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Life on Mars: What's a Believer to Believe?

August 11, 1996|Martin E. Marty | Martin E. Marty, who teaches the history of religion at the University of Chicago, is senior editor of the Christian Century and author of "The Noise of Conflict" (University of Chicago Press)

CHICAGO — 'If" is the big little word with which the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's and other scientists are working as they evaluate the evidence of life on Mars in the remote past. "If the tests confirm . . . "

"If" is the word posed to clergy and theologians as they test their belief in divine creation and purpose in the face of a possible new kind of challenge. "If life was there . . . "

The overlapping membership of the scientific community and the believing community greets the tests as challenges, since this could be the first evidence of life beyond this planet.

Most religions teach accountings of this world and its human drama. So they may seem unprepared to deal with life elsewhere. Hundreds of years ago, the NASA scientists would probably have been condemned for proposing any enlarged arena for the story of life. This time around, none will be put on trial, except by skeptical colleagues.

Theologians who defend the scientists and urge them on will not be excommunicated. They might even get encouragement from the faithful and the religious authorities. The 1996 "Who's Who" in theology and science lists 1,086 scholars in fields of scientific and religious encounter.

Why the big change that gives religious thinkers such freedom?

First, all religions have an amazing ability to adapt. Let the Earth come to be seen as round instead of flat! Fine. A revisiting of biblical images made things come out right. Later, move the Earth from the presumed center of the universe, as scientists did hundreds of years ago, and you hit with a harsher blow. Never mind, one might hear. Give the religionists time. They have always adapted. They did.

Now contend that there might be evidence of primitive past life nearby in our solar system. Then, presumably, there could be sophisticated life, about which we are unlikely ever to know, somewhere in one of the billions upon billions upon billions of galaxies, each with their billions upon billions upon billions of stars. Theologians will adjust again.

Second, faithful people who kneel, sit in pews or do the works of religion, have a largely different set of questions than do the scientists and theologians. There will not likely be one fewer or one more believer a year from now if the evidence of life on Mars does hold up. People believe, not to learn about the "Big Bang," but to have an experience and gain a conviction that they are made in the image of God. That they matter. That life makes sense. That they can have a new start.

This is not to say that there will be no nudging or jostling from distant Mars to the co-planet of Earth. Years ago, theologian J. B. Phillips titled a book "Your God Is Too Small." Many readers agreed: Yes, and we had better think bigger thoughts about anything, or anyone, we want to call God. Otherwise, we will, in our minds at least, have handcuffed and blinded God.

Religious doctrines of creation are supposed to witness to the freedom of God to invent, to suggest new things, to surprise. The smug have never been at ease with that. They prefer their gods in little boxes. Let acronyms for people and things and places, such as NASA and PAHS and ALH 84001, come to disturb them. The faith of most will survive.

Some would anticipate special troubles for creationist fundamentalists. They try to make their science "come out right" with their reading of the Genesis creation story. But they will not likely be upset. Their original challenge remains their troubler: the theory of evolution on this planet. The unsettling element is not that there is evolution. It is the idea of "natural selection," which seems to render everything random, leaving little room for divine design.

Bits and traces of possible life from long ago and far away need not throw them. The Genesis story does not limit God, who was busy from the first creating cosmos out of chaos. God without limits can have unlimited freedom to create more.

In every case, the challenges threaten stories more than they do doctrines. Believers believe because they become part of a story in which God acts in a particular way with humans. For Jews, God calls a people named Israel into being. Christians want to inherit Israel's meanings, then see them confirmed and transformed in God-in-Jesus, who rescues an erring world. Muslims have their version of how people are saved and why they become obedient.

Such stories are ordinarily treated as if they say all there is to say about God. Now, if intelligent life is conceived of as existing far beyond our evidences, what does this do to the uniqueness of the inherited stories?

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