In its issue of January 7, 2011, the National Catholic Reporter had an interview with Douglas Vakoch, a psychologist who is “director of interstellar message composition” at the SETI Institute (a job description prone to produce ecstasy in any teenage consumer of science-fiction). SETI stands for Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, and is located in Mountain View, California. Its purpose is “to explore, understand and explain the origin, nature and prevalence of life in the universe”. This may sound like a project to sum up and unify all existing sciences and philosophies. SETI’s website suggests a somewhat more modest agenda: “Planet hunting”—that is, looking for solar systems with planets comparable to earth—on the assumption (correct, no doubt) that life could only emerge in such a location. SETI also surfs for electromagnetic communications originating in outer space. If telescopes cannot show us where these aliens may live, radio receivers may catch some message from them. Other than simple curiosity, the underlying motive for this enterprise is eloquently expressed by a question on the website: “Tell us what you think—Are we alone in the universe?”
I imagine that SETI is full of highly sophisticated technology, operated by people who are skilled in this. Vakoch is a humanist among the technocrats. His job is to figure out how we might communicate with intelligent aliens out there, if and when they might one day show up. I am not sure just why NCR decided to interview him. He did not have much to say about religion, except to raise the question (he did not suggest an answer) whether these aliens have original sin and are therefore in need of redemption. I am sure that this is indeed a question that would preoccupy Christians. Perhaps NCR was fantasizing about yet another dialogue center within the Vatican bureaucracy, after those for dialogue with non-Catholic Christians (the “separated brethren”), Jews, adherents of non-Judeo-Christian traditions, unbelievers—perhaps a Pontifical Council for Dialogue with Extraterrestrial Brethren (very separated ones indeed).
But Vakoch said something else that I found very interesting: Any other worlds would have the same chemistry as ours. Thus we could convey to the aliens that we too are intelligent beings by showing our knowledge of chemistry, which they must share if they have the technology to, so to speak, phone us. I suppose we could show them diagrams depicting the table of elements. Geometry could serve the same purpose—say, by depicting Pythagoras’ theorem. I hope that Vakoch is figuring out how to proceed once we have mutually verified our eligibility for a degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. At the very least, the exchange of scientific credentials may help to reduce the shock of the first encounter.
Science-fiction novels and films have exhaustively dealt with the shock of physical encounters with aliens. Most of us will recall that classical cartoon (it must have been in The New Yorker), showing odd-looking aliens descending from their spaceship and confronting a horse with the demand “Take us to your leader!” But an encounter via radio waves would be shocking enough. It would have immense consequences—psychological, political, philosophical. There would also be a severe theological shock, succinctly adumbrated by Vakoch’s question about redemption and original sin. I daresay that this shock would be felt most strongly in the Abrahamic traditions of monotheism, because of their strong emphasis on revelation in human history—a history limited to planet earth. A contemplation of the universe of galaxies as evoked by modern astronomy already creates doubt as to whether the creator of this universe, if he exists at all, could possibly be interested in what must appear to him as the utter trivia of events on a small planet in a corner of the Milky Way. Why should God be concerned in what occurred to some obscure nomads in the Sinai desert, or a little later to prophetic movements in Palestine or Arabia? This question, of course, occurred to some individuals in ancient times. But the vastness of the universe disclosed by astronomy greatly accentuates the question. Now even sober-minded scientists spin out theories about “parallel universes”.
The great religious traditions with origins in southern and eastern Asia would, I think, be less shocked. They are very much less interested in human history. Their perspective has always been cosmic in scope. There is the Hindu myth of Brahman, the ultimate divine reality of the universe, exhaling and inhaling. When Brahman exhales, a universe emerges. When Brahman inhales, the universe is annihilated. And, at least in the version of Hinduism represented by the Upanishads, the Atman, the true self, is identical with the Brahman—as declared by the famous formula, tat tvam asi—“you are that”. It follows that the true self survives the coming and going of universes. There is the Buddhist concept of Buddha-fields—a vastness of worlds, each presided over by a Buddha. The Holy Teaching of Vimalakirti, a classical Mahayana text translated by the American Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman, opens with a convention of thousands of Buddhas, each reigning over his own Buddha-field. The text celebrates the “inconceivable liberation” offered not only to humans but to all “sentient beings”—who, if they themselves attain Buddhahood, will be forever freed from the wheel of deaths. In all these cosmic dramas of the Asian imagination, humans and aliens have the same status as all other “sentient beings”—along with gods, demons and at least the higher animals.
Within the Christian tradition, I think, Eastern Orthodoxy would be best equipped to deal with the question of aliens’ redemption. Orthodoxy has always had a cosmic understanding of the redemptive power of Christ, most powerfully expressed in the Easter liturgy of the resurrection. While Western Christendom (both Catholic and Protestant) has had an essentially juridical understanding of the atonement—man is guilty/God must punish him/Christ takes the punishment upon himself—the East has viewed Christ as the victor over sin and death through a cosmic battle with the forces of evil. This cosmic Christ is represented in Orthodox churches by the icon of the Pantocrator—the ruler over everything—commonly exhibited on the ceiling of the church. Redemption is thus perceived as a tectonic shift in the structure of all reality, not just the reality of human beings in history. It seems to me that this view has a certain affinity with an idea rooted in Jewish mysticism—tikun olam—the “repair of the world”. I find it intriguing that in modern Israeli Hebrew the word tikun applies to any repair job—say, one performed on an automobile by a garage mechanic. But I will not pursue these musings about Eastern Orthodox and Jewish notions of redemption any further here.
Instead I will return to Vakoch’s assumption about the same chemistry prevailing throughout the universe of galaxies. Of course it is not just the chemistry. It is assumed that the entire empirical universe is subject to the same physical laws—of physics, chemistry, and indeed biology. The latter domain is of course particularly relevant to any communication with aliens. One could also present them with depictions of DNA or the structure of molecules. I think this assumption must be made by any scientist trying to understand this world—if you will, the world of the galactic system. Yet it is possible to imagine different worlds, with completely different physical, chemical and biological laws. I think that any thoughtful Buddhist will nod. But I would suggest that Jews, Christians and Muslims might entertain the same possibility—and, for that matter, so could agnostics or atheists, as long as they have retained a sense of wonder.
I have no clear idea how such a world, if it exists, could be accessed. By astronomy penetrating the mystery of black holes and dark matter? By mystical experiences? But those of us who are neither astronomers nor mystics actually get an inkling of what such a world might be like every few hours—in the world of dreams. I am not for a moment suggesting that dreams are a gateway to other worlds (though, come to think of it, I would not exclude the possibility that some are). But dreams provide an experience of a world that is similar to the wide-awake world, and yet very different. There are the basic categories of any conceivable world of experience, notably space and time. But it is a different space—one can be in two places at the same time, one can go through walls and fly across continents—and a different time—a year in the dream can occur in ten minutes of wide-awake time. We are also embodied in dreams, but our bodies are very different from the ones we inhabit again when we wake up.
Such a world is unlikely to be accessed by even the most powerful telescopes or by electromagnetic technology. It would indeed be, in Rudolf Otto’s term, totaliter aliter—“totally other”. It is conceivable that the most likely access would lie hidden in the recesses of our minds. Any Buddhist would surely nod. The Book of Revelation in the New Testament promises “a new heaven and a new earth”. In an age where science has become the guardian of, at any rate, the official definitions of reality, it is quite useful to imagine alternative definitions.
Do extraterrestrial aliens have original sin? I don’t know if there are such beings. I have difficulties with the notion of original sin. However, if such beings do exist, and if they are subject to death and are capable of evil, they will need some sort of redemption.