Intelligent Life in the Universe and Exotheology in Christianity and the Bahá'í Writings
by Duane Troxel1996
Know thou that every fixed star hath its own planets, and every planet its own creatures, whose number no man can compute. - Bahá'u'lláh, Gleanings
Fascination with the possibility of intelligent lifeforms on other planets has lasted over two millennia, and perhaps much longer. Philosophy, science, religion and literature all contain strong statements of belief about such a possibility. It is a profoundly interesting question because it raises issues about the origins of life and our place in the physical and spiritual universe. It also has inspired a new discipline: exotheology. Exotheology is the examination of theological issues as they pertain to Extraterrestrial Intelligence (ETI). Traditional Christian theology and the Bahá'í Revelation disclose fascinating observations on exotheology.
In Western Christendom the Inquisition burned the Dominican monk Giordano Bruno at the stake in Rome in 1600 for insisting on a heliocentric (sun-centered) rather than a geocentric (earth- centered) universe. Bruno took matters a step further by insisting the universe was populated by ETIs. Brun said, "Innumerable suns exist; innumerable earths revolve about these suns in a manner similar to the way the seven planets revolve around our sun. Living being inhabit these worlds." (Drake, Is Anyone Out There? Page 65)
"If one accepted the view that the universe is infinite, which Bruno believed was unavoidable, then its being peopled by a limited, and therefore "imperfect," population of intelligent beings was to Bruno incompatible with the infinite goodness or perfection attributed to God and His works. Thus, he said, "infinite perfection is far better presented in innumerable individuals than in those which are numbered and finite." He therefore concluded that there must be an infinite number of morally imperfect beings, inhabiting the infinitude of worlds." (We Are Not Alone Page 15)
The Catholic Church made a public declaration of its theological position on extraterrestrial intelligence (ETI) when it clashed with Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) over the movement of the earth some 350 years ago. Galileo exhibited the first telescope in 1609. With it he visually confirmed the 100-year old Copernican (heliocentric) hypothesis that the earth revolves around the sun. Galileo's view ran counter to 1300-year old Church dogma which had already adopted the Ptolemaic (geocentric) system. In the Ptolemaic system planets--as well as the sun--circle a fixed Earth.
The disagreement did not come down to a choice between two competing scientific views. It was instead Galileo's scientific challenge to a theologically-fixed notion of reality sanctioned by the Church. Catholic theologians argued their case against Galileo on the grounds that the Copernican system (which he supported) contradicted what was construed to be the last refuge of literal inerrancy, The Bible. As 'proof' of Galileo's error theologians of the Church offered in evidence the first verse of the 93rd Psalm, which says in part: 'the world also is stablished, that it cannot be moved.' Another citation came from Joshua where God had 'delivered up the Amorites' to the children of Israel and commanded the sun to stand still 'And the sun stood still, and the moon stayed,...' (10:13) And again, 'The sun and moon stood still in their habitation...'. (Habbakuk 3:11) (A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom 128)
Officers of the Church argued that Galileo's ""pretended discovery vitiates the whole Christian plan of salvation. ... It upsets the whole basis of theology. If the earth is a planet, and only one among several planets, it cannot be that any such great things have been done specially for it as the Christian doctrine teaches. If there are other planets, since God makes nothing in vain, they must be inhabited; but how can their inhabitants be descended from Adam? How can they trace back their origin to Noah's Ark? How can they have been redeemed by the Savior?"" (Warfare 3.:2)
Under the threat of torture, death and excommunication Galileo recanted his support for the Copernican System. He died under house arrest in 1642. The view of an earth- centered universe prevailed in official Church doctrine for the next 350 years--up to 1992--when Pope John Paul II finally acknowledged the Vatican's error in the matter of Galileo's trial. ("Galileo" Microsoft, Encarta, 1994)
So for over 350 years virtually all of Western Christendom held to an implied denial of the possibility of other worlds inhabited by ETIs. During those 350 years science made impressive astronomical discoveries, notably the finding that there are billions of stars in our own galaxy--the Milky Way--and perhaps billions of galaxies in the universe. Mathematical probabilities suggested to some a high likelihood of intelligent life having appeared elsewhere.
