Some say that the existence of exoplanets and extraterrestrial life (ETs) invalidates the Christian faith. What would you say to this reasonably recent piece on the HuffPost blog?
“Let us be clear that the Bible is unambiguous about creation: the earth is the center of the universe, only humans were made in the image of God, and all life was created in six days …. Life on another planet is completely incompatible with religious tradition. Any other conclusion is nothing but ex post facto rationalization to preserve the myth.”
As I mentioned in last week’s installment, Clive Staples Lewis (or St. Clive) continues to affect scientists and other Christian thinkers more than half a century after his death—and that leads to the question of not only what you would say, but WWSCS? What would St. Clive, say?
What Would Saint Clive Say?
The more things change, the more they stay the same. A similar gauntlet was thrown down to Lewis’s generation about 80 years ago, but with a twist. This time it was Fred Hoyle, the great Cambridge astronomer who presented on the BBC radio in 1950 (later published as The Nature of the Universe) that the vast size of the universe invalidated a Christian view of the cosmos.
Lewis addressed this claim and also recalled that, when we was a child, he heard an almost contrasting view, also used to invalidate Christian faith.
“When we were boys all astronomers, so far as I know, impressed upon us the antecedent improbabilities of life in any part of the universe whatever. It was not thought unlikely that this earth was the solitary exception to a universal reign of the inorganic. Now Professor Hoyle, and many with him, say that in so vast a universe life must have occurred in times and places without number. The interesting thing is that have heard both these estimates used against Christianity.”
- A text or audio version of “Religion and Rocketry”.
- Reflections on Lewis’s essay, “Religion and Rocketry” (first and second).
- BioLogos president Deborah Haarsma offers her insights.
- Earlier this summer, we considered the difficulties of aliens and exoplanets.We also look at the difficulty of defining life here.
“Religion and Rocketry”
Certainly, the science of the universe has moved on. We’ve discovered more than 4000 planets outside our solar system since Lewis died in 1963. Some assert that this means the sudden death of the Christian scheme of salvation since, according to the biblical texts, God came in the unique person of Jesus to save this world or kosmos (John 3:16).
Lewis took on Hoyle’s claims in his 1958 essay, “Religion and Rocketry” (originally titled, by the way, “Will We Lose God in Outer Space?”). As a scholar of the past, Lewis takes a step back and cools down the argument’s heat:
“When the popular hubbub has subsided and the novelty has been chewed over by real theologians, real scientists and real philosophers, both sides find themselves pretty much where they were before. So it was with Copernican astronomy, with Darwinism, with Biblical Criticism…”
St. Clive acknowledges that if extraterrestrial life exists, the question regarding the Incarnation could be “formidable”: “If we find ourselves to be one among a million races, scattered through a million spheres, how can we, without absurd arrogance, believe ourselves to be uniquely favored?”
What might the existence of an extraterrestrial “hypothetical rational species” mean for Christian message? Lewis, an avid amateur astronomer, who mounted a telescope on the balcony of his bedroom at his home near Oxford, The Kilns, worked out answers more thoroughly in his three-part Space Trilogy. There and in the “Religion and Rocketry” essay, he concludes that a good God could have created life on other planets—no problem with that—but we have no reason to assume that they are fallen. Human beings need redemption because we’ve fallen. Furthermore, the great distances of the universe might be an act of grace. “I have wondered before now whether the vast astronomical distances may not be God’s quarantine precautions. They prevent the spiritual infection of a fallen species from spreading.”
Moving to a close, Lewis refers to Augustine, who pondered the theological implications of the creatures whose existence was bandied about in the fourth and fifth centuries: “satyrs, monopods, and other semi-human creators. He decided it could wait till we knew there were any. So can this” (meaning the existence of ETs).
Lewis then takes this in an unexpected direction. Ultimately, the lesson is not the particulars of any discovery, scientific or otherwise, that would irrevocably validate or invalidate our faith. “Christians and their opponents again and again expect that some new discovery will either turn matters of faith into matters of knowledge or else reduce them to patent absurdities. But that has never happened.”
And so St. Clive directs us back to trusting in the goodness of our Creator, perhaps looking up at the stars and planets God has made and wondering whether there are other creatures looking at us, and who might be also looking to the gracious God and Creator in faith.