JB: Hello, my name is Jessi Barnett and I'm a senior sociology student here at St. John's University and I'm joined here today by Father Jean-Pierre Ruiz of the St. John's University Department of Theology and Religious Studies and we're here today to discuss life beyond Earth. Thank you for joining us here today, Sir.
JR: It's my pleasure.
JB: So Father, how would you define alien life in the perspective of your faith?
JPR: I'd really be turning to a biologist to talk about defining life or describing life. Even on earth life exists in so many various forms, from the mammals and the invertebrates that we know, to human beings, to microscopic life forms. It's for the theologian really to respect the work of the scientist to describe what's going on with living beings. The work of the theologian is somewhat different actually- it's less a matter of doing the work of science and of respecting the work that scientists are doing, learning from scientists- and instead doing the work of theology behind that. So really the scientist tells me how the universe works. The theologian asks a very different question of the how question of the what question but the why question and the question of, well now that we know how this works, or now that we're trying to figure out how this works- what difference does it make for the way we live in the world.
JB: And, the way we live in the world, we often interact with other people and other things and we find that people often have obligations to living things and so given that we're discussing the possibility of alien life, do you think that people then, especially people of faith, have an obligation to alien life, if it is found, and interacting with it?
JR: Well by my training, I’m a biblical scholars, so I would go back to some of the oldest texts that we know- the texts at the beginning of the book of Genesis at the beginning of the Bible- and in those texts it's made clear that human beings are constituted as stewards over the world in which they live and we understand that no matter, no longer as a matter of dominance, no longer as a matter of human beings taking control of, or taking possession of the environment in which we live with, whether on the microscale on the macroscale, but tending to it and caring for it, was a real sense of our responsibility not only to each other as human beings but to the whole web of life that constitutes the living universe.
JB: And is that perspective of stewardship towards alien life maintained even if perhaps this alien life might be in some way malignant towards the human species?
JR: Well traditionally there have been two ways of imagining what sanctioned alien life might be termed. Some would imagine that sanctioned alien life would be superior to human beings to life forms that are found on Earth and in that case, it would seem that we would have a lot to learn from those other life forms. And in other cases, including in science fiction, in other cases those life forms are are considered to be malignant, are considered to be evil and are considered to be out to destroy us and everything that we value. I don't suspect that either of those is really going to be the case. I think that if life is as life is known here on earth, it's going to be a mixed bag. And we're going to need to relate with sensitivity and care and attention to those life forms whatever they may look like, however they may function, and however we may begin with the first impression of what their attitude may or may not be toward the rest of us.
JB: How would the discovery of alien life affect the study of theology and do you think it in any way invalidates the study or complicates it at all?
JR: It would actually make theology even more interesting and let me point to an analogy that goes back several hundred years in the history of the exploration of our own planet. Prior to 1492, there was a large portion of our own planet that was unknown to the Christians who lived in Europe so that when Europeans began to travel westward toward the Americas, they met beings that looked like and acted like people. And they had a language and they ate cooked food and did all of those things that human beings did but they had never met anyone quite like that. So it took them a while to fit these newly encountered peoples within the larger world view of Christianity. When they discovered that they were in fact their own human brothers and sisters, they had to treat them with the respect and the dignity with which they treated each other in Europe. So the doctrines of Christianity according to which, all human beings are made in the divine image and likeness, made it incumbent on the European discoverers to reckon with the humanness of the people that they encountered in the Americas. So Christianity's world view based on an understanding of God as the creator of everything, whether seen or unseen, whether known or unknown, made it possible for that world view to grow, to be grown by this wonderful encounter- this encounter that was on the one hand, wonderful and on the other hand tragic, because some of the ways in which the European colonizers dealt with the newly discovered populations of the Americas were terribly unjust and terribly cruel and to use a theological word- very very seriously sinful.
JB: That's an interesting historical context, but do you think that contemporary theological ideas or ideologies are appropriate or acceptable for determining how we should interact and live alongside or coexist with alien life forms?
JR: I think we've learned a lot from our mistakes. We human beings make a lot of mistakes but given that we are as resilient as we are learning from our mistakes, learning from the injustices we've committed in the past equips us to make different sorts of decisions for encounters that we would have in the future. So it's to be hoped that when life is discovered beyond Earth and I'm saying when, likely, and not if, that the human beings who encounter that life, will deal with that life according to the highest ethical standards of respect for those life forms, be they sentient or not, be they conscious or not, whatever those life forms may be. What we've learned about reckoning with life and what we've learned about respecting life in all of its diversity is certainly going to be important for us in those encounters in the years to come.
JB: Then are theology based in this discussion, primarily Christian based ethics, an appropriate way to set about ethics in order to learn more about them insofar as perhaps like a laboratory setting or going and interacting with them like de facto instead of an ideology?
JR: One of the crucial principles of Christian ethics- one of the crucial principles that grounds Christian social ethics in particular, is the fundamental principle of the dignity of all human beings that can certainly be extended in terms of a broader ecological ethics to recognize the dignity of all beings whether human or otherwise. And that principle of dignity, that principle of sharing the cosmos together which is even more of the responsibility of sharing the planet together should be one of the principles that guides our encounters with, and the ways in which we interact with, other life forms when we encounter them.
A spirit of openness, a spirit of respect, an attitude that respects their right to life and their right to flourish as autonomous beings not simply as the objects of our curiosity and not as the objects of our manipulation whether in the laboratory or as raw materials for something we might want to do with them.
JB: So Father, earlier you had mentioned that in the scope of the Christian faith, a particularly condoned way of dealing with life on our earth is the idea of stewardship. Now stewardship sort of insinuates a level of hierarchy of ability and almost ownership. And so given, that do you think that is appropriate that we translate that sort of Christian idea of stewardship over our earth to worlds that aren't necessarily our own and the life forms that are on those worlds?
