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The Question of Religious Particularity

Perhaps, though, contact with ETI would be the occasion of heightened anguish to those faiths that believe they have received special election and revelation from God. Wouldn't an encounter with other forms of personal, free and responsible beings put considerable strain on traditions that claim the status of being "a people set apart"?

The claim of special election might possibly undergo some stress after "contact." One response, of course, would be to treat ET's as potential subjects of conversion, in which case contact would simply provide new fields for missionary activity. Mary Russell conjures up such an approach--together with its potential hazards--in her interesting science-fiction novel, The Sparrow.Mary Russell, The Sparrow (New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1996).

However, in the context of contemporary Christian theology, at least, the idea of special election is even now being divested of the connotations of rank and privilege that it might once have suggested. Election, the sense of being specially called or set apart by God, may be understood essentially as a vocation to serve the cause of life and justice rather than being interpreted as lifting us out of our fundamental relatedness to the entire cosmic community of beings. It is worth recalling here also that in Christian belief Jesus' own sense of being called by God did not prevent him from taking on the status of a slave and of being subjected to the most humiliating destiny available during his time, that of crucifixion. In the same spirit, solidarity with Christ would continue for the Christian to mean belonging to one whose own life was itself a vulnerable openness to the estranged and alien, to what does not yet belong. After contact, "belonging to Christ" could then readily be thought of as requiring a more radical inclusiveness than before, one open to and supportive of the adventures of many intelligent worlds. Such an eventuality, once again, would not require an abandonment but instead a fuller appropriation of the central teaching and practice of the faith.

What seems to be universally applicable in Christianity (and indeed other religious traditions) is the ideal of embracing rather than eliminating diversity, an ideal that beckons and challenges, no matter how much it has been ignored in practice. The history of religion is ambiguous at best in meeting this challenge, but historically the encounter of various faiths with what they initially perceived to be alien cultures and practices has often led to the enrichment rather than the dissolution of their traditions. One may surmise that in the far distant future, if interstellar travel ever occurs, our terrestrial religions' contact with even more alien "cultures" will provide fresh challenges and opportunities for growth.

Contributed by: Dr. Jack Haught

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