10 August 2012
Life on Mars
Welcome back to Mars. Earlier this week, the one-tonne rover vehicle, Curiosity, landed in a crater near the planet's equator, to the evident relief of the NASA scientists who were watching its descent breathlessly, and began its long, lonely survey of the Martian landscape.
Humans have speculated about life on Mars for centuries. Martian ice-caps were identified over 300 years ago and Victorian astronomers detected what looked like canals on the surface. Much as the thought of Martian horses towing Martian barges around the planet was an endearing one, the canals turned out to be an optical illusion. The search went on.
Later missions, including those hosted by the various space craft that now litter the planet, found signs of what might possibly once have been liquid water under the surface and signs of what might possibly once have been organic material in the soil. Scientists remain guarded or, at least, more so than the rest of us, who like to speculate excitedly about life on Mars.
Curiosity is not going to dig up any fossils (although who wouldn't relish seeing the bones of a Martian mammoth come to light?) But if it does send us data that shows micro-organisms were once widespread on Mars, the story will make the Olympics look like a quiet news day. How humans view themselves will be momentously and irrevocably changed, and there will, inevitably, be much speculation about what this means for Christianity and for God. This explains why in 1996 President Bill Clinton was so quick to hold an impromptu White House press conference to claim that a potato sized meteorite provided proof of life on Mars. It was notable that, when the evidence was disproved soon after, that he didn't choose to make an equally high profile announcement.
All of which suggests that some will have already made up their minds. I remember interviewing someone for a research project on faith and doubt many years ago who confidently told me, "I really hope that they will find life in outer space, because doesn't the Bible dispel that theory?" To this day I'm not sure which translation she was referring to.
Such wilfulness is depressing, but should remind us that we too easily confuse a Christian worldview with an anthropocentric one. Human beings are not special because we are alone, any more than an only child is cherished because she has no siblings. We are special because we can be in relationship with the creator who loves us. The only thing damaged by the discovery of life on Mars would be our pride.
Over recent years, cosmologists and evolutionary biologists have told us that the universe is apparently fine-tuned to an infinitesimal degree, in such a way that makes life, and possibly even conscious life, not only possible but likely. Yet, in spite of what my research respondent (and received wisdom) liked to think, such a view is entirely consistent with Christian thought.
The Bible describes a God who is lavishly generous, munificent, charitable, gracious, whose creative love is unfathomable. Would not such a God be more likely to seed his entire creation with life, rather than just our small corner of it?
Today, when we speculate about life elsewhere, we may feel insecure and a little hostile, like a toddler whose parents bring home a new-born. But we should rest assured that our Father's love for us is no less, just because we are not alone.
Nick Spencer is Research Director at Theos