Sciency Words: (proper noun) a special series here on Planet Pailly focusing on the definitions and etymologies of science or science-related terms. Today on Sciency Words, we’re talking about:
I was raised Catholic. I went to Catholic school, and when I was very young I remember a religious instructor telling a group of us Catholic boys about how God made “all life on the earth.” Naturally, I raised my hand and asked about life on other planets. The instructor assured me (rather impatiently, as I recall) that there is no such thing.
This was not a satisfying answer for little me. It’s even more annoying to adult me. So it was with great delight that I recently became acquainted with a new term: exotheology.
Appropriately, my first encounter with this word was in a book called Exoplanets, by Michael Summers and James Trefil. The “exo-” prefix in both “exoplanet” and “exotheology” means pretty much the same thing: something external to Earth or to our Solar System. To quote from Exoplanets:
If there are living beings on other planets, questions—debated today in the relatively new field called exotheology—must be asked. For example, did the Fall occur on every planet and for every race? If it didn’t, was the Redemption needed for beings who had never experienced the Fall? If the Fall is universal, did Jesus have to go to every world to die and be resurrected, or were the events on Earth enough to cover everyone? If so, why is Earth so central? Are there other paths to redemption on other worlds? It’s not hard to see how this sort of theological questioning could go on forever.
Indeed it could. No wonder that religion teacher didn’t want to get into this discussion with me when I was little!
Based on my subsequent research, it seems the term exotheology isn’t that new. And lest you think this is a Christian only thing, it’s actually a Jewish rabbi who gets credit for the first usage of the term (or at least the first usage in print).
In 1965, Rabbi Norman Lamm wrote this essay entitled “The Religious Implications of Extraterrestrial Life: A Jewish Exotheology.” Based on what I could read of Lamm’s essay, it sounds like the term “exotheology” was formed by analogy with “exobiology,” the scientific search for and study of alien life. The word exobiology has since been changed to astrobiology, but it doesn’t seem like exotheology has been updated to astrotheology yet.
As for the big questions raised by exotheologists, I guess we’ll have to wait and see. If we ever do encounter an alien civilization, what sort of religious beliefs might they have? Would those beliefs match up at all with a Judeo-Christian worldview, or with any of the many other religious worldviews we have here on Earth? I don’t know (but that won’t stop me from writing a Sci-Fi story about it!).