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What if ET Phones Our Home, Implications for Christian Thought

What if ET Phones Our Home, Implications for Christian Thought

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Published by Ken Yeh
The search for meaning and significance drives seekers to look far beyond themselves for answers. Theists look up to heaven and praise God for His magnificent Creation, while those who hold a worldview that rejects a divine Creator also probe the heavens in hopes that the answers to the questions about our past origins and future prospects may come from contact with an advanced, extraterrestrial intelligent civilization. What affect will this contact, if it ever occurs, have on the Christian faith as we know it? Will it shatter the core Christian belief in the significance of human beings within the universe and the importance of the Incarnation of the Son of God? Or is there room within the Christian view of Creation and God’s salvific plan for a plurality of intelligent beings within the universe?
The search for meaning and significance drives seekers to look far beyond themselves for answers. Theists look up to heaven and praise God for His magnificent Creation, while those who hold a worldview that rejects a divine Creator also probe the heavens in hopes that the answers to the questions about our past origins and future prospects may come from contact with an advanced, extraterrestrial intelligent civilization. What affect will this contact, if it ever occurs, have on the Christian faith as we know it? Will it shatter the core Christian belief in the significance of human beings within the universe and the importance of the Incarnation of the Son of God? Or is there room within the Christian view of Creation and God’s salvific plan for a plurality of intelligent beings within the universe?

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Published by: Ken Yeh on Dec 10, 2008
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What If ET Phones Our Home? Implications for Christian Thought
By Ken Yeh
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
The search for meaning and significance drives seekers to look far beyondthemselves for answers. Theists look up to heaven and praise God for His magnificentCreation, while those who hold a worldview that rejects a divine Creator also probe theheavens in hopes that the answers to the questions about our past origins and futureprospects may come from contact with an advanced, extraterrestrial intelligentcivilization. The influx of new private funding into more powerful tools for the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI)—such as the new Allen Telescope Array—expandsthe range and scope of the search. And though several decades worth of searchinghave been fruitless up till now, the possibility still exists that one day we will receive anundeniable signal that we are not the sole intelligent civilization in this universe, and if that day comes, the effects will doubtless be monumental. Astronomer Robert Jastrowimagines that contact with an extraterrestrial intelligence will be a “transforming” event.He states, “I do not know how the Judeo-Christian tradition will react to thisdevelopment, because the concept that there exist beings superior to us in this universe,not only technically, but perhaps spiritually and morally, will take some rethinking, I think,of the classic doctrines of Western religion.”
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 What affect will this contact, if it ever occurs, have on the Christian faith as weknow it? Will it shatter the core Christian belief in the significance of human beingswithin the universe and the importance of the Incarnation of the Son of God? Or isthere room within the Christian view of Creation and God’s salvific plan for a plurality of intelligent beings within the universe? It is very likely that SETI will continue to findnothing, in which case we may never need the answers to these questions, but asCatholic theologian and professor Giuseppe Tanzella-Nitti states, “I believe that thetheme for the possibility of an intelligent life of extraterrestrial origin, that is outside thatexperience of unity of the human family which is common to all the biblical message,represents one of the major speculative efforts that Christian theology might be facedwith.”
2
Though Scripture offers little to guide us in our speculations, my position in thispaper is thus: I affirm the validity of the “classical” position—that Earth is the unique life-bearing planet in the universe—in the absence of any evidence to the contrary, but Ibelieve that it is worthwhile to survey historic Christian thought in this area andspeculate on possible Christian responses in the hypothetical situation that intelligentlife on other planets is discovered.
Extraterrestrial Life in Historic Christian Thought
The concept of extraterrestrial life has flourished and floundered at various timesin historical Christian thought. We begin our survey in the Medieval Ages, during whichThomas Aquinas provided a synthesis of Christian doctrine with Aristotelian cosmology.Aquinas maintained the Aristotelian idea of placing Earth at the center of the universe,establishing a positional significance of human beings within the universe. However,challenges to Aristotelian ideas which potentially limited the powers of God soon arose.In 1277, the Bishop of Paris, Etienne Tempier, issued a condemnation of 219propositions that he considered restrictive of God’s omnipotence, including theproposition that God could not make more than one world. Though the purpose of this
1
Quoted in Fred Heeren, “Home Alone in the Universe?”
First Things
121 (March 2002);available from http://www.firstthings.com/ftissues/ft0203/articles/heeren.html.
2
Giuseppe Tanzella-Nitti, “Extraterrestrial Life,” trans. by Ruan Harding,
Interdisciplinary Encyclopaedia of Religion and Science
; available from http://www.disf.org/en/Voci/65.asp
 
