Tree Roots in The Cosmos

Tree Roots in The Cosmos

When my son, Henry, was five years old, we were playing catch with his new baseball glove in our front yard. It was early fall, and the maple tree’s leaves had just turned brilliant shades of red and orange. After my third throw went gently over the tip of his glove and rolled behind him to the hedge, Henry ran to get the ball. As he passed the tree, his left foot caught on a root, and he fell to the ground in a cartoonish splay for which children seem to have a special knack. He popped up immediately, and I was both relieved and a bit amused. Henry, however, was angry. He promptly walked up to the maple tree and kicked it hard.

When I asked him why he would do this, he looked a bit incredulous that I did not have more sympathy for his plight: “The tree reached out and tripped me; it deserved that kick.”

As a professor, this seemed like an opportune time to launch into a diatribe about the importance of trees to our ecosystem and how without trees we would not have oxygen in our atmosphere for all the complex animals on Earth to exist—even you and me. Henry was unimpressed: “Dad, it was just a tree . . . I didn’t hurt it, it hurt me.”

Revealing where Henry received at least some of his genetic predisposition to stubbornness, I asked him, “If your friend had pushed you down, would you jump up and kick him?”

“No!” he quickly replied.

“Why would you kick the tree, then?”

He looked at me as if I had rocks in my head and said, “Dad it’s just a tree, not another kid like me. I didn’t want to hurt it.”

Abstract arguments with five-year-olds are recipes for tears. We went back to playing catch, further away from that maple tree, and planted some tulip bulbs around the tree so that the next spring we could remember not to get too close to the roots. Henry and I agreed that might be better for everyone.

I remember this encounter with Henry often when I think about my research in astrobiology. We tend to think astrobiology as the search for alien life, but I am contending it is something quite different. Carl Pilcher, the former director of the NASA Astrobiology Institute, has succinctly suggested an excellent one-line definition of astrobiology that puts these final two themes in intimate relation to one another. He observes that astrobiology is “a quest to understand the potential of the universe to harbor life beyond Earth.” His definition is deceptively simple, but there are two features of it that I argue are critical for thinking about the humanistic and religious significance of astrobiology: the intra-action of a living-system and the habitable environment. These themes and their intra-action are axiomatic to astrobiology as a field; yet they are, at least to some degree, at odds with our everyday ways of encountering the world around us.

Henry had no sense of being in intra-action with the maple tree, and it was clear to him that the maple tree was somehow inherently due less respect than another child. Even though he did not intend to hurt the tree, lashing out at it seemed naturally more acceptable. Implicitly, he had already developed a sense that the wider environment around him (like that maple tree) was there for his use and he could be angry with it when it stymied his efforts to get the ball so he could keep playing and having fun. Implicit to his encounter with the maple tree was a sense of human exceptionalism (a very minor exceptionalism—but exceptionalism nonetheless) that is at odds with the intra-action that grounds an astrobiological perspective on our existence. The intra-action of the astrobiological perspective cuts against appeals to human exceptionalism that early in our development becomes a “natural” way of perceiving the world.

If astrobiology provides a credible way of thinking about what it means to “live” on and with the wider habitats of any cosmic body, then it behooves us to consider how we can reinterpret existing sets of symbols, particularly religious symbols, in order to develop a meaningful way of being-in-the-world and belonging-together-with-the-world in light of the astrobiological concern for intra-action that counters tendencies to human exceptionalism. To do this, I suggest the astrobiological intra-action of living-systems and habitable environments should form the context of engagement for interpreting symbols that facilitate the process of meaningfully ordering our way of existing in the world. How do we conceptualize being in the image of God in light of this intra-action that is indispensable to astrobiology? And how do we conceptualize the meaningful order of existence the Anthropocene summons us toward in light of astrobiology’s intra-action?

Choosing to deal with the imago Dei is hardly accidental. Doctrinally, it has typically been linked with arguments about human exceptionalism. If there is a symbol most likely to conflict with the way astrobiology has been framed here, this might be it. Our natural tendency might be to let this symbol die. Instead, I want to make the case that if we look into the location of this doctrine in cosmogony, then we might actually find a potent source of reflection, not for arguments concerning human exceptionalism as applied primarily to individuals but for a robust account of a responsibility to facilitate intra-action. Resisting the tendency to turn this doctrine into a freestanding account of biblical anthropology, we can find a resonance between astrobiology’s account of intra-action and the harmonious ordering of creation.


This post is excerpted from Adam Pryor’s new book Living with Tiny Aliens: The Image of God for the Anthropocene, published by Fordham University Press. Contending that astrobiology is changing how we understand meaningful human existence, Living with Tiny Aliens seeks to imagine how an individuals’ meaningful existence persists when we are planetary creatures situated in deep time—not only on a blue planet burgeoning with life, but in a cosmos pregnant with living-possibilities.”


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