Here’s another example of a bogus news story that seems to appear in one form or another, by what almost looks like a law of nature, every several months or so. The topic is always treated according to this template: “The Discovery of ET’s Could Spell Doom for Christianity.” Under the headline, “If intelligent extraterrestrials exist, what about God?,” MSNBC has the non-story story:
The discovery of intelligent aliens would be mind-blowing in many respects, but it could present a special dilemma for the world’s religions, theologians pondering interstellar travel concepts said Saturday.
Christians, in particular, might take the news hardest, because the Christian belief system does not easily allow for other intelligent beings in the universe, Christian thinkers said at the 100 Year Starship Symposium, a meeting sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to discuss issues surrounding traveling to other stars.
You’d never know that theologians have been discussing this topic for at least a thousand years. The doctrine of the incarnation doesn’t say God became man to the exclusion of everything else. On the contrary, the doctrine has always meant (from the New Testament to the present) that God became incarnate to reconcile all things — that is, the entire creation — to himself. ET’s would be surprising but would not be uniquely problematic for Christianity.
Sure, their discovery would raise questions worth exploring, depending on what they were actually like. If the aliens were capable of sin, for instance, that would be different from if we were just talking about algae. But from an abstract theistic perspective, there’s not even a hint of a real problem.
Many theologians have asked whether God could have created “other worlds,” and most concluded that yes, he could. God could create a universe in which life is rare, or a universe in which life is common. Historically, most religious thinkers assumed the former. But this seems much more like the widespread assumption of Aristotelian/Ptolemaic cosmology which, though universal, wasn’t essential to (Christian) theology.
In all likelihood, Christians have more than enough theological resources to account for the existence of ET’s. In the last chapters of his book The Logic of God Incarnate, Thomas Morris takes on the task of developing an incarnational model to accommodate the scenario in which there are other sentient, morally aware, fallen creatures on planets other than earth. That’s probably the most complicated scenario. Once Morris resolves the difficulties of explaining how a person could be both fully human and fully divine (which initially looks like a contradiction), the alien stuff is mostly dusting up.
Thomist Marie George also wrote a book a few years ago on the subject. She argues that Catholic theology is compatible with ET’s of a certain sort.
Morris is an evangelical and George a Catholic, but both want to maintain orthodoxy. Several of the astronomers at the Vatican Observatory have also argued for the compatibility of Catholic theology and ET’s, though that fact raises questions on its own.
Interesting stuff, though hypothetical in the extreme. On empirical grounds, it looks like life, and earth-like planets, are rare relative to the number of available stars.