ExoTheology & Space-Age Interpretations of the Bible

(religious implications of an inhabited universe)

The London Times: “Does Jesus save aliens?”

Does Jesus Save AliensDoes Jesus save aliens? (11/11/09)

Four hundred years after Renaissance philosopher Giordano Bruno was burnt at the stake for his belief in the “plurality of worlds” (aliens), scientists and religious leaders gathered this week at a seemingly more open-minded Vatican for a conference on astrobiology (aliens).

The meeting focussed on current science, rather than the theological quandaries thrown up by the possibilty of other life forms beyond this planet. But that hasn’t stopped debate spilling over outside the conference.

Yesterday I spoke to Paul Davies, a cosmologist from Arizona State University, just after he addressed the conference. In his view, the possibility of other civilisations – potentially more intelligent than our own – puts Christians “in a real bind”. Specifically, he says that nobody’s satisfactorily addressed the question of whether aliens get saved. “The Catholic church offers a very species specific brand of salvation. Noone says that Jesus came to save the dolphins and certainly not little green men,” he said.

The possibility of extraterrestrial life does not pose the same problems for Eastern religions, which tend to be less Earth-centric, or Islam, which speaks explicitly of life beyond Earth, he said.

The Vatican does not have an official position on alien life forms, but a number of its scientists have spoken out on the issue. Father Jose Funes, director of the Vatican Observatory told the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, that the possibility of “brother extraterrestrials” was not incompatible with Catholic theology.

William Stroeger, an astrophysicist at the Vatican Observatory Research Group and a Jesuit priest, agreed: “There might be fundamentalists for whom the two things are incompatible but mainline congregations – Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Methodists – would not have a problem with this,” he said.

Stroeger pointed out that the Catechism introduced after the second Vatican council states that there can be no conflict between science and religion. “If there’s a contradiction it means that we haven’t understood or interpreted one of them correctly,” he said.

This may be the case, but I agree with Davies that this isn’t a trivial issue for theologists. Giggle factor aside, the question of whether Jesus would save aliens goes right to the heart of Christian beliefs. If you believe that “intelligent life” equals having a soul, then you have to ask where you’d draw the line. If scientists found dolphins on a distant planet, they would be mad with excitement at having found something so smart. But what would theologians make of them?

Stroeger conceded that the discovery of intelligent life elsewhere in the Universe would pose a challenge, but said that it would not be insurmountable. “There are some difficult issues to resolve, such as whether Jesus as saviour is the one who saves everyone in the Universe or if there are other equivalent salvation events that take place elsewhere in the Universe,” he said.

I was left feeling slightly mind-boggled at how you would even begin to answer such a question.

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