Friday, February 14, 2020

Resolution Read, Week 7: Would Aquinas Baptise Aliens?

This week's Resolution Read is a bit of a cheat. It's a paper that's been sitting on my desktop for ages because it has a great title, but which was so far removed from anything I do that I knew I'd never get a Round Tuit. Which actually makes it the perfect paper for a Resolution Read, since the whole point of the not-a-resolution was to give me as many Tuits in whichever shape is most pleasing that I need to read papers like this. So why did I pick this paper this week, and why is it a bit of a cheat? Because I was recently shared a call for papers on Theological Explorations in Time and Space, and it occurred to me that if I read something about aliens, I might have something to say on the topic. So...maybe this will end up being research related? Who knows! That's the whole point of reading these things!

The paper in question is:

Edmund Michael Lazzari, "Would St. Thomas Aquinas Baptize an Extraterrestrial?" New Blackfriars 99, no. 1082 (2018): 440-457, DOI:10.1111/nbfr.12319.

Point The First I want to make: The idea of there being intelligent extraterrestrials is probably less unrealistic for Aquinas than it is for (some) modern people -- this is because Aquinas's ontology includes angels, which by definition are non-terrestrial intelligences who live in the heavens (at least, some of them do). Once you've got both humans and angels in your ontology, expanding it to include the possibility extra-terrestrial beings (like angels) who are rational (like humans) should be a no brainer.

Lazzari poses the initial question he considers thusly: "the question of fallen extraterrestrials who do not share the human nature assumed by Christ is an interesting and important one for contemporary theologians" (p. 440). Point The Second that I would like to make: Even if we're happy admitting extraterrestrials into our ontology, why would we think that they have to be fallen? For there are two options: One, Adam and Eve's transgression is not species-specific, but infects beyond the bounds of humanity. Two, Adam and Eve's transgression is species-specific, so the only way there could be fallen aliens is if they experienced their own fall. If the former option is the case, one might ask why their sin spreads to extraterrestrials but not to, say, animals. If the latter option is the case, then what is to prevent Christ from assuming their nature and providing them with the same act of salvation?

Anyway, onto the actual paper. In the first section, Lazzari establishes that, on Thomist metaphysics, if "intelligent extraterrestrial life forms" have "radically different matter than human beings", then they do not have human natures, because human nature is hylomorphic, and if you change the matter you no longer have the same nature, but that if they are in fact intelligent (able to receive intelligible universals), then this "is a guarantee of an immortal soul" (p. 445). So much for metaphysics.

In section two, Lazzari moves on to theology. Because theology, unlike metaphysics, relies so much on revelation, any theological conclusions we draw about aliens will be necessarily speculative (absent any divine revelation that specifically addresses aliens!) And here Lazzari addresses my concerns about fallen aliens, by pointing out two important things: First, if the aliens weren't fallen, it wouldn't make sense to talk about their soteriology, so there'd be no point in writing this paper. Second, if the aliens have fallen, there's no reason why they shouldn't have their own fall event (so, the two options I outlined above in fact should be three). Indeed, Lazzari argues that according to Aquinas, it is not possible that the fallen of humanity could have caused the aliens to fall too:

Any fall of extraterrestrial life could not be caused by human beings in the theology of St. Thomas Aquinas. While other theologians in the Christian tradition have a strong belief in the fall of human beings introducing disharmony into the cosmos, St. Thomas holds that the natures of other animals were not changed by the fall...Therefore, it is not the case that the fall of extraterrestrial life can be included under the same fault as the fall of humanity (p. 447).

So, if the aliens had their own fall event, Lazzari says this could've happened in two ways: It could be that Alien Adam and Alien Eve fell just as Human Adam and Human Eve did. Or, it could be that Alien Adam and Alien Eve metaphorically eschewed the apple, and it was one of their descendants that fell. In this latter case, "it would be possible for some of the species to be in need of salvation and some to still have that right relationship with God" (p. 448).

From this conclusion, Lazzari moves on to Section III, in which he argues that since humanity's fall cannot have caused the alien's fall, humanity's salvation cannot be the alien's salvation. This is because the redemptive act for humanity involved Jesus taking on human nature, not alien nature. However, while "it was fitting that the Incarnation occur because human nature was in need of salvation and it is by the Incarnation that humanity is could have happened another way" (pp. 448-449). This leaves open the possibility that some other redemptive act -- whether Incarnation or not -- is available to redeem the aliens.

