The possible existence of extraterrestrial life is one of the most fascinating and controversial subjects speculated upon today. Recently published research continues to indicate that it's highly likely that life exists outside of Earth. There might be as many as 10 billion Earth-like planets just in our galaxy alone, never mind the entire Universe!
It seems highly likely then, that our universe is teeming with extraterrestrial life. It's almost mathematically impossible for it to be otherwise. Personally, though I can't of course prove this, I'm absolutely certain that it does. We are not alone in this universe--and coming to terms with the spiritual implications of this is essential for understanding ourselves and our place in the Universe.
Obviously, this is an important subject with profound theological implications. Though there are many potential areas of spirituality impacted by the possible existence of non-Earth life, there are two particularly important and controversial ones that I'd like to discuss here.
The first category of questions is: If extraterrestrial life exists, what does this tell us about the nature of life and consciousness itself? How does this impact our understanding of the role and importance of humanity in the general scheme of things? What is the relationship between spirituality and science?
Secondly, what would the ramifications of this be for specific religions and their dogmas? As but one obvious example, what would this mean for those who believe that Jesus Christ is the one and only son of God and that salvation can only be found through Him?
Obviously, these are vast and weighty questions. They can't be fully addressed in a simple blog post. Still, I'd like to sketch out some general ideas and directions for your contemplation. This is only intended as a starting place for the conversation and to stimulate our thought processes.
There's been a great deal of speculation and confusion as to the nature of life itself. In particular, there is a great debate between some religionists and scientists, particularly those who have a strictly materialistic interpretation of Darwin and evolution. Many theologians and religiously inclined people feel that the threat of Darwinism and evolution is that it means that the existence of Life doesn't require God as an explanation. In this view, many religionists maintain that matter is completely inert and that it requires an act of God intervening--essentially "zapping" some molecules in some fashion--for conscious life to emerge from dumb matter. Some even attempt to use science and mathematics to speculate on how improbable the existence of life would be without some intervening power. The potential for life to be found on other planets in our Universe would only fuel this concern.
The truth is that many of these theological "problems" are only created because of some of the basic assumptions we make. Change the starting assumptions and the theological difficulties that require elaborate explanations and work-arounds simply vanish.
To this end, I'd like to propose a completely different way of seeing our Universe and the matter within it. Religionists are threatened by evolution and science because they take for granted the materialists claims and assumptions that matter itself--atoms, molecules, and the inorganic matter that these things forms like chemicals, rocks, and so on--are intrinsically lifeless. Thus, this creates an immediate problem: how do lifeless materials produce life and consciousness? The only "religious" solution--that is, the only way to keep God or Spirit in the picture or with a role to play in our creation-- seems, then, to require at least one moment of Divine Intervention to turn the lifeless into Life. The more that it seems life simply forms everywhere--and easily--the more this view feels threatened by scientific discovery.
What if instead of viewing matter as lifeless, dead, and inert (thereby requiring a later divine intervention to jolt it alive), we instead shifted our understanding toward seeing all matter--including every atom, molecule, chemical, and "inorganic" substance--as imbued with life and consciousness? That is, instead of a Universe filled with dead matter, what if in fact every atom of creation was alive? Consciousness, then, is teeming everywhere, in every particle of creation.
There is, of course, a hierarchy of consciousness. Single atoms are less conscious than human beings. A rock is less conscious than an animal. But they all have some degree of it in them. The more sophisticated and complex the grouping of conscious atoms, the more alive that cluster appears and behaves--all the way to the human scale on our planet and the extraterrestrial scales on other planets.
In this view, then, of course life exists everywhere. Since every atom is alive and imbued with Spirit, of course there would be life on other planets. There is life everywhere as it is the very substance of Creation!
This theological shift does require us to abandon one concept to which we cling: the idea that one single individual on Earth could ever embody the one and only path to truth, enlightenment, or salvation. We needn't however abandon our belief and experience that great spiritual beings walk among us, people whose consciousness far surpasses our own. The great teachers of every religion: Moses, Jesus, Krishna, Buddha, Mohammed, and so on are still every bit the great beings we know them to be. What they are not, however, are the one and only divine being in our Universe. Instead, there are many such people and our universe has room for many more to come. Other beings on other planets undoubtedly have their great spiritual heroes, too.
Just as life is in every atom of creation, so too is the potential for spiritual greatness. It needn't be confined to just one person on one planet at one moment in time. Instead, we can feel liberated to embrace the full majesty and wonder of our Universe. We are simultaneously just a tiny fraction of creation--small and insignificant in a way--but also a unique and essential center of everything since the Divine lives and reflects itself in every atom inside us.