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Essays - Theories and Opinions

Keeping the Faith

How would the discovery of extraterrestrial life affect religious thought on humanity's place in the universe? We queried scholars from a variety of faith traditions to get their take on the subject.

John A. Bloom John A. Bloom, Ph.D., Ph.D., M.Div.
Professor of Physics
Director, Masters Degree Program in Science and Religion
Biola University

February 1, 2005

Conservative Christian theologians have discussed the question of life on other worlds for centuries, and many grant the possibility. God could create the entire universe for only one type of intelligent being. But he just as well could create more beings for other worlds. Since he created angels in addition to us, what would stop him from creating other beings elsewhere? Given God's creative nature, I personally lean toward the latter possibility.

If intelligent life is found elsewhere, it would raise interesting theological questions. Did this life also rebel against God? If so, does Christ's atonement for humankind on earth apply to them, or did God provide them with another means of salvation? There certainly would be a lot to talk about with them!

Marc Kaufman Marc Kaufman
Editor, Science & Spirit Magazine

February 1, 2005

In keeping with one raised in the Jewish tradition, let me answer your question with a question. How would discovering the impossibility of extraterrestrial life impact my view of humankind's place in the universe?

Now that would cause me to go back and edit my worldview a bit. My own personal integration of faith, rationality and instinct forces me to assume that we on this planet are no more special than the water that once existed on Mars, or whatever life forms may [exist elsewhere]. I accept that we, as humans, are somehow the chosen people - and therefore the only people - no more than I accept that we, as humans, are the result of creation rather than evolution.

There is nothing I have seen, either in my faith tradition or in my observations concerning the intersection of science and religion, that presents a compelling case that we must be alone in the cosmos. Indeed, finding extraterrestrial life would confirm, not change, my view of humankind's place in the universe. It would have profound impact in its resonance across the spectrum of belief. Personally, I would sit and wonder: What took them so long?

William Grosnick, Ph.D.
Department of Religion
La Salle University

February 1, 2005

Since the existence of extraterrestrial life is not something I have ever heard addressed during Buddhist practice, I am primarily responding to your question from a scholarly point of view.

I doubt very much that any tradition of Buddhism would find the discovery of extraterrestrial life in any way threatening to its world view. The Mahayana tradition of Buddhism (which originated in India, but which is found today in Tibet, Japan, Korea and parts of China) has sutras which show the Buddha's teaching extending to all worlds. In one sutra a "searchlight" comes out of his forehead to illuminate different worlds, in another his tongue extends to all the worlds.

The central Mahayana religious goal is to guide all beings to enlightenment, in whatever world system those beings might be found. Mahayana sutras, like Hindu literature, are populated with mythical creatures like nagas, kinnaras, gandharvas and garudas, and all of these beings are shown eagerly leaving their worlds to attend the teaching sessions held by the Buddha.

The Theravada tradition of Buddhism is a bit more subdued in its imagination, but a prayer commonly uttered at the end of meditation sessions expresses the following wish: "May all beings be happy. May all beings be free from suffering. May all beings abide in boundless equanimity, liberated from greed, hatred and ignorance. May all beings realize their true nature, have ease of being and live in peace."

I am quite sure that the Theravada tradition would extend that wish to any extraterrestrial beings who might be discovered.

Rev. Thomas O'Meara Rev. Thomas O'Meara, OP
Dominican priest and theologian
Faculty of the University of Notre Dame

February 1, 2005

For Christians, the Bible should be a theology of God's saving history with the human race on Planet Earth. Jesus is the word of God as a human being. The Bible and the teachings of Jesus do not address other kinds of intelligent and free creatures on other planets.

We already know from astronomy that the universe is vast. Catholic theologians, from Thomas Aquinas to Karl Rahner, did not stress the narrowness or meanness of God, but God's generosity, his wisdom of design, his love for his created beings. We see this intelligence and love in the vastness of the universe. Although we are only getting used to the idea, God most likely created thousands of other kinds of intelligent creatures with whom God shares his life and love.

Gregory E. Sterling Gregory E. Sterling, Ph.D.
Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins
Department of Theology, University of Notre Dame

February 1, 2005

As a Christian, I understand the universe to be theocentric, not anthrocentric. God is the creator and sustainer of the cosmos and human beings are part of creation. The scope and scale of God's creative work has unfolded as the universe has expanded. Our perception of God's creative work grows keener as our ability to study the cosmos becomes greater.

The Scriptures of the Judeo-Christian tradition relate the story of God's interactions with human beings on earth. This makes the Bible anthropological in its orientation. While this orientation is critical for my understanding of God and the cosmos, it does not mean that this orientation exhausts the unlimited God or God's creative work. Whether there is life beyond earth or not, I understand God and the cosmos from the perspective of one who inhabits the Earth.

Shabir Ally
President, Islamic Information and Dawah Centre International

There is nothing in the Qur'an that precludes the possibility that extraterrestrial life exists. On the contrary, the Qur'an gives the impression that the creatures of God are varied and that the full extent of his creation is comprehended by him alone.

If such life is ever found, I do not expect that it will alter in any significant way my present understanding of man's place in the universe. My present understanding is already comfortable with that possibility.

Of course the nature of that life, and some appreciation of the level of intelligence that accompanies that life are two considerations that could reshape my worldview in some way, though it is too early to speculate how. I would also find it interesting to discover their mode of communication with each other and with us, if that is ever possible. More interesting will be the discovery of their religious views.

Vivienne SM. Angeles Vivienne SM. Angeles, Ph.D.
Department of Religion
La Salle University

February 1, 2005

I doubt if Muslims in general would be affected much by [a discovery of alien life]. Muslims submit to God and if God put extraterrestials in the universe, there must be a reason and purpose for that. In the meantime, humans continue to live their lives in this world and are guided by the Qur'an in their relationship with God and other humans.