Editor’s note: This is the first of two articles on astrotheology. Next time, we will explore the ethics involved in dealing with our space neighbors.
How big is God’s creation? The size of our nation? Our planet? Our galaxy? Or, the entire 94 billion light-year-across universe?
The contrast between the immensity of God’s cosmic creation and our minute human size is dramatic.
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?Psalm 8:3-4
Can we fully appreciate the vastness and the splendor of God’s cosmos from our sequestered location on a tiny planet nestled between the Sagittarius and Perseus Arms of the Milky Way?
Astronomers, astrophysicists, and astrobiologists daily gather data to expand and deepen our awareness of the magnificence and beauty of what God’s fingers have set in our heavens. Thank God for our scientists!
Enter the new field of astrotheology. Astrotheology is that branch of theology which provides a critical analysis of the contemporary space sciences combined with an explication of classic doctrines such as creation and Christology for the purpose of constructing a comprehensive and meaningful understanding of our human situation within an astonishingly immense cosmos. Astrotheology is not a field set off on its own. Rather, it is a branch on the larger systematic theology tree 1.
What are the doctrinal loci or areas of concern for the astrotheologian? Here’s a list to start with.
- (a) Creation. What is the scope of God’s creation? Earth alone? Or, does it include the Big Bang, the Anthropic Principle, the genesis of life, and the evolution of species on our planet as well as other planets?
- (b) Christology. Does the atoning work of Jesus Christ on Earth suffice for all beings throughout the universe? Or, might we expect God to become incarnate multiple times, once for each spiritually ready species?
- (c) Sin. Would extraterrestrials whom we encounter be fallen like us? Or, might they be so evolutionarily advanced in science, technology, and morality as to bring goodness if not salvation to us on Earth?
- (d) Eschatology. With the prognostications of physical cosmologists regarding the demise or our sun and the eventual heat death of the universe, how should we handle the biblical symbols of “new creation” and “eternal life”?
- (e) Ethics. What are the quandary issues rising from space exploration and related matters? What direction should public policy take? How can astrotheologians and astroethicists contribute?
Because of the ongoing discovery of exoplanets orbiting other stars in the Milky Way — nearly 4000 confirmed exoplanets as of this writing — Christians and other religious thinkers must ask this speculative question: are we alone? Might we share this galaxy and this universe with other sentient and rational creatures of God’s making? If astrobiologists do locate and identify extraterrestrial civilizations, will alien intelligence join us in thanking, worshipping, and praising God?
Many skeptics gloat over their own prophecy that Earth’s religious traditions will face a crisis and self-destruct as soon as we receive confirmation of ETI. This is a self-serving mistake. Along with former theology student Julie Froehlich, I conducted the “Peters ETI Religious Crisis Survey,” which concluded that self-avowed religious persons — Roman Catholic, Protestant, Buddhist, and others — would not become discombobulated from sharing our galaxy with new space neighbors. The only individuals who forecast a religious collapse are those who self-identify as non-religious. In sum, we have no religious or theological reason for compunction2. It’s time to put out the welcome mat.
But, the welcome mat is controversial. Active SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) and METI (Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence) have become contentious. It’s one thing for SETI to listen for radio signals broadcast from extraterrestrial transmitters. But should we
deliberately send provocative messages to targeted star systems to wake up otherwise sleeping aliens and tell them to pay attention to us on Earth? Yes, says Douglas Vakoch, who directs METI International3.
No, say critics4. The late Stephen Hawking, among others, fears an existential threat5. If aliens are like European colonialists, we can expect an alien flotilla to invade Earth, strip us of our valuable resources, and either enslave or annihilate the human species. Therefore, the METI critics fear, we earthlings should electronically hide from extraterrestrial discovery.
Whether the scientific community acknowledges it or not, it is grappling with what theologians label, sin. Having noticed the sinful state of human life on Earth, it’s only natural to project it imaginatively to off-Earth peoples. Our scientists are already doing theology without a license. Therefore, this public debate is not one real theologians should avoid. Meeting sin with gracious forgiveness is a habit we should have cultivated some millennia ago.
Astrotheology benefits from the research of astrobiology, but both disciplines must remain speculative until empirical evidence demonstrates that we are not alone in this universe. That speculation should include tentative plans for greeting new space neighbors, demonstrating hospitality as well as curiosity, and embracing a sense of the common good that is galactic and not merely anthropocentric or even geocentric in scope.
Ted Peters is a pastor in the ELCA and Emeritus Professor of Systematic Theology and Ethics at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary in Berkeley, CA. He co-edits the journal, Theology and Science and is author of God – The World’s Future (Fortress, 3rd ed., 2015).
- See the new publication: Astrotheology: Science and Theology Meet Extraterrestrial Life, eds., Ted Peters, Martinez Hewlett, Joshua Moritz, and Robert John Russell (Eugene OR: Cascade, 2018). ↩
- Ted Peters, “The implications of the discovery of extra-terrestrial life for religion.” The Royal Society, Philosophical Transactions A, 369 (1936) February 13, 2011; 644-655; https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/pdf/10.1098/rsta.2010.0234 . ↩
- Douglas A. Vakoch, “Hawking’s Fear of an Alien Invasion May Explain the Fermi Paradox,” Theology and Science 15:2 (May 2017) 139-141. ↩
- Kelly C. Smith, “Hawking and the METI Hawks: Right for the Wrong Reasons,” Theology and Science 15:2 (May 2017) 147-149; David Brin, “Who Speaks for Earth? The Current Controversy over METI: Messaging to Extraterrestrial Intelligence,” Skeptic Magazine 20:2 (2015) 8-9. ↩
- Stephen Hawking (2016), Stephen Hawking’s Favorite Places, https://app.curiositystream.com/video/1697?utm_campaign=S-Titles-Beta&utm_medium=cpc&utm_source=google&utm_term=%2Bhawking%20%2Bfavorite%20%2Bplaces&gclid=COPGu_yM69ACFQyAfgodMFIHtw (accessed 12/1/2016). ↩