Just to mention aliens turns some people off, but to a Christian, to a Catholic, thinking about extraterrestrial life can hold tremendous value. If you replace the word “alien” with “the other” then we start down a familiar path.
Does “the other” exist in the universe? Would “the other” mean us peace or harm? Should I will the good of “the other?” Some of the greatest Catholic thinkers wrestled with this question of “the other.” Whether you’re thinking about so-called aliens, people who live in the center of the earth, or maybe creatures at the end of the world, how we approach our theoretical brothers and sisters of the universe might tell us a lot about what our faith really means to us.
This episode features a conversation with Paul Thigpen, author of “Extraterrestrial Life and the Catholic Faith.”
“From earliest times people have looked up into the heavens especially at night and seen the stars in that and though they had no idea just how vast it is, that we’re beginning to get a sense of still, those who are of faith you know able to say the one God I know who loves me, and created me, also created all this, and so it presses them to become even more full of wonder and adoration toward God and appreciation of who He is.”Paul Thigpen
Nearly 15 years ago I drove to a remote patch of Arizona desert under a bright moon, trying to keep an open mind. At the time I was a public radio reporter in Phoenix, and I had heard about a man who made a fair bit of money in the swap-meet game, who invested $2 million to build a moonbeam collector.
“Tonight we’re gathered for another moonlight beaming and hopefully heal people with it,” said Richard Chapin, who was the driving force behind construction of a five-story, 30 ton structure that looked like a giant chessboard with adjustable mirror squares. The structure was built to honor a friend who died from cancer. The friend believed a frequency of moonbeams could affect a person’s health.
So in the desert, people suffering various afflictions would pile into a booth as these giant mirrors soaked them in an eerie white glow.
As part of that story I spoke to Dr. Larry Bergstrom who at the time was the head of the Mayo Clinic’s integrated medicine program in Scottsdale. He was a bridge between conventional and alternative medicine, and I considered him a doctor with an open mind.
“The fear of all conventional physicians treating patients who have a serious medical problem and the patient becomes interested in alternative therapies is that it will divert them from effective conventional treatments,” Dr. Bergstrom said.
Some people believed in the moonbeam power, saying it cured their asthma or other ailments. Others just didn’t have any more options and were desperate. Dr. Bergstrom’s overarching point was that so long as people continued with proven treatments and exploring unique alternatives didn’t take away from solid treatment, then it was probably okay.
I like to keep an open-mind about our world, and for our episode today about life outside our world.
Similar to Dr. Bergstrom, I think faithful Catholics are free to ask questions and explore existential questions, so long as we don’t ignore the core tenets of our faith in search of some remote possibility. Many Catholic thinkers have explored this question of alien life, from an apologetics standpoint, to the Vatican observatory.
And science fiction likes to return to this tension of space and religions every so often. In one classic episode of the original Star Trek series the crew finds a planet with Roman-era government, and a growing following of sun worshipers, thought to be primitive. But the sun SUN, was actually son SON. And we’re left with this question of whether Christ would die again on some distant cross for the same path of salvation for another species.
Star Trek’s creator Gene Roddenberry also had a show called Earth: Final Conflict, about a race of aliens who came to help out the humans. But in one episode a character blends images of Moses, Jesus Christ, and a few other historical figures and the image looks just like the alien. Have they been here before? Maybe our souls have a unique connection to other beings. God’s grace is certainly abundant enough to spread beyond the stars, isn’t it?
In December 2022 Pentagon officials said there was no evidence to affirm the existence of space aliens, but the search continues.
So our thinking about our faith and potential alien life continues with Paul Thigpen, author of Extraterrestrial Intelligence and the Catholic Faith from TAN Books.
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Thigpen: My concern is that if we should get to the point and I think it could happen soon where there’s either some kind of scientific discovery or official government disclosure that yes there is something out there that sure seems to be a non-human intelligence that we’re having contact with um I don’t want Catholics and other Christians to kind of be cut off guard by that in the sense of thinking that somehow it’s contrary to their faith uh that their faith cannot accommodate it. For centuries we’ve had adversaries of the Christian faith try to clean bit of ETI extraterrestrial intelligence is real that it somehow disproves the Christian faith. So that’s really the point of the book for a Catholic audience it’s kind of an apologetics book to say no, Christian faith has accommodated all kinds of scientific discoveries in the past like Copernicus you know understanding that the Earth’s not the center of the universe, um we can accommodate this too. And even with Scriptures that may seem to be relevant or not catechetical passages but especially by looking at the history of the conversation the uh this conversation about the possibility of life one of the worlds has been going on since the ancient Greeks and Romans and has been been addressed by Catholic and other Christian theologians for centuries, so it’s uh I don’t want us to be caught off guard I guess.
