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What if we are not Alone?

As Congress continues to be briefed by numerous whistleblowers concerning a significant program to recover and reverse engineer extraterrestrial UFO technology, we appear to be ever-closer to what UFO-researchers call “Disclosure.” Disclosure is the moment when government officially acknowledges or reveals the existence of alien life, particularly, sophisticated and advanced extraterrestrial persons. Such an event would likely be the most important event in human history other than the Incarnation. While it has not yet happened, it is worth our considering how we might react if it did, especially if we consider our reactions not just as stunned human beings but as Catholics. So, what if we really are not alone?

First, we should not be surprised to discover that there is an abundance of life within the universe, given how immense that universe is. That life should evolve, or be created, or both in just a single location seems improbable. Especially now, as our orbital telescopes monthly present us with planets of similar size and position to their stars as is Earth, it seems increasingly likely that living worlds other than Earth do exist.

Second, we should likewise not be flabbergasted that some of that life is personal, in other words, possessed of free-thinking, intelligence and deliberation. Why? Because we already know that such non-human persons exist! These are the angels, of course, and from time to time they interact with us, making very clear both their reality and something of their natures. While we do not know much about their lives outside their connections to us, we should assume that they have robust forms of inter-angelic flourishing. So, God has definitely created animals, rational animals (us), and rational non-animals (the angels). And, since God made a vast number of different kinds of animals, and we know from metaphysics, revelation, and experience that he has likewise made a great number of different kinds of angels, it follows that he could have and likely did also make a vast number of non-human forms of rational animals. Intelligent extra-terrestrial beings would be just such creatures. Keep in mind that God could add personal agency to any form of body that he desired, just like C. S. Lewis’ talking beavers in the Narnia stories are persons with beaver bodies and ways! God could likewise make personal talking lions or imaginative trees or even thinking rocks! We have conceived all of these things in our science fiction for years. But it is also possible that creatures from entirely other worlds than ours might have vastly different bodies and even totally new sensory or imaginative or thinking processes than we do. Their social organization could likewise prove strikingly unlike ours, perhaps (just as an example) more like bees with fundamentally distinct classes that would strike human sensibilities as strange and initially perhaps even problematic. It would take some time for us to become accustomed to their very foreign natures, bodies, and habits. There’s also the question of what they would eat, but let’s just hope that they wouldn’t find us especially tasty! And yes, persons of whatever bodily form cannot kill and eat one another without it being murder. So, if we found them delicious, we would not be morally permitted to hunt them either!

Third, let’s move on to the issue of their theology: would they acknowledge God’s nature and existence the way that we do? In other words, would they be theists? We don’t know. We could discover that they are pagans, as muddled about the divine nature as were the Greeks and Romans. On the other hand, they may have some other form of natural or quasi-pagan religion that links to the unique form of their bodies and consciousness. If we human beings think of God in terms of personal agency using familial mammalian metaphors such as fatherhood, then if the extraterrestrials had very different bodies, say, like lizards, then they might think of God as a great Egg or the great Egg-layer! If the extraterrestrial social structure was more like our bees, then they might think of God as the great Queen Bee. We would have to be prepared to understand their conceptions of the divine given how their own natures directed them. Since God would have been the one who created those natures, he would have expected them to form a conception of him from how he created them. Natural theology—that understanding of God’s nature and acts that follows from us looking at ourselves as his effects—reasonably would differ according to who and what we and they are. These analogical conclusions would then offer fruitful insight for us into how vast and complex is God’s infinity.

But it’s also possible that extraterrestrial species have interacted directly with God or the angels, just as our human ancestors have. In other words, God might have intervened in their worlds in similar but also (perhaps) very different ways than he did with Abraham or Moses. If God revealed himself to extraterrestrials like he has to us, their knowledge of God would exceed natural theology and include what we would call direct revelation. That information would necessarily have to cohere with who God has revealed himself to be to us, of course, but it may involve additional undreamt-of insights too.

