Jimmy Akin Stands in a Grand Tradition of Catholic Speculation

Jimmy Akin Stands in a Grand Tradition of Catholic Speculation February 6, 2019

One of the curious contradictions to grow up over the centuries is the double assertion that the Catholic tradition fears all thought outside the rigid parameters of dogma while at the same time encouraging all manner of philosophical flights of fancy about how many angels can dance on a pinhead and so forth.  Neither claim is true, but if any claim has better grounding, it is the second one.  Catholic theologians and thinkers have noodled wild “what ifs” since forever.

So though the ancients had no knowledge of other worlds in the sky beyond what they could see with the naked eye, they had copious travelers’ tales which performed exactly the same imaginative and speculative function that science fiction does for us today, inviting them to ponder exactly the same questions.  So, for instance, St. Augustine explores the question of what we would today call “alien life”, in The City of GodChap. 16, Book 8 in the fifth century.  Only he places his aliens on remote islands and strange shores instead of other planets:

Whether Certain Monstrous Races of Men are Derived from the Stock of Adam or Noah’s Sons.

It is also asked whether we are to believe that certain monstrous races of men, spoken of in secular history, have sprung from Noah’s sons, or rather, I should say, from that one man from whom they themselves were descended. For it is reported that some have one eye in the middle of the forehead; some, feet turned backwards from the heel; some, a double sex, the right breast like a man, the left like a woman, and that they alternately beget and bring forth: others are said to have no mouth, and to breathe only through the nostrils; others are but a cubit high, and are therefore called by the Greeks Pigmies: they say that in some places the woman conceive in their fifth year, and do not live beyond their eighth. So, too, they tell of a race who have two feet but only one leg, and are of marvelous swiftness, though they do not bend the knee: they are called Skiopodes, because in the hot weather they lie down on their backs and shade themselves with their feet. Others are said to have no head, and their eyes in their shoulders; and other human or quasi-human races are depicted in mosaic in the harbor esplanade of Carthage, on the faith of histories of rarities. What shall I say of the Cynocephali, whose dog-like head and barking proclaim them beasts rather than men?  But we are not bound to believe all we hear of these monstrosities.  But whoever is anywhere born a man, that is, a rational, mortal animal, no matter what unusual appearance he presents in color, movement, sound, nor how peculiar he is in some power, part, or quality of his nature, no Christian can doubt that he springs from that one protoplast. We can distinguish the common human nature from that which is peculiar, and therefore wonderful.

It will be noted that Augustine is relying on the data to which he has access and so makes no distinction between dog-headed men (which turned out not to exist) and pigmies (which do).  But that is unimportant.  The point is that he recognizes that a rational soul is what matters, not how you look. For Augustine, there would be no doubt that Mr. Spock was “human”, whatever the color of his blood or the shape of his ears.

Indeed, the medieval mind would take this very far, even granting (in popular legend, not in the Church’s actual teaching) the rank of saint to a dog-headed man.

No.  Really:

Now this Christopher was one of the Dogheads, a race that had the heads of dogs and ate human flesh. He meditated much on God, but at that time he could speak only the language of the Dogheads. When he saw how much the Christians suffered he was indignant and left the city. He began to adore God and prayed. ‘Almighty God,’ he said, ‘give me the gift of speech, open my mouth, and make plain thy might that those who persecute thy people may be converted.’ An angel of God came to him and said: ‘God has heard your prayer.’ The angel raised Christopher from the ground, and struck and blew upon his mouth, and the grace of eloquence was given him as he had desired.

So far from being unimaginative bigots who thought you must look human to be human, medievals understood that a rational soul was all you needed.  If you had that, you were human.  And if human, then eligible for redemption–if you came of a race of sinners as we do.

All of which is to say that Jimmy Akin stands in a deeply Catholic–and proudly nerdly–tradition of theological speculation as he ponder the wonderfully weird, but very interesting question of (among other things) teleportation and the Eucharist.

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