Beyond UFOs: The Search for Extraterrestrial Life and Its Astonishing Implications for Our Future
Princeton University Press, 2011
248 pp., 22.19
Where Is Everyone?
How does life get started in the first place? Though this is a question still unanswered by science, Bennett gives a good description of the basic natural conditions that might be conducive for first life. Beyond UFOs is not a theological book, but Bennett does pause early on to address the question, "Where does God fit into this picture?" He points out the devout Christian faith of foundational scientists like Kepler. And, while denouncing Intelligent Design approaches as non-scientific, he states clearly and refreshingly that science, when correctly understood, can be completely compatible with faith in God, pointing out the fallacies that occur when either scientific understanding or biblical interpretation is stretched beyond its proper bounds. "Indeed," Bennett emphasizes, "the lack of conflict between science and religion seems to me so self-evident that I'm flabbergasted at the fact that not everyone else sees it the same way. Can everyone just calm down, and realize that science and religion do not pose threats to one another?"
But what about the actual detection of life beyond Earth? Is Christian belief broad enough to encompass extraterrestrials? Bennett does not delve into such issues. But others have, and with gusto. The Vatican, through its Pontifical Academy of Sciences, held its first major conference on astrobiology in November 2009. "Why is the Vatican involved in astrobiology?" Father Jose Funes, Director of the Vatican Observatory, asked rhetorically in The Washington Post (November 2009). "Although astrobiology is an emerging field and still a developing subject, the questions of life's origins and of whether life exists elsewhere in the universe are very interesting and deserve serious consideration. These questions offer many philosophical and theological implications." Surveys of beliefs on the issue, especially the "religious crisis" survey of theologian Ted Peters, have shown that almost no one, regardless of faith tradition, feels that the detection of life beyond earth would be a devastating blow to their own religious beliefs. Most Christians seem to feel that finding simple life elsewhere could be seen as a natural extension of the gracious life-giving power of God, and would be compatible with a biblical worldview. Indeed, Dominican Father Augustine Di Noia affirms, following Funes, that "Christians have always understood that the entire cosmos is a creation of God, that any life anywhere is a divine creation. There would be absolutely no motive for scandal if scientists were to establish the existence of life elsewhere."
And yet when it comes to the possibility of intelligent life and civilizations beyond Earth, Christians face a tough consideration of how seemingly Earth-bound works of God could extend beyond. How would original sin, the atonement of Christ Jesus, and the Incarnation (that is, God in human form) transfer to intelligent non-humans elsewhere? Physicist and author Paul Davies muses, also in the Post, that "The real threat [to Christianity] would come from the discovery of extraterrestrial intelligence, because if there are beings elsewhere in the universe, then Christians, they're in this horrible bind. They believe that God became incarnate in the form of Jesus Christ in order to save humankind, not dolphins or chimpanzees or little green men on other planets." Well, maybe not actually a horrible bind at all, if we give God some credit for being able to redeem Creation beyond Earth in ways that may not have been fully revealed to Earthlings. Billy Graham says, "I firmly believe there are intelligent beings like us far away in space who worship God. But we have nothing to fear from these people. Like us, they are God's creation." 
Beyond UFOs is a rich, slow, and rewarding read. Rich because it is full of some of the most interesting current interdisciplinary science regarding planets and life that you can find, blending astronomy, geology, history, and astrobiology in a single narrative. Slow because each page is so full of interesting content that you don't want to skim. Rewarding because Bennett is simply a fantastic writer and presenter, making the read thoroughly enjoyable. No science expertise required.