As if the last few years were not strange enough, the United States Congress recently held hearings on the subject of UFOs. As NBC News reported, numerous claims were made by those called before the subcommittee, including by former military or intelligence personnel. Perhaps the most surprising aspect of this otherwise earth-shattering story was how it has largely been greeted, at least on social media, with a collective "meh." If so much information was kept hush-hush for so many years, why the sudden transparency now? Isn't this just another chapter in red herrings tossed out to distract us from what's "really" going on?
As tempting as it is to think of these hearings as an unaired episode of "The X-Files," the virtue of stories like this, and of the whole genre of sci-fi, is that they bring up questions about the deeper things of life. Who are we? Are we alone in the universe? What would it mean if we weren't? What makes us special as human beings?
Noted sci-fi writer Arthur C. Clarke famously said, "Two possibilities exist: Either we are alone in the universe, or we are not. Both are equally terrifying."
Religious people are less likely than others to believe that aliens exist. Or, if they think something is "out there," they are less likely to think of extraterrestrials as E.T. as they are to think of them as demons trying to deceive us for one reason or another. On the other hand, those with a materialist outlook tend to see the world as just a "pale blue dot" in the heavens and humanity as nothing more than the consequence of chance and chaos. In fact, it's become almost an article of materialist faith that if we are here, someone else must be too.
All of which suggests that there's more to how we view these matters than what we have seen or not seen. For instance, despite being supposedly a planetwide concern, nearly all UFOs sighted tend to show up in the English-speaking world. Or, as someone on Reddit noted, "they sure love the U.S."
A similar phenomenon can be seen in the variations of "Bigfoot" stories, depending on from what region they are. The stories out of the Pacific Northwest tend to resemble a "Harry and the Hendersons" vibe. Sure, the creature might seem a bit scary but, in the end, they are one with nature, like a kind of extra-furry Bill Walton. The stories out of Texas are all about these super-aggressive creatures that are ready to fight and kill and steal your children. Tennessee Bigfoots, on the other hand, are just downright neighborly, knocking on doors to ask for some garlic. These together suggest it's clear that, even when it comes to urban legends and outer space, the stories we tell ourselves make a big difference in what we see in the world.
Anyone who has read C.S. Lewis' Space Trilogy can tell you that the great apologist used his own imagination to tell wonderful stories where very plausible aliens lived and interacted with his human heroes. The inhabitants of Mars and Venus, or as Lewis named them, "Malacandra" and "Perelandra," were fellow creatures born of the artistry and care of the same God we encounter in the Bible. Yet, in one of his last books, he noted the subjective element in people's belief in the extraordinary.
Right at the end of his study of the medieval worldview, he wrote: "Fifty years ago, if you had asked an astronomer about 'life on other worlds,' he was apt to be totally agnostic about it or even stress its improbability. We are now told that in so vast a universe stars that have planets and planets that have inhabitants must occur times without number. Yet no compulsive evidence is to hand. But is it irrelevant that in between the old opinion and the new we have had the vast proliferation of 'science fiction' and the beginnings of space travel in real life?"
What we believe about alien life and other mysteries says more about our beliefs, or what Charles Taylor called our "social imaginaries," than it does about their existence. The culture around us affects our view of the world in profound ways. Our worldview is a pair of belief "glasses" that help us understand the nature of reality, but it can also be a kind of blinder, too.
This doesn't mean we are completely lost in the fog of our own precognitive assumptions, only that we should follow Francis Schaeffer's advice about checking our presuppositions "after a careful consideration of which worldview is true."
From Breakpoint, Aug. 15, 2023; reprinted by permission of the Colson Center, breakpoint.org.