On September 29, 2015, NASA announced new evidence of the presence of liquid water under the surface of Mars. This item even found its way onto the first page of The New York Times (despite all the competing news from Pope Francis, President Xi Yinping of China, and the ongoing invasion of Europe by hundreds of thousands of refugees from the Middle East). Mars, the “red planet” virtually in the back yard of our Earth, has for many years been the focus of human imagination about intelligent creatures in outer space. Science fiction has generated libraries of books about “little green men” from Mars coming to visit. I suppose that the latest news from NASA will revive these fantasies, though if there is life in these underground puddles at all, it is unlikely to be more interesting than (at best) bacteria—quite unable (as in that classic cartoon) to walk up to a horse and say “take me to your leader!”And with the enormous expansion in the power of telescopes, the search for extraterrestrial life has been looking farther afield. Astronomers have been making lists of far-flung stars with planets that might be able to support life. The one given the name “Gliese 832c” is, at the moment, a plausible candidate. (Don’t ask me to give its location on a map of the galaxy. I imagine that Gliese is the name of the astronomer who found the star, a very big one. The “c” stands for the location of the planet as number 3 going out from the mother star.)The Spectator is that delightful British magazine, which claims to have been continuously published since its foundation in 1828 (I can’t vouch for this claim). It is sardonically conservative both on culture and politics, and has a bevy of writers with a fine sense of the English language. In the issue of September 19, 2015, it has a piece by Alexander Chancellor, a regular columnist, which ponders the question “How do you address extraterrestrials in outer space?” If you think that only somewhat deranged British eccentrics would pay attention to this question, let me try to dissuade you from this mistaken judgment. Chancellor is cautious about the chances of the question becoming practically relevant. He mentions the remark by one Anders Sandberg, who is connected with something called the Future of Humanity Institute (in Oxford, of all places), to the effect that the nearest plausible planet is ten light years away from Earth, which would mean a wait of 200 of our years for a reply to reach us from there.Apparently there is ongoing discussion about the initial messages coming from our end. Already in 1972 a plaque attached to a spacecraft had pictures of a naked man and a naked woman, so that folks out there would know what we look like. Recently Dr. Jill Stuart, an “expert on space policy” (?) at the London School of Economics, has expressed worry that such pictures may give the wrong impression, because they are “western-dominated” (even though the naked figures show no racial features) and because the male of the species is in a “macho posture”. Probably any politically-correct design concocted by a concerned committee at the LSE would be useless, since the recipients on, say Gliese 832c, would have no idea what to make of these images—Sandberg observed that maybe their species would not have eyes. Be this as it may, Yuri Milner, a Russian tycoon, has offered a million dollars for the best image of homo sapiens to be broadcast from Earth (perhaps the winning image will be of a half-naked Vladimir Putin in martial-arts position?). According to the Spectator story, the same Yuri has already invested $100 million to develop better radio telescopes to listen for any intelligible messages coming in.What does any of this have to do with religion? Everything, I would suggest.Contemplating the night sky full of stars probably led individuals to a sense of both awe and vulnerability even in ancient times—say, some Israelite resting alone for a quiet moment in the clear desert air on the endless journey to the Holy Land. I don’t think it is an oversimplification to say that all religion is an attempt to answer the question whether we insignificant beings are alone in the universe. Alleged answers then come, in innumerable versions, asserting that no, we are not alone, and that there is an order of meaning that encompasses the distant stars and our own rather pitiful lives. But modern science has vastly (indeed “astronomically”) expanded our perception of the star-filled sky—millions and millions of galaxies expanding or contracting, with a strange counter-world of “dark matter”, operating by laws that are increasingly unimaginable and incomprehensible. And now come along some astronomers—mind you sober scientists, not initiates of some mystical doctrine—who claim that there is actual empirical evidence of not just the immense universe of the galaxies that our telescopes explore, but of a possibly infinite number of parallel universes operating by laws that we cannot imagine in our wildest dreams.The Biblical tradition revolves around the parochial history of an obscure tribe with misty origins in the ancient Near East, and then around the even more parochial events spanning a few decades in just one corner of that part of the world. Yet out of this tradition have come three world religions, with claims of cosmic significance. I think that in the case of Christianity the Johannine portions of the New Testament already express this claim (notably in the prologue to the Gospel of John), but the Apostle Paul as well alludes to the cosmic import of the Christian message of redemption, as in Romans 8:22: “For we know that the whole creation groans and travails in pain together with us”. I think it is fair to say that Greek Orthodoxy (more emphatically than its Latin counterparts) has put the cosmic Christ at the center of its thought and piety. This emphasis is expressed most powerfully in the Orthodox Easter liturgy, where the risen Christ “tramples death with death, and brings life to those in the grave”. Such intuitions of cosmic redemption can be found most readily in the (often heretical) Jewish, Christian and Muslim mystical movements.I also think it is also fair to say that redemption as a cosmic rather than primarily historical drama is stronger in the religions emerging from the Indian subcontinent than in the more historically oriented monotheisms of west Asian provenance. A prototypical example of the Indian religious imagination is the myth of the ultimate god Vishnu exhaling to create worlds and then inhaling to destroy them again, this endless process continuing over vast cycles of time. Individual souls, fated to participate in these cycles through the