I don’t know if you’ve been following the news, but recently, NASA revealed that the orbiting Kepler Telescope has found even more extra-solar planets, several of which are close in size to Earth. And, as always, the moment we get a news story like that, we hear the inevitable speculation about alien life. Are they out there? Are they like us? How will we ever know? We’ve certainly seen some of that speculation on this very blog.
I think it really boils down to this question: if alien life exists, if it seems to be sentient, would said aliens have souls?
This might seem like idle speculation, especially since the chances of human beings making contact with intelligent alien life seems so unlikely. But I would argue that this really isn’t idle speculation at all. But to understand why, we have to take a peek at a fantasy novel that was published a few years back.
When I first heard of it, I was impressed by the title, Summa Elvetica: A Casuistry of the Elvish Controversy. The theologian in me loved the allusion to medieval Christian tomes and the proper use of the word “casuistry.” And the premise was a killer as well. What if fantasy races lived alongside the Roman Catholic Church in medieval times? How would the Church determine if those races had souls?
It might seem like a silly question to ask, but Theodore Beale, the author, revealed how important answering that question really is. The Catholic analogue in the book wrestles with the question of whether or not elves have souls for a very important reason. If the elves don’t have souls, then there is no reason for the humans to go to war against them, slaughter them like animals, and take their stuff. If they do have souls, then the Church would be morally obligated to share the Gospel with them. And so, the fantasy-pope of the story sends a young theologian to meet-and-greet the elves to determine the answer. At the end of the book, the Church presents its findings.
What fascinated me was Beale’s historical footnote in the book (which I would quote, but I seem to have misplaced my copy of the book) that revealed that much of the language he used in writing those findings came from an actual theological document produced by the real Roman Catholic Church shortly after the Americas were discovered. Only the Catholics weren’t worried about elves. They weren’t sure what to make of the Native Americans. And so the real Catholic Church debated whether or not these “newly discovered” people had souls. I don’t know how long the debates lasted, but in the end, they decided they did. Unfortunately, that declaration didn’t stop the European settlers from mistreating the Native Americans, but I digress.
I suppose the reason why I’m bringing this up is because I suspect that if we were ever faced with sentient alien life, we’d have to answer that question and quickly. To put it another way, are aliens people too? A lot would be riding on the way we answer that question, especially in terms of how we would relate to each other after the initial contact.
I guess what I’m worried about is this: given humanity’s track record for how we’ve treated each other, beings that are undeniably and unarguably created in the image of God, I fear that in any future scenario between aliens and humans, we’ll be the bad guys. I would suggest that perhaps the safest thing to do is to simply assume that any intelligent aliens we encounter actually do have souls and go from there.
Which naturally begs the question: if aliens do have souls, do they need to be saved? In two weeks, we’ll sit at the feet of a master and see what he has to say on the subject. Until then, keep watching the skies!