Sunday, August 05, 2007

Little Green Jesus

This little piece by Paul Davies explores the impact that discovery of an alien intelligence would have on the Christian faith. Here's a snippet.

Suppose, then, that E.T. is far ahead of us not only scientifically and technologically but spiritually, too. Where does that leave mankind’s presumed special relationship with God? This conundrum poses a particular difficulty for Christians, because of the unique nature of the Incarnation. Of all the world’s major religions, Christianity is the most species-specific. Jesus Christ was humanity’s savior and redeemer. He did not die for the dolphins or the gorillas, and certainly not for the proverbial little green men. But what of deeply spiritual aliens? Are they not to be saved? Can we contemplate a universe that contains perhaps a trillion worlds of saintly beings, but in which the only beings eligible for salvation inhabit a planet where murder, rape, and other evils remain rife?

Those few Christian theologians who have addressed this thorny issue divide into two camps. Some posit multiple incarnations and even multiple crucifixions – God taking on little green flesh to save little green men, as a prominent Anglican minister once told me. But most are appalled by this idea or find it ludicrous. After all, in the Christian view of the world, Jesus was God’s only son. Would God have the same person born, killed, and resurrected in endless succession on planet after planet? This scenario was lampooned as long ago as 1794, by Thomas Paine. “The Son of God,” he wrote in The Age of Reason, “and sometimes God himself, would have nothing else to do than to travel from world to world, in an endless succession of death, with scarcely a momentary interval of life.” Paine went on to argue that Christianity was simply incompatible with the existence of extraterrestrial beings, writing, “He who thinks he believes in both has thought but little of either.”

I'm curious to know what my readers think.

Myself, I have only a few thoughts.

First, Davies seems to assume that the Logos must incarnate in the form of each intelligent species. I'm unsure why this should be the case. The Incarnation was necessitated by the Fall, but the Fall itself was not necessary. Perhaps some intelligent species experienced no Fall. I've heard say that Christ would have come even if there had been no Fall, but that the manner of his life would have been quite different. This seems to me mere speculative theology. I admit its possibility, but I don't think it something that we can know. So I say too that we cannot know whether the Logos would incarnate in worlds where there was no Fall.

But for those intelligent species that did Fall (and I don't think we can rule out the possibility that there's more than one), I can think of no reason to deny that the Logos became incarnate in their form. Let us adopt Augustine's view of the matter. Sin was introduced into the human world by Adam and Eve (and let us understand that Adam and Eve are stand-ins for an early generation of human beings), and it was transmitted to their descendants via the procreative act. It was this original sin, this inherited stain, that was wiped clean by Christ (here understand as the Logos' union with human flesh). Christ died not for all intelligent creation. He died for humanity. (Of course, the Christian already knew this. Christ did not die for the angels.) Might it not be the case then that the Logos, in a radically different physical form than the one we know, also died so that another intelligent species might be saved?

Should we suppose that human flesh is special in some way and that the Logos could unite with only it? Of course not. The Logos could become incarnate in any species made, like humanity, is the image of God. Should we suppose that the Logos could become incarnate only once? Of course not. If it can be done once, it can be done more than once. Should we suppose that the Incarnation need happen only once? I won't say "Of course not". Matters are not so clear as that. But it would seem that it might need to happen more than once. For if another intelligent species fell, and the sins of prior generations were passed to later ones, it seems that Christ would need to incarnate in the form of that species.

On objector is likely to brush aside what I've said and assert this:

The Incarnation was the crux of universal history. It was God in the flesh, and thus we cannot suppose that its efficacy was anything less than universal. It sufficed for the salvation of all creation, for it lacked nothing whereby salvation might be gained. Do we suppose that God would need to do again what had already achieved its goal? Do we suppose that the Incarnation had only limited efficacy? The Incarnation was, rather, once-for-all; and its power is cheapened if we suppose that it need be done again and again.

I admit that this does have some force. (At least I feel that it does - even though it really only amounts to a single assertion made again and again.) My reply is, it seems to me, a bit underhanded. But it just might do the trick. Let us suppose that by "Incarnation" we mean not a particular event. Suppose rather that we mean a kind of event. The Incarnation, let us say, is God united with the body of some creature no matter where on when this might happen. The Incarnation is thus a universal; it is multiply instantiable. Once this shift in terminology is made - the shift from talk of the particular to the universal - the point that the objector wishes to make can be embraced. The universal incarnation is the crux of history. Its efficacy is universal.

Let me end with a bit of autobiography. I for one am not troubled by the idea of multiple Incarnations (or multiple instantiations of a universal Incarnation). Indeed now that I've had time to live with the idea, I've come to like it. Wouldn't it stand as an even greater testament to God's love for his creation? (One also thinks here of John 3:16. "For God so loved the world . . . " The Greek word translated as "world" is "kosmos". Thus "world" here doesn't mean only Earth. It means the whole of the universe. Thus if there existed non-human intelligent species, it would seem that God would love them just as he loves us; and if this is so, he would as much desire that they commune with him as he desires that we commune with him.)

Addendum. I realized that my title might be thought to poke fun at Christ or at the Incarnation. It most certainly does not. The possibility of multiple Incarnations is serious matter, and I take it seriously. But I do think it possible that the Logos have become little and green, for there might be little green aliens who need salvation just as much as do we.

6 comments:

Steve said...

Hi Midwife,

"But for those intelligent species that did Fall (and I don't think we can rule out the possibility that there's more than one), I can think of no reason to deny that the Logos became incarnate in their form."


I guess I would have a problem thinking that sin is genetically specific. If that was the case then it would be conceivable that one species on a planet did not fall but another on the same planet did. Is falleness in the genes?

