Saturday, February 19, 2011

God Doesn't Drive a Flying Saucer

If you have been paying attention the past few years you might have noticed an increasing fascination in popular culture with the potential relationship between alien and supernatural beings. Most religious traditions postulate a being or beings that are not from earth and possess superior knowledge and capabilities or technology. For many years there have been those who theorized that if primitive people encountered a being or culture who had enough knowledge and technology to travel through space they would have no equivalent frame of reference for which to relate to them. They claimed that the result would likely be that primitive man would assume that these beings were gods. Some further argue that the fact that virtually all cultures have myths regarding brilliant and powerful beings that are not from earth is an indication that at some point in the past the earth must have been visited by aliens and that these stories are the records of that visitation.

I first recall encountering these ideas when I read Arthur C. Clarke’s 1953 book   Childhood's End . In the story earth is visited by benevolent alien “overlords” who do not allow anyone to see them. Eventually one of the characters gets a glimpse of the visitors whose description matches that of medieval devils. A few years later I read Erich von Däniken’s 1968 book Chariots of the Gods.  Däniken’s work was not a fictional account but was an argument that alien knowledge and technology was so superior to that of primitive people that they assumed it to be supernatural. He points to ancient technological accomplishments such as the pyramids and argues that the cultures who built them did not possess the engineering knowledge necessary to design them. He then points to various ancient texts and myths to make the case that we have records of alien creatures interacting with our ancestors and sharing knowledge with them. For example, Däniken claims that the first chapter of Ezekiel is a description of a flying saucer and alien beings.

The idea that there may be some relationship between alien and supernatural descriptions has been around for some time and occasionally throughout the 1970’s and 1980’s there would be a TV. show that would discuss these theories. Recently, however, there seems to be a resurgence of this kind of thing. Obviously the internet makes it much easier for people to access these ideas but they are also increasingly showing up in movies, books, and television. For example, the 2008 film Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is based upon this perspective and more recently (2010) the History Channel released a series called Ancient Aliens also based upon Däniken-like theories.

One might wonder if this is even worth giving much thought to. After all, Däniken’s theories regarding ancient technology and mythology are arbitrarily constructed and are rejected by virtually all scholars of each of the various disciplines that he deals with. Clarke’s stories and Indiana Jones are fictional accounts and anyone seriously interested in history can see that many of the so called documentaries on cable T.V. are more sensationalism than history. It is, however, something that I think is worth taking notice of.

First, it is a reflection of the continued shift toward materialistic presuppositions in our culture. Much of our philosophy and science is materialistic in nature and this gets funneled through our educational system and eventually into our cultural expressions. Since the culture has by and large accepted (even if just functionally) that there are no such thing as supernatural beings we then have to provide a naturalistic interpretation of why religious belief is present in every human culture in history. If supernatural beings do not exist why has the belief that they do been found in every culture? By postulating an ancient alien encounter the naturalist has some basis for explaining how certain types of religious faith evolved without denying the reality of the experiences, and even miracles and unlikely events that are recorded in the religious texts. In fact, some atheist thinkers have suggested that it might be possible that life first began on earth as the result of being planted here by aliens (panspermia hypothesis).

The repeated exposure to ideas such as this over time makes them more acceptable to the general public. These programs such as Ancient Aliens are produced to be similar to documentaries and are broadcast on channels that purport to be educational. It is an unfortunate fruit of the evolution of cable T.V. that many of the documentaries and even news shows are often giving air time to unsubstantiated theories and interpretations in such a way as to put them on the same footing as more widely held views without being clear that they are not accepted by most of the experts.

The end result of all of this is a subtle but real attack on the witness of the Scriptures. Rather than accepting them as a revelation of God of Himself to humans the proponents of these ideas would have us understand the bible as the best efforts of wowed ancestors to explain their encounter with other creatures that happen to be much more advanced than they were. YAHWEH is therefore no longer the creator God but is simply some other evolved creature that happened to stop by. Spiritual experiences, whether with angels or demons, if not explained away psychologically can therefore be attributed to a real but alien encounter.

It may be the case that there is life in some other part of the universe. The scriptures are a record of God’s plan of salvation for humans and do not directly address this question. What is clear, however, is that the bible is not a disjointed collection of misinformed recollections. It is a coherent and self-attesting unity of God’s revelation of Himself and is intended to be understood plainly. We must account for figures of speech etc. but the bible is clear that God is not some creature that they were trying to describe but is rather the sovereign Creator of the universe. 

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