(Editor’s note: This commentary appeared in the March 2019 edition of Covalence. Given the inspiring landing of the Mars Rover Perseverance this past month and its hunt for past life on the red planet, we felt this piece was worth revisiting along with Dr. Ted Peters piece!)
I would like to thank Dr. Ted Peters for his excellent introduction to Astrotheology and for his pioneering work in the field long before the name Astrotheology was coined. I would like to expand on one theme Dr. Peters raised and then share a concern I have.
Dr. Peters wrote: “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?”
I don’t believe we can come anywhere near fully appreciating the immensity of the universe, but for years I have used a scale model of the Solar System to help groups get a better idea of that vastness. In this scale model with a scale of 1 inch: 100,000,000 meters, the Sun is a sphere about 14 inches in diameter, about the size of a typical beach ball.
The Earth is a tiny ball little more than a tenth of an inch in diameter, 125 feet away from our beach ball Sun.
I think this scale works very well. All major bodies of the Solar System are readily visible and the distances between them are walkable, with some effort for the gas giants and Pluto. Here is a summary of what this model of the Solar System helps us visualize:
Imagine an empty field 2 miles square, or about 2,500 acres. In the middle we have a beach ball. Scattered throughout the field, at appropriate distances, are a golf ball, a slightly smaller ball with some rings (for Saturn), a couple of marbles, and some small ball bearings. Nothing else in the Solar System would be readily visible to the naked eye. That’s how empty our Solar System is! On this scale, the next beach ball-sized star would be 6,260 miles away, about the distance from Chicago to Jerusalem! (Actually, the Alpha Centauri system is a multiple star system best represented by a beach ball, a basketball and baseball).
Here is a link to a full description of this easily replicated scale model.
There is another thing this scale model puts in perspective: The distance from the Earth to the Moon on this scale is about 4 inches.
That is the furthest distance human beings have traveled. It took Apollo 11 about 3 days to make that trip. NASA and others are considering manned trips to Mars. NASA figures that with current technology, the quickest manned trip to Mars would take about 9 months.
That would be traveling a distance of a little over 100 feet on this scale model. The distance to the nearest star is over 300,000 times that long. Even with technology a thousand times faster than what we have today, it would still take over 200 years to reach the nearest star!
Given this reality, along with all the other very formidable challenges of interstellar travel, it is virtually certain that, if we ever do make contact with other intelligent species in the cosmos, the initial contact will be in the form of radio signals, not via a spaceship and physical contact. Which raises my concern: How will our world of sinful human beings react to the news that we have detected a radio signal sent out by intelligent beings on a planet orbiting another star?
Consider this possible scenario: Radio astronomers announce that they have detected such a signal from a planet orbiting Vega, one of our nearest interstellar neighbors, only 25 light-years away. We immediately start beaming signals towards Vega to let them know we are here and have detected their signal. It will take 25 years for our response to reach them, and then another 25 years for us to hear that they received our response.
That would mean that for 50 years human beings would know one incredibly important fact — that at least one other intelligent species exists in the Milky Way — but we could do very little but wait a decades to find out anything more about these cosmic neighbors. We would, of course, try to determine the few details astronomy might be able to tell us about the planet this species inhabits. But that would not tell us much about that planet’s inhabitants.
Even when we did get a response, we would not really know much more about them. Given the challenges of effectively communicating information with a truly alien species, it would probably be centuries before we would be able to effectively communicate with them and begin to get answers to the many questions we would have about them. However, this scenario of another intelligent species being within 25 light-years of us is highly unlikely. A nearest cosmic neighbor of 250 or more light-years away is much more likely, extending the time frame from centuries to millennia. Whether the timeframe is decades, centuries or millennia, we are not good at waiting.
Think about what knowing this one fact, and so little else, is likely to mean for our world and the human psyche. In our contemporary society, there are many who resist scientific results they find difficult to accept, from creationists and climate change deniers to anti-vaxxers, and more. Fear of the “other” in terms of humans from different countries, cultures and religions, is one of the most powerful political forces globally.
If we respond this way to our fellow human beings who differ from us, imagine how people will react to beings who are truly alien to us! No doubt, different people will react in different ways. After the initial impact, many people may simply decide that nothing further will be known in their lifetime and not think too much more about it. Others surely will be inspired by this startling truth, and let their imaginations run wild. No doubt there will be fear mongers and opportunists who will seize upon this powerful fact and exploit the lack of any additional information.
What kind of havoc will such opportunists manage to wreak over such an extended period of time?
Our first contact with extraterrestrial intelligence will certainly be a pivotal moment in human history.
In spite of all the disruption and turmoil that moment will cause, I believe that, as Christians, we should be ready to embrace and celebrate it. If God has created other intelligent species near enough for us to contact, then surely God will be with us and ultimately bring good out of that contact. But God’s grace never eliminates our responsibility to make the best use of the gifts and opportunities God gives us. I am not sure what should be done to best prepare our world for that moment, but I hope that astrotheologians and others will give serious attention to this issue.
Perhaps one way to prepare for that moment would be to bring aspects of astrotheology into the Church’s worship. Since the publishing of the Lutheran Book of Worship in 1978, one of the Lutheran options for the Eucharistic Prayer suggests and supports the existence of life throughout the cosmos. It begins:
Holy God, mighty Lord, gracious Father;
Endless is your mercy and eternal your reign.
You have filled all creation with light and life;
Heaven and earth are full of your glory.
I wonder what other liturgical resources might already be in use that can help bring astrotheology into the worship of the church. Perhaps some of my fellow readers might know of some, or might choose to write worship material supportive of the endeavors of astrotheologians. In addition to the sources for astrotheology which Dr. Peters shared, let me recommend Would You Baptize an Extraterrestrial?, by Guy Consolmagno, SJ, and Paul Mueller, SJ. (Crown Publishing Group, New York, 2014.) It offers some excellent insights in a very accessible format.