Some of that direct revelatory information might apply just to those extraterrestrial species and not be appropriate for our species. C. S. Lewis offers us just such a picture in the second book of his Space Trilogy, Perelandra. In that world, the (extraterrestrial) Perelandrian persons inhabit a world of floating islands, because nearly all of their world is water. But there are a few exceptions of fixed lands with a divinely ordained command that no Perelandrian person is to sleep overnight on the fixed land. They can visit, but they cannot stay. Why that command is given is not known to the first Perelandrian people, much like the situation Adam and Eve faced with the one forbidden fruit in a garden chock full of delicious fruit trees. God can give commands that exceed the usual moral law, law that is recognizable as soon as we recognize other persons in light of the Golden Rule. We have some today, such as the command to be baptized and, once baptized and confirmed, to take the Eucharist. These commands exceed moral law, and so would not be discoverable had God not directly issued them to us through Jesus. But other species may not, and likely have not, received these same commands because they are quite specific to our human natures and what we possess on our world, namely, water, grapes, and wheat. If God directly interacted with extraterrestrial personal species, and if he sought to provide them a sacramental (rather than a strictly moral) way of approaching him by faith, then he might have given them commands that fit their natures and worlds. Those commands would not apply to us, just as our sacramental commands would not apply to them. But while sacramental commands might differ between worlds, moral law such that persons (of whatever species) ought not to murder or steal from one another would still hold true universally, because the Golden Rule would apply to all persons, regardless of origin and nature.

On the other hand, if we discovered that no such direct revelatory interaction had yet occurred in their worlds (such that they were in a state more like our pagan pre-Christian and pre-Jewish ancestors), then our Bishops and the Pope would have to discuss in depth whether it would be appropriate to baptize these persons into the Church. For just as the Jews provided the means whereby all the human beings of our world can know God, namely Jesus Christ, so it might turn out that we human beings are supposed to provide the means whereby all personal species across the universe can know God, namely the sacraments of the Church. That is something that we cannot assess without a clearer understanding of how God has or has not interacted with these other personal species.

Turning now, fourthly, directly to the moral and the political, what is clear from what we’ve discussed thus far is that we should regard all extraterrestrial personal species as persons no different than we regard our human neighbors as persons. We should not open fire on them because we find their forms unfamiliar and perhaps even frightening at first. We should not seek to take advantage of them or manipulate them for our own ends, but seek peaceful relationships with them just as we do with people of foreign countries here on Earth. Commerce and technological exchanges, as well as artistic collaborations would provide extraordinary opportunities for both species—human and extraterrestrial—to better ourselves. But we would have to keep a close watch on human beings of a criminal bent who would see these extraterrestrial persons as exploitable. And, to be frank, I can imagine highly advanced extraterrestrial civilizations taking a rather dim view of the way we human beings have been treating one another. We should be prepared for them to shake their “heads” in disbelief at our behavior in the twentieth century!

On the other hand, we may find that some extraterrestrial civilizations (or factional members of such civilizations) are actually hostile to human beings. It’s difficult to imagine this, since we have to our public knowledge not been subjected to extraterrestrial attack. But what we know publicly and what it may turn out some of our officials have known privately could differ. Subjected to overwhelming military technological advantages, our government officials may have entered into or may be forced to enter into very unfavorable accommodation agreements. It might also be that while some extraterrestrial civilizations prove hostile to us, others might prove helpful, allowing the possibility of interstellar alliances for our protection. But since our world is not politically unified, the final and most disturbing possibility—that rival extraterrestrial civilizations would ally with different human political factions—must also be acknowledged. Disclosure, accordingly, would present a very complex political situation for our leaders, and we would benefit from patient and sober reflection on how best to proceed in our various political constitutions. Hopefully, the Church could act as a unifying force to present a world-wide diplomatic front to extraterrestrial ambassadors.

