Tonight, as on every night, powerful instruments of research receiving radio and light waves search out stars far away. They are looking for something new, something unusual: they are looking for planets circling those stars. The number of such “exoplanets” discovered in the past two decades or so has reached almost 4000.
New planet-hunting telescopes will be launched in the coming year or two. Planets orbit stars. How many stars are there? The most recent estimate is that there are a trillion stars in one galaxy. The Milky Way is one such assembly of stars in a universe thought to hold 100 billion galaxies. We on Earth live in a truly vast universe.
This universe created by a powerful and wise source draws more and more interest and research. It should not frighten us. Faith and astronomy should not follow the path of much of popular media.Theological reflections on the universe, a kind of astrotheology, goes beyond the venerable issues of divine activity in creation. There, science fiction in films and television too often presents other worlds as hostile and violent. There is no need to think that evil is prominent in the universe, that planets imply disasters and violence. We do not honor God by projecting Earth’s proneness to evil and violence (what has been called “original sin”) on worlds beyond. This limits divine wisdom and power.
The many planets already discovered suggest that some of them have life and that some of those may have intelligent life. There might be countless forms of animal and vegetable life in the universe. We are particularly interested in them if they have mind and freedom. The intelligent beings we call “extraterrestrials” have some form of body, some matter. Here we are not concerned with beings without corporeality, spirits, traditionally called “angels.”
Theological reflections on the universe, a kind of astrotheology, goes beyond the venerable issues of divine activity in creation. The cosmic past and future as seen today suggest aspects of ourselves and of God. The scope and unexplored breadth of the universe and the possibility of its living forms can illumine a religious faith. Its originality, its process and destiny raise theological issues about ourselves, time and evolution, and the original source.
Variety in the Universe
We on Earth should be open to all kinds of beings, beings either easily pictured or barely imagined. Christian faith and theology have no objection to the natures of other intelligent creatures with distinct natures. Like everything in the universe, their forms come from a special wisdom. All the flowers (100 basic species of roses) and fish (450 kinds of sharks) on Earth suggest many ways of life and ways of intelligent life on a planet around a distant sun. Their intelligence and senses, cultures and traditions could be their own. For instance, their personal and religious life might be timeless. The divine presence would dwell among people without story or history. Time lies not in their, nonetheless, happy nature, and consequently religion looks little to the past or to the future. Religion and culture happen without much change, happen in the present.
What is the origin of a variety of creatures from the Big Bang? For Thomas Aquinas, God is not a static being, distant, supreme at the edge of the universe. God is an all-active reality, a being that is realized in activity. He wrote:What leads God to create? God needs nothing and does not exist lonely in a cosmic night. What motivates the divine to create and to endow other beings with life is generosity. “God is a living fountain, a fountain not diminished in spite of its continuous flow outwards.”Aquinas, Super Evangelium Ioannis Lectura (1:4) (Turin: Marietti, 1952) ch. 1, lect. 3, 20. God is unlimited productivity, an infinite source of potential and real beings. Some of those created beings have knowledge and freedom.
What leads God to create? God needs nothing and does not exist lonely in a cosmic night. What motivates the divine to create and to endow other beings with life is generosity. Generosity carries the divine plans into external realization. The divine motive for both creation and incarnation is unlimited goodness. The Ultimate is “most generous to the highest degree.”Aquinas, In Scripta super libros sententiarum magistri Petri Lombard lib. 2, d. 3, q. 4, a. 1, ad 3. God creates all these beings to show the depth of the divine reality. The one initiating is so powerful that other beings emerge with their own activities. He is so powerful that he has given creatures the gift and dignity of being real causes.Aquinas, Summa theologiae I, q. 22, a. 3. Evolution, emergence, production lies everywhere amid the stars and come from fields of energy. In the evolving universe around Earth clouds of stars are preparing to let countless future worlds exist; seminal powers for forms of life and intelligence lie within the stars now becoming visible.
Christian faith poses a further question: do intelligent creatures draw forth from God’s free plan some special contact, a deeper and further life? Christian faith is not about whether God exists. Christian faith teaches that God’s life and love touches human beings in a special way. Jesus calls that special contact with God “the Kingdom of God;” Paul calls it “life in the Holy Spirit;” subsequent theologians and believers call it “grace.” There might be a number of modes of supernatural life shared by God with intelligent creatures in a million galaxies. Is it likely that there are millions of bands on the spectrum of natural life but only one form of supernatural life for creatures? After all, a spiritual and graced existence with God is higher. Or, do some intelligent beings have in their psychological and biological energies no longing for fulfillment from beyond? They might have no aspiration to life after death, no longing for a special contact from God. These considerations make us think about the presence, the gift, the extent, and the future of terrestrial existence.
God is present to other beings in several ways. One is called incarnation, an incarnation on Earth of the Word of God in the human Jesus of Nazareth. Incarnation is also an act of divine generosity: it is not a strange enterprise or the sending to Earth of a miracle-working freak. The Christian faith sees the humanity of men and women touched, vitalized in a special way by the Word of God in Jesus of Nazareth. Could there be more than one incarnation of the Word, but in the forms of other planetary species with their distinctive corporeality and intelligence? For a careful thinker like Aquinas the humanity of Jesus of Nazareth remains limited, very limited compared to the all-powerful Word of God. “The power of a divine person is infinite and cannot be limited to anything created.“Aquinas, ST III, q. 7, a. 3. “In a new way God unites himself to a creature, or, rather, unites the creature to himself” (ST III, q. 1, a. 1, ad 1). Could the Word of God be incarnate in creatures other than Jesus of Nazareth? Aquinas said, Yes. One incarnation, that on Earth, is one divine activity. God is not limited to, enclosed in Jesus of Nazareth. The man Jesus hardly presents all that God can do and is doing in the universe. Incarnation is a cosmic form of divine love.
Astronomers are especially concerned with the arrow of time, the unfolding of galaxies, the evolution of clusters of stars, the production of planets. Billions of years have passed since the Big Bang; many billions seem to lie ahead. There could be a number of futures and intersections of futures. The cosmic future includes interactions between planets and their galaxies.It may be that we are related to other planets not only by intelligence and technology but by faith and religion. Do not planetary worlds relate to men and women after death? What we call “heaven” is travel and society among the richness of the stars. Karl Rahner wrote: “In death the soul by surrendering its limited bodily structure becomes open towards the universe and becomes a co-determining factor of the universe precisely in the latter’s character as the ground of the personal life of other incarnate spiritual beings.”Rahner, “Death,” Encyclopedia of Theology: The Concise Sacramentum Mundi (New York: Seabury Press, 1975), 331. Individuals join their worlds in new ways to the lives of others. Communal forms gather men and women in the eschaton. The final reality of terrestrial persons is multiple community, a communality of billions of men and women in multiple trans-formations: personal, social, cosmic. After death, the human person, transcending Earth’s matter and gravity, can journey to impressive new solar systems, learn about further discoveries of physics and biology, and become friends with what we now ineptly call “aliens.” Future life involves artists and scientists, companions and explorers from other worlds. It may be that we are related to other planets not only by intelligence and technology but by faith and religion. Mystics and theologians from distant millennia and unusual cultures arrive with learning and entertainment.
Theories about black holes and dark energy suggest other kinds of worlds. They may be linked by unusual modes of communication between realms of matter and space-time, as these intelligences contact and share with each other. Astrotheology begins with religion and faith on Earth. It draws on discoveries about the universe by sciences to see a little further.