Planethopping Jesus

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Largely because Aristotle was invulnerable, early Christian scholars almost unanimously denied the existence of other worlds that might be occupied by rational beings. In the tale of Genesis, God creates the Earth for human habitation, and other worlds are not mentioned at all. Like hand in glove, this human-centered narrative fits snugly into Aristotle's cosmos in which perfect, untouchable heavens envelop an Earth that is unique, central, separate, stationary, and inferior.

Furthermore, the possibility of intelligent creatures on other worlds presented paradoxes for anthropocentric Christianity. If Jesus died for our sins alone, would intelligent aliens on other planets be damned by his neglect? Or are they free from sin? If so, why did we get such a raw deal? If not, was Christ a planet-hopper who managed to be incarnated on all such worlds?

St. Augustine, widely recognized as one of the greatest thinkers of Christian antiquity, argued that if other worlds were inhabited by humanlike creatures, each would need a Savior, which was impossible because Christ was singular. Several scholars, however, found clever loopholes through which to admit intelligent extraterrestrials into a Christian universe. The most common argument was that other worlds would not need a redeemer because mankind's sin was so original. More specifically, aliens could not be sons of Adam and did not inherit his sin, so they were off the hook.

Aristotle's hold on the Christian imagination began to loosen when some scholars pointed out that a universe with only one world implied limits on the creative powers of God. In 1277, Etienne Tempier, the bishop of Paris, issued a proclamation declaring Aristotle's terrestrial/ celestial dichotomy a heresy. This precipitated a sea change in attitudes toward other worlds and alien life. Many Christian scholars began breaking from Aristotle, and numerous treatises were published arguing that God could make as many worlds as he damn well pleased. He is, after all, God.

Was the existence of alien life forbidden by the uniqueness of Christ's incarnation or required by God's omnipotence? In 1440 Nicholas of Cusa, a German ecclesiastic, wrote Of Learned Ignorance, a widely celebrated book that exuberantly rejected Aristotle's hierarchical, Earth-centered cosmology, advocating in its place a universe bustling with life on every star. But Cusa was not scorned by the Church hierarchy for his belief in life elsewhere. On the contrary, after writing Of Learned Ignorance Cusa was made a cardinal. So why did the Church celebrate Cusa and, 150 years later, condemn Galileo?

There are several reasons. First, Galileo was somewhat of a tactless boor—a quality often left out of the Galileo myth—and his obnoxious-ness helped seal his fate. Perhaps if he had put the right spin on his new discoveries, Rome would have showered him with praise and rejoiced in the addition of new worlds to God's creation. Instead, he seemed to go out of his way to piss off the Church authorities with his know-it-all comments on Scripture. He might have fared better if he had kept a lid on it and not told the clerics how to interpret the Bible.

In his Dialogue concerning the two Chief World Systems (1632), Galileo popularized his findings and proselytized for Copernicanism. In this book, the character who played the role of doubting the Copernican system was a pompous ass with the unflattering name Simplicio. In an impolitic move that well illustrates his arrogance, Galileo had Simplicio give voice to the anti-Copernican views of Pope Urban VIII, mirroring the pope's words so closely that His Holiness became convinced that Simplicio was created to mock him. The infuriated pope was all too eager to preside over Galileo's sentencing.

Galileo was also a victim of bad timing. He challenged authority at a time when the Church was threatened by the Reformation. Even worse, Galileo's world-shaking telescopic discoveries were made before heretic monk Giordano Bruno's ashes had cooled. Bruno, a Dominican friar who was condemned and burned at the stake in Rome on February 17, 1600, believed in an infinite cosmos filled with life virtually everywhere —on planets, stars, meteors, you name it. He is often mentioned in the same breath with Galileo as another martyr for Copernicanism and science in general. In reality, his colorful advocacy of other worlds and alien life was seen by his persecutors as a minor offense compared to his sorcery, pantheism, and denial of Christ's divinity. Bruno was murdered by the Church, first and foremost, for espousing superstitious mumbo jumbo and devil worship, and less so for promoting the new astronomy. If they wanted to, New Age mystics or satanists could claim him as a martyr with at least as much veracity as scientists do today.

Bruno was one of the first to advocate that each star is a sun with its own retinue of orbiting planets inhabited by intelligent creatures. Yet, he based this conviction on metaphysical principles and mystical visions rather than observation or physical theory. Bruno couldn't have cared less about evidence, measurement, or the intricacies of planetary motions. His adaptation of Copernicanism was a convenient co-opting of a recently published theory to support his belief in an infinite number of inhabited worlds—a belief derived from a spiritualistic faith in the unity of the cosmos. If anything, Bruno did harm to the progress of science (and certainly to poor Galileo) by encouraging the Church authorities to associate Copernicanism with flagrant anti-Christian agitation. Surely some of the wrath that the Church vented on Galileo was really meant for Bruno, who refused to recant, reaffirming his beliefs and taunting his persecutors with his dying breaths as flames engulfed his body and freed his soul to travel among his infinite worlds.

Personality and timing aside, Galileo's biggest problem was simply that he had found the goods. The stark reality of his evidence suddenly made Copernican beliefs much more threatening. Before Galileo's telescope opened a window to a new reality, cosmological questions were all hypothetical. Discussions of other worlds seemed as abstract and immune from verification as arguments about how many angels could dance on the head of a pin. Now, there were actual planets that you could see in the sky, and their existence implied that the Earth itself is in motion, contrary to the received truth found in Scripture. Telescopes and planets are mentioned in the Bible no more than particle accelerators and quarks, but with a little digging and creative interpretation, those who shrank with horror from the new, less human-centered universe could find scriptural objections to back up their fears.

The difficulty of the transition from biblically received knowledge to observational cosmology is well represented in a scene in Bertolt Brecht's play Galileo. A group of learned astronomers have called upon Galileo to express their concern over his claims of finding new worlds. He invites his skeptical visitors to simply have a look through the telescope and see the new worlds for themselves. He is confident that, once they have seen with their own eyes, they will drop all objections. Fearing trickery or sorcery, they refuse to look.

Forced to take a stand by Galileo's observational successes and rhetorical excesses, the Church decided to put the kibosh on Copernicanism, but it was too late. Word was out. Telescopes are easy to manufacture. Soon observers all over Europe were marveling at the moons of Jupiter and mapping the mountains of the Moon. Cusa and Copernicus had laid the dry timber and Galileo had provided the spark. A wildfire of rampant Copernicanism ripped through seventeenth-century Europe, and though the Church leaders spread fear to douse the flame, they could not stamp it out.

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