Holy Spirit Province Saint-Esprit
Franciscans of Canada - Franciscains du Canada
Ordo Fratrum Minorum
I know that I am supposed to say “yes” to this question. Anybody who is someone rather than something, anybody who is capable of relationship with God, any such person should be included in community with fellow believers and with God in Christ, and this is what baptism is about. It makes as members of the Body of Christ. No person who is God’s creature is meant to be excluded from this, and this should include extraterrestrials.
Fair enough. But there are several things that I find wrong with the question. In one blog post, I can only point to the most important one. Why should I accept the premise of the question that there is intelligent life elsewhere in the universe? Why should I believe that personal beings, made of matter, exist elsewhere, just like us in our desire for a relationship with God, but also completely unrelated to us, as they would be the result of a completely different evolutionary history?
I am surprised how quickly people assume that this must be the case, on account of the universe being so big. Even a very low probability, they say, suffices, as there are so many planets on which life might develop. Surely, at least a few of them will have succeeded.
However, this all depends on life emerging spontaneously out of non-living matter. It assumes that life emerges in the same way as anything else that happens when matter gets rearranged by a strong flow of energy through it. In this view of it, life is not fundamentally different from what is not alive. I am unconvinced. I think that this misses the point about life. It is an excellent example for how our scientific understanding with its abstractions can lose sight of what is most important.
Here is something else, and it’s a plain observation that strikes me as highly significant. Planet Earth is very hospitable to life. We know it, as we live on it, and it is teeming with life wherever we look. Planet Earth has existed for something like 4.5 billion years. The oldest fossil evidence of life is 3.7 billion years old. So, for most of earth’s history, there has been life on it, and it started very quickly once earth’s surface had cooled down enough. What is striking, considering the quick beginnings, is that it began only once. We know this as all living beings are fundamentally similar—same genetic code, same biochemistry. The picture of the evolutionary tree of life is meant to illustrate it: all forms of life, even the most exotic ones, originate in the one starting point in the middle where all the lines begin before they split, again and again. There is just one root in the tree of life. I find this important. It does not have to be this way. There could be other genetic codes, and other biochemistries that should also work, giving rise to a multitude of trees of life, each with its own root. A forest of life, if you will, rather than just one tree.
Why did life emerge just once? I keep asking this question, and I have yet hear an answer that settles the question. If life began spontaneously, it would have begun from non-living building blocks that came together to form the biochemical cycles that allow metabolism and reproduction. Once it got started, the detritus of decaying life should provide a host of opportunities for life to begin a second time, but differently, putting the parts together in a different way. It is one of these strange facts that seem too obvious to see: we say that life emerged out of a natural development from non-living matter. But we also say that it happened just once, but then never again.
So it is not just that we have never found life on another planet. We have yet to find a second beginning of life on our own planet. And this makes me think that life is quite special, and that we do not really know where it comes from and how it came about. This is a sign that the existence of life calls for reverence and care, and it is not to be taken for granted and expected to be everywhere. We should not be quick to assume that we will also find it on other planets. The universe could also be empty of life, if it were not for life on Planet Earth.
There is more uniqueness worth noting. The tree of life in the picture above is meant to give a comprehensive picture of all life in earth. However, almost all of it is single cells. Only one of these branches leads to all complex forms of life, and only one tiny twig on it leads to personal life–our own species, homo sapiens. If you really want to embrace a broader concept for personal beings, then you might want to include chimpanzees and our hominid ancestors, but it changes very little. They are still on the same twig. The singularity of the development towards personhood, having happened just once, even though there are so many opportunities, remains a very striking fact. In spite of many opportunities, there is just us. Just one line of development leads to the kind of existence that we call personal being: being someone and not just something. This, too, calls for reverence and caring.
Back to extraterrestrials. For those who just cannot imagine that the rest of the cosmos, with its vast expanse, is devoid of any life and persons, there is still no need to think about the baptism of extraterrestrial. The vast distances in space mean that direct communication between intelligent species on different planets is impossible. Physics does not allow for the faster-than-light transportation from place to place that science fiction writers are quick to invent. And the vast expanse of time has consequences, too. A million years this way or another is not much in a universe that is 14 billion years old, but a million years too early or too late means that one can completely miss the life of a species. Whichever way we look at it, ours is the only form of personal life that we will ever directly experience.
So let us worry about life on earth, and let us try to understand what it is and what it means. And let us worry about baptizing persons on earth, not extraterrestrials. Just as all life we know originates form one common origin, on one planet, in one place of the universe, we are called to be one again, right here on earth.