Speculation about the nature of extraterrestrial life is perhaps fascinating, posing all kinds of intriguing questions. In a recent article entitled Is Your Religion Ready To Meet ET?, we are served up a volley of “cosmotheological” questions that the author believes will be appropriate and no longer merely speculative after (or, better put, if) we ever discover conclusive scientific proof for extraterrestrial life.
The article briefly touches on questions for various faiths, and as I have less familiarity with other religions than with Christianity, I’ll keep my comments to that alone.
The author’s premise is that, given that we will evidently be discovering millions of new planets in the coming century, and that in the midst of those discoveries searches will be conducted for biological markers in the atmospheres of the aforementioned planets, it is “very likely” that astronomers will find evidence for some sort of extraterrestrial life. From this the “cosmotheological” questions are raised:
“An affirmative answer to the question “Does life exist anywhere else in the universe beyond Earth?” would raise immediate and profoundly important cosmotheological questions about our place in the universe. If extraterrestrial others exist, then my religion and my religious beliefs and practices might not be universal. If my religion is not universally applicable to all extraterrestrial others, perhaps my religion need not be offered to, let alone forced on, all terrestrial others.”
An interesting question, naturally, but unfortunately distinctions within beliefs and practices are too quickly elided. After all, within Christianity some beliefs are predicated on historical acts (e.g., the Incarnation), while others have a more metaphysical flavor (e.g., divine simplicity) or corollaries (e.g., God’s essence is his existence). Historically predicated beliefs, while having a rational component, are not as beholden to reason as metaphysically based ones; after all, some components of historically predicated beliefs like the Incarnation are within the purview of revelation and not susceptible to discovery by reason alone. As an example, in the Incarnation the historical component is that in the man Jesus God was incarnate, but the nature of the hypostatic union is not something that can be known apart from revelation. Thus, a doctrine such as the Incarnation is universal as far as humanity goes, but would be non-universal (or at least not in the same manner) for a species which was not human, while a more metaphysically predicated belief would of necessity be universal.
Even within religious practices there is a fair amount of what is necessary practice and traditional practice; as an example, within Catholicism the nature of the Eucharist is dogmatically defined, and the actual practice requires certain elements (bread and wine), but other practices (such as fast days) are not dogmatically defined but are a matter of church discipline, which in that case need not itself be universal even within Catholicism itself (as how the discipline of fasting on Fridays is left to the discretion of bishops).
The point is that the principles upon which beliefs or practices are built can be universal while the particular doctrine or practice may have more specific application. For example, a non-human species could obviously believe that Jesus was incarnate as a human, even though that Incarnation would not have the same applicability to his (I intend this as a generic, neuter pronoun) own species (but more on this later).
It is somewhat refreshing that the author mostly constrains the discussion of the supposed life to be discovered vis-a-vis its ability to be discovered by astronomy. As such, the life in question here is biological life, which is an appropriate form of life to be discovered by astronomy. Left unasked, however, is whether we should assume that potential life to be discovered is biological? Might other non-biological or even non-material forms of life exist and be discovered by scientific or nonscientific (respectively) methods?
Given that biological life is all that human science is currently capable of exploring, it is probably appropriate for the article to leave the search on those terms. But since extraterrestrial life is supposed to raise questions for religious belief, might that not be too limiting of a condition? Might not the assumption by some religions of other non-human rational beings have something to say to the question of how those same religions would respond to the discovery of non-terrestrial biological rational life?
“Let’s examine a seemingly simple yet exceedingly complex theological question: could extraterrestrials be Christians?”
This is actually not that complex of a question within traditional Christian thought. In the creed we are told that the Son was made incarnate “for men and for our salvation.” The theological understanding of the hypostatic union is that Jesus is one person with two substances: divine and human. Implicit within the traditional explication of the Incarnation is that “that which is not assumed is not healed,” meaning that the nature (or substance) of humanity was assumed so that it could healed and redeemed.
