On baptizing aliens

On baptizing aliens February 10, 2015

A reader writes:

What if extra-terrestrials  are just highly complex critters, something like porpoises or thinking computers with opposable thumbs, but are not called additionally, gratuitously and blessedly to the beatific vision?  In this case planet earth is not diluted within a universe of billions of possibly life-sustaining planets populated by rational thingamajigs, and the centrality of original sin in salvation history and the Incarnation is not undermined . . . and one need not rush off to baptize any martian (lower case) who might make a request (another off the cuff ambiguity voiced by Pope Francis).

An alternative view is that the gratuitous Incarnation would have happened even without the (added) dimension of undoing our original sin–the view of Blessed Duns Scotus (whom Pope Benedict holds in high regard).  Commentators point out that Christ is more than damage control.  Then, I suppose, one might baptize martians if they would ask, and the Church itself as the Body of Christ would be the instrument for opening the beatific vision to complex beings otherwise constrained this side of the veil by some sort of supercosmic glass ceiling impenetrable to rational complexity alone, and who unlike us are rooted in neither original sin nor a more original innocence.

(I have difficulty imagining that the Incarnation is multiple across the galaxies, although the Mass is something like this–on each altar a day a singular re-presentation of Calvary, but also “numerically distinct” each time the words are spoken.)

But, then again, do incomprehensibly and highly advanced clusters of rational complexity and Warp-10 technological skill actually have souls capable of receiving baptism?  Or would their request still be merely a complex kind of barking in the dark, not unlike Simon Magus?

What might the paradoxical Chesterton say of all this?  Just wondering (wondering: a good word).

Mike Flynn, author of Eifelheim, tussles with the “Baptize aliens?” question here. Basically, for the medievals, as with  Augustine, rationality was the mark of the human, Whatever the physical form. This, by the way, was what governed the Church approach to the mysterious beings called “Indians” whom Europeans began to encounter with the discovery of the New World. Recall that the Table of Nations in Genesis–the authoritative text on the peoples of the world–had no place for them. Had Catholics been fundamentalists, they might have simply taken the “Just because they look human doesn’t mean they *are* human” approach. But Indians were admitted for baptism because Catholics took the medieval view that “rational=human”. And this, by the way, was true even when European sensibilities were confronted by a culture which practice human sacrifice on a massive scale and whose dominant religious motif was the serpent. Couple this with the enormous pressure gold and gun crazy conquerors to simply enslave and slaughter Indians (as so many were) and what is remarkable is the resistance the Church put up against such pressure as, for instance, in the work of Dominican (yay!) Bartolme de las Casas. So the approach (had it ever come up as in Flynn’s Eifelheim was “better safe than sorry”.  By the way, you really should read Eifelheim because this is one of the central questions of the book and Flynn’s character approaches it in a thoroughly Thomistic way.

Of course, as Lewis speculates, it may be possible that we will encounter rational races who have not fallen and are in not need of the redemption we desperately require. It may also be (as I think) that we will never encounter anybody at all, either because they are not there (which I think unlikely) or because God in his wisdom has made the distances between us so vast that we will never hear from them, much less cross the void to meet them. I think a meeting between us and an unfallen race can only end in tragedy, with either our extermination or theirs being the result. That too, is something to be learned from our experience in the New World.

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