Creation, Incarnation & Redemption in a Vast Universe
It is sometimes suggested that the discovery of life beyond the earth, especially intelligent life, would pose a threat to the Christian scheme of things. Christians believe that man arose by divine design, whereas those who believe that intelligent beings exist on many worlds have often asserted that such beings emerge by chance alone. Thus, the presence of intelligent life elsewhere might seem to vindicate the view that man arose upon the earth by chance, and many Christians have reacted negatively to the possibility. In ages past, however, Christian concerns over extraterrestrial life were different.
Back in the Middle Ages, while some supposed that cruder forms of life (e.g., maggots) might arise spontaneously from non-living matter, nobody thought intelligent life could arise by chance, so no fear that chance would replace God was in play. If there was intelligent life on other worlds, then, it must have been created by God. However, before there could be intelligent life on other worlds, there had to be other worlds—and this was something that the medieval mind did not easily grant.
Aristotle had taught that there was not and could not be more than one world—where by "world" was meant what we would call the "solar system" plus an outer ring of fixed stars. His arguments (based on premises such as the impossibility of a vacuum) don't concern us here, but his influence on medieval theology does. Some Aristotle-inspired thinkers were bold enough to suggest that God could not have made more than one world. In reaction, in 1277, the bishop of Paris condemned that view as an illicit restriction of God's omnipotence. Later, the French thinker Nicole Oresme, in his Book of the Heaven and the World (circa 1377), offered a sustained anti-Aristotelian argument, with the conclusion, "God can and could in His omnipotence make another world besides this one or several like or unlike it."
Nonetheless, neither Oresme nor most other medieval thinkers went beyond saying that God "could have" created more worlds; in practice they conceded that he had in fact created only one. It was left to later thinkers, starting in the Renaissance, to make the move from "could have" to "did." Their main argument was based on God's infinite power and generosity: God could create, and would wish to create, all possible worlds. So argued Giordano Bruno, in On the Infinite Universe and Worlds (1584):
Why should we . . . imagine that divine power were otiose? Divine goodness can indeed be communicated to infinite things and can be infinitely diffused; why then should we assert that it would choose to be scarce? . . . Why should infinite amplitude be frustrated, the possibility of an infinity of worlds be defrauded?
Thus, for Bruno, "There is a single general space, a single vast immensity which we may freely call Void; in it are innumerable globes like this on which we live and grow." This conclusion, adopted with increasing frequency after Bruno, produced a vision of innumerable planets sustaining innumerable races of intelligent beings. Thus, the universe we think of as the creation of modern science-fiction writers was in fact the product of early modern theological speculation.
Other Doctrines to Consider
Yet, while the doctrine of Creation had been successfully adjusted to accommodate many worlds, the doctrines of Incarnation and Redemption still awaited adjustment. And this brings us, once again, to think about an old book—or rather old poem—by the English writer Alice Meynell (1847-1922). In Christ in the Universe (1913), Meynell wrote:
With this ambiguous earth
His dealings have been told us. These abide:
The signal to a maid, the human birth,
The lesson, and the young Man crucified.
But not a star of all
The innumerable host of stars has heard
How He administered this terrestrial ball.
Our race have kept their Lord's entrusted Word.
Of His earth-visiting feet
None knows the secret, cherished, perilous,
The terrible, shamefast, frightened, whispered, sweet,
Heart-shattering secret of His way with us.
No planet knows that this
Our wayside planet, carrying land and wave,
Love and life multiplied, and pain and bliss,
Bears, as chief treasure, one forsaken grave.
Nor, in our little day,
May His devices with the heavens be guessed,
His pilgrimage to thread the Milky Way
Or His bestowals there be manifest.
But in the eternities,
Doubtless we shall compare together, hear
A million alien Gospels, in what guise
He trod the Pleiades, the Lyre, the Bear.
O, be prepared, my soul!
To read the inconceivable, to scan
The million forms of God those stars unroll
When, in our turn, we show to them a Man.
In Meynell's infinite universe, the Incarnation occurs countless times, on countless worlds; but the forms taken by God vary from planet to planet. The implication is that the particular physical form of Man is not necessary for the Incarnation. The "image of God," then, can be found in beings other than Man, wherever God so wills it.
Outside Orthodox Bounds?
But is there a further implication, i.e., that there have been and will be innumerable Gardens, and innumerable Falls? On our earth, the Gospel (mentioned in the penultimate verse) is the answer to the condition created by the Fall. So if there are "a million alien Gospels," are there a million alien Falls? Will every rational race disobey?
Or is that reading too much into the word "Gospel" here? Is Meynell using the word more freely, to indicate all "bestowals" of God upon his rational creatures, some of whom might be unfallen? The latter idea is developed by C. S. Lewis in Out of the Silent Planet, in which he gives us a world, Mars (Malacandra), which houses three intelligent races, all of them obedient and none of them fallen. Lewis did not, of course, believe that there were actually intelligent races on Mars; he is offering not a scientific but a theological speculation, for the purpose of teaching us something about our own fallen natures. Meynell, however, seems to suppose the actual existence of many intelligent races on many worlds, and to leave open the possibility of intelligent races who fell under different circumstances, and thus need different "Gospels," or (if they never fell) have received some "bestowal" other than a Gospel.
Is Meynell, in such speculations, moving outside the bounds of orthodox belief, driven by putative discoveries of modern science to modify the Christian theology of Incarnation and Redemption? Or is she, rather, extending orthodox belief to cover a universe in which there are in fact a multiplicity of worlds—a universe which the 13th-century bishop of Paris (surely not driven by our modern science) insisted God could have created? I leave this question to the readers' judgment, but surely it is worth at least considering a view of Creation in which the discovery of life on other worlds would count not as a falsification of Christian truth, but as an enlargement of it.Cameron Wybrow
received his Ph.D. in Religious Studies from McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. He writes on education, politics, religion, and culture.This article originally appeared in Salvo, Issue #45, Winter 2018 Copyright © 2019 Salvo | www.salvomag.com https://salvomag.com/article/salvo45/other-worldly-gospels