In 1960 astronomer Francis Drake began searching the heavens with a radio telescope in hopes of receiving messages from intelligent beings outside our solar system. The search for ETI has been expanded tremendously and continued to the present. Though there have been some "hits" thus far there have been no independently confirmed transmissions received.
A science that has accompanied space exploration is exobiology. Exobiology, is the study of the conditions necessary to support the independent development of extraterrestrial life. Direct proof has not yet been found of life anywhere in the universe other than on the earth, although the recent press conference on the results of a two and one-half year study of a Martian meteorite leaves open the possibility of science confirming extraterrestrial life in our time--but extraterrestrial life that existed millions of years ago and only unicellular life at that.
It has only been in the past year that astronomers have confirmed the existence of planets outside our own solar system. (Time Magazine, 5 February 1996) For many in the scientific community the debate rages over whether or not life arises spontaneously when the conditions are right or whether it is transmitted through space in some way.
The Bahá'í Writings contain many statements that implicitly and explicitly point to the existence of not only extraterrestrial lifeforms but to EXTRATERRESTRIAL INTELLIGENCE (ETI) as well.
It should be pointed out here that while the Bahá'í teachings expressly support the notion of the agreement of science with religion and vice versa, it is also believed that statements in Bahá'í sacred literature are--to Bahá'ís--statements of reality, whether they apply to spiritual law or natural law. Bahá'u'lláh said, "Say: O leaders of religion! Weigh not the Book of God with such standards and sciences as are current amongst you, for the Book itself is the unerring Balance established amongst men." (The Kitab-i-Aqdas 56)
Implicitly, a clear logical deduction of the existence of ETI can be drawn from statements of 'Abdu'l-Bahá. Briefly the argument runs thus, God has always existed. Manifestations have always existed (presumably for the spiritual education of souls). Man is phenomenal on this Earth. There was a time when the Earth did not exist. There was never a time when man did not exist. Logical deduction: There was a time when the Earth did not exist. During that time man existed somewhere else in the universe.
"...[T]he reality of Divinity is without a beginning, creation is also without a beginning." (SFTW A-B 61) "[T]he coming of the Manifestations of God are not circumscribed by time." (FWU 53) "...[A]s God is creator, eternal and ancient, there were always creatures and subjects existing and provided for." (FWU 101) "...[T]he human soul has existed on the earth for prolonged times and ages, yet it is phenomenal." (SAQ 151) "...[T]he earth has not always existed,...". (SAQ 152) "...[T]he universe is not limited to this terrestrial globe." (SAQ 152) "...[I]t cannot be said there was a time when man was not." (SAQ 196) "...[I]t cannot be imagined that the worlds of existence, whether the stars or this earth...were without man!" (SAQ 197)
Another indirect statement comes from Bahá'u'lláh in the "Hidden Words": "Veiled in My immemorial being and in the ancient eternity of My essence, I knew My love for thee; therefore I created thee, have engraved on thee Mine image and revealed to thee My beauty." This clearly implies the existence of man as correlated with "ancient eternity" of God's existence. Or we can quote from "Gleanings" when and argue that God's title "the Lord of Men" implies the existence of men somewhere at all times! (GL 150)
Let's examine some more explicit statements of extraterrestrial lifeforms. Bahá'u'lláh says in Gleanings, "Know thou that every fixed star hath its own planets, and every planet its own creatures, whose number no man can compute." Shoghi Effendi was asked about this quotation in 1937:
"Regarding the passage on p. 163 of the 'Gleanings'; the creatures which Bahá'u'lláh states to be found in every planet cannot be considered to be necessarily similar or different from human beings on this earth. Bahá'u'lláh does not specifically state whether such creatures are like or unlike us. He simply refers to the fact that there are creatures in every planet. It remains for science to discover one day the exact nature of these creatures." (From a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi to an individual believer, February 9, 1937) (Lights of Guidance 478)
What is unclear in Shoghi Effendi's response is whether or not these "creatures" are sentient. Do they possess souls or are they simply some form of animal or other type of life?