Tony: Yeah, yeah, I mean you you kind of lay out this um this double-edged sword of this topic that on one hand, if you even bring up extraterrestrial life people are saying ah this is, this is just too far out there, I don’t even want to talk about it, but you do document early church fathers, many philosophers who have wrestled with this idea of the unknown other: we don’t know what that is, is it in outer space, is it at the edge of the world, we don’t know what that is, but we’re thinking about it, right?
Paul: Yes, and in fact you have uh Saint Albert the Great who says it’s a marvelous thing to think about such a thing, uh whereas in our generation I think there are struggle reasons for we’ve tended to last two generations to dismiss it with mockery and ridicule people talk about it. That’s really the the anomaly historically, it’s for 25 centuries people the best minds in Western Society, culture, have considered the thing and and so it’s it’s an important issue to think about not that we can resolve it necessarily without actually having experience of it.
Tony: In addition to Saint Albert does anybody else come to mind that you think, you know Catholics should really pay attention to the thinking that’s already been done within the faith?
Paul: Oh my goodness, well I mean all the way back to St John Chrysostom for instance you know saying that just as it’s easy for you to think about the possibility of other worlds out there or the universe entire universes that uh for God it’s it’s it’s easier not just to think about it to actually do it, and uh and that’s you know as part of the theme you have throughout is that God is God, He’s He’s all powerful, He’s all creative, He can do these things now is there anything that He has revealed to us that would say that that He hasn’t, uh that that becomes the point of debate, but you have um yeah folks oh goodness that that look at the question of what we’d even call Ultraterrestrial life, the possibility that there’s something else non-human intelligence living on this Earth, and of course now we’re not talking about demons and angels at this point. The Christian faith of course affirms that there are other there are non-human intelligences but they’re not embodied, uh but you have even have some interesting comments like Padre Pio is on record as saying affirming not just it doesn’t even sound like he’s saying it’s his opinion someone asked him you know what about like what other planets he says yeah of course there are you think we’re the only ones that give glory to God and uh and he even said in that same interview that um that there were other races out there that were not Fallen as we are. Now that doesn’t prove that it’s true, but it does does demonstrate that someone who knew the faith as well as he did who was this holy and close to God is he that did not see that to contradict his faith nor did blessed and Catherine Emrick, the Visionary and Blessed, that so many people you know really enjoyed seeing her hearing about her visions, she claimed to have seen life out there. um You have Saint John Paul II who a lot, when a little girl asked him in a public audience one time uh Holy Father what about aliens, yeah he could have said um that’s contrary to the faith, he could have said we don’t know, he could have said if find out and make a statement, but he didn’t say any of those things, he just said very simply they’re God’s children, too. um So it’s not like I’m trying to pit saint against saint there but simply to say that, um you know I have just just recently again someone has dismissed my book because somehow leading people into satanic stuff because uh we all know it doesn’t exist, it’s contrary to the faith, and uh if you’re going to condemn you know the questions I’m asking at the point I’m making you’ve got to put these other people I just mentioned on the same side. It’s uh it’s really not true that it’s contrary faith, the church has not defined anything about it.
Tony: What would you say is the major obstacle um in this space, is it thinking about humans and the fall our relationship with God as wholly unique and somehow admitting that there are other beings in the universe that that would undercut our story, is that the core of it or is it something else?
Paul: I think that’s the most probably the most obvious one, the last thing you said, that for people who really thought about there are a lot of knee-jerk reactions out there that oh if I don’t understand it’s all demons, you know and that happens a lot um more than you would like to believe but uh but I think what some people worry about is it somehow undercuts our special relationship with God, God if we’re not uniquely in the image of God if there are others another other planets and other places then we’re not special anymore um and you know my reply to that is to recall with Saint Augustine once said that God loves each of us as if there were only one of us. And anyone who’s a parent of more than one child understands exactly what that means you have your first child you think I love this child with all my heart I could never love anybody more or as much as this, and then the second shot comes along you say I love this child with all my heart the love doesn’t get divided that way, it’s multiplied, and when you are love yourself, God is love himself, infinite love, it would not divide his love at all to have other races that he loves he could love each of those species as if there were only one of them and uh so that’s one of the concerns um you get you know simpler concerns like, well it’s not in the Bible so it can’t be, but of course microbes and molecules, and dinosaurs and duckbill platypuses aren’t in the Bible either, but we know they exist. The Bible’s not intended to be an exhaustive scientific text of all of reality.
Tony: And also Catholics aren’t bound by sola scriptura since we don’t believe in sola scriptura.
