Arthur C. Clarke, in his 1955 short story “The Star”, proposes an immensely plausible explanation for the appearance of an unusually bright and light in the sky near the time of the birth of Jesus in Palestine. He suggests that a supernova of enormous strength was the event that caused the phenomenon attested to in the Christian New Testament.
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He elaborates on this interesting notion by constructing a tale of a space-faring Earth vessel, engaged in long-range exploration. In Clarke’s story, the ship locates and investigates evidence of a sophisticated alien civilization once thriving in the star system around the former supernova.
The evidence from these investigations reveals that this supernova, which wiped out this species, would have coincided exactly with the star that appeared in Bethlehem. Clarke’s protagonist, a Jesuit priest and astrophysicist on the spaceship, finds his faith challenged by this discovery. The narrator deplores and questions in an agony of doubt what he sees as a cruel waste of lives in order to make a point on Earth.
This suggests that Clarke, who has described himself as an atheist views the universe as huge and filled with unlimited potential for wonder, and the Christian God as either nonexistent, unnecessary, or heedlessly cruel, and ultimately not worthy of human faith (Clarke, Credo, 2010). The vision that Clarke presents of the universe is accurate in its depiction of its enormous size.
It is also hopeful in its suggestion that almost any phenomenon could possibly turn up, if humans look far enough. This, in Clarke’s view, includes finding another sentient species, whether living or dead. The spaceship has already found, “ruins of ancient civilizations on other worlds” (Clarke, The Star, 1974) . This is congruent with what is reported on the science news regularly.
The public is assured by astronomers that there are billions of star systems. Given these numbers, it seems reasonable to infer that somewhere there is another one that could include a rocky planet. It is further reasonable to imagine that a planet could exist with temperatures that permit carbon based life forms to develop. Thus, Clarke is placing his story in a plausible universe congruent with the facts that are now known about our galaxy and others, and filled with possibilities.
However, the universe that is out there, in Clarke’s vision of the universe, could operate without the benefit of control by a God. The crew members of the spaceship are all apparently atheist or agnostic; the narrator says of them, “Few of them have any religious faith”. (Clarke, The Star, 1974).
The ship’s doctor describes the universe, its creation, and its possible creator as follows: “it goes on forever and forever, and perhaps Something made it. But how you can believe that Something has a special interest in us and our miserable little world—that just beats me.” (Clarke, The Star, 1974)
This character believes that God is not even necessary. Furthermore, the doctor is suggesting that even if there were an intelligence that could encompass the creation of the universe’s immensity, it would be too big and too detached to be immanent in human affairs. This seems like a reasonable objection to the disparity between the size of the universe and the size of petty human problems. For deeply believing Christians, however, the problem with this view is that it places limitations on the power and capacity for love of an infinite God.
The human mind can envision a God who is both capable of creating a universe of staggering vastness, but also interested, aware of, and active in, the daily lives of billions of human beings. This is a stretch, but it is a matter of scale rather than absolute possibility. If a universe-creating deity can exist, then it is merely a matter of scaling in the other direction to invest this God with the capacity to simultaneously listen to individual prayer.
Ultimately, this view of God’s unbounded power leads the narrator, and potentially, the reader, into a mess. This is because the author Clarke in this story has linked an act of love (the incarnation of the deity in the person of Jesus in Bethlehem on a particular date) with an act of destruction (the immolation of the alien culture by the supernova).
Clarke acknowledges that God has the right to do whatever God wants with the creation that God has created. The Jesuit narrator affirms, “God has no need to justify His actions to man. He who built the Universe can destroy it when He chooses. It is arrogance—it is perilously near blasphemy—for us to say what He may or may not do.” (Clarke, The Star, 1974) However, the mind of even the priestly astrophysicist revolts against this idea once he knows and appreciates the lost alien culture.
He protests. “But to be destroyed so completely in the full flower of its achievement, leaving no survivors—how could that be reconciled with the mercy of God? “ (Clarke, The Star, 1974) This is not an entirely new conflict for believers. The Bible/Torah is sprinkled with incidents that puzzle the faithful, and raise questions about the lovingness of God. The Book of Job, for example, describes acts of God (or rather, acts that God permits to be done to Job by Satan) that seem heedlessly, almost frivolously, cruel. (Jones, 1985)
The Star does not offer a comforting solution. The solution, for believers, in the past, has been that God’s purposes are unknowable and humans must accept on faith that they are tending towards the good. Clarke proposes a hypothetical situation that would strain even this long-tested strategy of faith. The narrator of this story is left unable to cope. He says, “But there comes a point when even the deepest faith must falter, and now, as I look at the calculations lying before me, I have reached that point at last.” (Clarke, The Star, 1974)
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A number of palliatives for the problem that Clarke has manufactured could be suggested. Perhaps the alien race was taken up into heaven, into the presence of God, immediately upon death. Perhaps God somehow communicated with them that their demise would allow another species to come to a greater knowledge of God, and a deeper communion with the deity. Perhaps they volunteered for this task of signaling to the magi that Jesus was being born.
These might satisfy the Jesuit astrophysicist in The Star, but if they were to do so successfully, Clarke would probably have included them in the story. Clarke leaves the reader with no comfort, forced to consider the possibility that God could be so wasteful of, “peoples thrown into the furnace” just to make a dramatic announcement elsewhere in creation. (Clarke, The Star, 1974)
The vision of the universe and of God that Clarke presents is deeply skeptical. While the author acknowledges the possibility that God is the author of the universe, Clarke also casts doubt on the credibility of the Christian notion of a loving and involved deity.
He insists, by linking the incarnation with a hypothetical alien holocaust, that in order to accept an immanent God, a believer must also accept the possibility that this deity is capable of doing something appalling and without discernible justification. This is a very cynical tactic but Clarke makes a powerful point that challenges the faith of all believing readers.
Clarke, A. C. (1974). The Star. In A. C. Clarke, The Nine Billion Names of God: The Best Short Stories of Arthur C. Clarke (pp. 235-240). NY, USA: Signet NAL. Web.
Clarke, A. C. (2010). Credo. In P. Kurtz, Science and Religion: Are They Compatible? (pp. 181-185). New York: Prometheus Books. Web.
The New Jerusalem Bible. Ed. Susan Jones. New York: Doubleday, 1985. Print.