Life on Mars? Some Theological Implications

Issue Two of DIALOGOS:
An Interactive Journal of the Sciences, Philosophy, and Theology

Richard W. Kropf: Editor

Editor's Remarks

Despite the claim made in the first issue of DIALOGOS that the only really "great" scientific discovery remaining is that concerning the eventual fate of the universe, the announcement made this past August by scientists at the Johnson Space Center would certainly seem close to rating that same rank, if by "great" we mean discoveries that forever change the course of human thinking . Not that this proposed discovery is for certain, as others, as reported in the October issue of Scientific American (Cf. "Bugs in the Data") are suggesting alternate explanations of the fossil-like fragments found in meteorites of presumed Martian origin. But what if the NASA report turns out to be true? In the following essay, which was written shortly after the announcement was made, I listed what I think are the three most immediate philosophical and theological implications of this presumed discovery. I would invite others to comment not only on what I wrote at that time but to add their own additional insights into what this discovery, if it proves correct, means for all of us.

Some Theological Implications of the Possible Discovery of Life on Mars

While the recent news of the possible confirmation of life having once existed on Mars, may be, as President Clinton said, "stunning" to the general public, it certainly comes as no big surprise to those who have been following closely the news of the various space probes that have been made in that direction over the past years. Despite the absence of any clear signs of life in the samples analyzed by the two robot space vehicles that actually landed on Mars nearly twenty years ago, the widespread signs of water once having been present in abundance on that planet continued to arouse suspicions that at least at one time life may have existed there. The evidence presented to the scientific community, based on electronic microscopic inspection of a meteorite found in Antarctica in 1984, would seem to confirm this suspicion. Unless the evidence is being read backwards (that the meteorite is a piece of our planet that somehow returned to earth) it appears that at least the beginnings of life on earth were duplicated on Mars as well. Either that, or life on earth itself was an import from Mars!

Overlooking that last possibility for now, I shall trust that the suspicions of the scientists shall be proved to be correct and, as a theologian, comment accordingly. Several theological implications would seem to follow.

The first of these is that, as the general standard model of evolutionary theory holds, life is most likely "spontaneously" generated when the conditions are favorable, that is, when a planet having the necessary components for life as we know it exists within a suitable distance of a star, life is apt to begin. Carbon-based life, in all probability, in some form or another, exists elsewhere in the universe, both within our own galaxy (where we have already begun to detect other solar systems), as well as in other galaxies (now estimated to be in the order of fifty billion in number). If God is held to be the "creator" of life, then it is because God is the creator of the evolution. In classical philosophical terms, this means that even if we hold that God is the "final cause" or reason for creation, or even the "formal cause" in that we are created in God's "image and likeness", still the "efficient" or "instrumental cause" is the evolutionary process itself. And this is probably true for human life (or any other form of intelligent life) as well. Theologians can no longer treat human evolution as an isolated phenomenon apart from the possibility of the occurence of other forms of intelligent life.

The second implication flows from the observation that, as in the case of this Mars discovery, not all beginnings of life necessarily progress towards the result of intelligent life. Perhaps there are a multiplicity of other planets, like Mars, that developed microscoptic forms of life that became arrested in development or else after even developing further, subsequently died out. In other words, even if one holds that there is a kind of "teleological" or God-given direction or "goal" to evolution, it is evident that chance plays a major role. And if this be so, then much of what we, as humans, consider to be tragic or even "evil" is part and parcel of the evolutionary process. Philosophically speaking, this means that the age-old problem of evil (or "theodicy") must be addressed in this light. Repeated failures (such as that implied by fossilized evidence rather than living specimens in the case of Mars) within the course of what may be a very large number of evolutionary attempts, suggests (much as did Teilhard de Chardin years ago) that even human failure has a certain statistical inevitability about it and that what western Christian theology has described as "original sin" may be seen as a form of evolutionary "baggage" predisposing us toward our own personal failures. But it also might suggest that chance itself is an evolutionary prerequisite for the emergence of human freedom.

The third theological implication, which is more specifically "christological" follows from what is already taken as implied by this discovery and what it seems to say about the proliferation of life in the universe on the one hand, and the ubiquity of failure on the other. A multiplicity of inhabited planets in the universe strains any claims made for Jesus as the universal "Redeemer" or "Savior" beyond almost any recognizable belief. Even an incarnational theology which lays stress upon a redemption accomplished more by simply the fact that in Jesus "God became man" rather than through his own preaching of the good news of God's coming "kingdom" or the subsequent preaching of the message of his having died and risen again, suffers in the face of the likelihood that other forms of intelligent life, which very well may need redemption as badly as ourselves, may have nothing else in common with us and most certainly will never hear the message which Christians consider so vital for salvation. Instead, it would seem that our vision of God, the Creator of the entire universe, has grown much too large to be encompassed by the figure of Jesus Christ.

