Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Alien evangelism? (Sunday Reflections for October 9, 2011)

If “Does God exist?” is the most argued about speculative question, then a close second would probably be “Does other intelligent life exist?” Recently a conference devoted part of its time to an overlap of those questions: What would be the religious implications of discovering intelligent aliens?
The “100-Year Starship Symposium,” held in Orlando last week, was sponsored by DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Such a “starship” is not currently being developed but DARPA (which specializes in studying somewhat far-out ideas) and NASA have jointly begun a project to explore the possibilities. In addition to the technical how-to questions, the project also wants to look at cultural implications of such an endeavor. Thus, one panel of conference speakers discussed the philosophical and religious considerations of visiting other planets.
The summary I read focused mostly on a presentation by German philosophy professor Christian Weidemann. His talk was titled "Did Jesus die for Klingons too?" and examined the implications for Christianity if intelligent life was found elsewhere. Weidemann identified the main problem for Christianity if such a discovery were made, which is its exclusive claims for Jesus: through Christ, and Christ alone, God saved the whole universe.
It’s hard to tell from what I read just how seriously Weidemann took all this (he is identified as a Protestant Christian). His title certainly implies he was being at least somewhat tongue-in-cheek. Basically he looks at the problems that would be presented to orthodox Christian beliefs by such an event. His discussion of them has a kind of “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin” quality to it. Maybe aliens aren’t sinners. Maybe God’s incarnation occurred simultaneously in multiple forms in all the Universe’s existing civilizations. And so on.
I can only imagine how any NASA scientists or astrophysicists present must have reacted to such a conversation. They probably felt like they had fallen down Alice’s rabbit hole. Weidermann is correct that followers of conventional Christianity would be challenged to explain how other intelligent life fits into their view of reality. Yet conventional Christianity has been challenged by multiple scientific discoveries long before this.
To say God saved the world in Christ meant one thing in the context of ancient or medieval Europe. To say it now in the 21st century, and in the context of the pictures of the Hubble space telescope, seems almost laughable. We literally live in a different world than did the original formulators of Christian doctrine. Perhaps asking “Did Jesus die for Klingons?” was Weidermann’s way of showing the absurdity of our situation.
Of course, part of the absurdity is how hypothetical all this is. Is there other intelligent life in the universe? Given the immensity of the universe, it certainly seems possible and perhaps even likely. The difficulty, however, is the immensity of the distances between the stars, let alone other galaxies. It could be a long, long time before we are able to travel just to parts of our own galaxy.
Fifteen years ago the movie Contact explored a number of these questions. Based on a story by the late astronomer Carl Sagan, it hypothesizes alien life reaching out to us. We are “discovered” when earth’s first TV signal (assumed ironically to be the 1936 broadcast of Adolf Hitler opening the Berlin Olympics) reaches them in the Vega system 26 light years away.
As science fiction often assumes, the aliens are far more advanced than we are, but in this case they are also friendly. Their “outreach” is basically to communicate a method for humans to contact them, which is done by the lead character, a scientist played by Jody Foster. The implications of all this are debated by her (an agnostic) and a clergy friend, played by Matthew McConaughey (who is incredibly miscast but this is before he achieved “hunk” status—I don’t think he ever takes off his shirt). The story ends with Foster being forced to ask others to simply believe that she really did contact the aliens, thus raising the issue of faith and doubt even in scientific endeavors.
In addition to allowing us to speculate about the future, science fiction also helps us think about life right now with its “what if” perspective. One of the most interesting part of the movie is the brief conversation Foster has with an alien (who chooses to appear to her in the form of her late father—oh my). He tells her that they have basically solved the social and technical problems that bedevil human civilization. The life question has thus become for them, so now what do we do?
In brief, alien life is about learning and discovering—hence, their reaching out to “contact” human beings. Their explorations are how they deal with two fundamental challenges of intelligent existence: boredom and loneliness. It does raise an interesting question: What is our life apart from solving our problems?
Medieval theology hangs on because it preserves a much simpler world: God is in heaven and all’s right with the world. As much as we might want to, however, we no longer live in that world. The vastness of the universe which we now recognize, both in time and space, is something no ancient religion imagined or could comprehend.
The hypothetical question of alien intelligence raises the very real question of religion’s continued relevance. Any religion that hasn’t already figure out we are in a new world now won’t be helped by the discovery of alien life. Any religion that is contributing to meeting contemporary life’s challenges, rather than being part of the problem, has already come to that realization, welcomed it, and is moving on.

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