A Theology of Alien Life

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?)

Author: Nick Knisely

Episcopal bishop, dad, astronomer, erstwhile dancer...

6 thoughts on “A Theology of Alien Life”

  1. Reminds me of Ray Bradbury’s poem “Christus Apollo,” written, I believe, in response to the Apollo 8 mission, the first manned mission to lunar orbit:
    Apollo’s missions move, and Christus seek,
    And wonder as we look among the stars
    Did He know these?
    In some far universal Deep
    Did He tread Space
    And visit worlds beyond our blood-warm dreaming?
    Did He come down on lonely shore by sea
    Not unlike Galilee
    And are there Mangers on far worlds that knew His light?
    And Virgins?
    Sweet Pronouncements?
    Annunciations? Visitations from angelic hosts?
    And, shivering vast light among ten billion lights,
    Was there some Star much like the star at Bethlehem
    That struck the sight with awe and revelation
    Upon a cold and most strange morn?
    These are only a few lines of a longer work. It is in Bradbury’s collection “I Sing the Body Electric.” You can read the whole piece here:
    (Disclaimer: I know nothing about this blog or its writer–it’s just a convenient spot where I found the text of the poem.)

  2. (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?)
    What would constitute evidence that such a thing had happened?

  3. I can’t figure how reincarnation applies. Please explain. Yes, reinc is not traditional anthropology. Where does reinc apply? The bodhisatvas of history: the Dali Lama, for isntance.

  4. My understanding of eastern theology would seem to imply that that fall was a universal fall in the sense that all of the created order is fallen and the incarnation redeems the whole universe. What that means in terms of the incarnation of Jesus on Earth, I could not say.

  5. One perspective on this issue of the incarnation is to remember that, while we consider the incarnation to be a religious “fact,” the explanation as to “why” the incarnation was necessary has varied. The idea that the incarnation was necessary to allow Christ to make satisfaction for the debt incurred by humanity for sin and, therefore, to satisfy divine justice dates from Anselm of Canterbury and has been normative in the Christian West. Eastern Christianity, however, has not typically seen it that way and has looked primarily to the formulation of Maximus the Confessor who believed that it was part of the divine intent from the beginning of creation that humanity should be divinized (theosis). Thus, the incarnation would have been “necessary” even if “Adam” had not “fallen.” This releases the incarnation as a salvific event from its being merely a consequence of human sinfulness, such that the divine intent is not constrained by human action. If we simply expand the incarnation to be the unification of God not only with Homo sapiens but with all of God’s self-aware creatures, we can “side step” the (to my mind archaic) notion of “the fall” and extend the incarnation to the entire created universe of self-aware beings. Back to the 7th century, do you think?

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