Intellectual Humility in the Face of the Unidentified: What Theology Can Learn From Ufology’s Renaissance

By David Armstrong

We are living in something of a ufological renaissance at the moment. It is not the only such cultural resurgence and newfound respectability of a previously suppressed subculture: now more than at any other time in American history, interest in aliens, the paranormal, the occult, the psychedelic, and animistic, panpsychist, or idealist ontological paradigms are gaining a great deal of ground. Sometimes these topics receive high-profile exposition and defense as legitimate objects of inquiry, like journalist Leslie Keane, who has written books on UFOs and the afterlife.[1] Films like Jeremy Corbel’s Bob Lazar and Area 51 (2018), James Fox’s The Phenomenon (2020), and now JJ Abrams’ forthcoming SHOWTIME documentary miniseries UFO (2021) are proliferating streaming sites. Russell Brand, on his Under the Skin podcast, talks about ufology with the same seriousness with which he speaks of consciousness, mind, and God as a pathway to realization of the truths of nonduality. But of all these topics, it is only ufology that has recently received a dose of public legitimization, one that is itself as pop-cultural as any film or television show, and one whose contours offer a specific challenge to Christian theology.

Let’s sit with this for a second: UFOs are real. Whatever they are, their veracity is no longer contestable. After decades of government gaslighting of the ufological community and the social marginalization of people interested in Unidentified Flying Objects or Aerial Phenomena (UFO or UAP, dependent on one’s terminology), the Pentagon now admits that UFOs are real. In the vast majority of cases, the government also admits, it’s not us, it’s unlikely to be anyone we know, and we have no concept of what they are.

The government lies, often and sometimes quite well, and so it is perfectly possible that the public report on UAP given by the Pentagon to Congress in late June, which has sparked all kinds of national security concerns, veils a more complex game of misdirection. UFOs/UAP may be real, and they may well not be anything particularly strange or otherworldly. But tactically, none of the available terrestrial options seem like particularly convincing ones in this case. If UFOs/UAP are American tech, then it is not obvious what the Pentagon gains through admitting to their existence where previously they were happy to conceal it through outright denial. True, two leaked articles on the Pentagon’s investigation of UFOs/UAP in the New York Times, in 2017[2] and 2020,[3] may have forced someone’s hand to admit to the government and the public what we think we know about sightings of unknown entities in the sky, but if this is the case, public projection of ignorance about the matter seems counterintuitive. If it was us, we had every reason to continue denying it; if it were Russia or China, we would have reason to call them out for use of what is effectively superweaponry. But more to the point, it seems unlikely that, if the United States, which spends more on its military than any other nation in the world, did not create these craft, then neither did its two greatest rivals. The tech could still well be terrestrial; but the available options for dismissal as so many weather balloons and drones seem increasingly tenuous.

