As I have been putting together these reflections on faith and science in the classroom, there has been a topic looming in the background as the proverbial elephant in the middle of the room: What happens to Christianity if we discover intelligent life on another planet? This question is both compelling and loaded. First off, we need to break down this question into a series of clarifying questions.
- What do we mean by life?
- What do we mean by intelligent life?
- Is intelligent life synonymous with human life?
- How do we understand the difference between human life and other kinds of life?
- Can we conceptualize a type of intelligent life that isn’t human life?
- What does it mean to be made in God’s image and likeness?
From these questions, we can develop another series of clarifying questions.
- What is the role of science in defining life?
- What is the role of philosophy in defining life?
- What is the role of theology in defining life?
- How has defining life been treated by different cultures (including legal definitions)?
- What is the ultimate “litmus test” when defining life?
- Is defining life based on understanding physical characteristics of a living thing (like dissecting a frog in a lab), encountering a living thing (entering into some type of relationship with something), or both?
And these are just the beginning questions! Needless to say, the question of what will happen to Christianity if we find intelligent life on another planet is not as simple as some may presume. One of the glairing problems with the question is that the only example we have of life is on our planet. Therefore, could there be a type of intelligent life that is so different from anything we know on Earth that there is no way of conceptualizing what this life may be like?
As a a Catholic Priest whose primary ministry is to walk with my parishioners in their faith life, my gut inclination tells me that the discovery of intelligent life on another plant, dwarf planet, or moon that is similar to human life would be met with two responses: First, an initial shock and fear that this discovery will be the death of Christianity, and, second, with time and patience, a deeper understanding of our created world will emerge that will deepen, enrich, and strengthen Christian faith.
The reason I think the response of Christians to intelligent life would move from fear to a deepening of our faith is because this is how the spiritual life works in so many other aspects of life. When someone starts to understand the moral implications of the decisions they make in life, there can be an initial shock that things they once thought were okay to do actually have deep moral implications both personally and socially. Any seminarian or college theology student that has studied the Doctrine of God quickly realizes that their confident, unwavering understanding of God they brought with them to seminary or university is suddenly dismantled when encountering the theological tradition of understanding who God is. Does this dismantling lead to the loss of faith? For some whose faith gets rattled in the face of this dismantling, it can lead to a loss of faith. However, for those who persevere through this humbling of our belief, a deeper and more grounded understanding of God can also emerge. It is a good reminder to us that questioning one’s faith is not a bad thing, but is often necessary to strengthen our faith. In many ways, how new discoveries impact one’s faith has less to do with the initial data that may dismantle one’s current beliefs and more to do with the patience and fortitude we are willing or unwilling to embrace in light of this data, prayerfully deepening our understanding of faith.
Below is a series of videos that explore the question of life and how these discoveries may or may not impact faith in God. The first video is a discussion with Lynn Rothschild and Vatican Observatory Scientist Juan Pablo Marrufo. Lynn is a world renowned scientist in the study of the potential of life outside of our Earth and Juan Pablo’s area of expertise is in the dialogue between faith and science. In their discussion, Lynn and Juan Pablo explore multiple aspects of the exploration of life outside of our common home. The second video is a discussion between Br. Guy Consolmagno and Fr. Chris Crobally on both the scientific exploration of life and the need to encounter and be in relationship with life. The final video is from the AAAS dialogue between science, ethics, and religion on the exploration of space.
A Discussion Between Lynn Rothschild and Juan Pablo Marrufo on the Potential of Life Outside of Earth.
A Discussion Between Br. Guy Consolmagno and Fr. Chris Corbally on Life Outside of the Universe.
Space and Exploration: Humans in a Vast Universe from Nathan Clarke on Vimeo.