Take me to your Messiah – Science, Religion, and the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (David Wilkinson)

A review of David WIlkinson’s excellent new book from OUP – David Wilkinson, Science, Religion, and the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, (Oxford University Press, 2013), £25, pp 1 – 227, ISBN:978-0-19-968020-7

Until the 1920s, only one galaxy was known of, our own Milky Way. Nowadays, it is commonplace in cosmological research to affirm not only the existence of countless galaxies, but also countless universes. In parallel with this vast expansion of our cosmic horizons has come the realisation that there are countless other planets beyond those in our own solar system, many of which could be potentially life-bearing. Just a few weeks before writing (4th November 2013) another 833 new planets were added to the list by astronomers working with the Kepler Space Telescope, and ten of those planets could be suitable for life. As the scientific work continues apace, theological questions – some old and some new – are raised with increasing rapidity. If life is discovered on another planet, especially if it is intelligent life, what will be the impact on our world religions, and especially on Christianity, which relies on the unique incarnation of Christ.

In this new book, David Wilkinson – an astrophysicist himself, as well as a theologian – has provided a superbly useful assessment of the current state of thinking in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI), together with a detailed discussion of its theological horizons. Believing that SETI will be fruitful for religious belief rather than destructive, Wilkinson’s aim is neither to defend nor to apologise for terrestrial theology in the face of ETI. In fact, in the last chapter he argues that theology has its own positive contribution to make in SETI.

In the early chapters Wilkinson provides a survey of historical speculation about life on other worlds (beginning with Plato), and broad-ranging discussions of the various scientific fields implicated in SETI. Astronomy features prominently (since most SETI workers are astronomers), but other issues such as how to communicate with extraterrestrials, and the cultural implications of contact are also considered. One of the most contentious areas of debate falls not inside astronomy, but in evolutionary biology. The discovery of extraterrestial life (especially if it is intelligent) would transform our understanding of the deep mystery of how life began on this planet, including the question of the degree to which life is ‘inevitable’. There is a steady progression towards more philosophical and theological issues through the book, so after the historical and scientific surveys, Wilkinson provides an entire chapter on the intriguing problems underlying Fermi’s Paradox (‘If they [extraterrestrials] existed they would be here’), and then a chapter on the popular ‘myths’ of SETI (e.g. that Jesus was an astronaut, or that the earth was created by an alien intelligence), including the question of whether extraterrestrials will be religious or not. These latter issues probably shed more light on our own attitudes to religious belief than those of other worlds.

This leads to two chapters devoted to specific Christian theological questions raised by SETI: creation, and redemption. The latter is perhaps most contentious, because it raises particular difficulties about the doctrine of the incarnation. Put simply, what does it mean to say that God came to earth in Jesus in order to save the world? Is this incarnation only relevant for life on our planet, or for all? Has human sin infected the whole universe, or do aliens sin of their own accord? In which case, would there need to be multiple incarnations, one for each ETI? If we answer this last question in the affirmative, one estimate of the number of ETI civilisations suggests that God would need to be incarnate in about 250 different places simultaneously at any given time (p.163). As in other areas of the science-religion discourse, putting scientific facts and figures into doctrines often does little more than highlight the immense uncertainty involved on both sides.

Wilkinson deals with these theological conundra with balance and skill, pointing out that they are mostly by no means new, often having been asked in other guises since the time of the early church. Christians have long, for instance, worried about the ultimate fate of those who, whether because of history or geography, have never had the opportunity to hear the Christian gospel. And our burgeoning ecological awareness reminds us that, if there are questions about the ultimate fate of extraterrestrials, then these are not so very different from questions about the ultimate fate of our fellow non-human creatures on this planet.

Such a topic – God-humans-extraterrestrials-universe – inevitably broadens the horizons of these issues as far as they will go, which is why I was also surprised to find that Wilkinson addresses them entirely from a Christian perspective. For sure, SETI raises acute questions for the doctrine of the incarnation, but it would have been useful to have read of some of the particular challenges and opportunities that other religious traditions might face, especially since, if we humans ever encounter ETI, it will be a momentous occasion for all faiths and none to reflect upon. This is a relatively minor criticism though: Wilkinson’s book manages, in just over two hundred pages, to provide an excellent and highly-readable account of SETI and its implications for Christian theology.