail, the crew is forced to travel to a desert planet in search of materials necessary to fix it. The episode is positively dripping with Christian imagery, highlighted by several flashbacks of one character’s own history with the Christian church.
First, there is the fact that they must go into the desert–a symbol of death–to seek life, and while there they repeatedly test the sand with a red chemical that looks like blood, each time pouring it out onto the ground. The symbolism later becomes literal as a few of the team give up hope and decide to try a different planet that The Destiny had warned them against. Two people go through, and are never heard from again, but a third is prevented from going when the others shoot him–spilling his blood but ultimately saving his life. At the climax of the episode, another man is on the verge of death when he sees a vision of a crucifix standing over the very spot he had been searching for, then collapses into a dream. He is a teenager, confessing his sin to a priest, who assures him: “We have redemption through his blood.”
If this symbolism were not enough, the episode supplements it with a second set of imagery involving water. They travel to this planet through a portal that looks like a pool of water, and at the end of the episode one character holds the portal open by sticking part of his body into it, knowing it could close at any moment and kill him. He does this to buy his friends enough time to escape themselves, before all three pass through the waters to life. Nor was this act of self-sacrifice the first instance of baptismal imagery in the episode. Dehydrated and dying, the same man who saw the crucifix also meets an apparently sentient whirlwind, which offers him water in the desert, reviving him and revealing the material they need to fix their life support system. Here again is biblical imagery: The whirlwind symbolizes the Spirit of God, which is associated with revelation and new life in a variety of biblical texts. Isaiah speaks of the Spirit bringing forth springs in the desert; John says “the spirit blows where it wills”; God addressed Job from the whirlwind.
In the end, like the rag-tag crew of The Destiny we do not know what sort of beings might live in the far reaches of the universe–was that intelligent whirlwind truly God’s Spirit, or a previously unknown form of embodied life, or perhaps even God working though such an alien being?–but it appears that even out there God’s presence can still be felt, redemption is still on offer, humanity still has a grander Destiny, even if we do not yet know where it is taking us.