Category Archives: grace

Strange New Worlds

What does Catholic teaching tell us about extraterrestrial life? This might not seem like the most pressing of theological questions, but here I must admit to being a complete and unabashed science-fiction nerd. So it is in fact the sort of thing I might dedicate some inordinate amount of thought to.

In the Introduction to his Theological primer, The Light of Christ, Fr. Thomas Joseph White says of humanity that

we want understanding, insight, and wisdom. We want to know why and what for. We wish to perceive all in the unending light of what is and cannot be. Our hearts are restless with the desire to know the truth.

So it is in the spirit of this God-given unquenchable thirst for knowledge and understanding that I now delve into this conundrum which came to me in the course of my theological studies.

We begin with the basic understanding that God is Love, and that this basic essence of God is reflected in all His creation. As White says, “We can see in light of the Holy Trinity that the physical cosmos ultimately exists for spiritual persons and for relational love.” I found this a bold statement and one needing further reflection. And this blog post is my means of further reflecting on it.

Not long before reading that passage, I had been reading about some excitement within the world of astronomers, who had detected an occurrence of the elusive and mostly hypothetical gravity waves, which allowed them to observe how neutron stars collide to form a black hole, and how the Universe creates heavy metals, among other things.  But as these two readings came together in my brain they generated a question.

How can a cosmos of scattered worlds separated by unimaginable distances be seen as existing for communion, relationship, and love?

It is perhaps the spiritual version of Enrico Fermi’s famous paradox: based on everything we can know and observe about the Universe, there should be countless other civilizations out there. Many of them by now should be far more advanced than we are and better able to reach across those vast distances to make contact. So why haven’t they?

One could, I suppose, take the anthropocentric view that there really isn’t anyone else out there, and the entire expanse of the Universe exists just to give us something to look at each night. Maybe astronomers are merely peering deep into the inner clockwork of Creation. Personally I find this unlikely, unsatisfying, and not very convincing.

Or it could be argued that we’re really meant to look to our own house before venturing outwards. Maybe the Universe actually is filled with civilizations and sentient beings, all separated by these immense distances to keep us focused on our immediate communities and not distracted by what is beyond our reach. And then we’ll all meet up in the Kingdom at the end of time and live, as it were, happily ever after. This seems more likely, but still lacking.

As stated earlier, God created us as inquisitive beings. It is part of our nature to look to the stars, to notice other worlds not unlike our own, and to wonder. We are also created as social beings, so it is equally natural for us to want to go meet whoever is out there.

The Star Trek franchise has offered up the idea that it’s only once a planet’s population learns to coexist and to work together that they manage to venture out to other worlds. Maybe we’re living on a kind of cosmic escape room, and the only way out is to work together.

But there is another intriguing idea which came out of my theological readings.

The problem of interstellar distances is, in some sense, a problem of mortality. We just don’t have the time within our natural lifespans to make any significant or worthwhile explorations beyond our own world. But what if mortality wasn’t supposed to be part of the equation?

As human beings we are both flesh and spirit — body and soul. But these are not two separate elements. We are created as a union of material and spiritual which are meant to be inseparable. So our experience of death, which separates the soul from the body, is the result of our fall from grace and is contrary to God’s original intention.

It’s been a few decades or so since I read C. S. Lewis’s science-fiction trilogy so I don’t remember it very well (maybe it’s time for a re-read?). But I do remember that the first book, Out of the Silent Planet, introduced the idea of an interplanetary spiritual communion which Earth was not a part of. Earth is the “Silent Planet” of the book’s title, having excluded ourselves from this fellowship through our Fall from grace.

From a spiritual, Catholic point of view this might be the best explanation. It is certainly my own favorite! We fallen beings, generally given to aggression and conquest, are separated from each other by impossibly vast distances, while the rest of the cosmic population enjoy exactly the kind of vision Fr. White was talking about. “The physical cosmos ultimately exists for spiritual persons and for relational love.” And God’s plan of Salvation is to lead us back to that ideal.

Story as Sacramental

 

Today’s Gospel reading reminded me of another blog post I’d written some years ago. First published March 27, 2013, it is presented below.

I found the following story on Facebook recently.

One day Buddha was walking through
a village. A very angry and rude young
man came up to him and began
insulting him.
“You have no right to be teaching
others!!!” he shouted.
“You are as stupid as everyone else.
You are nothing but a fake!!”
Buddha was not upset by these insults.
He just smiled. The man insulted him
again and again but the only reaction
he could get back from the Buddha
was a
smile and silence. Finally he stomped
his feet and left cursing.
The disciples were feeling angry and
one of the them couldn’t keep quiet
and asked the Buddha, “Why didn’t you
reply to the rude man?”
The Buddha replied, “If someone
offers you a gift, and you refuse to
accept it, to whom does the gift
belong?”
“Of course to the person who brought
the gift,” replied the disciple. “That is
correct,” smiled the Buddha.

I liked the story, so I “Facebook-liked” it and shared it. Though I’m Catholic rather than Buddhist, I felt this story was very much in keeping with my own ideals. Just change the character of the Buddha and it might as easily be a story out of the Gospels, or from the life of Saint Francis of Assisi.

But, as any writer can tell you, changing a character in a story ends up changing the story. Once I put St. Francis in the Buddha’s role I came to realize how a Christian — a true follower of Christ in the way that few besides Francis have ever managed — would have handled the situation differently.

Francis would have upped the ante. He wouldn’t have simply refused to accept the “gift” of Hate, but would have offered the gift of Love in exchange. Which, in turn, got me thinking about an interesting point of Catholic  theology. We are told that all religions, all traditions, point the way toward God. But it is only in Christ that we find the fullness of Truth. The Buddha’s way in this story is good and wise, a challenge that most of us would not be up to. That’s fine, as far as it goes. But Christ would have us take it that one step further.

Another story:

A young man approached Christ and asked, “What must I do to gain eternal life?”

In reply, Jesus turned the question back to him: “Why do you ask me? Do you not know the commandments?”

“I do,” the young man insisted. “And I  try to live them every day!”

And Jesus looked at him with love. “Then only one thing remains,” He said. “If you would be perfect, go and sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor. Then come follow me.”

In the Biblical version, the young man goes away sad because he has many possessions and is not ready to part with them. In the Franciscan version, Francis and his followers rejoice that their many possessions allow them to give generously to the poor.

A religion, any religion, is ultimately made up of the stories we tell ourelves. Stories which inspire, guide, help us make sense of the world we live in. Any story that pushes me or challenges me to improvement is a good story. Any religion that accepts such a story is a beneficial and important part of civilization.

Which is a large part of why, even with all the problems plauging the Church, I remain faithfully Catholic. This is where I mind Christ, where I meet Christ, where I take his stories and make them my own. With Christ, the journey takes a lifetime. Perfection is the goal, and there is always another step that can be taken toward that end.