Ask Andrew 5: Exoplanets

Ask Andrew” is an annual opportunity for members of Knox to ask questions of faith and religion. Andrew answers them in the Sunday morning service, and now in this blog. Enjoy!

Ask Andrew 5: Exoplanets

Astronomers have identified nearly 1200 exoplanets, a small number of which might be habitable. With time, improved search procedures and more sensitive equipment, the number of exoplanets will mushroom.

The possibility of NASA or some other scientific group announcing that contact has been made with alien intelligent life is still extremely small but considered by many scientists to be greater than zero.

Should (or when) this happens, what impact will this have on religion(s) here on earth? Will more people turn to the church or will more stay away?

[Spoiler Alert: the endings to some classic SF stories are discussed below]

THANK YOU for asking this question. I feel like I have been preparing for it for years!

I am not qualified to comment on other faiths, so I will stick to Christianity.

Consider the reading John 10:11-16.

 ‘I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. 13The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. 14I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. 16I 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.

That lesson struck me in my early teens. I went running to my minister at the time and asked if it was biblical evidence that there was life on other planets. I was really hopeful about that reference to other flocks. He metaphorically patted me on the head and said he didn’t think so. I was really disappointed.

I would love to hear that intelligent life has been discovered elsewhere. I have been reading Science Fiction stories for my whole life about different ways this could happen, what forms of life could exist, how different the intelligences could be from ours, and in the midst have been stories for years about how this could affect religious beliefs.

There is one Isaac Asimov story about a Jesuit astronaut exploring with a team in deep space, looking at a star that went supernova. By his calculations, it was the one that was the star for the Wise Men. The moral dilemma was that that on one planet in the star’s system there were the charred remains of a highly developed civilization. This led him to question how God could do that: wipe out an entire planet to herald the birth of Jesus. (After I preached this sermon, someone informed me that this story had been made into an episode of the revived version of the Twilight Zone.)

A more typical question out of Christianity has involved the idea of salvation. Do aliens have original sin? Christianity’s traditional teaching is that all of creation fell with Adam, and that the redemption of Jesus saved all creation. That’s a pretty human-centric interpretation of the state of the universe. Of course, if you reject the idea of alien original sin, or even the idea of a sin-redemption relationship with God, then what do you have instead?

In the United Church we have been working on a different model of God’s relationship with human beings for a while, so it isn’t so hard to imagine something like that for aliens.

But that won’t be so easy for those who hold more traditional views on the question of salvation. C. S. Lewis tried to address this issue. He is best known for his Narnia fantasy series for children, but he also wrote a SF trilogy. He addressed this question in the 2nd book: Voyage to Perelandra (Venus), where he replayed the story of the fall with Adam and Eve on a younger planet, and produced a different outcome. In it, he limited the effects of “the fall” to Earth, with the story centred around Satan’s attempt to extend the effects to another part of creation. The result is very human-in its theology. It is interesting as a SF story from a British Evangelial-Conservative perspective, but mostly now it really highlights the gap between what society at large could see happening and what that traditional view of our faith could imagine.

Ray Bradbury, in his Martian Chronicles, has a story of a priest sent to serve the Martian colony of human settlers. The priest decides it is his mission to evangelize the Martians, who are little glowing spheres of light that stubbornly refuse to communicate with humans.

He is so worried about their salvation that he sets up a church for them. Instead of a crucifix, he installs a glass sphere with a light-bulb inside. When they continue to ignore his efforts at contact, he becomes so desperate that he throws himself off a cliff to get their attention. He is saved by these Martians and in the process discovers that they are advanced beings who have abandoned their bodies for a spiritual existence. They are beyond even the question of salvation.

Theologically that’s the kind of direction we have gone in the “what happens when Christians meet aliens?” speculation.

When popular culture talks about first contact with aliens, the narrative has little to do with thoughts of God, and a lot to do with how our existence gets changed. The movies we have produced say a lot about our human concerns. Apparently, we can image the good, the bad and the ugly when it comes to aliens.