Two primary alternative interpretations offer themselves among ufologists. The first is the exo- or astrobiological interpretation: UFOs/UAP are technology engineered and piloted by extraterrestrial intelligence, from another planet or star—and unless we are dealing with beings advanced far beyond our wildest imagination, then another planet or star within the Milky Way. Even with the most miserly mathematical pessimism, this interpretation seems likely on the grounds of what we know about exoplanets and the conditions necessary for life like that on Earth to evolve. On the low end of the spectrum of estimates, the Milky Way has around 100 billion stars;[4] orbiting those are around 300 million exoplanets in the habitable zone of their star.[5] Let us say for argument’s sake—again, erring towards pessimism—that 1/10th of those harbor life: 30 million exoplanets are biospheres. Another 1/10th of those planets that harbor life come to harbor complex multicellular life that evolves into something akin to plants: 3 million worlds. 1/10th of those also evolve animal life: 300,000. 1/10th of those evolve creatures with intelligence more or less like our own: 30,000. Let us say, again for argument’s sake, that only 1/10th of those planets survive mass extinction events and continue to harbor life afterwards: 3,000. 1/10th of those advance to our point on the Kardashev scale, a theoretical metric for an alien species’ technological progress based on their ability to harvest all the available energy of their planet, star, and galaxy. We are presently a .6 on the Kardashev scale, capable of relatively little in the way of full planetary energy use, much less sustainable energy use: 300 other worlds are right there with us. Let us say that 1/10th of those progress all the way to become a full Type I Civilization without enduring some kind of catastrophe: 30 civilizations in our galaxy are currently functioning beyond our caliber, and are plausibly engaging in interplanetary travel. And let us say that just 1/10th of those progress one stage further, to a Type II Civilization, capable of harvesting the full energy of their local star: 3 alien civilizations, in that case, roam across the galaxy as interstellar explorers, emissaries, and (we shudder to think) conquerors. Again, my math is intentionally assuming the worst case scenario: most people engaged in the official Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI)[6] or the present Galileo Project[7] headed up by Harvard astrophysicst Avi Loeb, who thinks that the 2017 interstellar object Oumuamua was an alien spaceship tend to estimate somewhat more liberally. And this does not account for the trillions of galaxies we know to exist in our observable universe alone—just what we can see—some of which are older, bigger, younger, and smaller than our own, and will have all their own metrics and possibilities for life. And it does not account for life other than life as we know it: water and carbon-based, organic life; what exists beyond our metrics is anyone’s guess. From a scientifically informed perspective on the statistics affecting life’s proliferation in the cosmos, it seems all but impossible that we are alone, and this provides a ready candidate for explaining technology that we cannot explain.

But the astrobiological explanation is not the only show in town for the ufological community: there also exists the paranormal interpretation, which sees UFO/UAP as events or objects of altered states of consciousness alongside other “paranormal” or “super natural”[8] experiences. Given the way that UFO encounters often affect those who have been the subjects of sightings or the patients of reported, claimed, or alleged abductions—without affording a blanket credibility to all such narratives—the argument here is that UFOs/UAP are manifestations of conscious, psychic, spiritual, noetic, etc. beings or forces, and not technological craft piloted by little green men. UFOs/UAP, on this reading, go hand in hand with Near Death Experiences, spiritualism, extrasensory perception, psychedelia, and the occult.

The primary advantage of this kind of reading is precisely, of course, that ufology as a subculture grew up as the space-age rendition of older trends in Western esoterica.[9] The paranormal reading is in fact the older one, of which the exo- or astrobiological interpretation is a scientific diminution, having shaved off the paranormal, occult, and spiritual aspects of experiences of UAP. One need only read, say, Edgar Cayce together with Erich von Daniken to see that what has changed from the late 19th and early 20th century occultists by the mid-to-late 20th century “ancient astronaut” theorist crowd, most popularly represented today by Ancient Aliens, is a loosely “scientific” rather than spiritual reductionism about such phenomena.[10] The occult origins of ufology ring out most clearly in the epiphanic character of reported encounters and the intrinsically religious quality of belief in otherworldly beings who have shaped humanity’s past and continue to exercise a hopefully benevolent role in its present and future. The concept of alien visitors bends many of our scientific notions and relativizes our concepts of “science” on the one hand and “religion” or “mysticism” on the other; in truth, the exo- or astrobiological take on ufology and its paranormal interpretation are not mutually exclusive, but mutually complementary. The key here is Arthur C. Clarke’s classic canon about the relationship of science and magic: just as magic is just science that one finds unintelligible, so too are gods simply beings whose cosmic superiority to one places them beyond one’s available ken. For all the intellectually lazy and downright damnable claims that the Ancient Aliens crowd makes—and there are many—they are right in suggesting that the effective difference between a sufficiently advanced alien species from elsewhere in the universe and a race of gods using magic would be lost on ancient people, and truthfully, it should also be lost on us today; epistemic arrogance alone stands behind reductionist accounts of any phenomenon. In theory, the gods could be understood: they could be narrativized, located in the hierarchy of being, their “biology” (or its analogue) and “psychology” investigated, and so forth; only God, as the infinite ground and telos of existence itself, is naturally ineffable. But to know the gods in this way requires a kind of ascent to their level to which we may have pretense but no current means. 

