The Catholic Faith and the Existence of Intelligent Extra-terrestrial Life (2/2)

(Continuation from yesterday’s post )

If the Second Person became incarnate on another planet as an ET, there would appear to be a Lord other than Jesus Christ, true God and true man, since what would be true of the Second Person as having an ET nature would not be true of the Second Person as having a human nature. One solution proposed is that “one Lord” applies to Christ in his divine nature alone.  Thus, the Second Person incarnate as an ET would not be a Lord other than our Lord Jesus Christ. However, this interpretation does not accord well with the passage just cited from Philippians, which implies that it is the Word incarnate (as man) who is given the name “Lord.”  The Word in his divine nature is eternally Lord as begotten by the Father. Although perhaps it is ultimately correct that a supposed Lord of the ETs would not be a lord other than Our Lord Jesus Christ because of the unity of the person assuming those two natures, still in light of the natures assumed being two, it is at very least counter-intuitive to say that there would not be two Lords.

A number of other passages from Scripture pose a similar sort of problem.  They refer to Christ as the head of all things:

Such is the richness of the grace which he has showered on us in all wisdom and insight. He has let us know the mystery of his purpose, the hidden plan he so kindly made in Christ from the beginning to act upon when the times had run their course to the end: that he would bring everything together under Christ, as head, everything in the heavens and everything on earth (Eph. 1:8-10). [Emphasis mine]

A question pertinent for our purposes is whether Christ is the head of the angels in his humanity or only in his divinity. Aquinas maintains that:

The head causes an influx of sensation and motion to all members of the body. … [S]omeone can understand “to flow into” (“influere”) in two ways according to the spiritual sense and mode. One mode as principal agent: And thus it belongs to God alone to provide an influx of grace in the members of the Church. In another mode instrumentally: And thus even the humanity of Christ is a cause of the said influx; because as Damascene says … as iron burns on account of the fire conjoined to it, so were the actions of the humanity of Christ on account of the united divinity, of which the humanity itself was an instrument. Christ, nevertheless, according to the two last conditions of head [governance, influence] is able to be called head of the angels according to human nature, and head of both according to divine nature; not, however, according to the first condition [namely, sameness in nature], unless one takes what is common according to the nature of the genus, according as man and angel agree in rational nature, and further what is common according to analogy, according as it is common to the Son along with all creatures to receive from the Father, as Basil says, by reason of which he is said to be the first-born of all creatures, Col. 1:15.

Aquinas maintains, then, that it is the union of the human nature to the divine nature in the person of Christ which makes that human nature an instrument of governing and causing in regard to all creatures. Before that union Christ “would have been the head of the Church only according to his divine nature, but after sin [which Aquinas takes to be the main reason for the Incarnation] it is necessary that he be head of the Church also according to his human nature.”

An ET nature united to the divine nature in Christ would then also be an instrument of governing and causing in regard to all creatures. Would there then be two heads (and two Churches), if “head” refers to the Word in both his divine and in his several assumed natures?

Questions which pertain to the hypostatic union are of the greatest difficulty, and I do not pretend to be able to resolve them. I note that Thomas Aquinas on the related question of whether the Word would be two men if he assumed two human natures gives two somewhat different answers. In the Commentary on the Sentences he says that:

“[A]lthough Jesus and Peter [the name given to the Word in his supposed second incarnation] would be one supposit, nevertheless they would be called two men on account of the plurality of the natures assumed, but keeping the unity of the supposit, the diversity of natures would not impede that one would be predicated of the other, [i.e., it could be said that Jesus is Peter]; because the identity of supposit suffices for the truth of the predication.”

Yet in his later work, the Summa Theologiae, Aquinas maintains that “if a divine person would assume two human natures, he would be called one man having two human natures on account of the unity of the supposit.”  Our hypothetical case, unlike the one Aquinas takes up, involves two different natures, and so Aquinas’s latter solution, even if correct, does not seem applicable.

Perhaps there is some way of resolving the apparent conflict between Scripture’s affirmations that there is one Lord and one head of the Church, and what would obtain if the Word became incarnate a second time as an ET. The supposition that a second incarnation took place for the purpose of redeeming fallen ETs, however, runs up against an additional and more telling difficulty. Colossians 1:15-20 states that:

As he is the Beginning, he was first to be born from the dead, so that he should be first in every way; because God wanted all perfection to be found in him and all things to be reconciled through him and for him, everything in heaven and everything on earth when he made peace by his death on the cross.

This passage says Christ reconciled all through his death on the cross. Thus fallen ETs, if they are redeemed, are not redeemed by any one other than Christ.

