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William Brown
Columbia Theological Seminary


From Text to Table: A Hermeneutical Adventure

I have always been enthralled with what I call the “Cosmic Paradox,” namely that the cosmos is marked by plentitude and constraint. The universe, on the one hand, reflects creative abundance with its rich population of solar systems and galaxies and, on the other, is characterized by insurmountable physical limitations, given the great distances that prevent close interstellar contact with life beyond Earth, particularly beyond our solar system. Into that paradox enters the emerging field of astrobiology. As more exoplanets are discovered, the universe seems to be becoming alive, potentially so, with each new discovery. When extra-terrestrial life is discovered, even if it is merely microbial in form, profound questions arise. Is life on earth all that special? As biological evolution has been (falsely) considered a threat to humankind’s dignity, does the discovery of extra-terrestrial life erode the specialness of terrestrial life? Theologically, if God’s providential care is discerned to be at work elsewhere in the universe, does that detract from God’s work here on earth? Astrobiology also raises the fundamental question of what constitutes life. Does it have the potential of expanding or revising the definition of life as we know it (DNA-based)? Finally, the discipline of astrobiology will compel me, a biblical scholar, to interpret with greater appreciation the lesser-known creation traditions that extend the dignity of life to all creatures (e.g., Job 38-41; Psalms 104; 148). It will also provide a new lens to the hermeneutical task of interpreting more well-known creation traditions (Genesis 1-3). Perhaps the greatest question posed by astrobiology is whether or not humanity will be able to discern any sort of connection to life beyond Earth. In either case, the implications will be enormous.

William P. Brown is William Marcellus McPheeters Professor of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary. Brown has abiding interests in the use of Scripture in the life of the church and in contemporary theological discourse. Some of his specific interests include Psalms, wisdom literature, Genesis, and creation theology. His Ph.D. is from Emory University and his M.Div. from Princeton Theological Seminary.  He was a Henry Luce III Fellow in Theology in 2007-08, and his research was published in 2010 by Oxford University Press as The Seven Pillars of Creation: The Bible, Science, and the Ecology of Wonder. His most recent books are Wisdom’s Wonder: Character, Crisis, and Creation in the Bible’s Wisdom Literature (Eerdmans), the edited volume Oxford Handbook to the Psalms (Oxford), and Sacred Sense: Discovering the Wonder of God’s Word and World (Eerdmans).