If we discover aliens, then we will need theologians – The Church must not ignore the possibility of extraterrestrial life, says Andrew McKie
…but….but…surely the church should be the first to say that this world is already infested with non-carbon, intelligent, extraterrestrial, alien life, in the form of spiritual beings?
The Vatican’s conference on astrobiology earlier this month tended to prompt two reactions from commentators, though they had in common an air of dismissiveness. The first was the usual pooh-poohing of those who think any interest in the possibility of extraterrestrial life is the preserve of the tinfoil-hat brigade. The second was from those who accept that it may be worthwhile to examine the question, but couldn’t see why the Church would have any interest, or for that matter business, in doing so.
Both these responses seem to me extremely strange. Surely the question of whether life exists on other planets must rank among the most important inquiries that human beings could undertake. When, some years ago, it was suggested that there might be some evidence for microbial life on Mars, the Independent rather prematurely ran the story as “Life found on Mars” – at the bottom of a page. There are only two sane reactions to such a claim, though: either it is not true or it is just about the most astounding news in the history of humanity.
The preposterous aspects of science fiction – giant killer crabs from outer space, little green men, computers which become self-aware, parallel universes and so on – shouldn’t disguise the fact that its central themes are those which preoccupy philosophy and theology: what is the nature of reality, the underlying structure of time, the universe, rationality; what constitutes consciousness, identity, existence?
The question of whether life is confined to Earth, or exists elsewhere in the universe, seems to me to be indisputably a non-trivial question of the same sort, no matter how facetiously it is presented. And the answer would also tell us a great deal about our place in the universe.
As the late Douglas Adams reminded us: “Space is big. Really big … you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space.” It may be, as some scientists have suggested, that intelligent and self-conscious life is remarkably unlikely, and that the reason it has happened at all is precisely because the universe is so big – indeed, that it needs to be as large as it is for intelligent life to develop on any one planet. If human beings were confirmed as the only creatures that possessed rationality and conscience – as we seem to be on Earth – anywhere in the universe, it ought to concentrate our minds on the responsibilities which follow from our unique position, and also, perhaps, to meditate on what is meant by the declaration that we are made in God’s image.
Admittedly, that is probably the assumption that most of us make. But the very size of Creation, the variety and abundance of life on Earth, and the fact that our planet seems to be – in astronomical terms – a fairly unremarkable one, makes it conceivable that there are numerous other species on other planets. And, if we were to discover any evidence that any other forms of life existed, or had existed, within our own solar system, it would make it likely that the rest of the universe is positively teeming with other forms of life.
As the organiser of the conference and director of the Vatican Observatory, Fr José Gabriel Funes, put it last year in an interview with L’Osservatore Romano: “Just as there is a multiplicity of creatures over the Earth, so there could be other beings, even intelligent, created by God. This is not in contradiction with our faith, because we cannot establish limits to God’s creative freedom.”
Fr Funes cites here one of the central reasons why the Church should and, indeed, always has, engaged with science. Some reports of this conference seemed to be surprised to discover that the Vatican should maintain an observatory (there are two, really, since its research group is based at the University of Arizona). It is, in fact, one of the world’s oldest astronomical institutions.
To hear militantly atheistic figures such as Richard Dawkins, one would imagine that the Church has long been engaged in preventing the spread of rationality and exploration of knowledge. Such claims are not just piffle, they are the exact opposite of the historical facts.
Western civilisation, understanding and scholarship are in large measure due to the Church. What knowledge we have of the ancient world is almost entirely due to its preservation in monastic libraries. But the Church was responsible not just for the conservation, but also the expansion of knowledge. It founded the majority of Europe’s ancient universities; it was the principal patron of the architects, engineers and artists who were also the technicians and scientists of their day.
The trial of Galileo, routinely held up as an instance of religion barring the way to science, has acquired a kind of mythic status (thanks in part to Brecht) which persists even after the Church’s apology. It obscures the fact that Galileo was a devout Catholic who received great support from the Church for much of his career. In fact, the theories he advocated had been the work of Copernicus, who was a priest, and they met with no objection from the Pope (though they were condemned by Luther and Calvin). There is no doubt that the identification of life beyond Earth would be a scientific discovery of Copernican proportions. But the new questions, and perhaps solutions, which it might bring to biology, chemistry and physics are not the only intellectual challenges. If we ever encounter intelligent extraterrestrial life, it is the philosophers and theologians who have the most to gain, by learning what other creatures make of their purpose in the universe.
A good many people writing about the conference claim that it creates problems for the Church’s claims of universality; of the Incarnation as a single and unique event. Fr Funes has raised a different possibility (similar to the one suggested by C S Lewis in Out of the Silent Planet, which outraged the scientist J B S Haldane) which cuts that argument out altogether. “We could think that in this universe there can be 100 sheep, equivalent to different kinds of creatures. We, belonging to humankind, could be precisely the lost sheep… assuming that there would be other intelligent beings, we could not say that they needed redemption. They could have remained in full friendship with the Creator.”
A conference of this sort may not be preparation for proselytising, as some scientific commentators have sniffily suggested, but preparation for learning something of what it is to live in perpetual grace.
Of course, there may be nothing out there, but there’s a lot of there out there. A universal Church needs to understand universal laws, just as physicists and cosmologists search for them. And the Church needs to ask why, and not just, how, things are as they are.
Tags: Church Life