Pope Francis has a way of making impromptu remarks, sometimes in informal conversations, sometimes in the midst of more formal occasions. Often they exhibit a somewhat quirky sense of humor. These remarks are picked up by the media and frequently blown up to imply a significant change in doctrine or practice, given a meaning that Francis did not intend. This happened recently with his saying in a conversation on an airplane trip that he will not be a judge of homosexuals. As was reported by Time magazine and other media, in a homily on May 12, 2014, Francis gave a whimsical example of the Church excluding no one: “If tomorrow an expedition of Martians—green men with a long nose and big ears, like children draw—came and wanted to be baptized—what would happen?” He said that he would baptize them. He then gave another example, closer to non-science-fiction reality: Baptizing children of unmarried cohabiting couples. Was he making an allusion and giving a signal of his intentions about a controversy raging especially in Germany: Whether divorced and remarried Catholics should receive another sacrament, that of communion? I don’t know, rather doubt whether that was his intention. I do agree with several commentators that more is involved here than the (not exactly urgent) possibility of a delegation of extraterrestrials clamoring to be baptized in St.Peter’s. There was a column about this in The Tablet on May 24, 2024, by Guy Consolmagno, SJ, Curator of Meteorites at the Vatican Observatory (What a great title! Did you know that there was such an agency?. What does it do?): He said that this was “a wonderful starting place to explore the meaning of baptism and redemption.” The column does not undertake such an exploration, but goes on about recent astronomical studies to determine possible chances for life in other parts of the galaxy.
Redemption, in Christianity as indeed in other religions, means deliverance from the evil and the suffering of the human condition. Who else in the universe shares this condition? Mars may be too close to earth to raise this question with full force. (Perhaps Adam and Eve bit into the fatal apple with such gusto that some pieces flew up and landed on the neighbor planet.) A planet circling another sun, light-years away from here, might be a better case. On that planet do advanced organisms (what Buddhists call “sentient beings”) do evil, suffer and die? If not, they may not be in need of redemption. Put in Christian terms, did Christ become incarnate only on planet earth, or is there a cosmic Christ at work on the repair of the whole universe? The point is often made that the earthly ministry of Jesus took place in a provincial backwater of the Roman Empire. How more insignificant is our planet in the inconceivable vastness of the galaxies!
The monotheistic religions that originated in western Asia have many things in common (for this reason, I have no problem with the term “Abrahamic traditions,” though the political use of the term can be distortive). One commonality is their focus on human historical reality on this earth. The Hebrew Bible is overwhelmingly focused on the story of the people of Israel. The New Testament has an even narrower focus on events in and around Palestine. And the Quran is solidly grounded in the circumstances of 7th-century Arabia. To be sure, despite the historicity of the central narrative in each tradition there are adumbrations of realities beyond history. The very first sentence of the Book of Genesis tells about God creating the heavens (Hebrew shamaim, a plural form) and the earth. The Apostle Paul (Romans 8:22, RSV) says that “the whole creation has been groaning in travail until now.” And in each tradition there developed an eschatology (a doctrine of the last things) in which history comes to an end in a cosmic upheaval—the coming of Messiah (originally understood in basically historical terms, then including the notion of this whole world ending), the day of judgment (dies irae), the Mahdi coming (in the company of Jesus, no less) to establish the universal kingdom of Islam. There are mystical undercurrents in all three traditions, notably in Judaism (the Kabbalah) and Islam (Sufism), in which the cosmic perspective is more central (the official guardians of the tradition have always looked on these developments with suspicion).
The religions coming out of India, then (mainly in the form of Buddhism) spreading into eastern Asia, present a very different picture. If there is one dominant motif in the worldviews of Hinduism and Buddhism, it is that of reincarnation (samsara)—the wheel of life (perhaps more properly called the wheel of death, because it is a notion full of horror: one dies over and over again)—not a redemptive reality, but one from which one seeks to be redeemed. That does not characterize the more popular forms of piety, where the goal is to better one’s prospects in future incarnations. In any case, if reincarnation is assumed to be a reality, there is necessarily a reduction of interest in history and the affairs of this world—this life is one of many short bus rides, and it makes little sense to become involved in re-arranging the seats in the particular bus one is riding at the moment. I have for some years argued that the great dialogue to come is one that one should welcome: the dialogue between the great religious traditions of south and east Asia on one side, and the west Asian monotheisms on the other. If you will, it is the dialogue between Benares (now called Varanasi) and Jerusalem: the most sacred Hindu pilgrimage site where one can immerse oneself in the wonder-working waters of Mother Ganges, near where Gautama the Buddha preached his first sermon; and the city where the Temple of Solomon stood, where Jesus died and was resurrected, and from where Muhammad began his nocturnal journey to heaven. Some years ago I was asked in an interview what I had learned from Hinduism and Buddhism in this kind of dialogue. I answered spontaneously: the vastness of time and space. The interviewer stopped abruptly at that point, leaving my answer hanging in the air.
The Vedas, the most ancient Hindu scriptures, already speak of many ages, of cosmic cycles each lasting 306 million years. They also speak of many simultaneous universes. These originally mythological ideas became enormously sophisticated in later Hindu and Buddhist thought. I am particularly intrigued by the Vimalakirti Sutra, a Mahayana Buddhist text dating from the first century CE, when there were great centers of Buddhist learning in India (they were destroyed in later centuries by Muslim conquerors). The original Sanskrit text was lost, but the text survived in Tibetan and Chinese translations; Robert Thurman has published an English translation from the Tibetan. The text opens with an account of Vimalakirti (not a monk but a “layman of undefiled reputation”) teaching his doctrine of “inconceivable liberation” to a gigantic assembly of 10,000 supernatural beings—Buddhas (who have attained liberation into the state of nirvana), Arhats (still getting there, but not quite there yet), Boddhisattvas (Buddhas who postpone their final liberation out of compassion for suffering beings to whom they want to preach the Buddhist message), and a large number of gods and goddesses and other supernatural beings. This spectacle is awesome enough. It becomes even more so upon understanding that each of the non-divine attendees (Buddhas and so on) is in charge of an entire universe (or Buddha-field).
If modern physics is to be believed, our universe has two possible trajectories in the wake of the Big Bang. It may continue to expand indefinitely, with the stars and galaxies being ever more isolated from each other in an immensity of empty space. Alternatively the universe may collapse again into the small ball, small enough to be held in the palm of one hand, from which it exploded in the beginning. The second scenario is curiously compatible with the Hindu view of the divine spirit, the Brahman, breathing out and creating the universe, then destroying it by breathing in—and so on and on to the end of time (if there is one). Neither trajectory is compatible with an “Abrahamic” view of reality. That was succinctly summed up by John Polkinghorne, a physicist and Anglican theologian, in his book The God of Hope and the End of the World: “If the universe is a creation, it must make sense everlastingly, and so ultimately it must be redeemed from transience and decay.” Two interesting alternatives…