Hollywood has long offered divergent views on what aliens from space would bring to Earth. From the friendly “E.T.” of Steven Spielberg to the aggressive monsters of “Independence Day” to the flesh and blood robots of “Battlestar Galactica,” there’s no consensus on what would happen if we made “Contact,” another popular movie.
Surprisingly there are a few academic experts who have made questions like this their life’s work. One of the most notable of these is Ted Peters of the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif.
“I’ve got space in my soul,” Peters told Our Faith. “I think God may have put it (life) there. The more we learn about this grand and unfathomable cosmos, the more I can appreciate God as creator and redeemer. I certainly hope that I can share this enthusiasm with every sentient creature on Earth — and even off Earth, as well.”
Beyond his enthusiasm, he has documented a counterintuitive conclusion that messages from a galaxy far, far away or spaceships parked over Egypt’s pyramids would not necessarily signal the end of any earthly faith.
“For decades now, skeptical pundits have prophesied that religion would fall down before extraterrestrial intelligence just like the walls of Jericho fell before Joshua,” Peters said. “But, I think this is a false prophecy. Self-identified religious believers are much more likely to put out the welcome sign for space neighbors than pull up the drawbridge.”
Local clerics of all faiths generally agreed that life out there would not change what they believe here.
“Would it shatter my faith?” asked the Rev. Geoff Gwynne, rector of Friendswood’s Good Shepherd Episcopal Church. “The framing of this question reminds me of a book, a classic really, called “Your God is Too Small” by Paul Little. True, we humans bear the image of God. But compared to God, human intelligence and understanding could well give us the equivalent of only an ant’s perspective on other life-forms in the cosmos. A square is two-dimensional, a box three. The really smart ones among us work on five or maybe six dimensions. Maybe that’s the best our particular species will ever do. I have no problem imagining our God operating with species from other planets in dimensions we simply cannot conceive. With God all things are possible.”
Gwynne goes beyond intellectual acceptance here. He’s ready, should the occasion arise, to engage any visiting aliens.
“So come on, E.T., I’d like to meet you,” he said.”I hope you and I can somehow break bread together and share in a form of fellowship that reveals the love of God in a new dimension for both of us.”
But with one cautionary note, “When we meet, first do me the favor of offering the angels’ important words, ‘Be not afraid,’ as I will you,” Gwynne added. “Even if E.T. swept me away to another galaxy, I’d have no reason to believe that the promises of God I’ve known here would be any less true there.”
Indeed then, it’s the nonbelievers who may have gotten this question wrong, Peters noted.
“Those who predict the fall of fragile religion tend not to be believers themselves. With the help of a graduate student, Julie Froehlig, I conducted the Peters ETI Religious Crisis Survey just to see how accurate these predictions might be. Here is what we learned. The overwhelming majority of people who self-identify as religious believers do not fear that their personal beliefs will suffer a crisis if we confirm the existence of one or more extraterrestrial civilizations. The ratio was consistent for both evangelical Christians and liberal Protestant Christians. In fact, this ratio was consistent virtually across the board also for Roman Catholics, the self-identified nonreligious, and others tested. One hundred percent of Buddhists and Mormons declared that confirming the existence of ETI would not cause a crisis of faith.”
But here’s the curious part of Peters’ study, in his own words.
“Curiously, only one group forecast that the world’s religions would face a crisis in the event of confirming the existence of extra-terrestrial intelligence,” he said. “Who? The nonreligious, which includes both secular humanists and atheists. That is to say: the nonreligious believe that those who are religious will face a crisis. In other words, belief in the fragility of religion is propagated by nonreligious people; it is not the confession of religious believers themselves.”
After the form’s mandatory check boxes, some of the believers who responded to Peters’ survey penciled in thoughts about how “Our universe is too big and too magnificent for God to create only earthlings to appreciate it; I believe God has room for countless other sentient beings in outer space.”
Peters said he found these spontaneous notes from Jewish and Islamic practitioners as well as various brands of Christianity.”
The professor has published and presented internationally and professionally on this unusual topic. He offers the following take-away should a little green man appear at your next congregational function.
“When new space neighbors show up as visitors, our churches will welcome them to a covered dish dinner or picnic,” he said.
Next week in Our Faith: Service dogs, houses of worship and the law.