In Theory: Should NASA pull a grant to theologists?

This image obtained from NASA/ESA shows the very heart of the Crab Nebula including the central neutron star. It is the rightmost of the two bright stars near the centre of this image.

This image obtained from NASA/ESA shows the very heart of the Crab Nebula including the central neutron star. It is the rightmost of the two bright stars near the centre of this image.

(ESA/Hubble / HO / AFP/Getty Images)

In 2014, NASA’s astrobiology program gave $1.1 million to the Center of Theological Inquiry, an independent research institution “rooted in Christian theology.”

The grant was for the study of “the societal implications of astrobiology,” according to Religion Dispatches, an online publication of the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

NASA’s Astrobiology Program examines the origins of life on earth, and its research can deal with more abstract, theological questions like “What does it mean to be alive?” and “How would [the discovery of sentient life in other places] change humanity’s sense of our place in the universe?”

In June, more than a year later, the Freedom From Religion Foundation requested NASA, a government agency, withdraw its grant because of CIT’s religious orientation.

Q. Does NASA’s grant have any merit? The writer, Michael Schulson, also poses some interesting questions: “What is the place of theology in the public sphere? Is theology inherently religious?”

The NASA grant does have merit, in my opinion. The concept of theology is probably “religious.” I mean, the word “theology” means “God study.” But isn’t it possible for us to have a broader understanding of what the term “religious” means? Could it not be possible that whether we believe in a deity or not, the word “religious” could connote exactly where each of us fits in the cosmos? Granted, I am a believer, so in that sense I am a “religious” person. But couldn’t someone be “religious” in a broader sense, appreciating the wonder of our vast universe, without specifically believing in God?

When I was in seminary one of my fellow students could not really affirm that God exists, but he definitely believed in beauty, and he could certainly affirm that. I think we should broaden our understanding of the term “religious” and stand in silent awe as we gaze into what appears to be endless space.

The Rev. Skip Lindeman
Former Pastor, La Cañada Congregational Church


“Theology,” as a term, means “god study.” To study something is to examine it, think about it and learn. If scholars think philosophically about our existence in terms of an external force, a personal force called “God” (who is reputedly responsible with the creation of time, space and matter) then I understand how this may be perceived as religious, but “religion,” per se, is all about how one relates to this philosophical being in a subjective way. Christians should understand that religion has no great truth in and of itself, it is simply the active, practical response to what we believe is the ultimate truth; that truth being God and his salvific incarnation as Jesus Christ.

But I’m sure that merely looking at the impact of religion, its influence, its understanding, etc., could be intelligently explored without it being necessarily proselytizing. There are intelligent, scientific, reasonable theories behind theology that deserve attention and should be considered lest science goes deliberately blind “where no man has gone before.” And I tire of the “freedom from religion” folks. They offer nothing in the discussion here. Here is science recognizing that there are implications to whatever direction they pursue with regard to astrobiology and so they make an inquiry to people of faith. The FFR people merely stamp their feet on the sidelines crying “foul.” They have nothing to contribute, no theory beyond just saying “no” to anything religious and “yes” to everything secular. But here is a smart secular institution thinking it wise to discuss theology with the theological, and the FFR was not consulted because, well, it exists only as an eternally lost curmudgeon.

Look, the world is a religious place, and the majority religion on the planet is Christianity. If billions of dollars are going to be sapped from America’s ostensibly religious inhabitants so that NASA can search for Martians (which most of us don’t believe exist) then they would be wise to do such studies with bright Christians and just see what we know, expect to know and how much we want to know. The population could turn negatively toward NASA endeavors as much as positively, and that would affect everything for both sides. So consider the options, understand theological implications and then “boldly go!”

Rev. Bryan A. Griem


I’m probably not the only one who will think instantly of a scene from the movie “Contact,” in which Jodie Foster plays a scientist who had first found evidence of extraterrestrial life, then had to lobby hard to be the person sent to go investigate it. Upon arriving at the far-distant ‘planet’ (or was it a different plane of reality?), she gazes out the window of her craft at the strange and amazing beauty before her, and says in wonder (after all that fighting to be the one to be sent), “We should have sent a poet.”

Likewise, there are great reasons to include theologians among the scholars who are in on the ground-floor discussions of astrobiology’s widest implications. Why overlook the inheritors of centuries’ worth of earthly pondering on the Big Questions of life, those who already have the language and intellectual muscle to engage the many intertwined metaphysical issues which surely will arise?

And like it or not, theologians are high on the list of the world’s top ethicists; and undoubtedly, these discoveries will raise new planet-wide ethical challenges. Human history tells us that without the tempering voices of theologians and ethicists, humanity’s first response to discovering new life will be to exploit and abuse it, perhaps at our own peril.

And who knows, maybe the discoveries of extraterrestrial life will solve some of the conundrums of Earth’s religion — the very nature of creation and ‘creator,’ for instance. Surely discoveries of new life will lead to improved definition of God’s place as source, essence or mid-wife of life in all its forms.

So bring on the theologians, scholar-believers from every major world religion. Include some anthropologists, who also study the core truths of humanness. And it’s not too early to bring in the poets, and artists, and musicians, who are able to express truths for which human language has not yet been invented.

Bottom line: Why, in our exploration of the furthest extents of the cosmos, would we go small on who gets to study it?

The Rev. Amy Pringle
St. George’s Episcopal Church
La Cañada Flintridge