The Jewish, Christian and Muslim faiths, all principally focused on the Mediterranean world, were based on a conviction that the marvel and complexity of their world required a planner, a creator, of superhuman power. Gradually, as these religions expanded and developed, they recognized that this planning must have been of a far broader extent than had been imagined in the forming of their inevitably anthropomorphic concept of God.
These and other religions have had to come to terms with evolution and the realization that planet Earth with its human population was not the center of reality. Even the vast galaxy of which it formed a small part was only one of a million galaxies now known to “digital redshift spectroscopy” in far vaster and still expanding galectic systems. Until recently, no religion was much concerned with explaining why God’s creative planning took notice of our earth, which is only a tiny pinpoint in the universe.
Taking our galaxy (itself 100,000 light-years in diameter) as a base point, the opposite farthest point of the universe is some 15 billion light-years away. The nearest galaxy to ours, called Andromeda, is 2 million light-years away. These two form the largest galaxies of our galaxy-group, with 18 others within 3 million light-years. The next group of galaxies is also three million light-years thick, but is 7 million light-years distant from ours. Next is the Virgo cluster of 10,000 galaxies, 45 million light-years from the United States. All these galaxies together form a “supercluster.” There are four other superclusters all roughly the same size and structure as ours.
The whole notion of God as creator implies a planned creation. Our Christian faith sees God’s plan as including an incarnate Christ, whose primary function, according to St. Thomas Aquinas, was to redeem man from his sin. Others, like Duns Scotus and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, S.J., saw Christ as the “origin and goal of the whole creation.” In either case, a planning Creator must have known that the human race through its whole duration would have constituted far less than a trillionth of the whole material universe that the Creator made.
Religion has kept a sharp eye on the efforts of science to ascertain whether there is “life” on any other planet, though so far space probes have reported from no farther away than Mars. “Life” usually means an existence somewhat like our own, intelligent and free human-like life. Neither science nor religion has shown much interest in the question of whether there could be life and intelligence without carbon.
The Harvard scientist Stephen Jay Gould, often cited as protagonist against Teilhard or religion in general, in a television interview made arresting observations about bacteria as much more worthy than man to be termed “King of the Universe.” For example, in Brother Astronomer: Adventures of a Vatican Scientist (2001), a memoir by Guy Consolmagno, an American pioneer in the study of meteorites who is now a Jesuit brother, the author deals respectfully with the claim that the existence of life on Mars might be proved by worm-like bacterial microstructures in meteorites from there.
The infinitesimal size of humankind’s earth, compared with the whole universe, has so far made scarcely a dent in one theological problem recognized since the origins of Christianity: what is the relation of the incarnate Christ to the material universe? Is religion only to say we always knew that the “bigness” of creation is a proof of God’s existence, and now “the bigger, the stronger proof”?
Doubtless at a time when the human planet was held to be the center of some starry empyrean, it was easier to presume that Christ’s relation to that friendly neighborhood universe was a factor of his relation to the human race—as its savior from its own sins, original and personal, in the more common view. Even the acceptably orthodox view of Scotus—that Christ was the origin through whom all creation took place and the goal of “all creation”—was perhaps more easily manageable in a human-planet centered creation, though Teilhard found support for it in Col 1:15, Eph 1:22 and Rom 8:19.
In Brother Astronomer, Consolmagno writes: “The Word [incarnate], is part and parcel of the woof and weave of the Universe. Just how this ‘Word’ might be ‘spoken’ to the rest of the intelligent universe...will be in ‘words’ (that is, events) appropriate to those beings.” He adds, “In any event, [they] do not need to know about Christ for salvation; that’s the tradition of ‘baptism by desire.’” But he continues, “There can be only one Incarnation—though various extraterrestrial civilizations may or may not have experienced that Incarnation in the same way that Earth did.” He concludes, “To withhold from [them] a part of us as fundamental as our religions—plural—would be dishonest.” They are “subject to the same laws of chemistry and physics as us, made of the same kinds of atoms ...our cousins in the cosmos.... I don’t think you’d even have the right to call them aliens.”
Obviously it is far beyond human competence to know or understand God’s “planning” or why he chose whatever he did choose. God’s ways are not our ways. But an imaginative theologian might find unsatisfactory the current theological explanation of God’s plan for a universe in which humanity with all its works and pomps (even its whole planet or galaxy) constitutes only a tiny fraction. With or without supposing “life” compounded of carbon and similar to our own possible in some remote galaxy, should we not be thinking in terms of God’s incarnate relation to the whole known universe?
This perspective may perhaps shed light also on a grave controversy within Christianity: Is the relation of Christ to the whole of humanity only its awaited conversion to and by his own church? Or are we rather to think of God creating for a future he intended, taking into account the contributions and perversions of free will that he “foresaw”? This future included the inscrutable ways in which he allowed some awareness of his own being to filter into hordes of Muslims, Buddhists, Confucians and innumerable Africans and Amerindians. This future does not exclude an infinitely vaster universe of beings not necessarily like ourselves but nevertheless having God in his Son as origin and goal.
Would it be legitimate for an orthodox Christian to propose the hypothesis of our God, the God of the entire universe, taking on the “primacy” of that anthropoid race, either by identifying (not necessarily incarnating, i.e. humanizing) himself (Son? or Spirit?) with it, or in some entirely different way? The serious theologian may well answer that all this is unfounded imagination. We must simply wait until we have hard evidence, though that wait might well be another couple of billion years, such as was required for the emergence of Homo Sapiens from a creation already thoroughly geared to his coming.
Not all scholarly minds will be so patient. Some may insist that the progress of science has not only increased our knowledge, but revealed our ignorance. This warrants our forming plausible hypotheses capable of not only updating but also advancing our present state of the theological art.