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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  • “I think a meeting between us and an unfallen race can only end in tragedy, with either our extermination or theirs being the result.”

    It seems that an unfallen race, having passed the apple test we failed, might have committed themselves to never sinning and drawn even closer to God. We may or may not choose to be enriched by an encounter with them, but it seems likely that they wouldn’t be endangered by us.

    Cool thought experiment though. And who knows?

    • orual’s kindred

      WARNING: What follows are the opinions of an ignorant laywoman with a keyboard!

      It seems that an unfallen race, having passed the apple test we failed, might have committed themselves to never sinning and drawn even closer to God.

      I think the possibility could very well be open to them, as it was open to us (before, of course, our first parents chose the apple over God). But perhaps Mark Shea is talking about races that have not yet undergone that test.

      As for Saint Augustine, the nonchalance in which he mentions the dog-heads is remarkably striking (to me, at least). I think it’s most likely a willingness on his part to admit the idea of rational creatures, whatever the physical form, as Mark Shea says. But I also wonder (being quite ignorant about this) at how the dog-heads figured in the culture Saint Augustine lived in. Did he think have reason to take this as something substantive? Why? Would this be a mistake on his part, or a matter modern science has yet to catch up with? Fascinating!

      (I also have to wonder at the desciption of the Holy Father’s comments regarding possible aliens and baptisim. Was he supposed to say anything definitive about extra-terrestrials asking for baptism?)

    • Will

      Interesting. What if we ARE their “apple test” though?

      • Eek. If so, God bless them and preserve them. I don’t much like the idea of mankind taking the role of the snake, unwittingly or not. C.S. Lewis certainly explored that idea in his sci-fi book Perelandra.

    • joe

      My personal thoughts are that “thrown out of the garden of Eden” really means “thrown out of some other universe and into this one”, in which case there would be no unfallen creatures in this/our universe. Another interesting question for God…

    • chezami

      Well, when we had an unfallen man in our hands, we crucified him. I suspect we would do the same to unfallen aliens.

      • Hey, no fair pulling the Jesus card!

        Seriously, that’s a good point. I would argue that He was a special case, claiming to be (and in fact being) God and all. ….admittedly, that fact works in favor of your point, but still.

        On the flip side, Jesus quite deliberately put Himself in our hands and His sacrifice was allowed & even willed by the Father. While it may be in God’s plan to allow an unfallen race to be subject to our sinful influence (ie, persecution), that doesn’t seem to be His modus operandi …at least from the example of the angels.

  • Gunnar Thalweg

    I believe either the entire universe is fallen or it is not. I find meditating upon the issues of the salvation of other races deeply interferes with my faith. It’s above my pay grade.

  • HornOrSilk

    People need to remember the Eastern Cosmic Theology which says that Christ’s work is for the salvation of the whole cosmos, not just man.

  • Mark S. (not for Shea)

    Just putting an idea out there:
    Keep in mind that we are promised a new heavens and a new earth. Could it be that our inherent desire for life “out there” is simply a promise of what is to come? Will the entire cosmos be our blessed playground?

    • Marthe Lépine

      And what if, in those new heavens and new earth, we happen to make the surprising encounter of people from some of those other places? And what if they happened to just be fallen humans like us, that Christ came to save just like us? But I don’t think we need to worry or be concerned about any of this, God can do whatever He wants, and if He has chosen to create more people than we actually know, it will be good.

  • Ye Olde Statistician

    Vatican astronomer, Bro. Guy Consolmagno, addressed the issue Before Francis, and even did so on the Colbert Report.

    • JM1001

      Reminds me that this book is on my to-read list.

      • Heather

        I’ve got it on my iPod in audiobook form. Haven’t finished it yet, but I’ve been enjoying it.

  • Boethius

    One small quibble. Instead of rational=human, the medievals would have said rational=person. There is a difference. Angels are persons but not humans.

    • HornOrSilk

      Rational animal=human, for the medievals. So you are right, more than just rational.

    • Marthe Lépine

      And what about humans who happen to be very far from rational? There seems to be a lot of them around… (By this I don’t mean to target people with mental illnesses, but rather the authors of many less-than-rational comments I sometimes see on the Internet… you know what I mean!)

  • Mark

    What if they don’t want to be baptized?

    • JM1001

      Uh … perhaps you didn’t actually read the the comment above (or Pope Francis’ comments, or Mike Flynn’s book). The entire scenario is a speculation on baptizing aliens if they should ask. The whole speculation presupposes the alien’s desire to be baptized. So I’m not sure what your question has to do with … anything really.

    • chezami

      Then don’t. Just like with humans.

  • Just as Christ was born in a manger, and let His Gospel be carried forth from a dusty, obscure province of the Roman Empire, perhaps He has also chosen this obscure planet, far from some more civilized parts of the cosmos, as the humble origin of an interstellar Church, with us among the many soon enough half-forgotten early Christians from the pre-interstellar days. In that case, Incarnation only on Earth would signify not our centrality, but His humility.

  • brian_in_brooklyn

    So, aliens can be baptized and, I assume, ordained …so long as they aren’t female aliens?