Is it possible that there is intelligent life out among the stars? And if there is, what would be the theological implications of this fact? Many Christians have assumed that there could not be intelligent extraterrestrials, and that if some were discovered then this would somehow constitute a challenge to the Christian faith.
But that apparently wasn't the view of Larry Norman, the father of Christian rock. Norman always sang about interesting, relevant and unusual topics. In his classic song "UFO" (off the album In Another Land) he likens the returning Christ to an "unidentified flying object". In keeping with this cosmic theme, Larry then sings: "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."
Is Larry correct? Could there be intelligent aliens out there? And if there are, are they fallen like us? (Or, are they fallen because of us?) Were they made in the image of God? Do they too need a savior?
These are some of the questions raised in the fledgling discipline known as exotheology. While I will attend to some of these interesting questions in subsequent posts, here I will focus on another issue: the extent to which the search for intelligent extraterrestrial life often serves a quasi-religious role for the "scientifically" minded.
Aliens have long carried a quasi-religious fascination for the general public. For instance, Spielberg's classic film E.T. has some of the most striking christological parallels in all of cinema: so striking in fact that one could almost consider the film an allegory of the Christ story. Consider that E.T. comes from the heavens to bring healing to a broken family. He performs miracles, including bringing things that have died back to life. In a Garden of Gethsemane scene, he goes out into the woods the night before he is taken prisoner and "phones home". Then he is taken into captivity, dies, is resurrected, and ascends back to the heavens in a space ship.
While the religious allusions that pervade E.T. may simply be part of the rich texturing of storytelling in a premiere family film, the fact is that many people imbue aliens with quasi-religious status. And we need not think only of those devotees of crop circles and alien abductions. Even many hardened scientists who would blanch at the idea of God as non-scientific become positively mystical when contemplating intelligent life from unknown worlds.
Consider how many scientists speak of E.T.s as having potentially godlike attributes. Physicist Paul Davies has speculated that "super-advanced aliens would appear [to us] as gods." Indeed, Michio Kaku has speculated that a super-technological alien society could have even created our universe!
If aliens could have created the world, many scientists hope they could also fix the world. Carl Sagan, who for years spearheaded the "search for extra-terrestrial intelligence", was known to be driven in part by a hope that contact with aliens could bring to us new discoveries that could greatly alleviate the suffering of our world (a form of salvation). Thus he wrote of first contact:
"To me, such a discovery would be thrilling. It would change everything. We would be hearing from other beings, independently evolved over millions of years, viewing the Universe perhaps very differently, probably much smarter, certainly not human."
I agree that first contact with alien life would truly be extraordinary. But would such a discovery deal with the existential crisis? Could it constitute our salvation? Such speculations remind me of the famous quip by G.K. Chesterton: "When man stops believing in God, he will believe in anything at all."