UFOs, flying saucers, extraterrestrial beings and the like re-emerged unexpectedly into the news last week. There was, you may remember, a mass release by the Ministry of Defence of many of the documented reports of sightings they have collected and collated over the years, which caused a flurry of excitement until it became obvious that few of the sightings were particularly interesting. Doubtless there's material in there to give diligent compilers of UFO data many happy hours. Doubtless, too, the conspiracy theorists will be telling us, anything really explosive will have been deleted.
But there was also, and I presume co-incidentally, an interview with the pope's chief astronomer Fr Jose Gabriel Funes, published in the Vatican newspaper and excitedly relayed around the world. In it, Fr Funes speculated openly about the existence of life on other planets - "Certainly, in a universe this big you can't exclude this hypothesis" - and went on to discuss the theological implications of some sort of alien contact. There was, he thought, no reason why God could not have created life on other planets:
Just as there is a multiplicity of creatures on earth, there can be other beings, even intelligent, created by God. This is not in contrast with our faith because we can't put limits on God's creative freedom. ...Why can't we speak of a 'brother extraterrestrial'? It would still be part of creation.
He went on to suggest that such beings might not have "fallen", like humanity, and thus not be in need of redemption. They would be creatures "who remained in full friendship with their creator", he thought.
There's nothing particularly new about this type of speculation, even in the press. In 2005 another Vatican astronomer, Brother Guy Consolmagno, wrote a book entitled Intelligent Life in the Universe? Catholic belief and the search for extraterrestrial intelligent life which attracted quite a few headlines. He, too, focused on the theological implications of ET. As he wrote,
But there is one crucial question that will face Christianity if, or when, extraterrestrial intelligence is discovered. That's the question about what the Incarnation means to other species. In other words, would aliens need to have their own version of Jesus?
Do aliens need to be saved? Depends if they are subject to "original sin" or not. The traditional theology of original sin, tracing it back to the origins of the human race, says absolutely nothing about other entities, either way. Once we find other intelligences, we'll be in a better position to expand that theology.
And even if they did need to be saved, would Christianity be the appropriate way to do it? Or was the Incarnation of Christ a case of God becoming man, not little green man. Perhaps it doesn't matter. Brace yourself, the next quote is rather deep:
The point there is that, even though the life of Jesus occurred at a specific space-time point, on a particular world line (to put it in general relativity terms), it also was an event that John's Gospel describes as occurring in the beginning-the one point that is simultaneous in all world lines, and so present in all time and in all space. Thus, there can only be one Incarnation-though various ET civilizations may or may not have experienced that Incarnation in the same way that Earth did.
A mysterious concept indeed. And it raises what is (for those so minded) an even more important question: do we leave these aliens to their own spiritual wisdom, or darkness? Or should we send out missionaries and make converts of the heathen aliens.
According to a Russian Orthodox theologian Alexey Osipov, quoted this week, even asking this sort of question is heretical. With unassailable logic, he pointed out that the existence of extraterrestrial life is in any case inconceivable. Alien life forms were not mentioned in the New Testament, he said. Equally significantly, "there have been very many people in the Church who reached highest degree of Godliness and sanctity but no one of them has ever mentioned them [extraterrestrial civilizations], though they pointed out to many other things."
Furthermore, the fact that none had yet been discovered yet provided "solid grounds to negate existence of any extraterrestrial intelligent civilization", he claimed. And even if UFOs did exist and had occupants, they were probably demons. Case closed.
Perhaps herein lies an important difference between Orthodoxy and Catholicism. This sort of speculation, while anathema to Osipov, has a surprisingly long history in western Christianity. As Brother Guy points out, "to insist that God could not have made other worlds was declared a heresy back in the thirteenth century". On the other hand, "claiming the existence of a plurality of worlds" was one of the heretical opinions for which Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake in 1600. Still, it's natural for a theologians to want to speculate about questions of extraterrestrial life. Theology and Ufology have a great deal in common.
For one thing, their fields of interest are beyond the realms of what can be proved, known or properly understood. Alien beings might even be to modern theologians what angels were to their medieval forebears, invisible entities whose existence and characteristics must be inferred and which can be argued about without the troublesome intrusion of boring facts. Can aliens be saved? How many angels can dance on a pin-head? It's the same sort of meaningless question.
Theology and Ufology, moreover, are both rooted in faith. In fact, the early sightings of flying saucers swiftly gave rise to quasi-religious movements, some of which like the Aetherians and the Raelians - and above all the Scientologists - are still with us. Space-faring beings, like gods, are superior and might help us, but they are also potentially wrathful or malevolent.
Both UFO believers and religious believers are unswayed by evidence to the contrary: God, after all, moves in mysterious ways, while the government has its own deep reasons for wanting to cover up the truth. And both have the same love-hate relationship with conventional science. Science can never disprove what they believe. Yet the possibility must also exist that scientists will one day prove that it is true. And in the meantime ufologists will point to hard-to-explain sightings, and the religious to "miracles", as evidence that challenges science. Deep down they both want scientific approval.