The link to the above article “What if we’re not alone?” is provided with the full permission of the author, Ed Langlois, a fellow writer and current Editor of the Catholic Sentinel ( Western Oregon) , with whom I had the good fortune of being connected to ,courtesy of one of my fellow participants at the recent Vatican Observatory Faith and Astronomy Retreat, Father Pat Donoghue.
Fr. Pat was aware of my interest in this specific topic and just happened to have a copy of this issue of the Sentinel with him. It’s probably not very Christian and certainly not very scientific to talk about things like serendipity or synchronicity but I sure love when the “just happened to” things happen to me:) When Fr. Pat passed the paper to me during one of our classes, open to the page of the article, I confess to feeling like I was meant to see it 🙂 After the course was over and emails were exchanged, he was kind enough to put me in touch with Ed, who included the link in his reply correspondence. When I called Ed to obtain his permission to include his piece on my site and blog, I found a kindred spirit who shared my interest in this topic, but with a specific view to the Catholic theology which speaks , or- depending on how you look at it- doesn’t speak- to the implications of finding out that we are not alone in the Universe. Please read the article—it’s well written, thought provoking and ultimately –enjoyable. Here are my reflections:
Ed opens his article with an image that I have used in my own articles and columns when I want to grab readers’ attention- numbers. Really big numbers! Numbers so big that you have to write them out because there are too many zeros. The point being–the Universe, is big,–really big! Bigger than we can fathom and that is only what we can see. Scientists are now positing that there are at least 2 trillion galaxies in the known universe with billions of stars that we are now discovering have billions of planets orbiting them- many of which could support life. The existential question of “What if we’re not alone?” is becoming more relevant every day and , I have a feeling that this conversation is about to heat up. I appreciate articles like this which open the conversation, at least for Catholics who might wonder about what their faith has to say about it.
As I suspect is the case with all Christian faiths, the confounder is the Bible. It’s silent on the issue of the possibility of extra-terrestrial life. This is something that I have reflected on many times and have come to a very practical and decidedly unreligious conclusion. The Bible was written 2 thousand years ago, at a time when I’m pretty sure that the potential of life existing in outer space was not on anyone’s mind. There were more immediate matters at hand and, like most ancient peoples who could not fathom or even imagine the “miracles” of future technology, there is no reason that this subject would have been addressed. But times change and I believe, God expects us to change with them.
But back to the Bible. As Ed points out , pure creationists would hold firm to the belief that life exists only on Earth, as outlined in the Bible. But Catholics are not creationists and that might come as a shock to even some Catholics. As pointed out in a quote from former Vatican Observatory Director, Fr. Jose Funes, (Jesuit) , there is a multiplicity of creatures right here on Earth ( some still being discovered) and if we accept that these are all creatures of God, who are we to limit what Fr. Funes describes as “God’s creative freedom”? Well , in a deliciously pure and simple insight –that makes perfect sense to me! Clearly, the “story” is still being written and we are learning that every day. Whether it is the recent discovery of the Trappist One Solar System, with 7 Earth like planets, 3 in the habitable zone of their star or the announcement last week from NASA that intensive geo chemical analysis by the spacecraft Cassini (orbiting Saturn) of moon Enceladus reveals the presence of oceans that contain the chemical energy required for life. And I truly believe that this is just the beginning-the tip of the proverbial iceberg. The ” story” is unfolding fast and we need some new writers. Does the Bible need an update?
The Catholic Church, at least from the perspective of this article and the clergy quoted, remains quite open to and ready to embrace ET life. God’s love is infinite and all encompassing–and big–just like the Universe he created. So far so good. Where it gets complicated is in the differing opinions on incarnation and whether it was or needs to be a cosmic event. Full disclosure: when I first heard the term “incarnation” during one of our class discussions, I had to check in with in with that other “god”—Google – to find out what it meant. Quite simply it refers to the incarnation of Jesus- when he became incarnate to die and redeem us ( “us” being the people who inhabit this planet ) and provide eternal life –for us and only us—or so we assume. This brought back a very meaningful moment for me ( referred to in an earlier post ) when an elderly and dear family friend had just become aware of the existence of planets other than our own and had engaged me in a conversation as to whether I believed that there was life out there. When I answered with a resounding yes, the gentlemen, a devout Catholic, followed up with ” Did Jesus have to redeem those other planets as well?” – I knew at that moment that this was a topic that I would be coming back to. l obviously didn’t have an answer- nobody does- but it is something that bears examination and Ed delves into it further in his article. And this question of whether incarnation was a cosmic event or happened only once, seems to be a point of departure for those clergy who have already expressed their openness to the possibility of ET life.
He references Father Michael Maher, a Jesuit theologian at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington, who tell us that potential encounters with ET life would be no different than the Catholic missionaries first discovering Chinese civilizations, or when the Europeans first crossed the ocean to the “New World.” He refers to the incarnation of Jesus and any such event that follows as a natural expansion–“not a whole new thing.” He goes onto say that discovery of life on Mars ( or presumably any other planet) would follow that same path—although, and this is me talking now, hopefully with a lot more respectful first contact!
Father Chris Corbally, one of the Jesuit astronomers who we had the good fortune of meeting at the Faith and Astronomy retreat, is also quoted in the article and he clearly sees incarnation as a cosmic event. He references 13 century thinkers and theologians, St. Thomas Aquinas and St . Bonaventure as having a larger, more “expansive ” view of creation and feels that we can learn from them about the infinite capacity of God’s love.
“The idea is to complete the cosmos in Christ”, he is quoted as saying in the article . ” The incarnation is not an Earth based event. It is a cosmic event. ( You will be hearing more from Father Corbally in the next post and can watch a wonderful video of Fr. Chris and Br. Guy debating this intriguing question -sitting in the very outside Chapel at the Redemptorist Renewal Centre in the Tucson desert where my fellow participants and I attended outdoor Mass on the last evening of the FAW retreat)
Ed closes his article with some thoughts from the earlier quoted Father Funes who does not agree that the incarnation was a cosmic event and sums it up with this quote -” The discovery of life does not mean that there is another Jesus. The incarnation of the son of God is a unique event in the history of humanity and the universe.”
And there you have it. Or you don’t have it–depending how you look at it.
As for me- I have absolutely no idea where I would weigh in on this debate. And because the question itself is purely theological and therefore the domain of religion, I confess that I would need a lot more education in the theology to even figure out in which direction I would be leaning. And to be honest, and speaking only for myself, I’m not sure that it matters so much in the larger picture in terms of where we are going with this and how people of faith will ( or won’t ) prepare for the discovery of life elsewhere. But I recognize that it matters to some people and appreciate it as a starting point for a conversation that really needs to happen. Thanks, Ed–for a job well done and getting us started.:)
If you have some thoughts on this, your own speculations or just more questions—I would sure love to hear from you:)
Stay tuned for more on this in the next post.