The "Tablets of Bahá'u'lláh" reveal an equally ambiguous passage: "Verily I say, the creation of God embraceth worlds besides this world, and creatures apart from these creatures." (188)
Shoghi Effendi did make one unequivocal statement of ETI in the authorized Writings when he said, "'Abdu'l-Bahá stated there are other worlds than ours which are inhabited by beings capable of knowing God." (Light of Divine Guidance, Vol. 2, 82) "Worlds" is plural meaning more than one, other than our own. That means there are at least two more distinct civilizations that are evolving on other planets.
The most explicit statements about ETI come from Divine Philosophy a book of statements allegedly made by 'Abdu'l-Bahá and published by Isabel Fraser Chamberlain. While this book (available online at bahai-library.com/books) may not be wholly authentic the statements are quite provocative when taken together with those already cited.
"The earth has its inhabitants, the water and the air contain many living beings and all the elements have their nature spirits, then how is it possible to conceive that these stupendous stellar bodies are not inhabited? Verily, they are peopled, but let it be known that the dwellers accord with the elements of their respective spheres. These living beings do not have states of consciousness like unto those who live on the surface of this globe; the power of adaptation and environment moulds their bodies and states of consciousness, just as our bodies and minds are suited to our planet." (114)
It would seem from the foregoing quotation that other sentient extraterrestrial lifeforms might or might not look like us. What is most intriguing in the quotation just cited is this line: "the power of adaptation and environment moulds their bodies and states of consciousness, just as our bodies and minds are suited to our planet." Their "states of consciousness" or "minds" could be different from ours. Shoghi Effendi said that "man lives in a three dimensional plane of consciousness." (Lights, #1575) Does that imply that ETIs might have different mental capabilities than we do? Possibly. Might they also have different awarenesses of their environment than we do? Possibly. For example, electromagnetic radiation which comes from the sun ranges from radio waves to x-rays. Within this spectrum is light energy ranging from infrared to ultraviolet, with visible light being between infrared and ultraviolet. The human eye is capable of seeing only that tiny portion of electromagnetic radiation known as visible light on Planet Earth. We need special technology (infrared film or night vision cameras) to record the infrared portion of the electromagnetic spectrum before it can be seen by us. Might such extraterrestrial beings literally be able to "see" things that our unaided vision is incapable of perceiving?
The Bahá'í Writings make it clear that all self-conscious beings are made in God's image. 'Abdu'l-Bahá said, "A human being is distinguished from an animal in a number of ways. First of all, he is made in the image of God, in the likeness of the Supernal Light, even as the Torah saith, 'Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.' [Genesis 1:26] This divine image betokeneth all the qualities of perfection whose lights, emanating from the Sun of Truth, illumine the realities of men. And among the greatest of these attributes of perfection are wisdom and knowledge." (Selections from the Writings of 'Abdu'l-Bahá, 140) Humans potentially possess the ability to manifest the qualities and attributes of God.
