Other Planets, Other People

Astronomers have been busy discovering planets in other solar systems. (See this, for instance.) They now detect hundreds circling other stars, some with characteristics like Earth’s.

The obvious agenda in this targeted search is to find intelligent life. If life comes through evolution, there is reason to think that conditions like Earth’s would produce comparable results. Perhaps we will find someone to talk to.

I take it that many people regard this as an existential threat to Christianity. For some time it’s been asserted that human beings have no capacities that set them utterly apart from animals. (Language, art, tool-making, rationality, morality, all have been said to be the possession of various other creatures—though not by the creatures themselves.) The discovery of intelligent life on other planets would be the final proof that humans are not necessarily the summit of creation. And this, somehow, would debunk Christianity.

I agree that the discovery of intelligent life will be a great challenge to Christians, but not in the way that others are thinking. I don’t believe God has declared humans to be his sole or even his greatest project. All he has to say on that front is that he loves us and wants to set us to work. He nowhere says that he doesn’t love others, or have plans for others. My faith need not be anthropocentric any more than it need be heliocentric. (Christocentric, yes.)

The challenge, as I see it, will be a missionary one. Can Christians overcome their prejudices and learn to carry Good News to those other intelligences? Can we believe in God enough to think that his gospel is for them, too?

There is precedent. When Jesus first came to earth, all his followers were Jews. It was some time before any of them began to imagine that non-Jews could be members of Jesus’ kingdom. The goyim just didn’t have the capacity for genuine Jewishness!  Jews were the people God had chosen. Eventually, though, Jewish believers discovered that uncircumcised, ungodly gentiles could receive the Holy Spirit—though in a way quite distinct from the way Jews received him.

Later, the Romans had a hard time imagining that the barbarians of the north—the Germanic tribes—could share in the benefits of Christian civilization.

Nor did English and Irish Christians see the gospel taking root in the raping and pillaging Vikings.

Nor did Victorian British necessarily see the point of evangelizing Africa.

At every point, people who had the gospel have been tempted to think that aliens were either beneath comprehending the good news, or above needing the good news. People do tend to be ethnocentric, Christians certainly included.

But Christianity is a universal religion. It offers up hope for everybody, however far off they may be. And so with other intelligences. One cannot assume that they will be expecting or awaiting good news. It will be our job to understand them, and love them, enough to find out how to communicate the news that in Jesus the creator God has come to us—to all of his creation.

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8 Responses to “Other Planets, Other People”

  1. Steve Says:

    As the great philosopher Larry Norman says in: U.F.O.

    and if there’s life on other planets
    then i’m sure that He must know
    and He’s been there once already
    and has died to save their souls

  2. chasta Says:

    We also tend to think we need to take the gospel to other places, when it’s equally important to discover what God is already doing in those places, independently of us. I think this could apply to other planets.

  3. Macon Says:

    I think the most interesting chellenge would be around the Son’s incarnation in human flesh. We currently don’t speculate along the lines of “why human and not, say, dolphin flesh?” But if we find another sentient species, we will need to understand why God chose humans and not wookies.

    Or maybe the answer is that “humanity” is not a category restricted to the dominant bi-pedal species on Earth?

  4. Macon Says:

    whoops: challenge.

    Fat fingers!

  5. David Neff Says:

    Tim, I’ve been thinking similar thoughts, but not about mission, since Sydney Carter had me thinking about how God has already probably revealed himself and shown his grace in those other contexts. Sydney Carter’s hymn text, “Every Star Shall Sing a Carol,” can be found here: http://bit.ly/hE2uXX.

  6. PaulVK Says:

    As to the comment about “human flesh”, part of what both Genesis communicates and what science points to is that we and the animals share the same flesh. We are all made of the stuff of earth, which is not qualitatively different from the stuff of other planets. The imperishable flesh of the resurrected Jesus Christ is the flesh of creation 2.0, of which the rest of the cosmos will ultimately partake.

    Image bearing seems connected with stewardship function. Humanity is steward of this planet like no other creature. Any other intelligent creatures that we could communicate with would likely also be stewards of their worlds. Then again, we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

    Thanks for the post. pvk

  7. David Graham Says:

    Why should we assume that if there is life on other planets that it is “fallen”? Is there no possibility of other intelligence, moral beings in the universe who have not fallen prey to temptation? In other words, is C.S. Lewis’s “Perelandra” really so far-fetched?

  8. Frau Says:

    Frau…

    […]Other Planets, Other People « Timstafford's Blog[…]…

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