Theologian Michael Waltemathe Suggests Reinterpreting Scripture to Allow For Space Exploration


After Apollo 11 landed on the moon, while the world observed a moment of silence and before Neil Armstrong stepped on the lunar surface, Buzz Aldrin pulled out a plastic bag, removed wine and a piece of bread, and began to read from John 15:5. The first meal on the moon was communion.

Aldrin wanted his communion service broadcast live, but NASA denied the request after atheists sued over the crew of Apollo 8 reading the first 10 verses of Genesis on national television. (The Supreme Court refused the case on the grounds that they lacked jurisdiction in lunar orbit). In the successive Apollo missions, astronauts would bring microfiche Bible pages and finally, a red leather -bound Bible that more than 40 years later still sits atop a rover.

As theologian Michael Waltemathe argued at the Hall of Philosophy Thursday afternoon, space flight has always been a religious experience and necessarily produces theological questions. And as humanity continues its search into the cosmos and perhaps colonizes distant worlds, Waltemathe said, those theological questions will only grow in importance and complexity.

“Religious authorities will support space exploration for as long as it is possible to adapt their respective religious rules to the environment,” said Waltemathe, author of Touching the Face of the Cosmos: On the Intersection of Space Travel and Religion. “That is easy on Earth’s orbit where returning to Earth is the goal, but what happens if this is not the case?”

Up until now, the religious questions spaceflight invoked have been readily solvable, Waltemathe said. Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon had kosher food delivered to the International Space Station and observed the Sabbath according to Earth’s calendar (because the ISS orbits the Earth every 90 minutes, following its calendar would result in 2.4 sabbaths per Earth day). Similarly, Muslim leaders have ruled that astronauts can pray five times per Earth day rather than ISS day and, rather than playing in direction of Mecca, can simply pray with the intention of reaching Mecca.

The true ethical and theological quandaries come when pondering deeper missions, Waltemathe said: missions that could be one-way. Possible projects include sending people on one-way missions to Mars, sending zygotes and artificial wombs to exoplanets, and sending entire populations into space. Is it ethical to send people on a space mission knowing they will never return? If God made Earth as the center of civilization, is it religiously acceptable to put life on other planets?

Some religions have already begun to confront those dilemmas, Waltemathe said. When the Dutch not-for-profit Mars One asked for volunteers ages 65 and older for a hypothetical one-way flight to Mars (they received more than 200,000), the General Authority of Islamic Affairs and Endowments issued a fatwa against the mission. It argued the mission was akin to suicide because the astronauts were destined to die on Mars and also said people may misguidedly use it to escape Allah’s judgment. Waltemathe, though, isn’t buying it.

“The argument, that the risk of dying on Mars is 100 percent, is true,” Waltemathe said. “[But] sadly, we have yet to see a case where ordinary humans — except for Elijah — have lesser risk of dying on Earth.”

Instead, Waltemathe interprets fatwa as part of a broader theological argument that humanity’s place is on Earth, but God rules throughout the universe. The argument, Waltemathe said, stems from a literal interpretation of Scripture, which makes no mention of life outside of this planet.

But Waltemathe is a believer in not just the scientific but also the spiritual importance of space exploration, and he developed theological rebuttals against the fatwa and similar Christian arguments that because humanity was expelled from the Garden of Eden into this world, they should remain in this world.

For one, theologians could interpret God’s commandment to Abraham to “count the stars” as meaning to explore them, Waltemathe said. One could also argue that the world humanity was cast into included the whole universe, Waltemathe said. After all, he said, the concept of the world already changed over the course of the Bible. Between the writing of the creation story and the writing of Paul’s letters, Israelites discovered the Greek and Roman empires.

“The idea of the world between the Letters of the New Testament and Genesis is vastly different, so why not expand on that?” Waltemathe said.

Even if one agrees in theory that interstellar space flight is acceptable, the specifics of each proposal are still theologically and ethically problematic, Waltemathe said. Waltemathe outlined three modes of potential deep space colonization: a sleeper ship, whereby astronauts hibernate through the journey; a seedship, whereby humans send zygotes and artificial wombs to repopulate a habitable planet; and a generation ship, whereby humans send a massive and slow ship containing 5,000 to 50,000 people with the hope that a future generation finds a habitable planet.

Sending unborn humans into potentially inhospitable and depraved conditions without their consent via the seedship is the most theologically pressing, Waltemathe said. He outlined two conventional approaches to that problem: the utilitarian argument, which states that even if those humans suffer at first, successive generations will be happy and that will increase overall “utility” or happiness in the universe. The second is the anti-utilitarian argument, which states that human life is inevitably full of suffering and adding more humans is a net negative.

The worst argument, though, Waltemathe said, was one he recently found that proposed having the ship only start breeding those new humans once radio signals from Earth stopped reaching it, meaning humanity had ended. In that case, the argument goes, the ethics of dooming those unborn children to life on another planet is superseded by the higher ethical value of saving humanity. But, Waltemathe said, that would violate the basic God-given dignity of man, as it would deem their lives only valuable once all others had died.

The generation ship is problematic because parents are sentencing their kids to life outside Earth, Waltemathe said, and astronauts on the sleeper ship will want contact with Earth, which could be impossible or take years.

For his ultimate solution, Waltemathe turned to Scripture. He called for people to reinterpret Genesis 1:28, in which God commands Adam and Eve to take dominion over all creation, so that creation includes both Earth and the cosmos.

“If indeed the heavens declare the glory of God, as the Psalm says, it seems to be our destiny to go out there and try to discover more about the heavens and the divine nature to which they testify,” Waltemathe said.

(Photo by Mike Clark.)

Jason Mast

The author Jason Mast

Jason Mast covers the Interfaith Lecture Series, Mystic Heart Program and Abrahamic Program for Young Adults. Northwestern University class of ’18.