Thomas F. O'Meara. Vast Universe: Extraterrestrials and Christian Revelation, Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota, 2012.
If you don't believe in Christian revelation and think that we unlikely ever to encounter any extraterrestrials, then this book is possibly not for you. However, it should be of interest not only to theology students, but also to those who are interested in the interaction between scientific discovery and religious belief, which is a more important subject than is generally realised, as progress in science and technology has for centuries had a profound influence not only on the interpretations of religious doctrines, but on what is moral theology to the religious and ethics to the secular.
Fr O'Meara is a Catholic theologian with an international reputation and his publications include works on the theologians Karl Rahner and Thomas Aquinas. This book is not a work of Christian apologetics but is mainly speculation about how the beliefs about Christian revelation could be related to considering possible relationships between God and intelligent beings on other planets, if such beings exist.
Speculation about the theological implications of extraterrestrial intelligences is these days known as exotheology. There is nothing new in such speculation, but it has recently gained more importance because of the impact of new developments in cosmology on religious thought. In the earlier years of Christianity, a few theologians thought about the possibility of intelligent life on other worlds and how this idea should be interpreted in a manner compatible with Christian doctrine. Through the centuries these ideas developed, influenced by philosophical speculations and scientific theories and discoveries, and the growing realisation that the Earth was not the centre of the universe, which was of vast size, and possibly infinite.
In considering the ideas of Renaissance thinkers, Fr O'Meara mentions in particular two Dominicans, Tomasso Campanella (1568-1634) and Giordano Bruno (1548-1600), who rejected their order's 13th-century opinion that there was a single ordered world, and used passages from the Bible and early theologians to argue for a plurality of worlds. He sums up his discussion of their ideas by remarking:
"Campanella and Bruno offered theories on the vastness of the universe and its populations. In a time when science, philosophy, faith, and theology were too intertwined, their lasting contributions got lost in religious eccentricity and ecclesiastical violence."
In his discussion of the depiction of religion in science fiction, Fr O'Meara expresses diappointment at what he sees as neglect or superficial portrayals of the subject: "Earthlings learn immediately that aliens are intent on destroying all they encounter." Although he has read the stories by C.S. Lewis, he appears to have missed one of the best-known SF novels with a religious theme, James Blish's A Case of Conscience, in which the central character is a Jesuit biologist who joins an expedition to the planet Lithia and discovers that the intelligent Lithians have no crime, no inequality, no unhappiness, and no conception of God. As a result of his thinking about this situation the Jesuit comes to the conclusion that the planet and its inhabitants are the work of the Devil, with the inevitable disastrous consequences. Perhaps this kind of situation could arise if we ever make contact with alien intelligences?
Although the ideas presented about the theological implications of the possible discovery of intelligent aliens are potentially important, anyone who is interested in religious affairs will be aware that Catholicism has more urgent problems to deal with at present. | John Harney |