The Doctrine of Plenitude and Space as the Abode of Man in 17th Century Theology

I’ve blogged before on the doctrine of Plenitude in 17th and 18th century theology. This was the view that God had created the various planets and stars of the cosmos as homes for extraterrestrial, intelligent beings. It was held by theologians and Christian apologists such as Christian Wolf in Germany, as well Fontanelle in France and Thomas Burnet, Charles Blount and Robert Jenkin, the subject of my last blog post. Burnet wrote in his Sacred Theory of the Earth that

‘We must not … admit or imagine, that all nature, and this great universe, was made only for the sake of man, the meanest of all intelligent creatures that we know of; nor that this little planet, when we sojourn for a few day6s, is the only habitable planet of the universe: these are thoughts so groundless and unreasonable in themselves , and also so derogatory to the infinte power, wisdom and goodness of the first cause, that as they are absurd in reason, so they deserve far better to be marked and censured for heresies in religion, than many opinions that have censured for such in former ages.’

Robert Jenkin on Possible Colonisation of Space before the Fall and after the Resurrection

Robert Jenkin believed that the various worlds of the cosmos may have been deliberately created by the Almighty to house humanity before the Fall. After this, he considered that they may have been designed to serve as further homes for humanity after the end of the time and the resurrection. Then they would serve as homes for the righteous, and places of punishment for the wicked. In the present, however, they served to keep the world in its proper place in the universe and maintain the equilibrium of the whole system through their gravitational attraction:

‘I observe, that though it should be granted, that some planets by habitable, it doth not therefore follow, that they must be actually inhabited, or that they ever have been. For they might be designed, if mankind had persisted in innocency, as places for colonies to remove men to, as the world should have increased, either in reward to those that had excelled in virtue and piety, to entertain them with the prospect of new and better worlds; and so by degrees, to advance them in proportion to their deserts, to the height of bliss and glory in heaven; or as a necessary reception for men (who would then have been immortal) after the earth had been full of inhabitants. And since the fall and mortality of mankind, they may be either for mansions of hte righteous, or places of punishment for the wicked, after the resurrection, according as it shall please God, at the end of ht eworld to new modify and transform them. And in the meantime, being placed at their respctive distances, they do by their several motions contribgute to keep the world at a poise, and the several parts of it at an equilibrium in their gravitation upon each other, by Mr. Newton’s principles’.

Religious Attitudes in Russian Biocosmism and Western Transhumanism

A similar attitude survives today in the thinking of the Russian biocosmists. This arose in the late 19th century. Its gaol was the scientific attainment of immortality and the resurrection of the dead. It also advocated the colonisation of space to provide homes for the new, resurrected humanity. The great Soviet rocket pioneer, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, was a member. Biocosmism wasn’t a specifically Christian movement. It also included elements of theosophy. Nevertheless, it can be seen as a secularisation of the theological attitude expressed by Jenkin. The Communist authorities initally tolerated Biocosmism after the 1917 Revolution before banning and persecuting it in the 1930s as a dangerous, heretical ideology. It re-appeared after the Fall of Communism, and has formed links with western Transhumanism. The similarity between the views of the Biocosmists, Transhumanists and Jenkin’s appears to bear out a remark on their identity of purpose by one of Transhumanism’s founders, the robotics engineer Mark Moravec. Moravec’s wife is a Methodist minister, and he once stated that Christians and Transhumanists wanted the same thing. They just went about it differently.

Moral Perfection and Cosmic Awe in Star Trek and Cosmos

You can also see a certain similarity with Jenkin’s views in Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek, and the vision of human expansion in Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. Leonard Nimoy, who played Spock, has said in interviews that he believed the show’s popularity lay in its optimism. It envisages a future in which humanity has overcome its social and political problems, survived the horrors of the twentieth century, and gone on to produce an ideal, tolerant society in the Federation. Star Trek is very definitely a secular show, and its attitude to religion is ambivalent. Some episodes have a positive view of it, while others consider it a negative force holding humanity and alien races back from achieving their true potential. Nevertheless it shares with Jenkin a view of the cosmos that sees it as an area for colonisation by a perfected and morally regenerate humanity.

In his TV series and book, Cosmos, the late Carl Sagan expressed a profound awe of the vastness and intricacy of the universe. A Humanist and member of the Sceptics’ group, CSICOP, now the Centre for Scientific Inquiry, Sagan also campaigned for the human colonisation of space and contact with other alien civilisations. Cosmos was a truly inspiring series, and prepared the way for later scientific blockbusters like Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. Sagan’s attempts to show the universe as an object of literal cosmic awe approaches the religious feeling of the numinous, the sense of awe before the presence of God or the gods. His campaign for spaceflight and extraterrestrial contact therefore partakes of the same religious nature as Jenkin’s view that the other worlds revealed by science, with the difference that Jenkin’s believed that they would only be colonised by a humanity that had attained and been transformed through God’s grace.

Despite the rationalism and secularism of mdoern SF and the movements for space exploration and colonisation, they still contain much of the religious sense of wonder and human destiny expressed by 17th and 18th century theologians like Fontanelle, Burnet, Blount and Jenkin. For them, the heavens not only proclaimed the glory of God, but also offered a future home for humanity and other intelligent beings through God’s providential grace.

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One Response to “The Doctrine of Plenitude and Space as the Abode of Man in 17th Century Theology”

  1. The Doctrine of Plenitude and Space as the Abode of Man in 17th Century Theology | ChristianBookBarn.com Says:

    […] Recommended Article FROM https://beastrabban.wordpress.com/2013/05/17/the-doctrine-of-plenitude-and-space-as-the-abode-of-man-… […]

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