Paul: That’s right, and we do again have this wonderful tradition within the Church of discussion of it of taking it seriously. um I think the other thing is and I’m getting you know more of this is uh people concerned, that just right excuse me, writing it off is demonic, and that’s a that’s a tendency you get. I mean there was a time when we didn’t understand you know illnesses and would write off you know someone who was who’s schizophrenic or something and that’s not to say that there are there probably are plenty of people who’ve been diagnosed that way who are having demonic problems. I’ve written extensively on spiritual warfare um but to just say okay it’s all that way you know no that’s not true, so simple illness, the more we understand the science of it the better the better off we are. I think it’s a similar thing here people don’t, don’t understand it, it’s unusual, uh it’s not helped by the fact that you have some people claiming abduction, so-called abduction experiences by aliens and going through all kinds of terrible things and I do, I do agree that in some of those cases almost certainly it’s something demonic, um the parallels between what they experience and and uh what we the Church normally sees as a demonic encounter or so close even secular observers have noted the parallels so no I don’t discount that at least some of it is, but to paint with a broad brush and say everything having to do for the possibility of ETI extraterrestrial intelligence or even sightings in the sky and that kind of thing um most majority of this doesn’t fit that demonic profile at all. um And if you know there are more and more people who are claiming and and maybe the government’s close to by admitting that there have actually been crashed UFOs and we’ve retrieved materials from this study, um if that’s the case how in the world would that fit demonic stuff, I mean I can imagine demons kind of causing a light apparition in the sky or something, but if you’ve got physical material in your hand that came from a craft, and it’s been around for 70 years um it would be hard-pressed to fit that into some kind of demonic you know pattern or explanation.
Tony: Yeah, as you say you wrote a manual on spiritual warfare um and I I wonder how you would explain more of a willingness even to enter a conversation about angels and demons then it seems sometimes to talk about other life in the universe or other kinds of life, because even angels have taken on a sort of a mythical creature status among new wave and New Age religions, so why is that more acceptable maybe than than “aliens?”
Paul: Well you know depends again on the audience uh you have uh it is interesting um uh theologian who wrote a Christology text that his name is escaping me right now, but was teaching at the Catholic University of America I used it with some of my my undergrad students in the Christology course and he has a whole chapter on this possibility of extraterrestrial intelligence, it’s very open to it you know that kind of thing, but he makes a comment there where he thinks that our, states that in the kind of secular world as we’ve pushed angels out of the picture um it’s it’s made it uh more and more uh unlikely for people to be able to imagine anything else out there, and I think you could also say that in a world where where we know for sure that there are intelligent creatures of God who are in certain ways at least higher than um lower than Him of course where we’ve ruled all that out and what happens is we’ve left a vacuum, a natural vacuum where the popular imagination hungry for such things you know can can turn to that, and start looking looking for creatures that way and and that’s not at all what I’m doing. You know I’m a convert, I know my faith well, and and I love the angels and they’re our companions and so there’s not been a vacuum for me in that way it’s not like I’m looking at some people are. They call it the ETI myth looking to our space brothers who will come and save us from ourselves not you know not at all that but I can understand how people without faith might begin thinking that way, because there is still this transcendent longing within us for for something beyond ourselves and that’s an easy thing to grasp if you can somehow claim it’s just scientific.
Tony: Yeah you know you alluded earlier to um the fact that people claiming they’ve been abducted kind of hijacks the conversation in in some ways that there could be many reasons they’re claiming this um, and you see it within you know conspiracy theories every once in a while that people will say any religion stems from aliens sort of visited the planet, and even going down this train of thought is kind of exhausting, because it throws out you know the whole of of human philosophical and theological development. Do you think that’s part of the issue of of having a mature conversation about just possibilities and and our role in the universe is this idea that it’s been hijacked to some degree?
Paul: I think so. I I see that all across the board even just in a more general issue when you have a lot of folks now who have grown up in a secular culture, which is philosophically materialist, you know which is to say energy and matter’s the whole thing, there’s nothing beyond, there’s nothing spiritual, no soul, no spirit, no God, no angels or demons, no life after death, and in examining this issue you hear them coming out and saying I’m no longer a materialist, this is not fitting that paradigm, and what else is out there and then they it’s as if they wouldn’t dare touch go back to the Christian notion and say oh maybe there’s a God you know, but instead they have to find some other explanation, and uh so I was you know listen to a broadcast the other day they were talking about well you know you’ve got this evidence now statistically that evolution on this Earth with our species went extremely rapidly, fast compared to what it should have been simply by random chance, it’s almost as if there was a cosmic push, and then immediately you have some folks jumping and say see the aliens we’re manipulating our genetics! But I want to say guys, no I mean what’s the simple explanation, that there’s a God behind it there’s not even if it looks random to us he had a plan! It’s a very messy thing and that’s one of the reasons I felt they had to write the book to try to have at least one voice you know that’s that’s not sensationalist, let’s let’s try to be sane this faithful as far as I can see it and you know and I know Catholic Doctrine really well, I’m a historical theologian you know PhD in that, I’m faithful of a convert, so don’t take any of that for granted. I say in the book that the church should say at any point no this is not true this is I’d submit to it, um but for a voice like that to be able to start offering getting people to think about the possibility that this this kind of disclosure happens then it doesn’t destroy our faith we’ll have questions we need to answer, but it won’t and so I’m I’m just offering it you know that way for for people and uh if things continue to go on as they are the Congress they there may be more people looking for this book.