In Close Encounters of the Third Kind we start to make friends with the mysterious aliens through music.

In Independence Day the humans on the rooftops wanting to make contact are fried, and the surviving humans have to destroy the Mother Ship before all the capital cities of the world are immolated because the aliens are evil and want our resources.

In District 9 the aliens arrive as refugees. We put them into refugee camps and treat them like scum.

And then there’s Mars Attacks, which is hilarious (I just wanted to include it in the list).

It looks like people are really fearful of the prospect of alien contact. Not surprising. After all, we are afraid of ISIS, of Russia, of Islam, of Iran gaining nukes, of North Korea, and the list goes on. If we are afraid of these other humans, who are relatively easy to understand, it makes sense that something truly unknown, alien intelligent life, would terrify us.

What effect will this have? Fear does drive people back to church. When our world is shaken up by a war, by a depression, or some other crisis, people flock to the church as something that offers stability.

If this happens, what shall we offer people? Our track record hasn’t always been very good. There have been times in our history when the church has justified genocide or slavery by declaring that certain other people don’t have souls, and so don’t count as “real”.

Will we try to say that intelligent aliens have no souls? Will they be so different from us that we have a hard time thinking of them as people?

Actually, I believe that this will be one of our greatest challenges because the human race is amazingly self-centred. After all, there’s a good chance that we have already met non-human intelligence and we have not really understood. (Douglas Adams fans will know what I mean: So Long and Thanks for All the Fish). We have encountered dolphins, porpoises and whales

with their obvious intelligence, sense of humour, their languages and regional dialects that we identify but can’t understand. Despite this we set ourselves apart from them so far that we still treat them as food.

Our definitions of intelligence get narrower and narrower. We’ve tried tool use, language development, social structures, and then we have discovered various animals with these abilities to some degree or another.

We know about Koko the gorilla who has learned American sign language, not to mention other great apes, including chimps, bonobos, and orangutans. Even the critics who challenge the fluency of the language skills will say that Koko is only as intelligent as a 3 or 4 yr old human.

Well, is that not intelligent enough? Are our children only worth dealing with if they can develop past that stage? I have enjoyed meeting some very bright 3 or 4 year olds, and not only because of what I imagine they might become when they grow up.

We stand the serious risk of not noticing alien intelligence when we do spot it. As long as we are looking from this great distance, where even light takes years to travel to us, we might find an exo-planet with a great civilization that just hasn’t gotten around to using radios or launching satellites.

If inhabitants of a planet in the area of Proxima Centuri have the technology then they have been listening to I Love Lucy since at least the 70s. However, a similar group of inhabitants around the distant star of Gamma Microscopii would only be getting our light from 229 year ago. In those days, the United States was a new country and Canada was still colonies. They might assume that there was no intelligent life here, and they wouldn’t have Lucy to change their minds for centuries.

If we find life, will we be sensitive enough to recognize it? And if fear of this discovery drives people back to church, will we have the courage to teach love and acceptance to counter that fear? Will we be able to overcome our natural, human-centric vision of the universe?

My former minister was right in saying that the John lesson didn’t have aliens from exo-planets in mind. However, the point of that lesson was to warn early believers that other faithful people would come from other nations; that we couldn’t assume that everyone who loves God would be like us. It is a message of acceptance, declaring that Jesus embraces other people, different people, which clearly means that God does too, and so should we. We should not assume the worst about them, even if they have tentacles, or pseudo-pods, or eat rocks.

We should not assume that they will be superior to us, or inferior. They will be different. Our challenge, as people of faith will be to become leaders in reaching out beyond differences, and to discover what we share with these other children of God. Our challenge will be to oppose ignorance and prejudice; to prevent the very human tendency to oppress and exploit whatever we find.

We should be able to do this. It has been a central message of our faith for centuries. We have recognized that we are not at the centre of the universe, sometimes after serious resistance. Having managed that, if we do find intelligent life on an exo-planet, it really shouldn’t shock us at all.

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