Are You There God? It's Me E.T.

November 20, 2011

Geno Sisneros

Aotearoa Sunday     Last Sunday of Pentecost     Matthew 25:31-46


One beautiful summer night back in my home state of Colorado in 1998, my family and some friends and I were enjoying a movie outdoors at our small town’s local drive-in. We were lazing about in the back of a Dodge pick-up truck eating snacks, laughing and enjoying a cool breeze every now and then. Suddenly off to the left of the big movie screen an enormous green sphere came falling from the night sky. It appeared to be glowing or on fire, there was no tail and it didn’t seem to be falling so much as it seemed to be slowly descending – in a controlled way. We gasped in amazement as we braced for the sound and the tremors of an imminent impact – an explosion. But there was nothing. It simply disappeared into the countryside without any fanfare, without any explanation.


I think we saw a meteorite – maybe. It might have been a piece of space debris like an old satellite – doubtful. It could have been a UFO – definitely. I use the term UFO here as it was originally intended to be used – to describe any aerial phenomena that could not be immediately or easily explained. In our modern context, it is automatically associated with extraterrestrials and little green men thanks to pop-culture and tabloid news but that’s not what it meant originally. A quick search on Google shows that the 'green fireball’ phenomena has been witnessed by countless others in the American Midwest and remains to this day, unexplained. So we can’t say for sure what it was we saw on that summer night. It remains an unidentified flying object.


Humans have been documenting strange objects in the sky for all of recorded history but the modern-day UFO era ignited back in 1947 when the American aviator Kenneth Arnold reported seeing “nine unusual objects flying in a chain near Mount Rainier, Washington”. He described them to the world’s media as “saucer-like” hence coining the term ‘flying saucer’. 


Everyone who has even a passing knowledge of the UFO phenomenon knows that Ufology has as its central event, the famous Roswell Incident where an allegedly crashed extraterrestrial craft and its beings were captured by the US Military in the New Mexico desert the same year following Kenneth Arnold’s sighting.


New Zealand’s central UFO event is known as the Kaikoura Lights which were filmed in December of 1978 by television journalist Quentin Fogarty. The Kaikoura Lights has been described as the world’s most well-documented UFO sighting. The lights weren’t just filmed from an airplane with narration by Quentin Fogarty and other witnesses; they were also confirmed as real objects on radar by Wellington Control and to this day have not been adequately explained.


These phenomena have spawned a movement that resembles Christianity in many ways. It is a belief-driven movement with its own doctrines and teachings. It has fundamentalists, progressives as well as agnostics. It too can be difficult to navigate ones way through the complex mythology and contradicting eyewitness accounts much like our Gospels. Its sacred texts are government documents which are sometimes dubious in their authenticity. It has heretics, saints and martyrs. It operates in binaries, some believing the visitors are supernatural, satanic in nature and some believing the visitors are here to bring us salvation, to save us from destroying ourselves. 


For as long as we have been able to question our existence, we've been looking to the sky for answers sometimes seeking guidance. The explorer Kupe was guided to Aotearoa by a long white cloud by day and also by night. The Hebrew children were guided by a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night to the Promised Land. We have a long history of being connected to the sky.


We’ve all heard the oft quoted story of Galileo being persecuted by the Roman Inquisition for suggesting among other things that the Earth revolved around the sun, and not the other way around. Around Galileo’s time another enemy of the Roman Inquisition, Giordano Bruno, an Italian Dominican Friar, astronomer and mathematician suggested a plurality of worlds. He not only proposed that the sun was actually a star but that “the universe contained an infinite number of inhabited worlds populated by other intelligent beings”. He was burned at the stake by the Inquisition in 1600 for this heresy which isn’t surprising. Christianity has a history of being hostile to science, reason and imagination. Don’t bother us with the facts folks, we’re not interested! 


That notion has been a frustrating one. Our Christian myths have long been considered as truth rather than pointers to truth. Christianity often feels like it grows in slow motion – progress is slow. The German physicist Max Planck was once asked how progress happens in science, he replied, “funeral by funeral”. It feels that way in Christianity too. We hold on too long to the old ways of understanding and there is usually fierce opposition when it is suggested we reinterpret our myths and symbols in light of reason and scientific discoveries.


So as you can imagine, I was pleasantly surprised in 2008 when the Vatican’s chief astronomer hosted a conference on astrobiology and issued a statement saying that the existence of extraterrestrials “does not contradict faith in God”. It is science this time that has put forth a more cynical belief about potential visitors. Professor Stephen Hawking made headlines earlier this year when he warned that we might want to rethink advertising our presence in this part of the galaxy as aliens could prove to be hostile or malevolent and pay us a visit to rob us of our natural resources and enslave us. Or at the very least colonise us in the way the English colonised New Zealand, first with explorers and then with missionaries. 


Other’s worry that a confirmation of extraterrestrial life would plunge religions like Christianity into complete and utter chaos, that it would shake the Christian worldview to its very core. Still others worry that we place almost messianic hope into what extraterrestrials could potentially do to help heal our fractured world. Will they be bearers of salvation from up there in the same way many expect Jesus to return? These are all parts of the UFO mythology. 


Whether or not we think the origin of these sightings are extraterrestrial, paranormal, inter-dimensional or simply; meteorites, experimental aircraft, space debris, temperature inversions or whether it is a completely psycho-social phenomena, the UFO movement is still telling us something deeply important about our civilization. It’s telling us that we are longing to find out what place we occupy in the grand universal narrative that is Existence. Where does humanity fit in if there are others? Who is my neighbour? 


I’ve often wondered if there are extraterrestrial civilisations hundreds, thousands, even millions or billions of years more advanced than we are, did they once worship a god like the one Matthew describes in today’s Gospel? Matthew looks forward to a time when humanity gets divided up into those who are good and those who are evil. Not content with just destroying the so-called evil ones, this god wants to make them suffer in eternal torment. Hopefully that will some day be considered the old way of thinking.


History has shown societies don’t necessarily become more altruistic or more compassionate as scientific and technological advances are made and that is a worry. My hope would be that as our spiritual evolution continues, that Christianity as a whole will outgrow the need to divide humanity up into the mythical categories of good and evil and contribute greatly to a more inclusive society.


Scientists believe we will have confirmation of a radio signal from an extraterrestrial civilisation within the next twenty years. That’s not unrealistic though it sounds amazing, a lot can happen in the span of a person’s lifetime. Just think, Dr Edgar Mitchell, the sixth man to walk on the moon noted that his grandfather only knew horses and covered wagons, his father knew the automobile, and Dr Mitchell flew into space and walked on the moon. What will be proved in the next 100 years that is currently thought of as ridiculous or impossible? How will our Christian myths have to be re-interpreted by the next generation in light of those revelations? Will Christianity overcome its fear of progress? Stay tuned.


I don’t really know what that green glowing sphere was that came from the sky all those years ago, though that hasn’t stopped me from imagining. I remain agnostic in terms of the extraterrestrial hypothesis until definitive proof is offered. I do believe the fact that we are experiencing this phenomenon at all is a tell-tale sign that says more about us than it does about any potential visitors. We long to know more about our own identity and our own place in the universe. Those are answers that may indeed come from the sky but as for salvation, we have been given everything we need down here to work that truth out for ourselves. And if any E.T.’s have survived this long, maybe it is because their civilisation was finally able to answer the question ‘who is my neighbour?’ with the answer being ‘everyone is’, ‘everyone is my neighbour’. Amen.

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