was to affirm God’s omnipotence and not the existence of multiple worlds, thisstatement had the effect of opening the Christian community to conjecture on thepossibility of a plurality of life-bearing worlds.The 14
th
century Franciscan friar and philosopher William of Ockham declaredthat God could certainly make an infinite number of worlds like ours, and could possiblycreate a world that was better than ours. The 15
th
century cardinal Nicholas of Cusaargued that “life, as it exists here on earth in the form of men, animals and plants, is tobe found, let us suppose, in a higher form in the solar and stellar region.”
3
Nicholasspeculated on the existence of solar beings who were more spiritual than the materialcreatures on earth, and also beings who inhabited the moon, whom he called—punpossibly not intended—“lunatics.” However, soon after this time the ProtestantReformation, with its emphasis on the authority of Scripture, caused a swing againstbelief in the plurality of worlds. Lambertus Danaeus argued that life on other planetsshould not be accepted because it was not taught in Scripture; however, since other planets themselves are not mentioned in Scripture this argument did not hold up well.Lutheran theologian Philip Melanchthon noted that Genesis described God resting onthe seventh day after creating the world, and argued that this meant that He did notcreate any other worlds. Reformation theologians also pointed out that a plurality of worlds might have dire consequences for the doctrine of the Incarnation of Christ andthe efficacy of Jesus’ death and resurrection.But then the Scientific Revolution brought back more speculation about other worlds, at the expense of a decreasing emphasis on the doctrine of the Incarnation andredemption. In the 16
th
century, the acceptance of Copernicus’ heliocentric model of thesolar system displaced the Earth from its central position within the universe andcaused people to consider that there were possibly many other stars like our sun in theuniverse. When Johannes Kepler observed the four moons orbiting Jupiter, heconcluded that there must be life on Jupiter. He reasoned that as God had made theMoon for our benefit here on Earth, therefore the moons of Jupiter were made for thebenefit of the inhabitants of Jupiter. Other Christian astronomers such as RichardBentley of England and Christian Huygens of Holland believed that since there weremany stars that could not be observed from Earth, they must have been created for theinhabitants of other solar systems to see. These early Christian scientists believed inGod’s ability to create life anywhere He pleased, and that the universe did not exist for the sole benefit of humans but for God to reveal His glory. Later astronomers almostunanimously held to a belief in life on other planets, including Sir William Herschel,discoverer of Uranus, who claimed to have seen near-certain evidence of lunarians, andJohann Bode, who reasoned, “The most wise author of the world assigns an insectlodging on a grain of sand and will certainly not permit… the great ball of the sun to beempty of creatures and still less of rational inhabitants who are ready gratefully to praisethe author of life.”
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 At the same time, theologians could be seen trying to reconcile Christiandoctrines with the speculative visions of the astronomers of the day. In the face of suchbelief in solarians, lunarians, martians, Venusians, mercurians, and jupiterians, whatwas a Christian thinker to do? For the most part, theologians accepted the pluralism of the astronomers. The Anglican theologian John Wilkins argued in his book
Discovery of a World in the Moone
that the existence of life on other worlds did not clash withChristianity, but rather was an expression of God’s creative power, which had been up
3
Quoted in Benjamin D. Wiker, “Alien Ideas: Christianity and the Search for Extraterrestrial Life,”
Crisis Magazine
(November 2002); available fromhttp://www.crisismagazine.com/november2002/feature7.htm.
4
Quoted in Wiker.
 
till now restricted by believers only to the Earth. He proposed that extraterrestrialbeings might not be fallen from grace like humans, but even if they were, Christ’satonement could be effective for them also. Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle’s 1686book
Conversations on the Plurality of Worlds
argued that beings on other planets werenot descended from Adam and hence were not subject to the Incarnation. John Raybelieved that extraterrestrial life revealed the wisdom and power of God’s creative workin the same way as the multitude of species on Earth. The concept of extraterrestriallife also made its way into the beliefs of the Mormons, who held that the universe waspopulated by many gods, angels, and inhabitants on multiple planets, while the founder of the Seventh-Day Adventists, Ellen Harmon, claimed to have seen visions of the tall,sinless inhabitants of Jupiter.Thus, it can be seen that in 18
th
century Christian thought, the acceptance of aplurality of worlds allowed the doctrine of God’s creative freedom to dominate over concerns of redemption and the Incarnation of Christ. At the same time, a growingnumber of deists began to use the concept of extraterrestrial life as an argument againstthe beliefs of classical Christianity. The deist poet Alexander Pope composed “TheUniversal Prayer” to replace the cosmologically provincial Lord’s Prayer. Thomas Painemade the clearest statement about the incompatibility of Christianity and the plurality of worlds: “[T]o believe that God created a plurality of worlds at least as numerous as whatwe call stars, renders the Christian system of faith at once little and ridiculous andscatters it in the mind like feathers in the air.”
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To those who tried to hold to bothChristianity and pluralism, Paine commented, “He who thinks he believes both hasthought but little of either.”Thus, science and theology professor Benjamin Wiker observes two overlappingbut opposing trends that occurred during this time over the issue of extraterrestrials: oneled by Christians, the other by deists. He writes, “Both sung endless paeans to a mightGod, creator of heaven and many earths, and both chiseled away at the doctrine of theIncarnation to make it fit such pluralism.”
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Christians striving to stay relevant to thescientific opinion of the day chipped away at the “embarrassing particularity” of theIncarnation, while the deists simply deemed this doctrine unfit for their new universaltheology and eliminated it altogether. In the 19
th
and 20
th
centuries, deism quickly gaveway to atheism, and while the belief in extraterrestrial life maintained its important statusin the new naturalistic worldview, the belief in a divine Creator was left behind as anobsolete relic from the past.
An Open Christian Consideration of ET
After surveying the theme of extraterrestrial life in historic Christian thought, wehave observed a broad range of views, from outright rejection to overt acceptance.Especially towards the end of the millennium, it has been noted that some Christianthinkers may have overly compromised the critical doctrines of Christian belief in aneffort to stay relevant to popular scientific opinion, but even this did nothing to curb thesecularization of the worldviews of many scientists. From this the lesson should belearned that Christian theology should not strive to keep up with the latest popular trendat the expense of ignoring what the Bible reveals. So, in light of this warning fromrecent history, we ask the question, Is there room for extraterrestrial intelligences inChristian thought? Can core Christian beliefs be consistent with the concept of life onother planets in the universe? Again, in the absence of any evidence that we are not
5
Thomas Paine,
The Age of Reason, Part First 
(1794); available fromhttp://www.ushistory.org/paine/ reason/reason12.htm.
6
Wiker.

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