Likewise, paranormal accounts of encounters with UFOs/UAP or alien beings that skew more towards the terrestrially creepy—I am thinking here of, say, John Michael Greer’s argument that UFOs are simply fay under a new guise in his grimoire Monsters—only problematize an astrobiological explanation if we presume from the outset a materialist ontology in which biological beings from another world would, like us, be nothing but organic machines with no spiritual or psychic dimension. For the metaphysical idealist or panpsychist, the notion that one might encounter an extraterrestrial being on a psychedelic trip is not particularly problematic: if humans can go on expeditions into the terrain of altered states of consciousness, then how much more could beings of potentially advanced mental ability? Why would we project our culture’s obsessive bifurcation of the spiritual and the scientific, the religious and the technological, onto civilizations that are theoretically much smarter than us? There is of course the strong possibility that UFOs/UAP are not a systematic set of occurrences admitting of a singular explanation: if the universe is big enough for alien beings, it also seems big enough for the fay, and for government misdirection, and so forth. 

This is the real point that contemporary theology must take from ufology, quite independently of whatever happens to be true about UFOs/UAP, whether they are extraterrestrials, terrestrial spirits, humans from the future, government drones, smudges on glass, or whatever: how big are we willing to let the universe of God’s creation be? When we do theology, to what extent do we impose our previous expectations on what reality must be like onto phenomena, and to what extent do we engage with reality from a place of intellectual humility and epistemic openness? Of the two orientations, our encounter with God—again, ineffably beyond all of our conceptual categories and repeatedly iconoclastic concerning our expectations and assumptions—should theoretically leave us in the second stance with regard to all that God gives being and life to. The first stance, by contrast, continually leads us into the position of compromised intellectual and moral credibility that makes Christianity unnecessarily scandalous in the eyes of the world. Ancient Jews and Christians had to deal with seismic cosmology shifts in the ancient trend away from the Near Eastern model of a flat earth covered by a dome to the Ptolemaic cosmos; early modern Jews, Christians, and Muslims experienced the same with the Copernican revolution, as did later moderns with Newtonian physics and then their problematization by Hubble, Lemaitre, Einstein, and Bohr. Contemporary Christians may well be living on the threshold of yet another radical upending of our paradigmatic assumptions. That placement does not demand gullibility from us, but an interior emptiness, ready to receive from God whatever God has for us. 

David Armstrong is an Eastern Christian. He now writes regularly at A Perennial Digression(perennialdigression.substack.com), which also boasts a YouTube-based interview channel.

***Note from the editor: The Theology and Pop Culture series has a forthcoming volume from Richard McCarty on Theology and the Paranormal that may interest readers of this article.


Notes

[1]See: https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/cross-check/should-scientists-take-ufos-and-ghosts-more-seriously/.

[2]https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/16/us/politics/pentagon-program-ufo-harry-reid.html.

[3]https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/23/us/politics/pentagon-ufo-harry-reid-navy.html.

[4]https://www.space.com/25959-how-many-stars-are-in-the-milky-way.html.

[5]https://www.technologyreview.com/2020/11/06/1011784/half-milky-way-sun-like-stars-home-earth-like-planets-kepler-gaia-habitable-life/.

[6]https://www.seti.org/

[7]https://projects.iq.harvard.edu/galileo.

[8]To borrow Jeffrey Kripal’s term from his book coauthored with Whitley Strieber on the subject, The Super Natural: Why the Unexplained is Real(New York: TeacherPerigee, 2016). See also Kripal, The Flip: Epiphanies of Mind and the Future of Knowledge(New York: Bellevue Literary Press, 2019). 

[9]For a guide to this, see especially Kripal, The Super Natural, 1-20. 

[10]See the podcast Sectarian Review, Episode 161, “Ancient Racist Aliens,” for one of the most accessible walkthroughs of this dynamic: https://www.sectarianreviewpodcast.com/episodes-and-show-notes/episode-161-racist-ancient-aliens.

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