How will Christians worship on Christmas if scientists report this week that there is extraterrestrial life? Will we reword the title of the Christmas carol “Away in a Manger” to “Away in a Spaceship”? Would this suggest that Jesus would need to travel to other planets and become incarnate as a Martian or a Plutonian, or wherever else conscious life is found? Not necessarily.
It is not a matter of our being inherently more special as humans than extra-terrestrials. Perhaps Jesus would choose not to become incarnate elsewhere. Perhaps Earthlings alone are in need of salvation; other life out there may be angelic or may be living in a state of innocence.
On this view, Christ became incarnate in this world as the cosmic redeemer to save humans and make us a redemptive force as a microcosm of the entire universe. Our significance comes from our union with Christ, not ourselves; for apart from him, we just might be the cancer of the universe. Only in him would we be a healing presence; only then could we travel to distant planets, not to conquer, but to connect. On this view, Christ made the weakest link—humanity—in the universal chain the strongest by replacing it with himself, thereby making us a point of connection that holds everything together. Now we must live to connect, not to conquer, in view of what Christ intends for us.
The preceding reflection gives rise to the ethical implication that until we get our own house in order we had better be careful about how we would approach life on other planets. What I mean is that we might be the malevolent aliens we often fear, who come to colonize us! The only difference is that we are the ones who will do it to others! Ours might be the “Silent Planet,” as C. S. Lewis penned, known to the universe as a whole for our tragic state of existence bent toward evil, including the attempted subjugation of other forms of life in the universe at large. Apart from Christ who subjugated our carnal passions through his cosmic passion unto death, we have no cosmic ground to die to ourselves and resist seeking to subjugate other races. Just look at what we have done to one another, and to the creation as a whole!
A faulty sense of anthropocentrism has undone us and our world. Consider what Pope Francis writes in Laudato Si’, 122:
A misguided anthropocentrism leads to a misguided lifestyle. In the Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, I noted that the practical relativism typical of our age is “even more dangerous than doctrinal relativism”. When human beings place themselves at the centre, they give absolute priority to immediate convenience and all else becomes relative. Hence we should not be surprised to find, in conjunction with the omnipresent technocratic paradigm and the cult of unlimited human power, the rise of a relativism which sees everything as irrelevant unless it serves one’s own immediate interests. There is a logic in all this whereby different attitudes can feed on one another, leading to environmental degradation and social decay.
A Christocentric orientation displaces and reorients our humanity so that we guard against what the Pope refers to as “a misguided anthropocentrism.” This misguided anthropocentrism skews our values so that we see unlimited human ambition and our own immediate interests as divinely ordained rather than demonic.
The preceding reflection on extraterrestrial life and our needed atonement should not be taken to dismantle Christmas, but help us take to heart more fully the reason for the season. Christmas does not lose its significance if there is extraterrestrial life. In fact, it gains even more significance. The God who inconvenienced himself by becoming a lowly human in a most humble human state in a manger (Luke 2:7) challenges us to approach one another, our world, and the universe at large with humility rather than with arrogant pride. As we travel across the street, through ancient woods (“to Grandmother’s house we go”), and through outer space, may we take the manger with us in our hearts so that we no longer seek to conquer, but to connect.
For related notions on Christ’s significance for humanity as cosmic redeemer and our role as a microcosm of the universe (apart from consideration of extraterrestrial life), see Maximus the Confessor, On the Cosmic Mystery of Jesus Christ, edited and translated by Paul M. Blowers and Robert Louis Wilkin (New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2003).
See C. S. Lewis, Space Trilogy (New York: Scribner Book Company, 1986). The series includes three volumes: Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength.
Refer here for Laudato Si’, number 122: http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/encyclicals/documents/papa-francesco_20150524_enciclica-laudato-si.html.
It has been argued that the Copernican Revolution displaced humanity from its seemingly central place in the universe. If that was the case, how much more insignificant would we become as humans if we were to find that our sun is not the center of the universe, and that there is extraterrestrial life on planets revolving around other suns? I have argued elsewhere at this column that centrality was not always viewed as a good thing among the ancients and medieval. Moreover, the Bible does not claim that we are central because of our greatness, but because of God’s gracious and merciful disposition toward us (See Psalm 8 for example; it is worth noting that Hebrews 2 takes up the dialectic of human finitude and God’s favor, and centers our significance in Christ). Refer to my blog post, “What is man that you are mindful of him…?” How the Copernican Revolution Promoted Human Value; http://www.patheos.com/blogs/uncommongodcommongood/2015/09/what-is-man-that-you-are-mindful-of-him-how-the-copernican-revolution-promoted-human-value/. See also the discussion of this subject in Dennis R. Danielson, “Myth 6: That Copernicanism Demoted Humans from the Center of the Cosmos,” in Galileo Goes to Jail: And Other Myths About Science and Religion, ed. Ronald Numbers (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009).