The role of the Manifestations of God must be taken into account in the evolution of ETI. It is safe to say that the cosmic model of spiritual and social evolution is based upon Progressive Revelation. Progressive Revelation is a process in which a Perfect Man appears bearing a Revelation from God. As a result of the Manifestation of Perfect Men mankind is raise up spiritually and socially. These Manifestations have appeared in cycles. Shoghi Effendi identified nine Earth-based Manifestations Whose lives resulted in "nine great world religions." (Lights, #1374) Including the Bab and Bahá'u'lláh, the other seven are Sabean (whose Founder's name is unknown), Krishna (Hindu), Moses (Judaism) Zoroaster (Zoroastrian), Buddha (Buddhist), Christ (Christianity) and Muhammad (Islam). (Lights, #1373 & #1694) That there were many more is testified to the Writings. 'Abdu'l-Bahá said:
"...[T]here have been many holy Manifestations of God. One thousand years ago, two hundred thousand years ago, one million years ago, the bounty of God was flowing, the radiance of God was shining, the dominion of God was existing." (Promulgation of Universal Peace, 463)
Further, "All that we can say is that this terrestrial globe at one time did not exist, and at its beginning man did not appear upon it. But from the beginning which has no beginning, to the end which has no end, a Perfect Manifestation always exists. This Man of Whom we speak is not every man; we mean the Perfect Man. For the noblest part of the tree is the fruit, which is the reason of its existence. If the tree had no fruit, it would have no meaning. Therefore, it cannot be imagined that the worlds of existence, whether the stars or this earth, were once inhabited by the donkey, cow, mouse and cat, and that they were without man! (Some Answered Questions, 196-197) One might reasonably deduce from these quotations that sentient beings on other planets have evolved in a different time frame and have different capabilities than us; or less possibly, be at nearly the same evolutionary state that we are. The evolutionary state of Planet Earth is planetary unity. In the World Order of Bahá'u'lláh Shoghi Effendi tells us that the Revelation of Bahá'u'lláh will take us to planetary unity:
...[T]he founding of a world civilization and culture--all of which must synchronize with the initial stages in the unfoldment of the Golden Age of the Bahá'í Era--should, by their very nature, be regarded, as far as this planetary life is concerned, as the furthermost limits in the organization of human society, though man, as an individual, will, nay must indeed as a result of such a consummation, continue indefinitely to progress and develop. (Page 163)
The Bahá'í Writings state categorically that while Bahá'u'lláh's Dispensation (Revelation) will endure for at least one thousand years, He inaugurates a new cycle that will last 500,000 years. (World Order of Bahá'u'lláh, 132; Citadel of Faith, 5) It naturally raises the question: "What comes after the achievement of planetary unity...inter-planetary unity?"
...[W]e cannot say definitely that His Revelation will be inter- planetary in scope. We can only say that such a thing may be possible. What Bahá'u'lláh means by His appearance in 'other worlds' He has not defined, as we could not visualize them in our present state, hence He was indefinite, and we cannot say whether He meant other planets or not..." (From a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi to an individual believer, December 24, 1941; Lights, #1555)
Nevertheless, Shoghi Effendi does not limit the Revelation of Bahá'u'lláh to our star system alone. In answer to a letter from a Bahá'í written in 1938 he wrote:
"As to your question whether the power of Bahá'u'lláh extends over our solar system and to higher worlds; while the Revelation of Bahá'u'lláh, it should be noted, is primarily for this planet, yet the spirit animating it is all-embracing, and the scope therefore cannot be restricted or defined." (Lights, #1594)
Thus it would seem that--unless Bahá'u'lláh was somehow able to simultaneously appear on two or more separate planets at the same time--sentient beings on other planets have a sequence of Manifestations unique to that planet. This being the case, makes one wonder--if these other civilizations are not more backward than us--then just how far ahead of us might they be?
Whether or not they are ahead or behind we do know that 'Abdu'l- Baha encouraged the exploration of other planets. Hand of the Cause H.M. Balyuzi reports that "...['Abdu'l-Bahá] had been speaking of the great technological and scientific strides of the age; it would be meet, He said, if ways and means of reaching other planets were now devised." ('Abdu'l-Bahá by H.M. Balyuzi, 377)
What we can glean from this brief review--apart of the fascinating prospects arising from eventual contact with ETIs from other star systems--is the remarkable flexibility of Bahá'í exotheology.
Other religious systems have interpreted their Revelations in ways that have fixed theological doctrine rather inflexibly. Discovery of extrasolar sentient lifeforms will require a significant recasting of traditional dogma before the majority of faithful Catholics--for example--can fit such a conception within its worldview. Consider the Catholic doctrines of Original Sin, Incarnation, Atonement and Resurrection in the light of ETI. There will need to be a considerable shift in the existing Catholic exotheological paradigm to accommodate such an understanding.
Taking just the theological notion of the Incarnation as an example: "The existence of extra-terrestrial intelligences would have a profound impact on religion, shattering completely the traditional perspective on God's relationship with man. The difficulties are particularly acute for Christianity, which postulates that Jesus Christ was God incarnate whose mission was to provide salvation for man on Earth. The prospect of a host of 'alien Christs' systematically visiting every inhabited planet in the physical form of the local creatures has a rather absurd aspect. Yet how otherwise are the aliens to be saved?" (Paul Davies, "God and the New Physics" qtd. in "The Gods Have Landed")
Such convoluted revisionist ploys to make traditional theology fit with modern scientific findings will not happen in the Bahá'í Revelation because of its teaching of the fundamental agreement of science with religion (theology). Indeed, Bahá'í exotheology already contains strong statements of ETI existence as well as a cosmic model (Progressive Revelation) to explain the process of the spiritual education of extrasolar souls.
