In the previous article, we explored the claim that Copernican astronomy humbled human—and specifically, theological—pride. I tried to show that this particular story about science and theology was not really true, as medieval people did not think that the earth was special because it was in the center of things. On the contrary, they thought of the center as the worst place one could be, so to discover that one was not at the center of the universe could not have been a demotion. On the contrary, it was a promotion, and that was one (but hardly the only) reason some medieval people opposed heliocentrism. But this is not to say that astronomy has not created challenges for Christian theology. The more potent issue had to do with the incarnation and extraterrestrial life.
Speaking in very broad terms, Judaic and Islamic theologians have often criticized Christians for belief in the doctrines of the incarnation, and the Trinity. According to the former, God became a human being, in the person of Jesus Christ. According to the latter, God is a triune being—there are three separate persons, but those persons are also one. In the view of Judaic and Islamic theologians, both of these doctrines compromise God’s unity. They criticize Christian doctrine as not properly monotheistic, but rather, tritheistic. Further, the doctrine of the incarnation seems to impugn the majesty of God. How could God become a human being? The boundary between the creation and the Creator is blurred by such a doctrine, so, in their view, it cannot be accepted. But the incarnation is absolutely essential to Christian theology. The whole scheme of sin and redemption hinges crucially on the claim that Jesus, being God, was also perfect, and hence in a position to defeat sin and death through his atoning sacrifice. What makes the earth significant, on this view, is not so much its location, but what happens on it.
The ancient Greek philosophers Democritus and Lucretius had affirmed the existence of life on other worlds. Plato and Aristotle considered it, but rejected it.
But what happens if we throw the possibility of extraterrestrial life into the mix? People have long speculated about this possibility. The ancient Greek philosophers Democritus and Lucretius had affirmed the existence of life on other worlds. Plato and Aristotle considered it, but rejected it. With the recovery of Greek learning during the middle ages, the issue was revived. Thomas Aquinas, who affected the most complete synthesis of Aristotelian and Christian thought, held that God could have created extraterrestrial life, but probably had not. Somehow his position was misunderstood. In 1277, a joint declaration of the Bishops of Paris and Canterbury condemned (among other things) the notion, which they attributed to Aquinas, that God could not have created other worlds. This would infringe on God’s freedom and omnipotence. In the bishops’ view, it was improper for a philosopher, even a very great one, to ascribe limits to God’s activity on the basis of reason alone. Only the church had the authority to describe true doctrine, and, in the nature of the case, it could not be based on reason alone, but had to draw on revelation as well.
Gradually, a consensus emerged in the Latin West (the Greek-speaking, Eastern churches had formally split from the Latin church in the eleventh century) that extraterrestrial life was not only possible, but likely. The richer and fuller creation was, the more honor and glory it brought to God. True, Scripture didn’t say anything about extraterrestrial life, but it wasn’t until the Reformation of the sixteenth century that the view emerged, and only among Protestants, that doctrine had to be based on the Bible alone. Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christians do not agree with this doctrine, even today. So, just because the Bible didn’t say anything about extraterrestrial life didn’t mean it didn’t exist. And in fact, even Protestant theologians were not overwhelmingly hostile to the idea since the view that the Bible was a science textbook hadn’t emerged yet. (That view being that the Bible was a product of the nineteenth—not the sixteenth, and certainly not the fourth—century.)
But, Paine asked, what about extraterrestrials? Were they covered by the atoning sacrifice? Why would they need to be?
It wasn’t until the time of the French Revolution that this consensus was seriously challenged. In his book, The Age of Reason, Thomas Paine—who rejected all claims of revelation or sacred authority, and argued instead for a rationalistic, deistic conception of God—presented a dilemma to Christians. One horn of the dilemma had to do with the Christian story of sin and salvation. The whole point of the story was that, since sin had entered the world through the disobedience of Adam and Eve, it required divine remediation. God had to become incarnate, in Jesus Christ, and to suffer and die in order to atone for the sinfulness of human beings and make it possible for them to enter into a right relationship with God.
