From Maryland's pulpits, talk of life on other worlds Theologians ponder what it might mean if we are not alone


Pastor Ed Simpson was at the pulpit of Harvester Baptist Church in Columbia yesterday morning, talking about God's calling, about the sacrifices of missionary life, about Mars.

"If God chose to have life on Mars at some time, then great!" said Simpson, his voice rising. "If God chose to have life on some other planets, we'll send missionaries! It does not bother my faith."

Spacesuits fashioned with crosses may still be far in the future. But Simpson was not alone yesterday in devoting part of his sermon to last week's news that extraterrestrial life may exist -- in planetary terms -- right next door on Mars.

The Martians in question may be nothing more than microbes, but the subject has caught the imagination of those who devote their lives to contemplating God, the universe and our place in it.

The evidence is from a piece of a 4.5-billion-year-old meteorite found in Antarctica. Scientists say microscopic examination shows that the meteorite is from Mars and that it contains fossilized remnants that resemble fossils of primitive bacteria on Earth.

Among Baltimore-area religious leaders, reactions to the news have been as diverse as faith itself. But in interviews, many said they believe that life -- even intelligent life -- might exist elsewhere in the universe.

Monsignor Jeremiah F. Kenney, vice chancellor of the Archdiocese of Baltimore, prayed on the subject before conducting Mass at St. Rose of Lima Church in Brooklyn. During the service, he was telling the story of Jesus walking on water when the sermon suddenly turned its focus on Mars.

"Today," he said, "our newspapers are filled with an accounting of a rock that came to Earth [13,000] years ago, a rock that may have evidence of [life] from Mars. What does that do to religion? Does it hurt it?"

No, he argued, the news merely shows the awesomeness of God's power. But Kenney said that even if intelligent life exists elsewhere in the heavens, God extended a special gift to humans: the prospect of salvation brought by his son, Jesus.

"God the Almighty created the world," Kenney said. "We are but a tiny planet in the universe, but Jesus showed us so many, many years ago that the Father who made all life decided to want us, decided to want us to be with him."

News of the Martian meteorite may raise trickier theological questions for Christian fundamentalists, who, because of their literal interpretation of the Bible, often disagree with scientists on major issues, including the source of human life.

"All it is," said Pastor Norris Belcher of the Church of the Open Door in Westminster, "is a backdoor attempt to discredit the creation facts from the word of God."

Belcher, who planned to devote part of his sermon to the subject at a service last night, questioned how scientists know that the meteorite is from Mars. The meteorite's arrival on Earth 13,000 years ago also is a problem, because many fundamentalists, relying on the genealogy in the Bible, believe the planet is only 6,000 years old.

Views of life

But even with those reservations, Belcher said that he could imagine life -- though probably not intelligent life -- existing on other planets.

"I can't say dogmatically that it would be impossible," he said. "All I know is, there's no record of it anywhere in the Bible that [the universe] has other societies or civilizations or anything like that."

But fundamentalist Gary Jensen, pastor of the Atholton Seventh-day Adventist Church in Columbia, cited Bible references to "worlds" and "heavens" -- wording that he offers as evidence of extraterrestrial life.

"The Bible doesn't come out and say there is life on Jupiter or Saturn," Jensen said, "but it does seem to suggest there is intelligent life on other worlds."

Pastor James Nelson of Greater Bethlehem Temple Church in Randallstown said heaven itself could be on another planet.

"The souls of those who have died, we don't know where they are," he said. "I think heaven is beyond this universe but I don't think it's just a concept. I think it's a geographic place."

A minor issue

If all this talk of Mars seems more science fiction than theology, there may be homage in the Beth El Congregation in Pikesville, where Rabbi Mark Loeb -- who considers extraterrestrial life utterly plausible -- has no plans to bring up the issue in religious discussions.

"Why should the God who made us not be able to make other things, other forms of life?" he asked.

"It's a theological question of major insignificance in my opinion."

Pub Date: 8/12/96

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