Candace Talmadge asked:
Is spirituality a uniquely human attribute and experience? Do intelligent non-human beings exist and, if so, do such beings have religious beliefs or even souls?
At least one major world religion has indicated that its answer to such questions may well be no, yes, and yes, in that order. In a recent interview with Italian newspaper Lâ€™Osservatore Romano, the Vaticanâ€™s chief astronomer, the Rev. Jose Gabriel Funes, said there is no conflict between believing in extraterrestrial intelligent life and believing in God.
â€œHow can we exclude that life has developed elsewhere?â€ Rev Funes asks, a point based on faith and logic, given the extraordinarily high number of planets with suns and atmospheres similar to those of earth.
But the Catholic Churchâ€™s top astronomer goes even further, implying that some aliens might not have been subject to the separation from God described in Genesis. â€œThere could be (other beings) who remained in full friendship with their creator,â€ Rev. Funes adds.
While the premise of intelligent non-human life is one of the driving themes of science fiction and fantasy, most creative works in these genres eschew any direct talk of alien spirituality, religion, or faith. There are some notable exceptions, however, that are worth exploring because they help us examine our own spirituality and the limitations we may have placed on it, however unconsciously.
Enemy Mine, a 1985 science fiction film derived from Barry B. Longyearâ€™s award-winning 1979 novella, depicts an intergalactic war between human beings and an alien race called the Drac. Marooned by their battle-damaged space fighters on an isolated, inhospitable planet, a Drac and a man start off as enemies. Out of survival necessity, however, they make a wary peace.
Eventually, the two become the dearest of friends. The Drac has a faith and a sense of his own spirituality and the divine that his human counterpart can readily identify as such. The Drac reads frequently from a small book of religious/philosophical text that hangs around his neck, and often sits outside at sunset, pondering the larger questions of life and meaning and speaking about them with his newfound human companion.
Ultimately, the alienâ€™s faith and friendship motivate the human being to consider something other than his prestige as a top-scoring fighter pilot focused solely on advancing his military career. The alien reminds the man that life is so much more than just a scramble for conquest and material success. The Drac even rescues the man from being eaten by one of the planetâ€™s preditors, and suffers for it later. The human being is much better off for having learned to respect and even love an alien as a being of great faith and courage.
An example of fantasy that directly addresses spirituality is the Green Stone of Healing(R) series. It features an intelligent non-human being, known as a Mist-Weaver, who exhibits capabilities that human beings more readily ascribe to angels or the supernatural. The Mist-Weaver is able to appear and dissolve at will, transitioning from material to non-material realities in much the same manner as the divine heralds of earthly religious traditions.
As would an angel, the Mist-Weaver takes a physical form to converse easier with the human characters. The Mist-Weaver clearly has a profound sense of the divine and his connection to it and to all life, and tries to encourage that spiritual connection in his human counterparts. But his spiritual teachings often leave them baffled because they are very different from the more limited human understanding. The Mist-Weaverâ€™s presence spurs his human students to examine the limitations of their faith and their spiritual understanding, just as the burning bush, signaling Godâ€™s presence, presented Moses with challenges of faith and self-growth.
Although the Mist-Weaver is more spiritually advanced than the human beings he interacts with, he does not try to dictate human behavior or beliefs, solve human problems, or protect his human students from the consequences of their actions. Heâ€™s no deus ex machina waving a magic wand and righting all wrongs. In taking a hands-off approach, he might seem indifferent to some, but just the opposite is true. He heals one character of a broken finger and further injuries and often tries to comfort others in their most desperate hours.
The Mist-Weaver simply refuses to intervene out of his abiding respect for and more advanced understand of the true meaning of free will. Well-intentioned human beings often disregard othersâ€™ free will and rush in, foolishly, where wiser angels fear to tread. Perhaps thatâ€™s what makes this alien truly strange. The Mist-Weaver doesnâ€™t suffer from that all-too-human inclination to run other peopleâ€™s lives or to believe that God is a similar micro-manager.
A third example of speculative fiction portraying intelligent non-human beings with a highly developed spirituality is Alien Nation, both a pilot TV film and short-lived Fox Network TV series of the same name. Most of these on-screen â€œNewcomersâ€ are just regular folks, although there are villains in their midst, too. But the average alien Joes and Jills have jobs, houses, children, and try to live peacefully among their human counterparts. They also have extensive religious rituals and traditions that are depicted throughout the series.
Like Enemy Mine and the Green Stone of Healing(R) series, Alien Nation directly states that non-human beings can teach the human variety a thing or two about life and spirituality. The Newcomer police officer is paired with a human detective who is initially very unhappy about the arrangement. But the former earns the latterâ€™s respect and affection through his courage, smarts, initiative, and loyalty. The Newcomer demonstrates that these enduring and spiritual character qualities are not the sole province of human beings. Again, the human being is better off for having come to know the alien.
On planet earth, closed off and isolated by the only too human fear that spirituality is just a mirage, many find the former a far more alien concept than the supposition of non-human intelligent beings. Yet all of us, although we may not use spiritual terms to describe our longings, hunger for a sense of community and belonging, a sense of self and of our unique place in this vast universe.
In other words, we long to live our spirituality and its implied relationship with God, however we conceive God to be and by whatever name we call the divine. Yet we struggle with our greatest human fear: that having lost our creatorâ€™s â€œfull friendship,â€ in the words of the Vatican astronomer, we will never be sufficient or worthy enough to reclaim that ultimate spiritual relationship.
Aliens may give God far more credit than we do. If/when the day comes that we openly encounter intelligent non-human beings, we may find that the experience brings us much closer to reclaiming and living our own spirituality than we ever believed possible.
We can always choose to embrace the unknownâ€”the alienâ€”instead of fearing it.