As the story goes, it was over an informal lunch conversation in 1950 that physicist Enrico Fermi made an observation which continues to vex us to this day. “Where is everybody?”
Given the number of stars out there, and making educated guesses at how many of these could have Earth-like planets capable of supporting something we would recognize as life, conservative estimates would suggest that there could be roughly ten quadrillion intelligent life forms out there.
Most of those worlds would be significantly older than our own, presumably with civilizations far more advanced than ours. They should have had plenty of time by now to expand, to colonize other worlds, to at the very least leave traces of technology that we could detect from here. But so far we’ve found nothing. So … where is everybody?
While science continues to ponder this sixty-eight-year-old question, I got to wondering about the theology of Fermi’s Paradox. Holy Scripture and the Church Fathers don’t have much to say about the possibility of extra-terrestrial life, but our faith tradition does give us insights into the nature of God, of Man, and of a Universe which reflects the nature of its Creator. So from that, perhaps we can speculate a bit.
Space is Big
As Douglas Adams once wrote, “you just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean ,you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space.” Science can calculate exactly how staggeringly improbable it is that in all that vastness we are the lone, solitary life-forms, and theology I think makes it even more unlikely. God, we are told, is “God not of the dead but of the living.” My sense is that this immense expanse of Creation, then, should be teeming with life.
And even then, one has to wonder at the great distances separating us from them. Man is, according to our God-given nature, a social being. We are also intellectually curious, given to investigating and contemplating the infinite mysteries of Creation. It seems that it is part of God’s original design that we should look to the heavens, wonder who else is out there, and dream of meeting them. So why put this intraversable emptiness between us?
Three possible explanations occur to me.
The Roddenberry Principle
In the mythology of the Star Trek franchise, humanity has to overcome its faults and moral failings and learn to work together before it can venture among the stars. Once out there, we will discover other alien races who have basically been keeping their distance, watching from afar, waiting for us to reach that level of cooperation among our own kind.
The Lewis Theory
In his “Space Trilogy,” consisting of the books Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength, Lewis imagines a kind of interplanetary ecumenism which Earth – the “Silent Planet” – because of its fall from grace is not part of. We’re basically cut off from everyone else, lest our Original Sin spread and infect other worlds.
The Question of Eternity
The third thought hinges on the theological concept of Original Holiness, or the state of grace which humanity enjoyed before the Fall – before Original Sin introduced death into the human condition.
The biggest problem we have with traversing interstellar distances is that it takes too long, and our lifespans are too short, to get anywhere. But if death was not originally part of God’s plan for humanity, that does change things. Maybe the idea was that we’d have an infinite universe to explore, and eternal life with which to do so. Maybe in the life to come, that opportunity will be restored to us. It’s something to hope for, anyway.
About the Author: Josh McDonald is a jack-of-all-creative-arts; singer, storyteller, writer, cartoonist, actor, director, filmmaker, he’s dabbled in a bit of almost everything. Currently, he is in the earliest stages of studying for the diaconate.