But, Paine asked, what about extraterrestrials? Were they covered by the atoning sacrifice? Why would they need to be? How would they be affected one way or another, just because somebody ate a forbidden fruit thousands of years ago on our own planet? (Indeed, why should anybody else be, even here on Earth?) Suppose the whole alien civilization had thrived and perished three billion years ago. Or suppose it would not arise until billions of years in the future. How could the fall even affect them? What would they need to be redeemed from? So, one horn of the dilemma, according to Paine, was that it wasn’t at all obvious what place aliens could have in the Christian story. That story is anthropocentric in the sense that human beings are warred over by the agents of heaven and hell. The whole point is the redemption of human beings from evil. But when you throw aliens into the mix, it gets harder to make sense out of that picture. It seems to make human beings more important than aliens, and that really would be anthropocentric. After all, why should God care more about humans than about other living things? So not only was the whole story ridiculous, according to Paine, but it was also arrogant.
But what was the alternative? To imagine that there had been millions of Gardens of Eden all over the cosmos? That God had gone zipping across the galaxies, incarnating and reincarnating over and over again, on all the alien worlds of the universe, to be put to death and raised from the dead on each one, and to replay the whole drama over and over again, across all time and space? What an absurdity! So which was it? Thomas Paine was sure that Christians couldn’t have it both ways. If the Christian story was true, aliens couldn’t exist. If aliens did exist, the story wasn’t true. Since educated opinion was on the side of the existence of aliens, and since there was no good place to fit them into the Christian story, Paine had put Christians on the ropes.
Most Christian intellectuals tended to simply dismiss Paine as an unbeliever, and to continue to assert that Christ’s redemptive sacrifice had been sufficient to cover extraterrestrials as well. There was a “circle the wagons” approach that strove not so much to answer Paine’s arguments, but to disqualify him as a legitimate participant. They argued that it was not Christians, but Paine, who had a myopic and presumptuous worldview because he denied the efficacy of Christ’s sacrifice as applied to other beings. After all, why should it only be good for human beings? Why not for other sentient creatures as well?
As long as other controversies have a more prominent role, Paine’s challenge is unlikely to be widely considered by critics or advocates of Christian belief.
When the French Revolution ended in bloody fiasco, dictatorship, and military defeat, and was then followed by a clerical and monarchical reaction, Paine’s style of rationalistic deism fell out of fashion, and the challenge seemed to fade. But at least one very prominent Christian took up Paine’s challenge. In the 1850's, William Whewell, one of the nineteenth century’s most famous philosophers of science (and the originator of the word “science,” which he derived from the Latin scientia, “to know”) argued that Christian belief precluded the possibility of extraterrestrial life, for the reasons Paine had given. There had been only one incarnation, and no transference of its redemptive power to extraterrestrials. Therefore, there could not be any extraterrestrials. But making empirical claims on a theological basis, as Whewell did, has been a risky business for Christians historically. If the scientific community coalesces around a view which many Christian theologians have decided must be rejected—as, e.g., is the case with conservative, Protestant theologians who reject Darwinian biology—then that is very much to the detriment of Christian belief. So Whewell might have resolved Paine’s challenge, but only by taking on additional risks at some future date.
Of course, we do not know whether extraterrestrial life exists, and we may never know. As long as other controversies have a more prominent role, Paine’s challenge, while still potent on its own terms, is unlikely to be widely considered by critics or advocates of Christian belief. Then again, if we ever discover extraterrestrial life, Paine’s dilemma may come roaring back. Perhaps Judaic and Islamic theologians have more flexibility here, since they have maintained that the Christian doctrine of the incarnation was false all along.
In the next article, we’ll return to Arthur O. Lovejoy’s Great Chain of Being, and see how this influential idea affected the shape of pre-Darwinian biology. In order to understand the scope of Darwin’s accomplishment, we need to understand what he displaced.
This essay is part of a series; the previous essay can be found here.
Daniel Halverson is a graduate student studying the History of Science and Technology. He is also a regular contributor to the PEL Facebook page.