iron law of reincarnation, finally (in the most sophisticated versions of Hinduism) find redemption by escaping these cycles of rebirths and deaths by merging with the ultimate divine reality of the universe. Buddhism (especially in its Mahayana forms) is rooted in the same cosmic perceptions. A famous example of this is the so-called Vimalakirti Sutra, whose original Sanskrit text originated in India in the first century CE (it became very influential in Chinese and Japanese translations in East Asia). The text begins with a huge assembly of gods, boddhisatvas (individuals who have attained Enlightenment but forego final redemption to help others get there), and less exalted arhats (Enlightened ones), and other supernatural characters—each of whom rules over an entire world (or Buddha-field). Most of the text is then taken up with Vimalakirti promulgating his doctrine of “inconceivable liberation” to this very mixed congregation. (I may not have gotten all details right here. I am relying on the translation, from a Tibetan version, and commentary by Robert Thurman, an American Buddhist scholar).Enough of these global excursions. Back to the contemporary fascination with putative “little green men”:In September 2015, in one of those impromptu exchanges for which journalists love Pope Francis, he was asked whether he would baptize a “Martian”; Francis said yes, if the latter asked for it. A more reflective answer about baptizing “aliens” was given already in 2010 by Guy Consolmagno, an American astronomer and Jesuit priest, now director of the Vatican Observatory (I don’t know just what they observe over there). He replied that he would baptize them “if they have a soul”; he didn’t say how he would find out. It seems to me that there are more fundamental questions behind these rather lighthearted exchanges: the drama of redemption in all branches of monotheistic religion is mainly understood in connection with the ultimate fate of human beings. But what about the fate of the entire universe? Is it too in need of redemption? In Christian terms: Is the cosmic Christ engaged in redeeming all of creation, which obviously is still flawed? There is a very applicable Jewish idea here, that of the “repair of the universe”/tikkun olam; it originated earlier in rabbinical Judaism, but became central to a school of Kabbalah developed by Isaac Luria in the 16th century CE (in the town of Safed in northern Israel).The term “unidentified flying objects”, or UFOs, was coined by the US Air Force in the 1950s, at the height of the Cold War. Such objects were sighted in various places, and the American military was always concerned that the Russians may be up to some new tricks. After a long investigation the Air Force concluded that there were harmless explanations of all “sightings”—not in terms of secret enemy weapons, and certainly not of invaders from outer space. Nevertheless a cult emerged around these UFOs. It flourished for a while; for all I know it still does. It had an interesting paranoid dimension: the US government was accused of a big cover-up, motivated by a desire not to alarm the public or by the need to protect counter-measures (against aircrafts either from Russia or from alien incursions). Early in my career I had a fleeting experience with the UFO cult; by then I had developed a sensitive nose in detecting religious phenomena—my nose told me in no uncertain tones, “We are dealing with religion here!”I was invited to a meeting of a “UFO club” by the secretary of a research project I was working with, a middle-aged woman who, it turned out, had an absorbing interest in UFOs. The meeting, as usual, was devoted to the analysis of a particular “sighting”. The analysis was supposedly strictly objective and scientific. It was anything but that. It was clear from the beginning that those present (about twenty or so) fervently hoped that there had actually been a landing by an alien spaceship. The location of the alleged landing was in a remote desert area in the Southwest. The evidence consisted of various reports by individuals who had seen the spaceship and its crew (described in some detail, more or less humanoid). A key witness was the local sheriff, who gave the most detailed report, and who actually claimed to have conversed with the aliens and to have visited their vehicle. The discussion was increasingly excited, as the group moved toward the (probably foregone) conclusion that this was a real event—aliens had landed in America! I listened, said nothing.Then, alas, there appeared a dissenter. A young man, apparently a visitor rather than a regular club member, began to question this or that piece of the evidence. The group became increasingly angry. The dissenter went after the sheriff—why, the young man was asked, would he question the veracity of someone trained to be an objective witness. The young man fished out a couple of pages from the bundle of reports: on two occasions, it was reported, the sheriff had been visibly drunk when he arrived at the site. The young dissenter was yelled at by almost all the club members. It seemed possible that the verbal abuse would morph into physical violence. I made a quick departure from the scene.Both before and after this incident I have experienced other cases how believers react when their worldview is questioned. The cognitive defenses go up immediately: the sources for the dissenting views are attacked on methodological grounds, and the motives of the dissenters are impugned—typically judged to be incompetent to assess the evidence or, worse, accused of being paid for their testimony. Thus the damage to the passionately affirmed worldview is quickly repaired. This is how efforts to have a dialogue with fundamentalists commonly end in futility. There remains the age-old hope that the silence of the universe will be broken and that someone (even a little green man) will come and speak the redeeming word—listen, you are not alone!Jalaluddin Rumi (13th century CE) is one of the greatest Muslim mystics (Sufis). He lived for much of his life in Konya, Turkey (where among other things he founded the Order of Whirling Derwishes). The following poem seems an appropriate ending for this post. Rumi mostly wrote in Persian; his poetry is considered one of the high points of that language. I read the following in an English translation; I hope that, whether accurate or not, it gives the flavor of his faith:
I prayed to you in the morning. You did not answer me.Then one day, unexpectedly, I heard your voice.
I prayed to you in the evening. You did not answer me.
For many years I prayed to you. You never answered.
You said: In my silence I spoke to you.