And if the one that fell moved to habitate another planet would they bring their falleness to that planet? Would then the logos need to incarnate on that planet was well for the offspring that were born there or is salvation universal based on a genetic criterion?

Franklin Mason said...

Good questions.

Scripture does seem to say that Adam's sin was transmitted to all his heirs. Augustine certainly thought this. We all bear the taint of original sin, he thought, and it comes to us through the procreative act. This need not imply that it is genetic (or only genetic). Original sin might consist in the lack of proper relation to God, and God might deny this relation in virtue of the acts of our mothers and fathers. (Why this is so, I do not know. But I don't claim to know that it can't be so.)

I would think that, if we travel to another planer, we take our falleness with us. Armstrong was just as much a sinner on the moon as he was on earth (just as his sin-nature didn't change when he crossed a state border - spatial position is irrelevant here). I would think, moreover, that if humans settle another planet, they'll take the Church with them and thus the means of salvation too. The Spirit guarantees the continued existence of the Church in all places were it is needed.

jdavidb said...

Can we contemplate a universe that contains perhaps a trillion worlds of saintly beings, but in which the only beings eligible for salvation inhabit a planet where murder, rape, and other evils remain rife?

In such a universe, those beings are the only ones who need salvation. The others aren't lost, as you well point out later down.

Would God have the same person born, killed, and resurrected in endless succession on planet after planet?

I've always been completely comfortable with this possibility, although I doubt it'd be "endless." And I've always been confused by Christians who are not -- someone recently told me they thought the Chronicles of Narnia were terrible for basically telling such a story, and it was impossible for me to explain why I didn't think so.

But then, I was raised on Star Trek.

Perhaps some intelligent species experienced no Fall.

And anyone who doesn't account for that possibility as they try to decimate Christianity hasn't done their homework at all.

As you can well surmise, I don't believe in original sin. :) And in the endless discussions about babies I get so tired when people tell me "You think babies can be saved without Jesus." No I don't. I don't think babies can be saved at all. They aren't lost. :)

So there's a number of possibilities we can speculate about: God saved other people through Jesus elsewhere, or other people aren't lost, or God is going to use our species to save people on other planets. Or perhaps something we haven't considered, yet. It's interesting to me today to realize that between C.S. Lewis's Space Trilogy and Narnia stories, he basically covered all of the major possibilities. I understand Lewis actually wrote explicitly about this subject elsewhere, something to the effect that the atheist wants to have it both ways against Christianity on the subject of extraterrestrial life: the discovery of aliens would invalidate Christianity because then we aren't unique, but the discovery that we are alone would invalidate Christianity because we are just an aberration.

For if another intelligent species fell, and the sins of prior generations were passed to later ones, it seems that Christ would need to incarnate in the form of that species.

That's true even if sins don't pass to later generations. :)

BTW, God took care of fallen humanity for years before the crucifixion, and as Hebrews 9:15 makes clear Christ's death atoned for the people under that first covenant. Who is to say that God doesn't currently have such a covenant going on another planet, waiting for the day when humanity will be used to bring the Gospel of Christ to them?

As a matter of fact, when I was in junior high school I wanted to write a novel where that was the premise. :) There were some other neat tie-ins with Biblical history, and probably a lot of derivate stuff stolen from C.S. Lewis. :)

Let us suppose that by "Incarnation" we mean not a particular event. Suppose rather that we mean a kind of event.

If the Catholic Church can believe that there is only one mass, because the sacrifice of Christ happened only once and each mass is a participation in that same sacrifice, not a repetition (my theological terms are probably all completely confused on this, and I don't care :) ), then it seems to me people could also believe that the Incarnation happened once, but simultaneously in many worlds.

Franklin Mason said...

That's a very nice set of remarks, david. I particularly like the last paragraph.

I would guess that the only real disagreement between us here concerns the doctrine of original sin. I take it that we are not born sinners in the sense that we have already committed particular acts of sin or that Adam's acts of sins count against us in the Divine ledger book. I mean rather that our minds and our wills are ruined when born and will quite inevitably lead to acts of sin later in life. I'm curious to know what you think about this, and why you might reject it (if in fact you do).

Tom Gilson said...

C. S. Lewis addressed this question in his science-fiction trilogy. There was no fall on "Malacandra" (Mars), and hence no need for a Savior there. That was in Out of the Silent Planet. On "Perelandra" there was a temptation but no fall. But the beings on Perelandra (Venus) were human, precisely because Christ had been incarnated once as a human, and thus all creatures anywhere created in God's image after that would necessarily be human.

Is Lewis right? Well, he's certainly wrong about Mars and Venus! But his basic conceptions of creation, fall, and incarnation are at least Biblically plausible. So are the other ideas already presented here. Davies has tried to present a defeater to Christianity, but it is so extremely speculative, it's easily answered just by naming possibilities that are not ruled out Biblically.

jdavidb said...

I take it that we are not born sinners in the sense that we have already committed particular acts of sin or that Adam's acts of sins count against us in the Divine ledger book.

We're agreed on that, then, but my understanding of most people's teaching on original sin is not in agreement with that.

I mean rather that our minds and our wills are ruined when born and will quite inevitably lead to acts of sin later in life.

Why are our minds and wills ruined when we are born? Why think this?

My belief is "You were blameless in your ways From the day you were created, Until unrighteousness was found in you," Ezekiel 28:15, addressed to "the prince of Tyre," but often taken to refer to Satan. I believe you and I and all of us were perfect in the day we were created (KJV wording for this verse), blameless in our ways, until the day we invited sin in. Each of us had our own personal fall.