José Gabriel Funes, director of the Vatican Observatory, recently stated in an interview that the belief in aliens is compatible with belief in God. This isn’t exactly news—another Vatican astronomer, Guy Consolmagno, published a pamphlet on the matter three years ago, and Vox Nova points us to a treatise by Nicholas of Cusa (1401-1464) that says essentially the same thing.
Some of Funes’ comments, like his statement that “The Bible is not fundamentally a work of science,” are as old as Augustine. That’s not to mention the fact that, Vatican position aside, Funes isn’t speaking for the whole Church, and his statements in an interview are a far cry from a papal encyclical. His ideas are nevertheless interesting, particularly in light of other past theological and science fictional writings on the spiritual status of beings from other worlds.
Funes states, for instance, that:
“God became man in Jesus in order to save us. So if there are also other intelligent beings, it’s not a given that they need redemption. They might have remained in full friendship with their creator.”
That’s the concept at the heart of C.S. Lewis’ first foray into science fiction, Out of the Silent Planet (1939), in which voyagers from Earth land on Mars, which never experienced a fall and whose inhabitants have no difficulty discerning the will of their creator. But, unlike Funes, Lewis thought that meant we should stay out of space entirely. In a 1963 interview, Lewis gave perhaps the strongest statement of that attitude:
“I look forward with horror to contact with the other inhabited planets, if there are such. We would only transport to them all of our sin and our acquisitiveness, and establish a new colonialism. I can’t bear to think of it. But if we on Earth were to get right with God, of course, all would be changed. Once we find ourselves spiritually awakened, we can go to outer space and take the good things with us. That is quite a different matter.”
Lewis took a grim attitude to the exploration of space, but he wasn’t above humor on the subject: In a letter to Arthur C. Clarke, then Chairman of the British Interplanetary Society, Lewis offered the group “good wishes… as regards everything but interplanetary travel.” (The full correspondence between Lewis and Clarke is collected in the recent volume From Narnia to a Space Odyssey: The War of Ideas Between Arthur C. Clarke and C.S. Lewis, edited by Ryder W. Miller.)
Years later, James Blish tackled a similar concept in his 1958 novel A Case of Conscience (recently reviewed by the Guardian). Like in Out of the Silent Planet, this novel’s hero, a spacefaring Jesuit, finds a planet that knows no sin, and finds the prospect terrifying. The reptilian inhabitants of the planet Lithia have an innate (and atheistic) sense of right and wrong. They have no need for religion or moral philosophy—and, Ruiz-Sanchez fears, no means of spiritual growth. He ultimately concludes that Lithia was created not by God, but by Satan; which opens up a theological can of worms in the novel’s second half, even as the Lithian envoy to Earth seems to prove him right by instigating an anarchist revolution.
The moral status of aliens is an old topic in science fiction, explored in stories from H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds to Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow. Alien theology—exotheology—has a complicated history. Pope Zachary (741-752) condemned a priest named Virgil for teaching that a race of men not descended from Adam inhabited the moon. Protestants weren’t keen on the idea either, as Philip Melancthon illustrates:
“Our master Jesus Christ was born, died, and resurrected in this world. Nor does he manifest himself elsewhere, nor elsewhere has he died or resurrected. Therefore it must not be imagined that there are many worlds, because it must not be imagined that Christ died or was resurrected more often, nor must it be thought that in any other world without the knowledge of the son of God, that men would be restored to eternal life.”
(The idea of an alien Christ has shown up in several Sci-fi stories, most famously Ray Bradbury’s “The Man,” and most vividly in Michael Bishop’s “Gospel of Gamaliel Crucis,” which describes an insectoid alien savior.)
It wasn’t until Copernicus that the concept of “the plurality of worlds” became widespread, and even then it was a touchy subject for centuries. There’s a lot at risk in the proposition that life exists elsewhere. If we’re really just a single species among billions, what basis do we have for thinking ourselves special in the eyes of God? Funes, channeling Lewis again, hints at a biblically-based answer: “We who belong to the human race could really be that lost sheep, the sinners who need a pastor.” It’s a nice introduction to speculative theology—and what better place for speculative theology than speculative fiction?[All of the science-fiction stories mentioned above are discussed in greater detail in chapter 5 of The Gospel According to Science Fiction.]