Outer space prompts the inner soul to ask Big Questions. Despite all the numbers, calculations, and estimations made by astronomers, the scientific mind cannot contain (let alone suppress) the volcanic excitement erupting from within us that is prompted by the unfathomable vastness of the universe. Astrobiologists may look for facts, but what they spawn is exhilaration.
We find astrobiologists busy scanning our skies in Europe, Asia, Australia, Africa, South America, and North America. NASA’s Astrobiology Roadmap and Astrobiology Strategy (NASA) orient researchers to the origin of life on Earth, a second genesis of life off-Earth, and the future of earthlings traveling in space. Theologians share in the scientific fervor and are responding on two frontiers: astrotheology and astroethics.
We expect that in time versions of astrotheology will arise among interested leaders within Islam, Buddhism, and other classical traditions. In the meantime, I offer the following working definition: Christian Astrotheology is that branch of theology which provides a critical analysis of the contemporary space sciences, combined with an explication of classic doctrines such as creation and Christology for the purpose of constructing a comprehensive and meaningful understanding of our human situation within an astonishingly immense cosmos (Peters, 2013a; 2014).
Astrotheology monitors and responds to astrobiology and accompanying space sciences. I recommend the astrotheologian take up four tasks. First, Christian theologians along with intellectual leaders in a variety of religious traditions need to reflect on the scope of creation and settle the persisting issue of geocentrism. Even though the late medieval church was less geocentric than critics claim, recent schools of thought such as liberation theology and eco-theology are adopting versions of Earth-centricism while ignoring our planet’s solar system context (Hart).
Second, the astrotheologian should set the parameters within which the ongoing debates over Christology (Person of Christ) and soteriology (Work of Christ) are carried on. In the Christian ordu salutis (order of salvation), might God require multiple incarnations, one for each extraterrestrial civilization?
Third, theologians should analyze and critique astrobiology and related sciences from within, exposing extra-scientific assumptions and re-assessing the larger value of the scientific enterprise. Without acknowledging it, space scientists too frequently capitalize on the spiritual dimensions of the starry heavens and try to siphon off religious energies, turning science itself into a pseudo-religious trope. When scientists practice theology without a license, a critical theologian should point this out.
Fourth, theologians and religious intellectuals should cooperate with leaders of multiple religious traditions, plus interested scientists, to explicate ethical issues and, perhaps even more dramatically, to prepare the public for the eventuality of extraterrestrial contact. This fourth task–the task of formulating ethical issues–is one way in which the astrotheologian can aid the wider society in establishing public policy (Schwarz). Ethical rumination should take place within two quarters: first, the local solar ghetto where scientists search for microbial life and, second, in the greater Milky Way galaxy where SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Life) Institute is looking for extraterrestrial intelligent life. Looking for space neighbors extragalactically beyond the Milky Way will be ineffective due to the technical difficulties of communicating at such distances. The Milky Way metropolis is plenty large enough for the time being.
As an opening salvo, here are twelve ethical issues prompted by space exploration within our solar ghetto: (1) Does Planetary Protection apply to Earth alone or to off-Earth biospheres as well? (2) Does extraterrestrial microbial life have intrinsic value? (3) Should space explorers invoke the Precautionary Principle, i.e., should scientific research proceed slowly enough to assure that newly discovered biospheres will not be harmed? (4) Should we clean up our space junk and, if so, who should pay for the reclamation? (5) What should we do about satellite surveillance? (6) Should nations weaponize space? (7) Who gets priority: scientific researchers or businesses making a profit? (8) Should earthlings terraform Mars? (9) Should earthlings colonize Mars? (10) How should we protect Earth from extraterrestrial threats such as asteroid impact? (11) Does Astroethics require a single planetary community of moral deliberation? (12) Should the common good include the Galactic Commons? (Arnould; Hart) It might be too early to resolve each of these issues, but simply formulating them for moral deliberation could provide valuable guidance for public policy.
Astroethicists need to formulate issues within an additional category, namely, potential contact with extraterrestrial intelligent life on exoplanets elsewhere in the Milky Way galaxy. There is a widespread rumor that if we confirm the existence of extraterrestrial civilizations, then traditional religious adherents will face a crisis and Earth’s religions will self-destruct. The Peters ETI Religious Crisis Survey demonstrates that this is false; the vast majority of self-identified religious believers positively anticipate interaction with new space neighbors (Peters, 2011; Wilkinson; O’Meara).
Along with colleagues Robert John Russell, Martinez Hewlett, and Joshua Moritz at the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences in Berkeley, California, I have been speculating on just what might happen once we have entered into communication with new space neighbors. To set the categories, one could easily divide extraterrestrials according to where they rank on an intelligence scale: (a) ETI of lower intelligence; (b) ETI of equal intelligence; and (c) ETI who are superior to us in intelligence (Peters, 2013b). In addition to these three, we will need to discern quickly whether ETI are (a) hostile; (b) benign; or (c) benevolent.
Our experience with imputing dignity and equality to all members of the human race on Earth might–at least initially–send earthlings back to the drawing board to discuss whether dignity and equality apply in this new situation. We will need thoughtful, inspired and persuasive moral leadership if earthlings are to commit themselves to a healthy and workable ethic for the galactic commons.
Perhaps the model that best fits the relationship between the science of astrobiology and the new field of astrotheology is Creative Mutual Interaction or CMI (Russell, 2008; 22, 132). Most of the traffic runs from the space sciences toward the imaginations of the theologians, to be sure. This means that, within theology, the growing knowledge about our universe presses for widening the scope of God’s creation and enlarging our vision of eschatological redemption. And, within ethics, the possibility of discovering microbial life locally and intelligent life further away reminds all of us of the Boy Scout Motto, “Be Prepared.” The mere formulation of ethical issues aids in this preparation. In sum, theologians wearing critical hats can warn space scientists to avoid practicing theology without a license; and, when wearing their ethical hats, theologians can contribute to preparing Earth for contact.
By Ted Peters, TedsTimelyTake.com
Arnould, Jacques (2011) Icarus’ Second Chance: The Basis and Perspectives of Space Ethics. Heidelberg: Springer.
Hart, John (2013) Cosmic Commons: Spirit, Science, and Space. Eugene OR: Cascade.
NASA (2015) Astrobiology Strategy 2015.
O’Meara, Thomas F. (2012) Vast Universe: Extraterrestrials and Christian Revelation. Collegeville MN: Liturgical Press.
Peters, Ted (2011) “The implications of the discovery of extra-terrestrial life for religion.” The Royal Society, Philosophical Transactions A, 369 (1936) February 13, 2011; 644-655.
Peters, Ted (2013a) “Astrotheology,” Chapter 72 of The Routledge Companion to Modern Christian Thought. Eds. Chad Meister and James Beilby. London and New York: Routledge; 838-853.
Peters, Ted (2013b) “Astroethics: Engaging Extraterrestrial Intelligent Life-Forms,” Encountering Life in the Universe. Eds., Chris Impey, Anna Spitz, & William Stoeger. Tucson: Univ. Arizona Press, 200-221.
Peters, Ted (2014) “Astrotheology: A Constructive Proposal,” Zygon 49:2 (June) 443-457.
Russell, Robert John (2008) Cosmology from Alpha to Omega. Minneapolis MN: Fortress.
Schwarz, James, and Tony Milligan, eds. (2016) The Ethics of Space Exploration. Heidelberg: Springer.
Wilkinson, David (2013) Science, Religion, and the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. Oxford: Oxford University Press.