JR: I think that we're learning to understand stewardship in a very different way. It was once understood that human beings were at the top of the life pyramid on Earth. More recently scientists have helped theologians to recognize how very much interconnected life forms are, from single celled organisms to complex multicelled and conscious organisms like ourselves. So the notion of stewardship is a matter instead of control over or domination of the rest of our planet, as it were, or the unbridled exploitation of our planet both in terms of life forms other than our own and in terms of mineral and other resources that we simply appropriate for our own use. Stewardship, responsibly understood, involves a balance. It involves respecting the ecological balance of our own planetary ecosystem in ways that respect the dignity of everything that's created. It's important to learn from our past mistakes as well in terms of exploitation of the resources and other life forms on our own planet so that stewardship when amplified to consider the likelihood of extraterrestrial life forms is going to involve being very attentive to how those ecosystems function. To learn from what's happening there, to respect from what's happening there and not to interfere, if at all possible, in the natural process, these and the other functions that are taking place on worlds other than our own where we would be guests, we would want to be good and respectful guests rather than intrusive guests in those places.
JB: How important is religion and the subject of theology when encountering or studying life forms and ecosystems in our own world?
JR: In own world, theology is a matter of human beings coming to wrestle with some of the deepest questions about the meaning of our existence- who we are, how we relate to each other as fellow human beings, how we relate to the rest of the cosmos, how we understand it is that we exist in a cosmos that is ordered, rather than chaotic, and more deeply than that, the questions of why. The questions of whether there is an intelligence that is ultimately responsible for us being here, and theology answers that question with a yes but says that there's more than an intelligence there. That the principle behind all of it and however it operates and it's for the scientists to ask and to investigate the questions of how it works and the ways in which the world fits together and so on and so on. The question that the theologian asks is "Why?" "Why are we put here?" And the ultimate answer that the theologian arrives at is the mystery of the Creator God who loves all that that God has created and who brings it into being so that it might express the excellence with which the creator has made it. So it's up to us to be the best human beings that we can possibly be. It's up to our pet dog to be the best possible dog that it can be and presumably it's up to a single celled organism to be the best single celled organism that it can be according to the way in which it's been created as part of the processes of nature.
JB: Excellent. Why should people- be they involved in the scientific study of prospective alien life and otherwise - Why should they care about applying theological ideology to their studies and to their discipline especially if they're investigating alien life?
JR: Whether or not one is a practicing theologian, and there are relatively few of us, people should care about the consequences of their behavior. People should care about the impact that their behavior has on other human beings, on other life forms, on the inanimate portions of our planet and of the universe, more broadly speaking. This is a matter of care, not only for the intrinsic value of all of those things which we believe, which believers in God believe we're all created by a good God who put them there for a purpose. But if we have any sense about our responsibilities toward the future, not only of our own human future, not only at the future of our own small planet that swims in such a vast universe, but about the general well-being and the general good order of a Cosmo that is vastly more complicated than any of us can understand. And yet at the same time, where every action that we perform, everything that we do whether great or absolutely insignificant, has an impact on absolutely everything else that is. There's no really inconsequential human action- so as we look at how we live and move in this universe. It's incumbent on us to be attentive to those values and to recognize the ripple effect of everything we do and this is whether or not we believe in a God.
JB: So, Father, many people claim that religious institutions such as the Catholic Church have a vested interest in things that go beyond gathering and garnering religious satisfaction among their constituents. Things such as you know, money, wealth, political sway and power, and things of that nature and because of that, they shouldn't have any hold in establishing ethics be they in political fields or international relations and things of that nature. So given that the bulk of our discussion has been centered around applying theological values, particularly Christian ones, in interacting with alien life, what would you say to those individuals?
JR: One of the really important dimensions of Christian ethics as it's been articulated particularly, as it's been articulated in the context of religious pluralism in the last century and then some, has been the importance of articulating a way of being in the world that has at the heart of it not denominationally specific- not specifically a Christian or not specifically a Catholic Christian or a Protestant Christian take on how to live responsibly in the world, but Christian social ethics has as common ground, the basic principle of the dignity of all human beings, whatever they may happen to believe. So we can all buy into the intrinsic dignity of every human life. We can all buy into an ethics that recognizes that solidarity is vital, that unless we care for each other our society dissolves into selfishness that's ultimately destructive not only of society itself but of individuals, so that in finding ethical common ground for living responsibly in the world together, some of the traditional walls of religious difference collapse before the tremendous beauty and the tremendous dignity of the fact that we are human beings. When it will happen that we human beings will encounter life on other planets, we're not going to lose any of that basic dignity nor are we going to lose the mandate for a solidarity that transcends the boundaries of our teeny tiny little planet orbiting a fairly insignificant star. In fact, the recognition of the dignity of all life, the recognition of our global ecological responsibility is going to become not just terrestrial, but cosmic in a broader sense than we ever understood it. So, it's those values that nurtured in the heart of Christianity, with all its ups and with all its downs with all its failures and with all of its triumph of the human spirit working to achieve its best, I think that's going to equip us in some very vital and some very important ways not only for understanding what we encounter when we encounter life beyond Earth before relating to it in ways that will be mutually nurturing, mutually supportive, and that will respect those basic principles of the dignity of all of those life forms, and our solidarity in a kind of- as Pope Francis would call it- an integral ecology that's not just limited to this planet but that transcends any differences in species, any difference in home world, any difference in galaxy, whatever it may be. Because, at the heart of it, believers recognize that all are the magnificent work of the same creator.
JB: Thank you for joining us here today Father.
JR: Thank you so much.