I thought back to a book we read by a priest/scientist/theologian named Davis. He postulated that if there were other planets with human like beings would they in turn have the same Jesus experience and monotheistic beliefs. It is something that has always fascinated me. How would the church handle that possibility?
I received this question from a good friend of mine dating back—oh gosh, 55 years! —and we did indeed read many of the same books, though he seems to have retained their content better than I have. The theologian in question is probably the British Catholic theologian Charles Davis. Wikipedia records: “in 1974, Davis published Temptations of Religion which identifies four temptations unique to religion. He calls these, lust for certitude, pride of history, cosmic vanity, and anger of morality.” Davis made considerable news in 1966 when he publicly left the Roman Catholic Church and married Florence Henderson (no, not that Florence Henderson.) Davis returned to full communion with the Church before his death in 1999.
Until today I did not realize that in its day Temptations of Religion enjoyed a considerable following among true academics, which may be why I never read it. The New York Times reviewed the book in 1974 and defined “cosmic vanity” thusly: “The second temptation, cosmic vanity, is man's temptation to suppose that he is somehow in on the secrets of the cosmos and is able to present not just a scheme devised from a human standpoint, but an objective picture of the order of the entire universe.”
Davis is essentially saying that humans—and particularly religions—say and think more than they know. Academic Catholic theology has a warning light for that, its technical name is analogy. Analogy quietly corrals the extremes of religious claims with one common sense principle: the limits of words and language. All language is descriptive. I am not simply speaking of degrees or shades of meaning, but of the inability of language to penetrate mystery or convey all meanings. The great theologians and saints understood this; Aquinas had no pretentions about logically defining God. He, more than most, understood that human language was analogous, our best humble efforts to describe. A moral theologian from the University of Scranton, Patrick Clark, alluded to the function of analogy as well as anyone I have read: “At the end of the day, we Christians—and especially we theologians—need to admit that our words and concepts have only the slightest foothold on the realities which they attempt to signify and demarcate.”
Analogy is a principle to bear in mind in discussing the question at hand, because the premise of the question depends upon the limitations of our understanding of (1) the meaning of humanity, and (2) the Jesus event. What is a human, or more to the point, how would we project the term “human-like” on any being encountered in the universe? There is a world of difference between saying “there is life on Mars” or “there is intelligent life on Mars” or “there is human life on Mars.” Frankly, this is a distinction that remains unresolved here on earth, as Catholics and others hold to a dogmatic definition of human life consisting of two cells.
The intent of the question, though, seems to be the ability of other cosmic beings to engage analogously in the human experience of religion. The Catechism of the Catholic Church poses the nature of human creation and capacity as, among other things, an innate ability to grasp the existence of a superior being and a sense of moral order or “natural law” without benefit of a divine revelation. Our human vanity, of which Davis speaks, leads us to conclude that if a planet of beings acknowledges a divinity and a sense of good order, even in the most rudimentary of forms, its population would also have eaten the proverbial apple proffered by the snake, as we did. Maybe they didn’t, which would in turn negate the need for a deliverer. Must the definition of humanity include sin? On earth, it would appear so, and Catholicism defines it so.
When we think of religion and other universes, we assume that our human minds have exhausted all possibilities of life forms, and that whatever lives out there must conform to our definitions, which are really perceptions at best. Here the theologians and the scientists can both point to the firewall of analogy. For implied in our worries about the souls of extraterrestrials is an over-confidence in our own understandings of God’s salvific will and creative intent, not to mention the arrogance that we understand life throughout the universe, as Davis correctly critiques. Did I read accurately that Trappist-1 is 170 light years away? The universe and its possibilities in terms of size and variety stand at the cusp of infinity. Davis seems taken aback by the cocky speculations about the mysteries of the universe from a people bound to a solitary and insignificant planet.
The second consideration is the relation of Jesus and presumably a salvation role for populations on other planets. Again, one is limited to analogy in defining the term “salvation” and, for that matter, “incarnation.” The narrative of God becoming man to save mankind from sin is true but beyond full comprehension. In fact, medieval theologians provided other analogies in their speculations on the role of Jesus. Duns Scotus, the fourteenth century Franciscan, put forth another analogy in his treatment of the Incarnation, that the coming of Christ is history’s greatest event, which would have occurred whether man had sinned or not. Scotus thus employs an analogy of glory over an analogy of rescue. Scotus’ thinking inspired the Feast of Christ the King; Pope John Paul II declared Scotus “blessed” in 1993.
The principle of analogy does not limit human thought or expression; it frees us to employ theological imagination by undercutting false literal dogmatism. Consequently, reflection on life beyond our planet and its encounter with the divine is indeed one of our true pleasures; the limitless expanse of the universe is itself analogous to God, and thus the source of prayer and reflection, as it was for David in Psalm 19.
I smiled at the last line of the question: “How would the Church handle that possibility?” I wonder if he means specifically how would the Archdiocese of Boston handle it. And to that I can only hope—without analogy to Galileo.