Sunday, October 23, 2005

ET lives...and he's Christian!

From The Times for 10/18/2005:
There is probably intelligent life elsewhere in the Universe, and there is evidence in the Bible to suggest that it could be Christian, according to the Roman Catholic Church.

In a document published by the Catholic Truth Society, the official publisher for the Vatican, a papal astronomer speculates that “sooner or later, the human race will discover that there are other intelligent creatures out there in the Universe”.

Brother Guy Consolmagno, a Jesuit, who is one of the Vatican’s leading astronomers, concedes that he could be wrong. Ultimately, he says, “We don’t know.” But in the new book, part of the Explanations series designed to explain Catholic teaching in everyday language, he says that part of his hunch is scientific. With so many billions of planets, stars and galaxies, he says, “ surely, somewhere in that number, there must be other civilised, rational beings”.

To back up his hunch that the aliens will have been subject to Christ’s saving grace, he cites the verses from John’s Gospel known as the Good Shepherd passage. In John x, 14-16, Jesus says: “I am the Good Shepherd . . . I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to My voice. So there will be one flock, one Shepherd.”

A lot of Christians seem to get really bent out of shape at the idea of extraterrestrial life. Personally, I’ll believe it when I see it – and, hopefully, I’ll see it before it eats my face.

It is still a common belief among scientists that intelligent life must be common in the universe, but that has been changing over the last couple of decades. The happenstance series of events that led to the development of human intelligence (or apparent happenstance for those of us who think the whole thing was rigged) makes intelligent life appear like a very exceptional occurrence. Combine that with the growing perception that both the solar system and the earth-moon system are pretty atypical, and you get the idea that technological civilizations may be very few and far between. Besides, if there were that many advanced civilizations out there, then they ought to be here! They should have colonized Earth a long time ago, and we should either be extinct or specimens in the Great Galactic Zoo.

Of course, all that theorizing will be worthless if a ship lands tomorrow on the National Mall and some little grey dudes come out to trade with us natives. But I don’t see where the theological problems arise that seem to scare so many people. There appear to be only a handful of options. (None of these are original to me, but I don’t remember where they came from.)

  1. They never fell – although one then wonders why they would want to hang out with us.
  2. They have their own version of the Incarnation – i.e. Jesus’s sacrifice is realized in multiple ways in multiple places. That raises some problems, but I wouldn’t think they would be unsolvable. If every Eucharist is the realization of Calvary, “the cross present in history,” then there doesn’t seem to be any reason that the cross and other incarnational sacrifices couldn’t represent the one unique eternal redemption of creation throughout space-time. I’m not a theologian, however; if that notion is heretical, then kindly forget I ever said it.
  3. They may never have heard of this whole Messiah idea, in which case everbody’s mission budgets are going to go through the roof.
I think people may just be afraid that the aliens would somehow discredit Christianity. If one looks at history, however, there is no necessary correlation between technological achievement and moral or religious achievement. The Nazis built pretty cool rockets, but their religious values were a bit suspect at best. The Romans were really good engineers and butt-kickers, but they had to borrow their religion and philosophy from the Greeks. You can make a pretty good case that loss of their moral compass is a common failing of dominant cultures, and the primary reason they turn over as often as they do. If the little grey dudes want to trade, then they might find the Gospel to be a really good bargain for that surplus case of thermonuclear toothbrushes they’re trying to peddle.