There was a ton of coverage earlier this week about a conference at the Vatican recently. The focus of the conference was a discussion (debate?) around what implications there might be for the Church if life was to be discovered on an alien world.
That’s a distinct possibility, but the likelihood of there being “sentient” life is probably much less (depending on how strict your definition of “sentient” might be).
The discussion over at Slashdot today focuses not the “man bites dog” aspect of the story (theologians take science seriously) unlike most of the mainstream coverage to this point. Instead there’s some discussion about what theological issues are being presented. Specifically about what we might need to change in our doctrines of the Fall and the Incarnation:
“Pickens writes ‘The Telegraph reports that the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy of Sciences is holding its first ever conference on alien life, the discovery of which would have profound implications for the Catholic Church. For centuries, theologians have argued over what the existence of life elsewhere in the universe would mean for the Church. Among other things, extremely alien-looking aliens would be hard to fit with the idea that God ‘made man in his own image’ and Jesus Christ’s role as savior would be confused; would other worlds have their own Christ-figures, or would Earth’s Christ be universal? Just as the Church eventually made accommodations after Copernicus and Galileo showed that the Earth was not the center of the universe, and when it belatedly accepted the truth of Darwin’s theory of evolution, Catholic leaders say that alien life can be aligned with the Bible’s teachings. ‘Just as a multiplicity of creatures exists on Earth, so there could be other beings, also intelligent, created by God,’ says Father Jose Funes, a Jesuit astronomer at the Vatican Observatory and one of the organizers of the conference. Others do not agree. ‘If you look back at the history of Christian debate on this, it divides into two camps. There are those that believe that it is human destiny to bring salvation to the aliens, and those who believe in multiple incarnations,’ says Paul Davies, a theoretical physicist. ‘The multiple incarnations is a heresy in Catholicism.””
Read the discussion here. It’s an ongoing discussion, and given the site it there may or may not be terribly illuminating.
But the write-up quoted above does mention some of the more interesting ideas. I’ve been wondering for a while what we might have to do modify the “Fall” doctrine. Do we say that life on Earth fell? Do we say that all life in the Universe fell?
If it’s in the Universe, does it matter about the timing? The Sun is a second generation star (at least). What about worlds that were present in the Universe before the Sun was formed?
Does the Incarnation on Earth represent a Universal once and done event? That’s actually part of the classical thinking I think – at least it is if you’re using Platonic ideas – so this isn’t too hard to get our heads around.
But if Jesus is an earth bound, or solar system bound, or epoch bound event, then do we have to rethink the idea of multiple incarnations? Or does that open a big can of worms?
And… if the rest of the Universe is “unfallen” (like some of the angelic host I suppose) what does life look like on an unfallen world? Is it possible to imagine an ecosystem based on Agape?
…see, speculative theology can be a lot fun. It’s just as neat as speculative astronomy. Maybe more!
(And does anyone know if Davies is right when he characterizes multiple incarnations as a heresy? What would have to change if we had evidence that such a thing had happened?)