What then? My own guess is that Teilhard de Chardin was also essentially on track when he suggested that in the future, while we here on earth might recognize Jesus as in some sense "definitive" (at least for ourselves), he may only have been one of many "unleashings" or self-revelations of the "Trans-Christ" - - in other words, merely a earthly, time-bound manifestation of the eternally creative Word which fills the universe with life and draws it back into a final unity with its divine Origin or Ground. RWK 8/9/96

Other links to information on the proposed discovery of life on Mars are: the Federation of American Scientists, the October issue of Sky & Telescope magazine and The Ames-NASA Research Center.

For the very latest news and photos on the Mars Pathfinder Mission from Jet Propulsion Laboratories.

Reader's Comments

The first response to come in is from Bill Bartlett (who describes himself as a "somewhat conservative skeptic"). It reads as follows:

Although I find RWK's essay interesting and provocative, I have problems with several of his assertions. The first has to do with his second "implication" or its correlary explanation of evil in the world. If God is taken to be an all-good creator who has set an ultimate goal or purpose for his creation, why should that necessarily entail the existence of as these kinds of disasters we call "evils" in this world. Do not the existence of such evils suggest that either there is no God or that if there is one, "he" is not necessarily good?

My second problem is with RWK's conjuring up some obscure speculation about a "trans-Christ" to somehow save Christian belief from what seems to be a losing battle against complete irrelevence. Granted that Jesus of Nazareth remains a revered examplar, for the human race (or at least a major part of it), of ethical perfection and love of God. But to try to continue to cast him in some role of some divinely "cosmic" redeemer seems to me to be an increasingly hopeless cause.

Editor's Response

Both of Bartlett's objections merit serious consideration. The first one, however, probably needs to be the subject of a whole issue (or two?) of DIALOGOS, and soon may be. The point I was trying to make is that the whole process of evolution seems to suggest that either it was in some way "designed" to bring about the existence of free creatures like ourselves, and that of its very nature, such a process will involve the play of chance in such a way that much of what we think of as "evil" is bound to occur. When you get down to it, there are at least two major topics for discussion here: first, the whole issue of "teleology" (which as of late has taken the form of speculation about a so-called "Anthropic Principle") and then the whole "problem of evil" itself.

As to the second objection that Bartlett has raised -- namely that speculations about a "trans-Christ" seem like a far-fetched attempt to rescue the Christian faith -- I'd say "perhaps", but I think there is a lot more to it than just that. Although Teilhard de Chardin was not particularly "into" the Johannine theology of the divine "Logos" or "Word" (he was much more attracted to the "pleromic" themes of the later Pauline epistles) we should recognize that both of these themes appear to have had their origin in the Stoic philosophy of ancient Greece as ways of describing the order and seeming purpose inherent in the universe. The "Logos" in particular was seen as a kind of "demiurge" or divine power bringing order and rationality to the universe, and as such, the term "Logos" was also used by the Jewish philosopher, Philo of Alexandria (c.20 BC - c. 50AD) as being more or less the equivalent of divine "Wisdom" as personified in the so-called "Wisdom Books" of the Jewish Bible. It is pretty much acknowledged that the prologue to the Gospel of John borrowed this theme more or less directly from Philo to try to account for the divine "sonship" that Christianity had already accorded to its founder. In this sense, Jesus was seen as a manifestation or "incarnation" of God's eternal creative plan that permeates the entire universe from the very beginning. The Pauline use of the Stoic term pleroma (or "fullness" or "completion") functions in a similar way in respect to the end.

The problem, of course, is that the universe now appears to us as something infinitely more vast than it did to the ancient Stoics or to the first century Jewish or Christian world. But does this mean that the idea of a divine wisdom or purpose expressed within the workings of the universe is any less compelling now than it was back then? Nor was this whole line of thought peculiar to the mediterranean world. The whole idea of the Tao in Chinese thought has very similar overtones, especially when we think of the "Logos" in terms of the foundation of kind of "natural law". So too, in the Advaitic "trinity" where the Sat, the underlying Reality or Being of the Ultimate (Brahman) is experienced in Cit ("awareness" or "knowledge") leading to final Anada ("bliss" or "love"). As the Indian Christian theologian Raimundo Panikkar (The Trinity and the Religious Experience of Man, London, Darton, Longman, & Todd, 1973) has pointed out, there is nothing inherently Christian about a trinitarian concept of the absolute. Indeed, as the whole dynamic of Hegel's thought may prove, there may be something triadic about all human thought -- if not to all reality itself. I see Teilhard's question or suggestion (which I found in one of his unpublished notebooks), is not so much an effort to save belief in the divinity of Christ as to explain the particular role of Jesus of Nazareth in a process that envelops the entire universe. RWK 9/24/96

Note: for a fascinating article on why life may have appeared on Mars and then disappeared,see "Global Climate Changes on Mars" in the November 1996 Scientific American.

Also, a late-arriving (early Feb. 2000) news item from Sky & Telescope magazine's on line news service: Recently a meteorite collected some time ago in California has been tentatively identified as being of Martian origin. We've always suspected that the inhabitants of California must have come from some other planet! (ed.)

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