I recently listened to an episode of the National Public Radio program, This American Life, in which a couple of commentators discussed the Fermi Paradox. One of them said that the lack of an answer to the Fermi question, “Where is everybody?” made him sad.
For those of you who, like me, were unaware or had forgotten about the Fermi Paradox, it’s the question raised by physicist Enrico Fermi (1901-1954): If there’s such a high likelihood of life on other planets, why haven’t we found the evidence?
The commentator said he imagines the vast emptiness of the universe and feels lonely. He acknowledges that this is an esoteric feeling that few people, even astrophysicists, would take seriously. But the commentator said he genuinely felt that loneliness and I don’t doubt it because I believe those kinds of feelings are common, though not, perhaps, in the context of the Fermi Paradox.
Loneliness and alienation are pervasive, according to social scientists. Even for many believers, the universe – including their own lives – seems empty, cold and lonely.
What was missing from the broadcast, which lasted at least a half hour, was any mention of God. Granted the program was about science, not religion, but it seemed odd to me that the commentator didn’t at least say something like, “Of course, many people believe that we’re not alone in the sense that God is everywhere, even in ‘empty’ space.”
After all, 89 percent of Americans say they believe in God, according to a 2016 Gallup poll.
Just to be clear, the Fermi Paradox – as I understand it – is more a question than a statement of fact. So far, humans have detected no signs of life, let alone intelligent life, anywhere else in the universe even though conditions may be right for life on many other planets. That doesn’t mean, of course, that they won’t eventually be found.
What does all this have to do with the search for God?
Spurts and Sputters
My wife and I recently taught a 16-hour course on the Old Testament, also called the Hebrew Bible, to a large group of Hispanic Catholics. As I became immersed in the project I was struck by the theme that permeates the OT’s 46 books (in Catholic Bibles): God reaches out to humans, who respond in spurts and sputters, not at all, or with glaring hostility.
Old Testament characters, including the “Patriarchs,” Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, are often half-hearted; the great kings, like Saul, David and Solomon, alternate between faithfulness and betrayal; many of the prophets are loathe to carry out their duties and others are fakes.
Any of this sound familiar? So much for the idea that the Bible, especially the Old Testament, has nothing in common with life today. Human nature has changed little, and people searching for God shouldn’t be naïve about the difficulty.
Many of the Old Testament stories that we find unbelievable, by the way, are just that if we see them as historical. Many are mostly mythical, but myths with powerful religious messages. And we who are searching for God could take no more ideal a model than Abraham.
His faults are obvious but he is rightly called “the father of faith,” showing it by his willingness to fulfill the most bizarre requests from God: leave your home and country for a God-forsaken place; sacrifice your first-born son; be a father to a faithless people. In modern parlance the message may be: to seek me, leave your comfort zone.
The search for God requires courage, persistence and prayer (because faith is ultimately a gift). A parallel to the Fermi Paradox may be that, though almost 90 percent of Americans say they believe in God, there is little evidence God can be found in many of their lives. We, too, can ask, “Where is everybody?”