One spacey assignment: What's the story on alien life and scriptural literalism?

My GetReligion posts run under the rubric "Global Wire," so I may be stepping outside my designated orbit with this one. But since our Hubble site -- excuse me, that should be humble website -- provides us near infinite space (Anyone know just how big the internet actually is?) in which to indulge ourselves, I figure, "Why not indulge?"

(Corny lede, you say? Well, excuse me.)

To get to the point, we're talking universalism. Not the sort of doctrinal universalism you might expect on a site devoted to religion journalism. I'm referring to the spacial universalism of, you know, the universe.

Why? Because of this piece spotted earlier this month on the Website of the Washington Post. How could I pass up a story headlined, "Why the Vatican doesn’t think we’ll ever meet an alien Jesus"?

The story followed July's NASA announcement that it's Kepler planet-hunting spacecraft had discovered one of the closest analogues to our own planet found to date, a planet little more than one and a half times as big in radius as Earth and called Kepler 452b. The plant, said The New York Times, "circles a sunlike star in an orbit that takes 385 days, just slightly longer than our own year, putting it firmly in the 'Goldilocks' habitable zone where the temperatures are lukewarm and suitable for liquid water on the surface -- if it has a surface."

So we're talking the possibility of organic life, no matter how primitive, of a sort recognizable to humans.

Which brings us back to the Post, the Vatican and Jesus.

Here's the top of that story (and AFP stands for Agence France Presse):

Scientists are closer than ever to finding out the truth about life beyond Earth. Just last month, NASA excitedly discussed the potential of one exoplanet — Kepler 452b — that appears to be the most Earth-like planet ever confirmed outside of the solar system.
The Vatican is also excited about the prospect of finding alien life. But it has a few things to say on the subject first.
The Vatican’s robust astronomy program, run by an Argentinean Jesuit named Father José Gabriel Funes, is part of that search. The Vatican Observatory is headquartered in Italy at Castel Gandolfo, where the Pope has a summer villa. But it also operates a telescope at the Mount Graham International Observatory at the University of Arizona.
The AFP asked Funes about NASA’s recent announcement, which he said was “great news.”
"It is probable there was life and perhaps a form of intelligent life,” Funes said.
But, he cautioned: “I don’t think we’ll ever meet a Mr. Spock.”

Mr. Spock? Not quite the money quote promised  by the headline; but it's there, attributed to Funes, just a bit further into the story.

“The discovery of intelligent life does not mean there’s another Jesus,” he said. “The incarnation of the son of God is a unique event in the history of humanity, of the universe.”

I'm happy to accept Funes' statement of belief for the moment because I see a news hook in it. A feature one (or a book-length manuscript, if you're up to it), perhaps even an obvious one, but a worthy news peg nonetheless.

Way back when weekend newspaper religion sections were valued, the hook would have worked nicely as a good read played above the fold of said section's front page. Today, it would work just as well on the home page of a a religion news Website.

And the nut graph in this post is:

What would the discovery of extraterrestrial life -- intelligent or otherwise -- mean for scriptural literalism in every faith that puts forth a defined creation story specific to one planet, ours? This includes the three major Abrahamic religions, of course.

Yes, we know that brilliant folks like C.S. Lewis and others have been debating this question for ages. But the topic keeps coming up, one way or another.

Another piece, this one posted on the website of the John Templeton Foundation -- the organization that hands out the Templeton Prize each year to someone who has "affirmed life's spiritual dimension" in an "exceptional" manner -- also deserves attention here. 

Turns out Templeton funds a research project that also hopes to discover life elsewhere in space. It's called The Alien Earths Initiative.

Templeton did not include any direct challenges to traditional religious beliefs in its post. But I'd say the post's headline hinted at the same question: "New Discovery Raises Big Question of Life’s Cosmic Uniqueness."

Where would one start researching this story suggestion?

Well, there's the Raelians. I don't don't mean to be flippant, dismissive or undercut the seriousness of my own suggestion. However, let's face it. I'd bet very few of you reading this post take them seriously.

So let's move to a far more sensitive and difficult place to start, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

The late Church President Gordon B. Hinckley is famous for once saying, “Well, as God is, man may become.” That led to a round of stories saying that Mormons believe they can become physical gods on their own planets -- a sort of Mormon version of extraterrestrial life. But Hinckley also said, back in 1997, that this notion “gets into some pretty deep theology that we don’t know very much about."

Here's a link to the official Church explanation of the issue on its website. And here is a 2014 tmatt column updating the debates about this topic, including a flashback to some "when you create a world of your own" language at the 1985 funeral of President Spencer W. Kimball.

I'm no longer a working religion beat reporter, so researching this story is, happily, not my job. That's up to those of you still working the beat. So make some calls, see where they lead you.

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