In Sunday’s New York Times, Ross Douthat wrote a piece about one of my favorite subjects: the consideration of the existence of life elsewhere in the universe. I have always been fascinated by this subject and, in fact, three of my favorite movies: Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T. and Contact all are based on this idea.
Douthat brought the subject up in connection with the news this week that scientists had discovered two planets which they feel are “promising candidates” to contain water and thus, perhaps, some form of life. As he points out, these were not the first of such planets to be identified but they have risen to the top of the list of prospective locations for life based on some criteria that I do not completely understand but am willing to accept without argument.
The columnist raised the issue to encourage us to expand our horizons and to look beyond the tragedies of the past week. Truly, one of the ways that human beings have endured difficult times or continued to have faith despite acts of unspeakable evil is to look to the heavens and realize that we are part of something bigger, allowing ourselves to imagine and to dream. We can not allow such speculation and search to divert our attention from the work we need to do to advance the causes of goodness and to seek justice and peace in our world. But, such visions of exploration and or imagination can inspire us to better things.
I was particularly interested in one specific point that Douthat raised. Writing about the theological implications of discovering life elsewhere, he alluded to the negative view: that even considering life existed elsewhere would be to doubt the uniqueness of human beings created in the “image of God” and would in some way diminish our unique standing in the eyes of our Creator.
But, he also considered the supportive view. A believer in God might hope to find life elsewhere because the idea “that the cosmos might be as empty as it is vast raises troubling questions about what, exactly, its Designer had in mind”.
This is an intriguing thought and one which was captured in very simple language in the movie Contact. “if it is just us…seems like an awful waste of space.”
I am drawn to that idea. I have no theological qualms about believing that could be “others” out there. It is difficult to imagine why God would create such a massive universe and have only one intelligent being populating one infinitesimally small corner of one galaxy. It is somewhat arrogant to think that God would choose to share his “image” with only one creation.
While I do believe that such life exists and that we should continue the search for another form of intelligent life in the universe, the thought that we could communicate or even just relate in any way is, in many ways, a fantasy and I say this despite how much I love those movies I referred to above. But, it is an important fantasy because it derives from the loneliness we feel as human beings alone in the vast universe.
As our scientists search for that intelligent life, we, as human beings, God’s creations on this earth, should search for another way to feel we are not alone- and that is by seeking God’s presence in our life.
It would be a terrible waste of space if we are the only “intelligent” being created by God. But, maybe that space is not empty after all. To believe in a God whose presence fills the vastness of the universe helps us realize that we are not alone in this universe. Whatever is happening on some other planet in some other galaxy is a fascinating question to consider and to research. Maybe, we’ll discover intelligent beings out there some day and, despite my doubts, be able to communicate with them. But, one way or the other, it is also worth considering with great seriousness and equal or greater dedication the search for a relationship with our Creator who might or might not have created other intelligent beings as well.
That is most certainly not a waste of time.