Pretty soon my students will be asking me questions about how aliens from other planets factor into the economy of salvation. No, seriously. It’s one of the most common questions I face throughout the spring semester as we talk about human nature, Original Sin, and Christ’s saving work.
I first encountered this line of worry in my college metaphysics class, taught at Franciscan University by the most fittingly eccentric metaphysics professor one could ever hope to have. Naturally, it was the delightfully weird professor himself who brought it up; I’ve been fascinated ever since. What follows is roughly how I walk my students through the issue when they ask.
First thing’s first: despite the wonders of imagining, despite the fact that I myself am a sci-fi and fantasy nerd who hopes that all such enchanting things are real, despite the fact that pop science remains committed to it, it really must be said that there might not be any other rational creatures in the universe. Maybe the universe really is just vast and beautiful so that we can marvel at it and never travel to see any of it. I don’t really want that to be true but it’s worth considering. More to our point here, maybe the universe is teeming with bizarro aliens but none of them are rational creatures. The only way the alien question becomes theologically interesting is if there are Predators or Klingons or Goa’uld or whatever out there.
Listen, Catholics already believe in the existence of non-human rational creatures. If you ask Aquinas, there’s like billions of species of them out there. We call them angels. There doesn’t seem to be any requirement that all rational creatures in the universe share biological descent. Getting weirded out by Necromongers seems a little silly at that point. And yes, I’m going to keep flashing my nerd cred until someone is impressed.
(As an aside: When we say with Aristotle that man is the “rational animal” I don’t think we are committing to a modern biological classification based on shared descent with other animals. In our case, sure, biological shared descent with the other animals of earth seems correct. But God can create other rational animals elsewhere that do not arise from descent or at least do so within their own clade separate from Earth’s. He could do it on Earth; who cares if He does it a few thousand light years away? And if all that really bothers you and you really have to marry Aristotle’s definition to shared biology, then there’s always the “precursor race seeding their DNA throughout the galaxy” trope to unify all rational animals in the universe. Plenty more to say here if you want to look at one of the more technical problems in all this.)
The question is what to do with other rational creatures–rational meaning they possess intellect and will, direct themselves freely toward their last end of happiness in God, and of course can fail to do so.
Any such animals would live under the same basic moral law that humans do, plenty of which is knowable by reason alone. Some of the natural law details might look a little different based on biological differences, but all the most important parts depend just on the rationality we would share–same commitment to truth and goodness, same basic virtues, same need for God’s grace to reach the last end that exceeds our natural powers. They would need the Gospel just as much as we do, even if they have not sinned.
That part is important: Barsoomians and their ilk throughout the universe would not inherit original sin from Adam. It is essential to the Catholic tradition that original sin is passed on in the act of generation; i.e., it does require biological descent. Unless God is doing something really weird with space-time bending so that all alien races really are descended from Adam, each galactic clade would have its own original sin.
(This is the feature of C.S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy that I really like: humans are the rational species that has fallen; the others have not. The vast distance between the stars takes on a new theological significance, preventing us or any other fallen race from coming upon a pristine species and bringing about their fall from grace just as Satan did for us. Although, contra Lewis, it seems verrry likely that Satan would have played his “Screw you, God!” game with every race on every planet, and it very likely would have worked. So then the vast distance between the stars would be like a galactic Babel of tongues, separating us so that we cannot work evil together.)
So then, the question all students want answered: would there be a separate Incarnation for each species? My crazy metaphysics prof thought so and I can still remember very clearly how adamantly I opposed that view twenty years ago. Now I find it much less pressing, primarily because I think either view can be made to work.
On the one hand we could treat all the aliens on other planets the same way we treat all the different human societies on Earth that had no access to the events of revelation and the preaching of the Gospel in 50 AD. The only difference with a Wookiee is scale: Kashyyyk is muuuch farther away and a loooot of generations of Wookiees will die in the Shadowlands before the first missionaries ever arrive to bring them the good news. This is why we have to get to space, people! Think of the Chenjesu and the Kilrathi dying without access to the medicine of salvation! Sure, they’ve got some serious antecedent ignorance going when it comes to the necessity of faith in Christ…but they still need the grace of infused virtues to reach their last end. Anyway, on this view Christ’s saving work will be mediated to all the rational species of the universe through us, the species He chose as His instrument in the same way He chose Israel as His mediating instrument on Earth. Ad astra: Deus vult!
On the other hand, what is not assumed is not healed. Is it enough for Christ to take on a rational nature as a kind of generic salvation for all the specifically different rational creatures scattered throughout the universe? Somewhat amazingly, we’ve got arguments in the tradition that directly address this kind of problem.
St. Thomas Aquinas expressly asserts the possibility of the Son assuming more than one nature. His reason for doing so is Trinitarian–God can assume more than one nature because the other divine persons could assume natures, but that means the Son can assume more than one nature because He can do whatever God can do because, uh, He’s God. It’s pretty amazing to open up that part of the Summa (it’s III Q3 a7) and find exactly the same set of annoying what-about questions that my students use to badger me. Just the Angelic Doctor flexing his incredible skills, clearing the way for proper xenotheology millenia before we have our First Contact. If Aquinas is right–and granted, he’s not always right–there is no real impossibility to multiple Incarnations across the galaxies.
We can make a stronger claim, though. One of St. Anselm’s early points in Cur Deus Homo is about God creating a new rational creature to do the work of obedience that Adam failed to do. St. Anselm argues that if a “new human” or an angel were to do the work, God’s ultimate plan would fail: whoever was saved by that human or angel would owe it service in strict justice, and our destiny is to serve God alone. So on St. Anselm’s account, it does seem that each species would need its own Incarnation to preserve that purity of service. Could we fight back by saying that only Earthlings serve God alone and the rest of the universe serves God through us? Sure, I guess…but that’s another fight for another day and my intuition is strongly against it.
Assuming my prof was right–ok, and these two giant Doctores Ecclesiae–we’d have multiple revelation events throughout the universe with multiple parallel revelation traditions, each aimed at getting that alien species to heaven.
But now we have some clean-up problems. Doesn’t that commit the xeno-friendly Catholic to there being multiple Churches? Which Vicar of Christ on X gets primacy when they meet? You think Catholic v. Orthodox is bad? Hah! Wait til you see the Intergalactic Council of Churches. What happens when these parallel lines of Scripture and Tradition finally meet and we see the perfect harmony between them? Don’t we then have some sort of hyper-rational reason to submit to the Faith? Or maybe that’s ok, since it would only happen in the close of the universe? Or, in the other direction, how cool would it be to see differences between them? Or, uh, scandalous. You think the Synoptic problem causes people trouble? You ain’t seen nothin’ yet!
Ok, obviously this game can play on for a long time. Here’s the boring version of the Christ and Aliens take:
- There might not be any
- If there are, there might not be any rational ones
- They might not all have fallen into sin but they would all still need Christ
- The Son could come once for all, so that we are responsible for getting the Gospel to them
- The Son could Incarnate for each species and then lots of interesting and weird new questions would arise
That’s enough for now. I have to get to a baptism, as it turns out. For the time being, I propose that we use this theological lark as motivation to take more seriously our call to share the Gospel here on Earth. If you can work yourself into love of the Zentradi out there, maybe you could do the same for the alien among you.