A star appeared in the East.
Following it, so the biblical story goes, three Magi urged on by a nervous King Herod arrived in Bethlehem and discovered the news that many of us celebrate with bells, lights and too much sugar and alcohol every year at this time: The son of God had come to die for our sins.
Peace on earth and good will to men is fine, as far as it goes. But some astronomers and forward-thinking theologians wonder how the rest of the universe is supposed to get the message.
If your dog can go to heaven, can E. T.? Astronomers have discovered in the last two decades that there are probably tens of billions of potentially habitable planets in the Milky Way. Only last week, NASA scientists reported that Mars had blown a methane sigh into the face of the Curiosity rover, though whether from microbes or geochemical grumblings may not be known until there are geologists’ boots on the Red Planet.
So it’s not so crazy to imagine other living creatures scattered through the billions of years and light-years of cosmic history.
Did Christ come to die for their sins, too?
Or as Geoffrey Marcy, an exoplanet explorer and holder of the Watson and Marilyn Alberts Chair in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence at the University of California, Berkeley, said not long ago in an email, “But do they know it’s Christmas?”
Surely, earthlings were not the only beings in the Milky Way blessed in God’s eyes, he elaborated, saying that he liked to tease public audiences with the question. “Conversations about religion with intelligent beings from an exoplanet might jolt humanity into realizing how parochial our beliefs are,” he said.
Pope Francis suggested in a homily in May that he would baptize Martians if they landed in St. Peter’s Square and asked for it.
How, you may ask, might E.T. have sinned? On Earth, violence and suffering are embedded in the Darwinian struggle for survival that produced us, says Ted Peters, a professor who runs a group on “astrotheology” at the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences in Berkeley. If aliens are made of the same stuff we are, Dr. Peters wrote in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society in 2011, “might they also share the ambiguity between good and evil that we are familiar with?”
But what if they are computers or other forms of artificial intelligence that futurists say might ultimately supplant us as masters of the universe?
Christian scholars like Dr. Peters and indeed the pope agree that the possibility of redemption probably extends to all of creation, even perhaps the inanimate world.
“How could he be God and leave extraterrestrials in sin?” asks the Rev. George V. Coyne, the former director of the Vatican Observatory and now a Jesuit priest who holds the McDevitt Chair of Religious Philosophy at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, in the 2000 book Many Worlds: The New Universe, Extraterrestrial Life and the Theological Implications, edited by the astronomer Steven J. Dick, a former chief historian for NASA. “After all, he was good to us. Why should he not be good to them?”
This has engendered a sort of how-many-angels-can-dance-on-the-head-of-a-pin argument about whether Christ died for the entire cosmos, or whether the son of God or the metaphysical equivalent has to be born and die on every populated planet.
Each alternative sounds ridiculous on the face of it. The first alternative would make Earth the center of the universe again, not just in space but in time, carrying the hopes for the salvation of beings that lived and died millions or billions of years ago and far, far away.
The second alternative would be multiple incarnations, requiring every civilization to have its own redeemer — “its own adventure with God,” in the words of Professor Peters. That is hardly better. As the old troublemaker Thomas Paine wrote in The Age of Reason, “In this case, the person who is irreverently called the son of God, and sometimes God himself, would have nothing else to do than to travel from world to world, in an endless succession of deaths, with scarcely a momentary interval of life.”
Distinguished theologians have come down on different sides of this issue; after all, it’s not up to us to say what God could or could not do. “God doesn’t seem to be limited by history and communication,” Dr. Peters said in an interview, playing the devil’s advocate, so to speak, for the notion of a single incarnation for the entire cosmos. In that case, the consequences would not be limited to “people who get emails about it.”
“Every sentient being is blessed by God’s grace whether they know about it or not,” he said.
Seeking scientific as well as spiritual guidance, I dialed up Guy Consolmagno at the Vatican Observatory. He is a Jesuit priest and a co-author, with his fellow Jesuit Paul Mueller, of Would You Baptize an Extraterrestrial? … And Other Questions from the Astronomer’s In-box at the Vatican Observatory.
Brother Consolmagno spent 10 years working and teaching as a planetary scientist, specializing in meteorites, before joining the Jesuits. Last year, he was awarded the Carl Sagan Medal by the Division for Planetary Sciences of the American Astronomical Society, for communication in planetary science. He said that Christmas for aliens could be a wonderful story, but that he didn’t have any answers and that that was part of the fun.
“One incarnation seems absurd but not inconsistent with the data,” he said by phone from Florida, where he was watching manatees.
There is no data, I pointed out.
“Exactly!” he responded, laughing.
Contrary to popular perception, he said, religion, like science, is not a closed book. “Science,” he said, “is stuff we understand about truths we only partially grasp. Religion is trying to get closer to truths we don’t understand.”
The more you know, the more you know you don’t understand, he said. “That’s called progress.”
The challenge in any person’s or species’ life, he added, is how to learn others’ truths without giving up your own.
Dr. Marcy, with tongue fairly firmly in cheek, evoked what he called “the multigod model of the universe.”
There might be room in the universe for more than one truth, he said, if every inhabited planet had its own gods. The inhabitants might be as certain of their beliefs as we humans are of ours.
“The deities have carved out their operating galactic territories, like so many cosmic Corleone families,” Dr. Marcy said.
“Only with SETI research,” he went on, referring to the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, “will we learn whether our particular God is alone in the universe.”
His point was echoed, if less ironically, by Nancy Ellen Abrams, a lawyer, philosopher and author of a forthcoming book, A God That Could Be Real: Spirituality, Science and the Future of Our Planet, which argues that God is an emergent phenomenon, a result of the complexity of the universe and human aspirations rather than the cause of them — although no less real for that. “Our god is the god of humanity; it has nothing to do with aliens,” she said in an interview.
In the best of all possible universes, all these truths and gods would mysteriously and perhaps revelatorily overlap. But maybe that is wishful thinking and there is another, more chilling answer to Christmas.
Take that star in the East; it was the subject of a classic story by Arthur C. Clarke, a science fiction author and space visionary.
In The Star, published in 1955, an expedition to the site of an old supernova explosion discovers the remains of an ancient civilization, carefully preserved because its members knew they were about to be obliterated. The story is told through the eyes of the astrophysicist onboard, a Jesuit. He is able to figure out exactly when the explosion that doomed this race took place, and exactly what it would have looked like 2,000 years ago from Earth.
“There can be no reasonable doubt,” he concludes, “the ancient mystery is solved at last. Yet, oh God, there were so many stars you could have used. What was the need to give these people to the fire, that the symbol of their passing might shine above Bethlehem?”
Brother Consolmagno, who was a science fiction aficionado as an undergraduate at M.I.T., knows the story.
“That’s not the kind of god I’m happy with,” he said.
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