Sitting at home in bed with a nasty respiratory infection is not my ideal way of spending a Sunday morning. My groggy head makes it hard to focus, and I find my thoughts turning to the heavens above…
A milestone was recently passed: the 555th extrasolar planet was confirmed. An extra solar planet is a planet orbiting a star other than our own sun. When I was growing up, there was a debate going on as to whether such planets even existed. Then in 1992 a few thousand years of wondering came to an end when the first extrasolar planet was discovered, whizzing around a pulsar. Since then, the discoveries have come thick and fast, with new methods for detecting the slippery little creatures being developed all the time. A few of the planets have even posed for a photo, like this one orbiting Fomalhaut (see picture), a star just 25 light years away in the constellation of the Southern Fish (Fomalhaut is Arabic for ‘mouth of the whale’). The Kepler space observatory is expected to take the figure into the thousands.
How exciting! Imagine what it might be like to travel to one of these planets orbiting around an alien sun. What exotic landscapes would we see? What new science might we learn there? For all human existence, we have been limited to one little, tiny corner of the universe. Until a few decades ago, we had no direct physical access to anything except what we could find here on earth. And then, as we began to send robots to the moon, the planets, the asteroids and comets of our own solar system, we were constantly surprised by what we discovered. Our furthest explorers, the Viking probes launched in the 1980s, are only now approaching the edge of our solar system, and again, making unexpected discoveries. What might we discover in an alien solar system?
Could there be life?
The scientific answer to that question is an interesting one. Most scientists who think about it believe the chances are pretty good that life exists somewhere else in the universe, but that our chances of ever coming across it are pretty dismal. Much of this thinking can be traced back to the famous Drake equation that calculates the probability of life and compares it to the number of planets that might be capable of harbouring life. There is ample speculation out there on the scientific and social questions that are raised by the possibility of alien life, so I won’t go into them here. But there is another set of questions that is a little harder to find being discussed.
The theological questions are no less interesting. I recall hearing HG Bishop Moussa commenting on this topic at a conference once: “If we find life on other planets, we’ll just tuck our Bibles under our arms and go and preach to the aliens” he said. A nice repost for an impromptu response, but perhaps there is more to the matter?
I see no problem in God creating life on other planets in the universe: it is abundantly clear that He has created a wildly huge universe, most of which is completely inaccessible to us anyway, so whether some of it has life or not hardly makes any difference. But what about intelligent life? Would such life be conscious in the same way we are? Might there be creatures who are like us but have no eternal spirit? Or if there are creatures with eternal spirits, would we meet them in Heaven? Perhaps that joyful meeting will not only be with angels and saints, but also with Alpha Centaurans! And would the aliens also be created in the image of God? Perhaps there are aliens throughout the universe, each of which is some variation on the image of God, much like a painter who paints the same scene in a number of different styles?
Would conscious aliens also have free will? If they fell from grace, would God need to incarnate in their form to save them? Or was that a one off solution for the particular problem of humans, and there are other solutions He might use for the particular problems of alien races? Would their sins be the same as our sins, and their virtues the same as ours? If “God is love”, surely Love would have to be a universal virtue, whatever you or your alien society looked like? Perhaps by making contact with the aliens, and studying their morality and beliefs, we could better work out which truths are universal truths, truths that hold everywhere and at all times, and which ones are just local rules suitable for earth alone.
Might some aliens be more in tune with the world of the spirit than we are? Are there worlds where the very question of the existence of God is not even raised because given their senses and brains, the answer is as blindingly obvious as a sunrise? Would they laugh at our debates over this topic (if they had laughing organs, that is)? Could they teach us new ways of experiencing God? Could they tell us new things about Him? What effect would this have on our relationship with Him? Could this kind of knowledge actually be harmful to us – something more than we can cope with?
Could there already be aliens out there on one of those very planets our telescopes are now imaging, peering back at us, watching and waiting for us to reach a level of maturity where we can sensibly communicate with them? If we found a planet ruled by cockroaches, we wouldn’t bother communicating with them, after all. Perhaps there aliens who think the same of us? What would such a discovery mean for how we see ourselves? Medieval theology considered humans to be God’s greatest creation ever (although I don’t think the Bible ever actually says that). What if we weren’t? What if we’re just one of many different creatures created by God in this wide universe, some greater, some lesser than we?
And what of the tantalising possibility that God only created one conscious species in each galaxy? If interplanetary travel is impossible for us in the near future, intergalactic travel is impossible for as far as we can imagine into the future! The distances are just mindboggling, even to the nearest galaxies. Even messages travelling at the speed of light would need to travel for millions of years before they got to us. By the time we messaged back, the whole alien civilisation would more than likely be long gone! What if the quota is exactly one conscious species per galaxy? That would mean that there are something of the order of 200,000,000,000 other conscious species living their lives, seeking their destinies, and we would never, ever know. Neither would they know about us.
Wow. If God’s intention in making this big universe was to help us realise how utterly small and insignificant we are, He did a really good job.
The questions seem as endless as the rain that gently, irresistably falls on the lawn. Like the raindrops, they seem to disappear unsatisfyingly without a trace as soon as they land. Shall we ever find answers? Regrettably, I can’t see interplanetary travel happening in my lifetime, nor even in my grandchildren’s. If it were, I think I would work really hard to be the first Coptic priest in space. But sometimes, on a cold, wet Sunday morning, with no one but God and few noisy birds outside my window for company, it is interesting to ponder….