An alternate position that does not conflict with Scripture in the said way is that Christ’s sacrifice on the cross on earth makes satisfaction for the fallen ETs as well as for us. Although Scripture says that it is befitting that Christ belong by blood to the race he came to save,  it remains the case that Christ did not have to become man, nor having done so did he have to die in order to redeem us, but rather the human race could have been saved in many other ways. Similarly, there are many different ways that God could have saved fallen ETs. However, Scripture indicates that in fact all who are saved are saved by the death of Christ. It is possible that ET salvation was accomplished by means of the one sacrifice of Christ on the cross, since it is a sacrifice which is infinite in its saving power.  As Beilby Porteus puts it:

[I]f the Redemption wrought by Christ extended to other worlds, perhaps many beside our own; if its virtues penetrate even into heaven itself; if it gather together all things in Christ; who will then say, that the dignity of the agent was disproportioned to the magnitude of the work … ?

One might argue further that in keeping with the dignity of the agent it would be fitting that the redemption extend to more beings than human beings.

Some other thinkers, such as William Whewell, reject the above views for the reason that:

The earth … can not, in the eyes of any one who accepts this Christian faith, be regarded as being on a level with any other domiciles. It is the Stage of the great Drama of God’s Mercy and Man’s Salvation. … This being the character which has thus been conferred upon it, how can we assent to the assertion of Astronomers, when they tell us that it is only one among millions of similar habitations … ?

One could, however, concede that there are millions of similar habitations without rejecting the uniqueness of our planet if the dwellers of those other habitations were saved through Christ’s sacrifice on earth. And to Whewell’s objection that if there are innumerable worlds there is no reason to think that God is more concerned about the earth than about other ones, Monseigneur de Montignez responds that:

Because our earth is of insignificant size and contains “probably the most disgraced” creatures in the cosmos, it served as the ideal locale for that “annihilation of the divinity” which is the incarnation. As Christ chose “Bethlehem … the least among the cities of Judah” for his birthplace, so also he selected the earth as the location for the founding of his Church and his redemptive actions.

Montignez offers an argument by fittingness for why the earth would be privileged by God. However, God’s good will and pleasure are unfathomable to us, and thus our inability to know with certitude why God condescended to become incarnate on planet earth is not a reason for denying that a special dignity has been conferred on the human race.

We see then that Filachou did not exhaustively examine the scenarios possible on the supposition of ET existence. Both the scenario just outlined as well as that in which ETs are not in need of redemption is consistent with the “supreme dignity attributed to the Divine founder of the Christian Church.” Both of them are also consistent with “the grandeur attributed to the Church itself.”  If the ETs are redeemed by Christ’s death, they belong to the same Church that humans do. If the ETs did not fall, they would be in a situation similar to that of the good angels who along with human saints are counted as members of the same Church triumphant.

In conclusion: I have tried to show that there is no necessary incompatibility between the Christian faith and the possible discovery of other intelligent beings. And I have intentionally done so while showing why people take diametrically opposed views on this question in order to bring out oversights on both sides. The extreme views in the ET-Christianity debate are that either the discovery of ETs would spell the end of Christianity, or it would have no more impact on it than the discovery of a new species of butterfly. Though the purpose of Scripture is to teach us things that pertain to our salvation and not to catalogue the beings in the universe, it does make statements about Christ’s nature, mission, and relation to creation that lead to conclusions as to how Christ would relate to other material rational beings. (The discovery of a new species of butterfly would raise no question as to the relation of the individuals of this species to the Church of which Christ is the head.) While the existence of ETs as such is not in disaccord with what is said in Scripture, nonetheless further assumptions concerning the status of the supposed beings do in some cases pose difficulties. There are scenarios which would square poorly or not at all with Church teaching and/or Scripture, such as that the Word became incarnate as an ET in order to redeem them. A proper explanation of the Christian view on ET life should not ignore such conflicts, but rather while recognizing them, should show that there are alternate scenarios which do not conflict with Church teaching or Scripture. The most likely of the compatible scenarios are either the ETs are not in need of redemption, or if they are, they are saved through the one sacrifice of Christ on Calvary. One should not forget, however, that possibility is one thing and probability another.

Source: Marie I. George, St. John’s University, New York Published in “The Catholic Faith, Scripture, and the Question of the Existence of Intelligent Extra-terrestrial Life”, in: Alice Ramos and Marie I. George (editors), Faith, Scholarship, and Culture in the 21 st Century (Washington: The Catholic University of America Press, 2002), pp. 135-145.


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