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Available Frameworks for a "Theology after Contact"

Theology is typically more responsive than predictive. Of course, a few prophetic voices can read the signs of the times and issue appropriate warnings about what is to come. But by and large religious thought, undertaken as it is by finite and shortsighted humans, seldom accurately anticipates, much less prepares us for the crises that occur in connection with unprecedented events in human history or new discoveries in the realm of science. Indeed, most of the theological content of the dominant traditions comes from religion's reaction to crises rather than anticipation of them. Undoubtedly, then, the actual shape theology would take on if we ever do encounter ETI cannot be accurately predicted here and now, but must await the event itself.

Still, I would suggest, all too briefly here, that the cosmic vision of Teilhard de Chardin as well as the process theology (based on concepts of the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead) are both already inherently open to being developed into a "theology after contact." Not the least of the reasons for their adaptability is that they have already enthusiastically embraced the Darwinian portrait of life as well as the notion that the entire universe is still in the process of being created. Though Teilhard reflected only occasionally on the possibility of ETI, keeping most of his speculation firmly anchored to our planet, the general thrust of his visionary writings is cosmic in scope. As such, the urge toward increasing complexity and consciousness so evident to Teilhard in his surveys of the history of life on Earth could be a trend that is occurring throughout the cosmos. For this famous Jesuit paleontologist (1881-1955) the "point" or purpose of the universe has something to do with the emergence and intensification of "complexity-consciousness." As physical complexity increases in the universe, Teilhard claims, so does consciousness. But, he acknowledges, the cosmic evolution of consciousness is still far from being finished. Here on Earth the "noosphere," the cerebralization now taking place on a planetary scale is still in process. And it is not inconceivable that parallel worlds of consciousness are evolving elsewhere.See Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Activation of Energy, trans. René Hague, pp. 99-127. In 1944 Teilhard wrote that the hypothesis of other planets inhabited by intelligent beings has a "positive likelihood,"...

Finally, contemporary "process theology" with its vision of cosmic purpose is also expansive enough to accommodate the discovery of ETI. For the "process philosopher" Alfred North Whitehead and his theological followers, the purpose of the cosmos consists of its aim toward the intensification of beauty.See Alfred North Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas (New York: The Free Press, 1967), esp. p 265.Since - at least for Whitehead - beauty is an intrinsic value, any process that leads toward its establishment could be called "teleological," at least in a loose sense. "Beauty," in Whitehead's thought, means the "harmony of contrasts" or the "ordering of novelty," many diverse instances of which have appeared in the evolution of the cosmos and in the emergence of life, mind and culture in our terrestrial setting.

Intelligent life, however, is only one instance of cosmic beauty. We really have no idea of the many forms the cosmic aim toward bringing about beauty might assume within the totality of the universe. Perhaps, then, SETI has set its goals too narrowly for theology. What we call intelligent life might turn out to be too trivial a notion to capture what is already "out there," or the incalculable cosmic outcomes that may yet occur in the future of this unfinished universe. The notion of "beauty," however, is encompassing enough to anticipate a wide variety of cosmic evolutionary phenomena. As we explore the universe we should ask not only about the meaning of intelligence, but also about what the existence of beauty implies as far as the essential character of the whole universe is concerned. It is clear that the universe has always been dissatisfied with the monotony of the status quo, and so has produced innumerable instances of ordered novelty. Perhaps the aim toward beauty, then, is enough to endow the universe with purpose - though it is not necessary for us to add that we would not be able to arrive at such a conclusion unless there were also intelligent subjects capable of enjoying it.

Contributed by: Dr. Jack Haught

Cosmic Questions

Are We Alone? Topic Index
Theology After Contact: Religion and Extraterrestrial Intelligent Life

Available Frameworks for a "Theology after Contact"

What Would Happen to the Idea of God?
The Question of Human Importance
The Question of Religious Particularity
Are Extraterrestrials Religious?
Does SETI Have Implications for the Question of “Cosmic Purpose?”


Jack Haught

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