NEW YORK (AP) -- If there is intelligent life on other planets, the first question evangelical theologian Tony Campolo would ask the other beings is: What can you teach us about God?
"There's a cosmic dimension to salvation. There's a cosmic design," said Campolo, a popular author and preacher from Eastern College in St. Davids, PA. "It just may be that Earth is a place where the most important drama of the salvation story was acted out, but the salvation of God extends far beyond the limitations of our minds."
Far from being afraid the recent NASA discovery that life may have existed on Mars would shake the foundations of their faith, many religious leaders and theologians say the news should be greeted with a sense of humility and awe at the infinite creative potential of God.
This is not the 16th century, when Christian leaders would condemn Copernicus and later Galileo for teaching that the Earth was not the center of the universe.
Today, scientific advances -- including the idea that a potato-sized meteorite which blasted off Mars 15 million years ago contains several physical and chemical traces suggestive of life -- are more likely to be greeted as evidence of the unlimited power of God, religious leaders say.
"We believe a God who is capable of creating one world is capable of creating many worlds," said Rabbi Alexander Schindler, former head of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. "It does not change our fundamental faith. It doesn't touch it in the slightest."
While the NASA results are preliminary -- and even then they are only talking about tiny, nearly 4 billion-year-old microbes -- they are tantalizing. Prominent religious thinkers are not immune from the same flights of imagination about extraterrestrial life that have gripped so many others for so long.
David Byers, executive director of the Committee on Science and Human Values of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, said he has been thinking about it since he was a boy.
"I remember, when I was about 10 or 12, thinking if I ever ran into an alien, my first question would be: `Who's Jesus,' and see what they said," Byers recalled.
Rabbi James Rudin of the American Jewish Committee said the recent discovery calls for "a little galactic modesty on the part of not only the scientific community, but also the religious community. ... How do we know that we are the only form of life?"
Few of the theologians interviewed doubt that if beings with the ability to think existed on other planets, God would have relationships with them.
"Whatever is there is God's creation," said the Rev. Robert Russell, a physicist and United Church of Christ minister who founded the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences in Berkeley, Calif. "I would imagine God would be as interested in being in communication, in relation with that form of life as God is with Earth, with terrestrial beings."
The other side of the issue is how should human beings react to free, self-conscious moral agents from another planet.
"Our religious understanding would impel us to reach out to them in friendship ... because they are fellow creatures of God created in his image," Schindler said.
If the alien beings turned out not to have committed original sin, "to be unfallen, an angelic race, then we'd have a lot to learn from them," Byers said.
However, he said, "If you run into a race like those folks from 'Independence Day,' you're not going to have much time for theological reflection."
That is the question that fascinates theologians: If other beings were given the same capacity for free will, would they avoid human mistakes?
"Is that capacity to sin, to do true violence to ourselves, in some sense inevitable ... or is it possible that you can have a race of moral free agents who are truly guileless, who are at peace and harmony with themselves," Russell said.
Campolo sees an ominous development in the trend in films away from portraying aliens as almost Christ-like figures, such as in the movie "E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial," to their depictions in the current hit "Independence Day," where beings from another planet try to destroy the Earth.
He said it reflects a climate of fear and anxiety in the country, that extends to our attitudes toward other strangers, such as Mexican immigrants.
Indulging his own imagination, Campolo said he could envision a scenario where God -- tired of the mess human beings had created in this world -- would send beings from another planet to help people learn to love one another.
"We've always looked at ourselves as people sending out missionaries," Campolo said. "Maybe we need to receive a few at this point in history."
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