But a far more direct answer (and which will serve as a good baseline for many of these questions) is that Christian theology already acknowledges the existence of extra-terrestrial rational beings; namely, angels. Granted, angels are certainly not biological life, but they are considered rational beings and, as being pure spirit (or pure mind or intelligence, as the scholastics deemed them), would certainly be considered life just as humans are life (albeit a different form of life).
However, the Christian scriptures make a distinction between belief and application of that belief. For example, regarding the incarnation and passion of Christ we are told that the “angels long to look into these things” (1 Peter 1:12 NIV). Even the fallen angels posses similar beliefs regarding the Incarnation; after all, the demons believe in God “and tremble with fear” (James 2:19).
More directly, the author of Hebrews explicitly excludes the applicability of the Incarnation from the angels:
Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil— and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. For surely it is not angels he helps, but Abraham’s descendants. For this reason he had to be made like them, fully human in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people. (Hebrews 2:14-17)
Many Christian philosophers have speculated on the nature of angelic intelligence, and the traditional understanding is that angles (or indeed, any rational non-material being) immediately apprehend the nature of any object of knowledge (as far as they are able), and thus do not arrive at any form of knowledge by means of discursive reasoning. Due to this, it is traditionally believed that the angels were either confirmed in their state of grace at their creation or fell into damnation at their creation. (For example, St. Thomas speculates that the sin of Lucifer was to desire the beatitude he would have received from himself.)
Thus, an angel could not be considered a “Christian” since the beatified angels did not require the grace of the Incarnation.
However, St. Thomas and St. Augustine both refer to all angels having been created in a state of grace, which they see as the necessary precondition for their beatification (and the rejection of such as the source of damnation). Aquinas understands this grace as necessary for the angels to turn to God:
“Consequently no rational creature can have the movement of the will directed towards such beatitude, except it be moved thereto by a supernatural agent. This is what we call the help of grace. Therefore it must be said that an angel could not of his own will be turned to such beatitude, except by the help of grace.” (Summa 1, 62, 2)
And given that this “state of grace” is understood to operate within the same theological economy, the angels’ relation to God is obviously not identical to God’s relation to man, although the principles of grace which undergird both the Incarnation and the creation and beatification of the angels are identical. Aquinas develops his argument thusly:
For we see that all things which, in the process of time, being created by the work of Divine Providence, were produced by the operation of God, were created in the first fashioning of things according to seedlike forms, as Augustine says (Gen. ad lit. viii, 3), such as trees, animals, and the rest. Now it is evident that sanctifying grace bears the same relation to beatitude as the seedlike form in nature does to the natural effect; hence (1 John 3:9) grace is called the “seed” of God. As, then, in Augustine’s opinion it is contended that the seedlike forms of all natural effects were implanted in the creature when corporeally created, so straightway from the beginning the angels were created in grace. (ST, 1, 62, 3)
The upshot is that we already have an example of a non-terrestrial being who ontologically cannot be a Christian and for whom the Incarnation is not applicable in the same manner as for humanity, but who as a rational being poses no theological dilemma for Christian theology.
“If Jesus died in order to redeem humanity from the state of sin into which humans are born, does the death and resurrection of Jesus, on Earth, also redeem other sentient beings from a similar state of sin?”
There is a bit of a misnomer here, since “sentience” as a qualifier makes the question unclear. Sentience in its common usage refers to subjective perceptual experiences, but does not necessarily denote rationality. For Christian theology, rationality is a prerequisite for a being to be “in a state of sin” since sin requires not only the understanding of what is good, but also the will to sin. It is not clear that a sentient being would necessarily be subject to a “state of sin” unless it were rational. Further, that very rationality would presuppose a non-necessity of being sinful, since the rational choice could be made to always choose good. However, coming back to the case of angels- who are considered rational within Christian theology- the death and resurrection of Jesus is not the source of redemption; rather, it is traditionally understood that the merit of desiring God entirely is the source of that beatitude, since God as the object of desire and love is that beatitude itself.
