Aliens and the image of God - The truth is out there

A Pillar Q-and-A

Aliens are everywhere these days. A highly anticipated Congressional report on UFO sightings was released last week, and this Saturday marks 25 years since America watched Will Smith battle aliens in “Independence Day,” released July 3, 1996.

We at The Pillar started talking about aliens…and we realized we had some questions. If they do exist, is it possible that they are made in the image of God, like we are? And if so, what are the implications of that? Could aliens have their own sacraments? Their own redemption story?

We took our questions to Dr. Christopher Baglow, director of the Science and Religion Initiative of the McGrath Institute for Church Life at the University of Notre Dame. Baglow recently delivered a keynote address on “Extraterrestrial Life and Catholic Theology” at the 2021 Society of Catholic Scientists Conference.

Things got kind of deep — or maybe just kind of weird. We asked Dr. Baglow about alien sacraments, the nature of aliens, and an alien Garden of Eden. He hung with us. And, actually, he had some pretty interesting insights.

The interview is below. It has been edited for clarity.

The Pillar: What does it mean to be made in the image of God?

Dr. Baglow: To be made in the image of God means to be capable of reason and freedom, to have an intellect, which is not simply to have intelligence as the animals do, but to be able to know things in themselves, and therefore to be able to make, for instance, judgments about one's judgments, which allows us to be free. So you can think of it this way: God, as we learn in Scripture, is both truth and love. Rational creatures - creatures that image Him - are creatures that are capable of knowing the truth and loving freely.

The Pillar: The Church doesn't have a firm stance on whether aliens exist. But if they do, is it possible that there are aliens out there who are also made in the image of God? Or is that something that's exclusive to humanity?

Dr. Baglow: It seems to me that there is no obstacle for Catholic theology to hypothesizing that there could be creatures on other planets who are also made in God's image. In fact, we would not be the first to hypothesize that, because all the way back in the 15th century the Catholic theologian and bishop and cardinal, Nicholas of Cusa, hypothesized that because of divine creativity, there would be life on other planets. In fact, he even speculated about life on the sun and on the moon.

The Pillar: So if there are other beings out there who were made in God’s image, let’s talk about some of the implications of that. 

Presumably they would be made in a state of original grace. And then either they never sinned, and they’re still in a kind of Garden of Eden, or if they fell in the same way that we did, they have their own kind of redemption arc?

Dr. Baglow: Yes. We would have to say that they're either fallen creatures like us or unfallen creatures. Because being rational and free, they would have the capability of knowing God and responding to God, or rejecting God's offer of friendship. 

Let’s go back to that first option. When we talk about the Garden of Eden, we're talking about a symbolic narrative. The Church is not necessarily committed to saying, even on our planet, that the characteristics of the particular place where the first humans lived were necessarily different than the world as we see it now. But the first humans would have been different - their relationship to God and to one another and to the world would have been different. 

And yes, certainly [if there were free and rational aliens], I would propose there would be some kind of redemption arc for them also.

The Pillar: And would that redemption arc necessarily be the same as ours?

Dr. Baglow: Well, our own is dictated by our sinfulness...[Christ’s] story is a story of torture and death has to do with us, with our sin and how we received him, or rather did not receive him. God, in his infinite wisdom, allowed for that to be the salvation of the world because Christ loved us to the end. But if we were not fallen and God had still become incarnate among us, obviously that would have looked a lot different.

The Pillar: We know that Jesus has two natures, human and divine. But it's theoretically possible that the Son could have taken on an alien nature as well, is that right?

Dr. Baglow: Right. Actually we have something from St. Thomas Aquinas to help us with this. In the Summa Theologiae, in the third part, he has an article dedicated to the question of whether or not it would be possible for the Son to become incarnate in another human nature than that which he actually did - another human being, we could say. And Thomas says, well, a creature cannot circumscribe the creator. Therefore, it would certainly be possible that he could have become incarnate in another human nature, or more than two. So in that regard, we would say that if you have a rational creature [alien], Christ would not be taking on another human nature in the sense of everything that we are biologically, etc, but he would be taking on another full nature, whatever that nature would be. The nature of that extraterrestrial, rational species.

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The Pillar: If there are these other beings made in the image of God, does that necessitate sacraments for them - their own alien sacraments - or could they exist in a society without sacraments?

Dr. Baglow: As embodied creatures, we don't know things in the same way as the angels, who are pure spirits. We know things as they're mediated to us through verbal and material symbols. And so sacramentality is God building on that the economy of salvation by which we are saved. And it would seem to me that as embodied creatures, that would be the same for any other rational species. So I would say that if they were fallen, some kind of sacramental system would be in place for them too. But above all, the sacrament of course is Jesus Christ. The incarnation that they had would then also be represented in sacraments instituted for their salvation.

The Pillar: And those could be distinct from our sacraments? They might not be the same seven sacraments that we recognize?

Dr. Baglow: Exactly, because sacraments, as the Catechism says, have various levels. They’re natural signs, but they're also the products of human culture. And so how would [an alien] culture mediate sacraments? There's a big, serious question. 

The Pillar: And that means if these aliens happen to come to earth, they would not automatically be eligible for our human sacraments? Even if they were made in the image of God? 

Dr. Baglow: Right. 

The Pillar: What do you think, personally? Do you think there are aliens out there, in any form?

Dr. Baglow: That's a coin toss. The reason that society is interested in the topic is not so much about this report coming out about unidentified aerial phenomena. But it's actually the new telescopes that are finding planets within habitable zones of stars throughout the galaxy, that could have a history like ours. And I would also add that this kind of question, as idle and as speculative as it might seem, is actually a great way for theologians to revisit the essential truths of the faith and get to understand them better.