The Sophia Center at HNU hosted a special event on November 13 with Thomas O’Meara, OP, author of Vast Universe: Extraterrestrials and Christian Revelation and Nelson E. Enriquez, a multimedia artist who presented recent paintings inspired by the constellations.
O’Meara began his talk by discussing the Drake equation—which incorporates factors such as star formation, planet formation, the percentage of habitable planets, and other variables—and its resulting probabilistic estimates about the number of advanced extraterrestrial civilizations that might exist in the Milky Way galaxy.
“In terms of the Drake equation, experts usually sum it up in this way,” O’Meara said. “If the average civilization—like ours on Earth, in fact—endures for between 1,000 and 1 billion years, then the number of communicating civilizations in one galaxy would be between 1,000 and a million. Does the Christian faith insist that there’s only one salvation in history coming from the Jews and climaxing in Jesus? Does religion on Earth insist that salvation in history can only exist once in the history that is recorded in the Bible? Is Jesus so central a figure that only he and his Middle Eastern religious world can reveal God?”
For the evening’s discussion, O’Meara approached these questions through three main theological topics: the knowing person or individual; one’s special relationship with God (grace); and the existence of evil.
“The nature of other intelligent creatures is open to variation, just as their size could be enormously open to variation,” O’Meara said. “All the flowers and all the fish on Earth and the vastness of the universe suggest that there are all kinds of possibilities for intelligent life, most of which can’t be imagined.”
O’Meara considered the question of the existence of grace throughout the universe and the different ways that it might present itself. “Is there grace on Earth, but not on other planets? At the same time, there might be all kinds of modes of what we call the Kingdom of God or of grace. Would we not think that creatures who are intelligent and free like ourselves would tend to receive some special life from God, and information as we had? Or perhaps not? They might have no aspiration to life after death, and no longing to have special contact with God. It doesn’t mean that they’re evil. We jump to that conclusion. It just means they’re different. So, perhaps, however, we would tend to think that it’s more likely that intelligent creatures do receive some kind of special life and information from God.”
Finally, with regards to the existence of evil throughout the universe, O’Meara holds an optimistic view. “Evil does not exist necessarily—although on Earth we often slip into thinking that it almost does,” he said. “If evil does exist elsewhere in the cosmos, there could be many different kinds. A civilized race might be involved in sin, but rarely. It might just touch a few individuals, and not touch the whole race. Perhaps in the universe’s vast extent, a free and intelligent creature choosing to do something wrong is an exception, whereas on Earth it’s almost a norm. There’s no reason to think that evil is particularly prominent in the universe. In fact, it would be much more logical to think that it’s very rare.”
In addition, O’Meara thought it would be useful to examine the views of two theologians who had given consideration to the possibility of extraterrestrial civilizations—Guillaume de Vaurouillon and Karl Rahner—and the views of Thomas Aquinas, who, though he did not address the topic of extraterrestrials specifically, wrote extensively about the nature of God.
O’Meara explained that both De Vaurouillon, a Franciscan theologian who lived in the 1400s, and Rahner, a contemporary Jesuit theologian, thought that, while there is the possibility that intelligent extraterrestrials also have their own relationships with God, Christian revelation and religion apply to Earth and the human race.
Towards the end of his talk, O’Meara spoke about a few of Aquinas’ theological principles and how those related to the questions under consideration. “God for Aquinas is first of all, an active reality, always active,” he said. “He’s also vastly different from us, vastly different from a human being. So, Aquinas writes, ‘God is like a living fountain. A fountain not diminished in producing life in spite of its continuous flow outwards.’ What leads God to create? God doesn’t need anything. What motivates the divine being is the generosity to create and to pour forth other beings into existence. So, the divine motive of the creator is unlimited goodness.
“Now, when Aquinas was talking about how the divine being becomes a human being on Earth, he made an interesting marginal observation that I want to share with you. Aquinas asks whether the word of God could incarnate in creatures other than Jesus of Nazareth. And he says yes, the word of God being present in Jesus of Nazareth is just one thing that God is doing. It doesn’t enclose God. It doesn’t limit him. So, Aquinas doesn’t know about other intelligent creatures, but he says any of the three persons [of the Trinity] can become incarnate in a number of human beings. We don’t believe that that happened or is going to happen, but it could.”
O’Meara posed a provocative question to the audience at the close of his presentation. “If the cosmos is enormous, would not incarnation likely be widespread? It’s not our responsibility on Earth to manage the universe, to limit the number of created beings that God has made, or the kinds of divine presence in the galaxies. The Trinity is not afraid of the cosmos that it has created.”
After O'Meara's presentation, Enriquez spoke for a few minutes about his recent work, which includes a few paintings that were based on the shapes of constellations.