Sixteen years ago, I was driving across the Texas desert in the middle of the night. My friend was asleep in the passenger seat, continuing to renege on his promise to share in the driving. We’d decided to drive to Phoenix for the wedding of a college buddy so that we could see the west by the open road. It had been a great idea until I was driving at two in the morning, fighting to stay awake. Somewhere in the west Texas panhandle, I turned on the radio and came across Coast to Coast AM. As I sped across the desert into New Mexico, I listened to Art Bell (the host at the time) discussing the possibility of alien life.
To be honest, up to that point, I’d never thought much about aliens. As a kid, most of my paranormal interest revolved around Bigfoot, the Mothman, ghosts and haunted places. I’d lost interest even in those subjects when I went into high school. But Art Bell rekindled my interest in the question of alien life. It was an interesting topic for a wannabe Protestant pastor (I would enter seminary the next spring). Soon after, I started watching a show I’d previously avoided, The X-Files, then in its fifth season, and found myself even more fascinated by the relationship between Mulder and Scully.
Much has been written about that relationship. The standard line is this: Mulder is a believer, and Scully is the doubting woman of science. To me, this is a gigantic oversimplification. Because as every X-Phile can tell you, Scully has a Catholic faith that she embraced on a deeper level as the show progressed. So the conflict between Mulder and Scully (and also the attraction) is that both of them have faith. Mulder believes in the existence of aliens (and is deeply skeptical of organized religion), while Scully believes in God and is a practicing Catholic.
Perhaps even more interesting is that Mulder fed (and still feeds) us the popular idea that if we discover proof of alien life, this will somehow discredit Christianity (to be fair, many theologians take the same position). Scully resists this idea, though we’re never told why. The answer is simple: Catholics and other Christians have long explored the idea of life on other planets and what it might be like for Christianity to show up on other worlds.
The media went all fluttery when Pope Francis and Brother Guy Consolmagno, director of the Vatican Observatory, both stated they would baptize aliens, but this isn’t a new idea. The discussion of alien life in the church stretches back to the Middle Ages. At first, Christian theologians asserted that it was not philosophically or theologically possible for God to have created other beings and other worlds. But speculation grew until, in the 18 century, two significant works were published on the subject. Conversations on the Plurality of Worlds and Traité de lInfini Créé both discuss how God created other worlds. Cree takes it a step further, speculating about what the Incarnation might look like on other planets. Catholiceducation.org has a more detailed summary of how thought on alien life developed in the church.
To me, the best exploration of alien life from a Christian worldview can be found in the criminally under-appreciated (and frankly, better than the Chronicles of Narnia) Space Trilogy by C.S. Lewis. In three books, Lewis tells the tale of Ransom (supposedly molded on J.R.R. Tolkien), who talks with aliens on Mars and Venus about the work of God in other worlds. The Space Trilogy is fascinating, thought provoking, and destroys the idea that Christians would have to abandon their faith should aliens ever be found. It’s a science-fiction masterpiece.
There are numerous other examples, especially Ray Bradbury’s excellent short story, “The Man,” where an astronaut is chasing Jesus all over the universe. However, I’ve always found Walter Martin’s A Canticle for Leibowitz a thoughtful reflection on how the church could move on if we end up destroying our own planet. I won’t give away the ending, but I highly recommend the book.
I have no idea if there are alien worlds or if we’re meant to colonize other planets. None of us has any idea, to be honest. No matter how much we insist that such a vast universe must contain other life, we still haven’t found it. But I do know that I’m firmly in Scully’s (and Pope Francis’s) camp—that the discovery of alien life or other habitable planets wouldn’t shake my faith. It would only bring a deeper appreciation of a God who can make different worlds and life, drawing all beings to Himself in ways the are only known to Him.