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Riddle in a Rock: How Special Are We?

Space: Evidence of Martian life suggests we aren't alone in the universe. Are we the culmination of God's creation or just steppingstones in an unfolding evolution?

September 21, 1996|LARRY B. STAMMER | TIMES RELIGION WRITER

For thousands of years, humans have turned their eyes toward the heavens, secure in the belief that in all creation they alone had been animated with life by the God of the universe.

But the stunning revelation that microscopic life may have once existed on Mars has, in a single Copernican-like stroke, made it intellectually impossible to view the Earth as the sole center of life in the cosmos.

For theologians and religious leaders long intrigued by the interplay between religion and science, the discovery raises anew profound philosophical and religious questions about the riddle of existence.

If we are not alone, what is the significance of our place and purpose in the universe? Are we the culmination of God's creation or merely steppingstones in the still unfolding evolution of a young universe?

"The one thing that might have seemed distinctive about this planet--that it provided the circumstances in which very complex beings came into being--if that's taken away from us, it would take us one more step away [from the idea] that humanity has some special role in creation," said John B. Cobb, professor emeritus at the Claremont School of Theology.

The discovery of the 4.5 billion-year-old Martian rock is only the most recent in a series of scientific findings forcing theologians and religious leaders to look again at ancient teachings, especially the view that humans are the centerpiece of creation.

If life formed independently on two separate planets in our own solar system, scientists say, it raises the likelihood that life, even intelligent life, might be found elsewhere in the universe.

When it comes to such issues, there has long been an uneasy standoff between religion and science, born of a tension between claims of revealed truth and confidence in the scientific method.

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But the Martian discovery could raise the ante, and has given new urgency to efforts by a handful of theologians and scientists to bridge that ancient gap.

"This is cutting-edge theology because we're trying to take science seriously," said Richard Randolph, director of the Center for Theology and Natural Sciences in Berkeley. "It's an intentional effort of struggling to integrate science and religion--and letting both sides maintain their own integrity."

Nothing is more profound or more baffling than the riddle of existence, and most religions have something to say about how things got started.

In ages past, religion--at times to its credit and at other times to its eventual embarrassment--has influenced the course and findings of science.

Galileo, for example, was forced in the 1600s to recant his defense of Copernicus' discovery that the Earth orbited the sun by Roman Catholic Church leaders, who feared the theological implication that if the Earth was not the center of the universe, it might not be the object of God's constant attention.

Most theologians have long since come to terms with the decentralization of Earth in the universe. And most are not concerned that Darwin's theory of evolution contradicts the Adam and Eve construct of Genesis. If God chose to create the Earth through evolution, they say, that does not diminish God's power.

Only a relatively small number of religious "creationists"--including fundamentalist Christians and ultra-Orthodox Jews--dismiss evolution as "just a theory." As for Genesis' Adam and Eve account of creation, most Jewish and Christian religious thinkers believe that it squares nicely--at least superficially--with the now dominant scientific view that the universe had a beginning and was created seemingly out of nothing 15 billion years ago in what has been called the "big bang."

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Still, hard questions remain for both religion and science, among them those posed by quantum physics.

At the heart of most religions is the irreducible precept that God was the "first cause" that created the heavens and the Earth. But quantum mechanics has come very close to falsifying the claim that every event has a cause.

Physicists have proved that matter can be created seemingly out of nothing; that very simple molecules organize themselves into increasingly complex forms and electrons act in unpredictable ways. If no cause can be associated with their behavior, perhaps a large universe might not require an explanatory cause?

To be sure, there are holes in most scientific theories big enough for an entire church congregation to walk through. Scientific explanations can deal with events within milliseconds after the big bang, but they can't tell what caused it or explain the origin of the laws of physics that govern matter's creation.

"Ultimate questions will always lie beyond the scope of empirical science," wrote physicist Paul Davies in his 1992 book "The Mind of God."

Still, none of the challenges posed to religion by science come close in the popular mind to the jarring possibility that there may have once been life on Mars--and that we may yet find intelligent life elsewhere in the cosmos.

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