Let me address, fifthly, one last concern that often arises in discussion of the global impact of Disclosure, namely, that human beings are either so conceited or so fearful, that the notion that there exist other intelligent species would shatter the world order and lead to apocalyptic chaos. While I do worry that Disclosure would produce immediate and profound anxiety in a great many people, that’s hardly unreasonable! The discovery of advanced extraterrestrial life has the capacity to cause revolutionary effects on our societies. Perhaps a little fear and caution is a good thing. We should remember Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park character Malcom’s caution about the dangers of our coming into a technological power that we aren’t morally and socially prepared to use properly. Nevertheless, over time, as more and more information became apparent, and as we grew used to the idea that we aren’t alone, and if (as we would hope) extraterrestrial civilizations sought peaceful relations with humanity, I would expect that most human beings would adapt to the new reality. Fear would turn to curiosity, because wonder has always driven human beings toward discovery. And what greater discovery could there be?

The other concern you often hear is that human beings might be offended at the notion that we are not at the “center of the universe.” This conceited view could take many forms including some theological ones that we Catholics would have to take care to avoid. For if God did create a whole range of extraterrestrial persons, then he loves them every bit as much as he loves us! And he would accordingly wish us to treat them as neighbors, not enemies. Just because God created man in his own image, it does not follow that he did not create other creatures in his image too. Further, even if it turned out that man was created in God’s image in a way that no other extraterrestrial species are, it wouldn’t follow that man is superior to these other creatures. There is already a case to be made that while man is made in God’s image, the angels are not, yet the angels are far superior to man in power. So, it is possible that human nature might turn out to uniquely reflect something important spiritually. The elephant in the room on this score is obviously the Incarnation. God did become a man, and that is a fact. Does it follow that human nature is better than other extraterrestrial personal natures? No, it doesn’t. It would mean all the more that we should love one another.

On the other hand, what if God did enter their worlds in ways roughly analogous to the Incarnation but proper to their extraterrestrial natures? Can God pick alternative way to enter the world of matter? Yes, of course he can, as we already know from our experience with the Eucharist, that God comes to us not just as Jesus, but as his body and blood in the consecrated bread and wine. It follows that God could also enter into other forms of matter. Nothing is impossible for God. God might even interact with extraterrestrial species in ways that we cannot imagine, because they may possess natural capabilities that are totally foreign to us. Regardless, this isn’t a competition of significance, because God loves us all. Whether humanity is uniquely situated as the sole location of Incarnation or if God incarnates himself under different forms in many locations in the universe, that is entirely up to God and his divine prerogative. We should think neither too highly nor too lowly of ourselves and remember that our significance lies in the fact that God created us and loves us. But that also applies to any extraterrestrial cousins to man.

It may nevertheless turn out that something unique occurred in the Incarnation, that nothing like it has happened anywhere else (another idea that C. S. Lewis toys with in his Space Trilogy—which, incidentally, everyone should read if Disclosure really turns out to be on the near-horizon). If God entered into humanity alone, then humanity is the vehicle of divine grace to the universe, for in Christ all creatures—whether on or off the Earth—see God. To meet us and to meet his Church would prove an unparalleled opportunity for extraterrestrial species. Rather than being smug about it, however, we should thankfully and humbly participate in that divine program. Curiously, St. Paul actually hints at this in Romans 8 where he says,

For creation awaits with eager expectation the revelation of the children of God; for creation was made subject to futility, not of its own accord but because of the one who subjected it, in hope that creation itself would be set free from slavery to corruption and share in the glorious freedom of the children of God (Romans 8:19-21 NABRE).

What is interesting, here, is that St. Paul says “creation” is dependent for its full liberty from corruption on the redemption of the “children of God.” Granted, we have likely always interpreted “creation” as creatures on earth, and “children of God” as human beings. But wider interpretations are possible, namely that all of the universe will find blessing through the Incarnation and ultimate redemption in Christ, and even, perhaps, that the “children of God” may include extraterrestrial species! We won’t know until we know, of course, but we must be open to the full range of possibilities.

So, if Disclosure occurs, feeling both anxious and curious are both perfectly natural reactions. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. But be patient with yourselves as well as both our political and Church leaders as they try to digest and understand the full significance of our interstellar relationships. For we would be interacting with God’s wider creation, and he would presumably hope that we have finally begun to understand what loving our neighbor really means.

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