Regardless of nature of ETI Bahá'u'lláh reminds us all (ETIs and Earthlings) are bound by the same spiritual law:
O SON OF MAN! Wert thou to speed through the immensity of space and traverse the expanse of heaven, yet thou wouldst find no rest save in submission to Our command and humbleness before Our Face. (Arabic Hidden Words, #40)
Endnotes1. Biblically-speaking, a counter-argument in support for ETI might be found in John 10:16: 'And other sheep I have, which are not of this fold' or John 14:2: 'In my Father's house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you.' 2 Lest anyone should image that Protestants held a more liberal view on the Earth's movement, Andrew Dickson White reports:
"All branches of the Protestant Church - Lutheran, Calvinist, Anglican - vied with each other in denouncing the Copernican doctrine as contrary to Scripture; and, at a later period, the Puritans showed the same tendency. Said Martin Luther: "People gave ear to an upstart astrologer who strove to show that the earth revolves, not the heavens or the firmament, the sun and the moon. Whoever wishes to appear clever must devise some new system, which of all systems is of course the very best. This fool wishes to reverse the entire science of astronomy; but sacred Scripture tells us that Joshua commanded the sun to stand still, and not the earth." "(Warfare, 3:1)
3. In 1616 Pope Paul V ordered that Galileo be brought before the Inquisition and confronted by the Grand Inquisitor, the Jesuit cardinal Robert Bellarmine. Galileo, knowing that his scientific view was a heretical one in the eyes of the Church
""I, Galileo, being in my seventieth year, being a prisoner and on my knees, and before your Eminences, having before my eyes the Holy Gospel, which I touch with my hands, abjure, curse, and detest the error and heresy of the movement of the earth."" (A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom by Andrew Dickson White 1896; 1965, p. 3:3)
Galileo preserved his life and went on with his research. In 1632 he published a book on tides which again gave strong support to the Copernican System. He was again summoned to Rome and again stood before the Inquisition. (Cardinal Bellarmine was dead by then.) Though Galileo presented two licenses permitting him to publish his book, he was convicted of having violated the terms of the 1616 Inquisition which had forbade him to ever speak or write of the Copernican System as valid. He again recanted his "heresy" and was sentenced to life imprisonment which was quickly commuted to permanent house arrest. He died under house arrest in 1642. In 1979 Pope John Paul II appointed a papal commission to review Galileo's case.
Finally, in October 1992, the Vatican admitted its 360 year old error, thereby opening a theological door to the possibility of ETI in the universe. ("Galileo" Microsoft, Encarta, 1994.)
4. Drake's Equation estimating the probability of intelligent extraterrestrial lifeforms just in our galaxy capable of communicating over interstellar distances. The formula and explanation follows:
The Formula: — N = R* fp ne fl fi fc L.
The explanation of the formula and its seven factors is as follows:
Where: N = Number of communicating civilizations (N). N varies with the values assigned to each of the seven factors.
5. Ninety-eight percent of its data is simply noise and various forms of interference. The other two percent--although not necessarily signals from 'others' are good extraterrestrial candidates. Sagan and Horowitz published the data of 5 years of searching and 2 years of followup in The Astrophysical Journal in 1993. "After three surveys of the sky" there are "11 "events."" These 11 satisfy all but one of the criteria to acknowledged as genuinely alien signals: Verifiability. He said, "We've never been able to find any of them again. We look back at that part of the ky three minutes later and there's nothing there. We look again the following day: nothing. Examine it a year later, or seven years later, and still there's nothing. It seems unlikely that every signal we get from alien civilizations would turn itself off a couple minutes after we begin listening, and never repeat." (Pale Blue Dot 359)
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