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22.9.03

Go and make disciples of all worlds

E.T. And God

The discovery of alien superbeings might not be so corrosive to religion if human beings could still claim special spiritual status. After all, religion is concerned primarily with people's relationship to God, rather than with their biological or intellectual qualities. It is possible to imagine alien beings who are smarter and wiser than we are but who are spiritually inferior, or just plain evil. However, it is more likely that any civilization that had surpassed us scientifically would have improved on our level of moral development, too. One may even speculate that an advanced alien society would sooner or later find some way to genetically eliminate evil behavior, resulting in a race of saintly beings.

Suppose, then, that E.T. is far ahead of us not only scientifically and technologically but spiritually, too. Where does that leave mankind's presumed special relationship with God? This conundrum poses a particular difficulty for Christians, because of the unique nature of the Incarnation. Of all the world's major religions, Christianity is the most species-specific. Jesus Christ was humanity's savior and redeemer. He did not die for the dolphins or the gorillas, and certainly not for the proverbial little green men. But what of deeply spiritual aliens? Are they not to be saved? Can we contemplate a universe that contains perhaps a trillion worlds of saintly beings, but in which the only beings eligible for salvation inhabit a planet where murder, rape, and other evils remain rife?


If aliens have engineered themselves not to sin, I don't think that makes them more spiritually advanced than humans, from a traditional Christian perspective. Christian spirituality is rooted in the fact of free will -- that we must choose to do good, and that our good works are meaningful because we could have chosen evil. Aliens who are incapable of sin may be happier and healthier, but spiritually they're just machines.

My first reaction to this article was that finding extraterrestrials shouldn't be any more of a problem for Christianity than discovering new continents on Earth was. Granted, the discovery of the Americas and Australia was a major issue, and there were long debates over whether Indians and Aborigines were spiritually human (and many atrocities committed by those who picked the wrong answer). But ultimately, the conclusion was reached that new human populations were just another group to evangelize to. Jesus gave his message to a fairly small group of people, and left it to his followers to spread it across the world. So why not take that one step further, and simply start evangelizing to the aliens?

One problem, which the article hints at in its discussion of panspermia, is the issue of origins. In a traditional Christian framework, Jesus' message is predicated on Adam and Eve's sin. Indians and Aborigines needed to be preached to because they, like Europeans, were descendants of Adam and Eve and thus shared in that sinful heritage. Aliens, presumably, are not descended from Adam and Eve. This suggests that the Christian message might be irrelevant to them -- Jesus was only sent to fix the original sin that occurred on Earth.

On the other hand, wouldn't the aliens have their own original sin? If they didn't, presumably they'd still be happily hanging out in their extraterrestrial Garden of Eden, with no reason to be contacting other worlds. If they did, that raises the question of whether God is trying to save them. Perhaps Jesus' message is for anyone affected by any original sin, whether committed by Adam or by Adzork-5, returning us to the "preach to the cosmos" idea (a religious justification for more NASA spending). Alternately, they could have their own saviors, which is potentially problematic for the "God's only son" bit. However, it seems as easy to stick in a "... that came to earth" after "God's only son" as it is to reconcile the creation story with evolution and geology. It's also possible that aliens could have been created as sinless spiritual machines (perhaps able to do bad, but not to sin, like Earthly animals) in the first place, so salvation was never an issue.

From my personal perspective, aliens are not a problem. I take a particularistic view of Christianity -- that it can be good for Christians, but need not be the one and only religion. Since I'm not requiring the conversion even of all Earthlings, adding aliens to the mix doesn't present any new quandaries.

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