Where does the Earth sit in light of itself and in the scheme of what we think of the skies? The biblical narrative threw sand to the stars as it compared them to Abraham's projected prodigy. The Greeks bent the heavens to birth their gods and eternally connected struggle with heroism. Early shipmen routed themselves with starry nights to place what water wet where in concordance with both vessel and the shores they hoped to find again. (We know too of the star that stumbled over some rocky cloud and sunk low, marking out the old place for the wise to aim: god on foot.)
So, does the Earth run around the Sun or the Sun the Earth? It’s an ancient question that traipses back to Archimedes (Eureka!). The response is huge - or was - because the first claims the Earth as center of the cosmos and the second suffers it to one of several planets hinged onto the sun's blessings and curses. When these new hypotheses entered the discussion, they hurled expletives on Aristotelean tradition. What did the Church do? She didn't move. “Damn both Copernicus and Galileo as they pay lip service to ignorant popes and then roll around in the heather of their high science.”
How deadly it was to anchor the Sun and free the Earth. And along with it, to free the Scripture from being strapped down like some Shellifed beast trying to give life where it never intended.
But Joshua made the Sun stand still? Doesn't it say that the Lord's name will be praised from the rising to the setting of the Sun? How can these things be if the Sun is the superstar and not the Earth?
Nevertheless, with the help of Kepler, Galileo threw physics into the heavens and made it stick as truth. Now, there was not only a shift in planetary motion but even in religion, as Kepler held Jesus at heaven's gates four years longer than originally thought (he corrected the calendar). Meanwhile, the pope and his newly founded Jesuit order concerned themselves with retrieving what Martin Luther unwound. And whether you reform or counter the reform, it has always been the work of the Church to look into starry mountains and war-torn valleys and redeem everything she touches to God's side. Worship rots when rationality debunks mystery.
So, tripping onto a dispute with Galileo proved a lesson to the Church: she cannot strong-arm her god into scientific realms by pontifical decree or arguments concerning biblical accuracy. Yes, the papalized man was slow to stoop down in contrition, but Pope John Paul II in the latter part of last century sent apologies to kneel at Galileo's memory:
"Another lesson which we can draw is that the different branches of knowledge call for different methods. Thanks to his intuition as a brilliant physicist and by relying on different arguments, Galileo, who practically invented the experimental method, understood why only the sun could function as the centre of the world, as it was then known, that is to say, as a planetary system. The error of the theologians of the time, when they maintained the centrality of the earth, was to think that our understanding of the physical world's structure was, in some way, imposed by the literal sense of Sacred Scripture. ...In fact, the Bible does not concern itself with the details of the physical world, the understanding of which is the competence of human experience and reasoning. There exist two realms of knowledge, one which has its source in Revelation and one which reason can discover by its own power. To the latter belong especially the experimental sciences and philosophy. The distinction between the two realms of knowledge ought not to be understood as opposition. The two realms are not altogether foreign to each other, they have points of contact. The methodologies proper to each make it possible to bring out different aspects of reality."
These episodes are based in reason and facts. Should Scripture mark out the skies and its laws? In their enlightened state, could mathematicians chart out planetary rotations and distances? Can hypotheses reach conclusions with sheer evidences divorced from any faith? Does that make the Church hunter-gatherer, not of divinity but of tangible remains and proofs to substantiate their faith?
Today, most everyone trusts science to call the shots on planets and comets and trips to the Moon. Most of us frequent the doctor and take in diagnoses much easier than church discipline... if that even exists anymore. We fertilize, filterize, and standardize based on the scientific measures and warnings of chemists and biologists or medics or pharmacists. Some would even give up the fight for or against Evolution. And many more are holding their cell phones far from their heads given the recent FDA report. None of these things are necessarily wrong, but the effects might ripple into errors. Because in general religion gets robbed of its mythology while science injects every step we take and every flame-retardant pillow we lay our heads on.
To some degree, the Church works against qualifying every answer with the gravity of reason. She hosts feasts for dead saints and makes the body and blood of Jesus substantive to the flesh and spirit of her congregants. Monastic communities do nothing else but pray for the world (and brew beer). Her parishes are decorated to alarm the senses to what's beyond and above. She believes in the devil and his angels and the unseen fight that rages with Gabriels and Michaels right in front of our noses. And, centrally, she believes in the bodily resurrection of Jesus who was born of a virgin and held magic in his hands.
Now, the Church believes in the possibility of aliens. (What! Startled?) It seems far-fetched considering the suspicious proof in the science community and the fact that nothing is supported in the Scriptures for life forms set in other planets. In fact, no mainstream discussion has ever occurred in the Church on the subject. The Scriptures talk about a new Heaven and a new Earth, but there is no accounting for new stars. The sun does go black and the moon turns red at some point and the stars do drop to earth like figs in a strong wind (they may also be hit by a dragon's tail), but all that is a little desperate to site.
But we know that galaxies upon galaxies sit just beyond the visible stars. Were they made only for humanity to play under and send rovers to explore? Is an aftereffect of Galileo dislodging the Earth the knowledge that maybe humans fight wars and find love in a more finite space than once perceived?
And Reverend José Gabriel Funes, head of the Vatican Observatory, has given us more to think about. "How can we exclude that life has developed elsewhere," he said in a recent interview. Even further, these potential space creatures may be more powerful than humans according to Funes.
"Just as there is a multiplicity of creatures on earth, there can be other beings, even intelligent, created by God. This is not in contrast with our faith because we can't put limits on God's creative freedom," he said.
I guess if a Wells-like invasion materializes, the Pope will cross himself while wearing his big hat and bless his extraterrestrial brothers. Maybe... yes, possibly... he even received that gauntlet as an abduction gift and... his task is to seed the world for the coming of the mother craft!
Whatever the reasoning for inviting aliens into the Christian imagination we can be sure that it's more about the belief of God as creator. Perhaps he has never stopped his six days on-one day off routine. The Church holds to an omnipotent Lord and King of all creation, both what we see and what we don't, both what we know and what we can only imagine in a galaxy far, far away.
(I just hope these aliens don't wear red shoes.)
(To read the article and Funes and extraterrestrials go to: www.iht.com/articles/2008/05/14/news/vat.php)