And while some Christian theologians have speculated that even the fallen angels may eventually be redeemed, the traditional understanding is that as the beatified angels are confirmed in the beatification as a consequence of their mode of intellection, so the fallen angels are likewise confirmed in their state and thus not objects of the effects of the Incarnation (or at the very least not in the same way as human beings).
“If so, why are the extraterrestrials sinful?”
For the fallen angels (i.e., non-material rational beings), their sinfulness is a consequence on rebellion against God. As aforementioned, the probable cause is desiring the beatification received by grace from their own being.
For other material rational beings, there is no necessity that they be sinful as the human species is, given the considerations noted above.
“Is sin built into the very fabric of the space and time of the universe?”
To this traditional Christian theology raises a resounding ‘no,’ since sin, as non-being cannot logically be “built” into anything.
“Or can life exist in parts of the universe without being in a state of sin and therefore without the need of redemption and thus without the need for Christianity?”
Here is where some of the elided distinctions come into play.
Firstly, it is entirely possible that life exists in other parts of the universe without being in a state of sin. If the “universe” is taken to mean “the entirety of creation,” rather than a reductionistically materialistic appraisal of its scope, then Christian theology already takes note of one form of life in the universe that is not in a state of sin but is actually in a state of beatification. (And since, within traditional Christian theological speculation, each angel is its own species (since they do not reproduce and thus do not form a genus), there are potentially millions of species of life which are not in a state of sin and thus not in need of redemption.
Secondly, “Christianity” encompasses a host of beliefs and practices, as mentioned earlier. For angelic intelligences, for example, the Incarnation aspect of Christianity would be known and “believed,” without the same applicability as for human beings. For example, beliefs which for humans are known only through revelation would be known to the angels intuitively (so to speak).
It is also a mistake to reduce and thus characterize “Christianity” as something for which there is a “need.” In some loose sense angels “need” it since to desire the good is the source of their beatification, and God as the object of their beatification is explicated by various dogmas and such of Christianity. But to frame it in that sense is to elide the distinction between that which has applicability for man and that which reveals ontological realities which are independent of “Christianity.”
“You will need to ask: Is my God the God of the entire universe? Is my religion a terrestrial or a universal religion? As people work to reconcile the discovery of extrasolar life with their theological and philosophical worldviews, adapting to the news of life beyond Earth will be discomfiting and perhaps even disruptive.”
As has already been demonstrated, within Christian theology there is already acknowledgement of a non-human, non-terrestrial species, and the relations of these questions to that species is not entirely mysterious or overly complex, and thus would need not be discomfiting. Granted, many within Christianity have difficulty with the idea of angels, but this has less to do with their extraterrestrial-ness and more to do with the difficulty of accepting the reality of non-material things while asking the questions within a reductionistically materialistic paradigm.
In many ways my argument is proceeding from higher to lower. Since angels within Christian theology are considered higher beings than humans and yet still operate within the same salvific economy (i.e., states of grace), and since angels are rational beings for whom aspects of Christianity are not applicable in the same way as for humans (i.e., the Incarnation), then there would seem to be no logical or theological preclusion of any rational being vis-a-vis Christianity in an analogously proportional way. In other words, if Christianity is still proportionally applicable to higher non-material rational beings, one would have every reason to expect the same for lower, material rational beings (whether biological or not). The applicability of particular doctrines would naturally be open to question, but there is no reason to imagine a greater difficulty than would exist for higher rational beings like angels.
Given the fundamental principle of the Incarnation that the Son who was incarnated is the source of all being and all created things, every being in creation depends upon the gratuity of God’s love and sustaining power for existence, whether is a state of innocence, beatification or redemption. Even non-human rational beings in a state of glory would not be there save for God’s grace, let alone lesser forms of life in all their potentially myriad forms.
In that sense then, even ET needs Jesus.