Cosmotheology is to be distinguished from Derham's eighteenth-century astrotheology in that the main thrust of the former is not to offer proof of God or God's attributes, but to use Nature to inform a much broader range of theological discussion. The history of the extraterrestrial life debate gives us some idea of the elements of a cosmotheology as perceived by our predecessors. Although we need not be bound by their limits, the problems of the new universe for Christianity are fairly clear, and will become clearer for other religions as their attitudes toward life on other worlds become better known. Whatever the tenets of a specific religion, we offer five general principles for cosmotheology.
- 1. Cosmotheology must take into account that humanity is in no way physically central in the universe; we are located on a small planet around a star on the outskirts of the Milky Way galaxy. Although we have known this now for most of the century, and although it gives urgency to the religious questions (especially the Incarnation) raised in the wake of the Copernican theory, this revelation has resulted in no change of doctrine to any of the world's anthropocentric religions.
- 2. Cosmotheology must take into account that humanity probably is not central biologically. We may be unique in the sense that Loren Eiseley so poetically wrote when he said:
Nowhere in all space or on a thousand worlds will there be men to share our loneliness. There may be wisdom; there may be power; somewhere across space great instruments, handled by strange, manipulative organs, may stare vainly at our floating cloud wrack, their owners yearning as we yearn. Nevertheless, in the nature of life and in the principles of evolution we have had our answer. Of men elsewhere, and beyond, there will be none forever.10
But uniqueness of form does not make us central to the story of the universe. Nor, one would think, should it make us the special object of attention of any deity.
- 3. Cosmotheology must take into account that humanity is most likely somewhere near the bottom, or at best midway, in the great chain of intelligent beings in the universe. This follows from the age of the universe and the youth of our species. The universe is in excess of ten billion years old. The genus homo evolved only two million years ago, and archaic homo sapiens only 500,000 years ago. Homo sapiens sapiens is considerably younger than that, and terrestrial civilization and history cover only a few millennia. Even taking into account that the universe needed billions of years to generate the ingredients for life, if nature does select for intelligence, it has probably been doing so at numerous sites long before we arrived on the scene. Surely this has relevance to the question of our relation to any universal deity.
- 4. Cosmotheology must be open to radically new conceptions of God, not necessarily the God of the ancients, nor the God of human imagination, but a God grounded in cosmic evolution, the biological universe, and the three principles stated above.
- 5. Cosmotheology must have a moral dimension, extended to include all species in the universe — a reverence and respect for life that we find difficult enough to foster on Earth. While the challenge of this principle should not be underestimated, it will perhaps also make us realize that homo sapiens is one, after all, despite superficial differences.
In my opinion, religions will adjust to these cosmotheological principles because the alternative is extinction. The adjustment will be most wrenching for those monotheistic religions that see man in the image of God (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), a one-to-one relationship with a single Godhead. It will be less wrenching for Eastern religions that teach salvation through individual enlightenment (Buddhism and Hinduism) rather than through a Savior, or that are this-worldly (Confucianism) rather than otherworldly. The adjustment will not be to the physical world, as in Copernicanism, nor to the biological world, as in Darwinism, where man descended from the apes but still remained at the top of the terrestrial world. Rather the adjustment will be to the biological universe, in which intelligences are likely to be superior to us for reasons stated above.