Given this, I find it strange that Lazzari's conclusion in this section is that "Since baptism is the remedy of original sin for human beings, it seems as though one must have a human nature to undergo baptism" (p. 451). It is not clear why baptism couldn't be a part of the remedy of original sin in other beings as well. While it is true that if one is a human being, then one must be baptised in order to be saved, it doesn't follow that if one is baptised (in order to be saved), one must be a human being.

Lazzari opens section 4 with:

The sacrificial life of Jesus Christ redeemed those who have a human nature and are incorporated into His sacrifice by baptism. Because of the crucial role that assumption of a human nature plays in Chalcedonian and Thomistic soteriology, it is not possible to simply transfer the effects of the life of Jesus Christ to other intelligent beings who are not sharers in human nature" (p. 451).

The question I immediately have is: Why must Jesus have only one sacrificial life? What is to prevent him from becoming Incarnate as human, to save humanity, and then later (or earlier!) becoming Incarnate as alien, to same alienity? We don't need to be able to transfer "the effects of the life of Jesus Christ" to other natures, if there is nothing to prevent him from having had another life, with another nature. And since he is, you know, God, and omnipotent, and there doesn't seem to be anything self-contradictory in his being incarnated more than once, I don't see why this isn't an option for Lazzari (and for Jesus).

Well, Lazzari considers this in his survey of options offered by other authors: "The second is that there would be an Incarnation for every intelligent species which fell from grace" (p. 451). Lazzari's rejection of this position appears to be on the basis that it is one that is held by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who also argued for the "(heretical concept of) the inevitable and universal domain of sin" (p. 453). But I don't see that there being an Incarnation for every species that fell from grace entails that every species fell or will fall from grace -- so just because Teilhard de Chardin maintains one heretical view it doesn't follow that all his views are heretical. It appears that the other objection one would have to the one-incarnation-per-distinct-fall response is that (quoting Teilhard), it would "still [be] the same sacrifice, at all times and in all places" (p. 453) -- i.e., that Jesus's sacrifice as a man would be essentially the same as his sacrifice as an alien. But that presupposes that the essential distinction of human nature from alien nature is not enough to differentiate the sacrifices -- for indeed, the human sacrifice saves humanity, while the alien sacrifice saves alienity. How on earth can these then be "the same sacrifice", if they involve distinct natures and have distinct consequences?

As far as I can tell, Lazzari doesn't give us a reason to reject the one-incarnation-per-distinct-fall position, he merely argues that such a position is not necessary ("for there is nothing preventing God from simply forgiving without satisfaction" p. 456), and further calls it "highly unfitting" because "the Incarnation is such an important and pivotal event in the universe that it would not be fitting for such an event to be repeated" (p. 455). (Why can't one argue the contrary: It is such an important enough, it should be maximally repeated, to infinity!?)

But these concerns are to some extent beside the point. The question was, would Aquinas baptise aliens? It appears that in the absence of evidence that aliens shared in our human nature or that Jesus was also incarnated with an alien nature, the answer is "No, he wouldn't." Baptism is specifically tied to the rehabilitation of fallen human natures via a redemptive act that involved Jesus taking on such a human nature. Without the relevant redemptive act or participation in the relevant nature, baptism would be irrelevant for an alien.

A final comment on the paper: It was very weird to read a paper in New Franciscan that discusses Aquinas and doesn't have a single quote in Latin. (References are given to Latin texts, but no actual quotes.)

Edited to add: When I said "New Franciscan" I mean "New Blackfriars". I can never remember what color which order wears...


  1. I tend to read this as proof that you're right about Jesus and the Incarnation: John 10:16 "And other sheep I have which are not of this fold; them also I must bring, and they will hear My voice; and there will be one flock and one shepherd."

    1. I would read this as evidence for everyone ending up in the same flock at the end but not necessarily that redemption happens in the same way for all of them -- while I personally would root for an Incarnation for every nature, because the Incarnation is basically the most miraculous and amazing thing that Christ could do, I certainly don't have an a priori reason for excluding the possibility that non-human intelligent species that fell are redeemed via means other than the Incarnation.