Tony: At the core, to me this seems like part of human longing. As you said just to discover our place in existence because really why are we alive uh what are we searching for that’s kind of the fundamental question that we all face and from a Catholic perspective we certainly have the truth as as we understand it but people who don’t have the entirety of the faith are looking for answers elsewhere so whether you talk about planets, or multiverses, or or Heaven and Hell it seems like at the core it’s trying to understand who we are, and and what we’re doing. Do you think that’s fair?
Paul: Oh yeah I mean you think about the Psalmist you know look it up at the heavens and say when I saw the you know your handiwork the stars ordained, what is man that you should even think of him uh or even the heavens are telling the glory of God that from earliest times people have looked up into the heavens especially at night and seen the stars in that and though they had no idea just how vast it is that we’re beginning to get a sense of um still those who are of faith you know we’re able to say the one God I know who loves me and created me also created all this, and so it presses them to become even more full of wonder and adoration toward God, and and appreciation of who He is. For those who would have been pagans you know the temptation was oh well actually Venus is a goddess, and Mars is a god, and Jupiter is a god, and you know to see that way and that’s part of what the Gospel was to kind of demythologize that stuff yeah and say all those are great and of course you have this transcendent longing, but every one of those were made by the one true God and um and that’s one of the reasons too I mean I started out kind of as an apologetics book that remained that, but I discovered that looking at a number of the issues here if you look at them seriously they will press you to delve more deeply into the mysteries of our faith to look more more closely and understand more deeply what is the image of God you know in in the human race and uh what was the nature of the Incarnation for for the second person the Trinity to take to himself a human nature and um and more things about eschatology and the end of things and and the nature of Salvation how God accomplishes it every one of those things you have to delve in deeply and in the book, but I discovered is there are some Christian theologians out there not necessarily Catholics but uh who are looking at this and the things they’re throwing out there uh it ends up leaning towards some of the ancient heresies but nobody’s nobody’s called it out you know I’m not trying to call it out in a bad way but there are some folks for instance they they seem to without realizing you have fallen into the Nestorian heresy about what the nature of the Incarnation and others who just right off the bat deny original sin and others who um they’re just saying things like you know if you looked at the early Christian controversies and what the Church did say and teach it would guide through you through this conversation in a really important way so there’s my faith is deeper than ever after writing this book and researching.
Tony: Wow um you you referenced this but um in in closing I wonder if you can talk a little more about how much this really matters in in the core of Catholic faith because whether or not we are alone, whatever that means, in in existence um we are called to follow Christ’s example, to walk His path toward the one true God. That’s what we’re called to do as Catholics, so whether or not we’re alone that doesn’t change what was delivered from God himself right?
Paul: It doesn’t and and that’s why you know someone could just never pay attention to this issue at all and still as they have you know some of many uh be a faithful Catholic and you know saint in the making um again if if we in the next year or so should begin to have public disclosures I mean they’re even groups of scientists now are finally taking this seriously putting up all kinds of instruments to find it, Avi Loeb at Harvard and some others um so that if there’s I said what they say you know we really here’s what it’s we’ve got it that’s think about the possibilities will press you in your own life to number one more towards humility because it has certainly for me that uh because we can sometimes be kind of arrogant about you know who we are and it compresses toward wonder which uh which I I define as humility in the face of mystery more toward Wonder of God, and appreciation of just how great He is and how magnificent is His plans for us and um how marvelous His ways. It can send you back to the Book of Job I quoted you know in there where Job was trying to talk as if he has God’s you know always figured out he’s he’s putting God on trials why don’t you do this this and this, and God comes back and says where were you when I laid the foundations of the world, and are you the one who put the the Pleiades you know the stars out there and Orion up there to do that and Job has to say I repent! And uh it’s a it’s a good thing you know to think about those and that they were so much more to God than we can know at this point praise God for you know they get to the Beatific Vision in Heaven that we will know as He knows and He will give a share of his knowledge and everything else in His nature with us that’s uh supposed to be different vision is all about but until then it’s a it’s a great thing to have some humility and wonder about it there was a lot of mystery still.
Tony: Yeah and we’re discovering answers uh one step at a time on the pilgrim journey right?
Paul: That’s right, yeah.