St. Albert the Great once said, “Since one of the most wondrous and noble questions in nature is whether there is one world or many, it seems desirable for us to inquire about it.”
Great conversations bear continuing. The debate over extraterrestrial intelligent life is, as Benjamin Wiker recently noted in this space (“The Truth Is Out There. Extraterrestrials, Probably Not,” Dec. 13), centuries old.
But not only atomists, atheists and far-flung theologians engaged this question. Origen, Augustine, Albert the Great, Aquinas and Bonaventure all wondered about it. They joined the ranks of Plato, Aristotle and Cicero, as well as many others. Thumbing through the pages of history, you see that this question keeps popping up.
So: Does extraterrestrial intelligent life exist or doesn’t it?
Wiker mentioned that “the more we know, the less likely alien life becomes.” He supports this by unfolding for us the huge cosmic map and pointing to the vast chasm of space between us and our nearest galaxy. Might he be right in advising that the centuries-old speculating stop?
I don’t think so.
We recently came through Advent. We prepared ourselves for the celebration of Jesus’ birth, recognizing that Christmas was no ordinary event in a dirty stable. The very Son of God stepped into a world he created to save children who chose to reject him. To put it in Wiker’s words, “How likely is that?”
As we consider the 2009 meetings of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and the Vatican Observatory and Wiker’s article, it is helpful to hark to the herald angels before we quickly dismiss the possibility of ETI. It was Gabriel who told Mary, “Nothing will be impossible for God.” Gabriel is an angel.
Angels are extraterrestrial (non-earth-based) intelligent life-forms. They are personal beings with identities and free will; they are capable of choosing to serve God or reject him.
No, angels are not little green men: They are spiritual beings of another order of creation than our own. But they do exist, and the Kingdom of God existed with them prior to us ever coming on the scene.
The recent gatherings at the Vatican engaged the topic of astrobiology from primarily a scientific perspective of physicists, biologists and astronomers. Pope John Paul II reminds us that both science and religion “bear enormous responsibility for the human condition.”
That science considers this a worthy investigation is evidenced in part by the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence program.
Now, whether the universe is teeming with intelligent life-forms or not is for the sciences to discover; theological consideration of this question, however, allows religion a place at the conversation table with the sciences. It also gives our Church a place to speak with a generation raised on science fiction.
Why else do theologians take up this question?
The issues it raises can be helpful tools for better understanding and appreciating our own faith: What does the Incarnation mean? Could there be multiple incarnations? Fallen/unfallen species? Do we assume sin is the universal condition of the universe? Could Jesus’ coming down from heaven, “for us men and our salvation,” apply to peoples other than human beings?
How free is God? Did he have to create us? Did he have to save us?
What would it mean for another intelligent species to encounter a Christian? Would we/could we evangelize them?
These are enormous and consequential questions — questions to be considered cautiously, thoroughly and prayerfully. Yes, answers to these questions may be as elusive as an accurate prediction of the next Super Bowl, but they are questions that can still bear fruit.
Whether we will ever meet another extraterrestrial in this life — in the eschaton — or not at all, we had better know who we are in God’s plan and his universe as we push further into the stars.
The Incarnation had something very important to say about this. Wise men will continue to look to Bethlehem.
Father David Swantek is a
priest of the Diocese of Trenton, New Jersey. While preparing for his degree in systematic theology,
he studied Christological aspects of the extraterrestrial-life debate.