When I was a boy there was no reason to believe that life — of any kind — existed beyond this planet. While films like Star Wars, Star Trek, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, and Close Encounters had a hold on my imagination almost as strong as my family’s Catholic religion, these science fiction worlds were little more than fairy stories. Still, the U.S. space shuttle program, initiated with incredible foresight by President Nixon, fascinated the country. Every launch was a national event. I still remember when Mrs. Dawson at Williamson Elementary School was called into the hallway by another teacher. She quickly pulled the television from the reading room next door into our classroom and put on the news. Instead of a triumphant launch into space, we saw the Challenger explode and break into pieces, with no hope of survival for the astronauts aboard.
In my brief lifetime thus far, many things have changed. We no longer have a space shuttle program but we are preparing reusable rockets to raise us up. We now know that liquid water exists, probably abundantly, beyond our planet; that countless comets hurtling to every corner of space are teaming with the so-called building blocks of life, amino acids; that there are not only plenty of planets outside our solar system, there are plenty orbiting their stars within the Goldilocks range, just like Earth. There is every reason to believe that there is life beyond our planet and its atmosphere — maybe even abundant life all across the Universe.
As I was preparing myself to enter seminary, the U.S. government cut all funding to NASA’s infant SETI program. This divorce turned out to be the best thing that could have happened for those who search after intelligent, technological civilizations beyond our solar system, as it allowed scientists freedom to employ their craft without the useless intrusion of politics and government. While SETI has to beg for its daily bread, at least it doesn’t have to give a shit about the self-important opinions and vain whims of congressmen, presidents, generals, and senators. If ever they make contact with an alien civilization, they plan to immediately disseminate their data to fellow researchers around the world before the Pentagon is able to shut them down and take control SETI. It won’t be a president or a general who greets our new-found friends from across the Universe. (Peace be to presidents and generals!)
However, there remains one very important question that no one has asked. In a sense, it is the only question that matters as we look to the sky for beings like us. We are curious about ourselves, about our place in the Universe, about the nature of life — the religious instinct and scientific instinct (which are different formulations of the same innate human impulse) compel us to look both within ourselves and beyond ourselves for meaning. But beings who have existed much longer than us, who already know that there others like themselves elsewhere, what reason would they have to want to contact us or even visit us? The illustrious Stephen Hawking (peace be to Stephen Hawking!) has strong opinions around contact with alien civilizations but I think he has one thing wrong, or at least backwards. To my estimation, we’re not the ones who should be cautious and fearful of aliens — rather, aliens would have every reason to cautious and fearful of us. Never mind stupid Hollywood alien invasion films. Surely there is nothing of great value and use on our planet that does not exist elsewhere. We are more likely to nuke aliens than to try and talk to them. As they used to say of New York City’s Cardinal John O’Connor: Ready. FIRE! Aim. Aliens would do well to be quite cautious of our trigger happy generals and insecure world leaders.
We forget that we are violent creatures, beings that excel at war and destruction. At our worst, we are nihilistic. We are also fearless at times, above all when the ones we love are imperiled. Love has the power to transform us. Love can even transform our violence. Aggression, violence, and war can serve the destruction of life but they can also serve the preservation of life. The difference between destruction and preservation, between damnation and salvation, is love. And we have the capacity to excel beyond dreaming when it comes to love. If only we could remember that.
The time has come for us to discover the good, useful, beneficial reality that we have to offer not just a single alien civilization, but the entire Universe. We do well to start by looking to those we love, to those who give life meaning and purpose: Our friends and our families. As I wrote somewhere, if there are beings like us elsewhere in the Universe and if the possibility exists for us to encounter them, it is not science or knowledge or technology that will bind us together. It will be our shared experience of mortality and family — and the love that arises because of those realities.
July 13, 2017