Space Aliens and Christianity

Space Aliens from Roswell, NM UFO Museum

What happens to Christianity if space aliens from another world were to make contact with us? What would they made of the Garden of Eden, the Incarnation, the Crucifixion and a thousand other details that are part and parcel of Christianity? What are the chances that any of the space aliens would ever convert to Christianity?

In fact, all the major monotheistic religions would come across as quaint and primitive. That includes Judaism and Islam. The life experience of creatures from another world would be so radically different that they in turn would affect how (and whom) earthlings worshiped.

I do not necessarily believe that we will ever contact space aliens, but I do wonder what would be the result of such a contact. At worst, it would be like that famous Twilight Zone episode from Season Three of that show entitled “To Serve Man.” (At the end of the episode, it is revealed that the “To Serve Man” book the aliens carried was not an altruistic guide, but a cookbook!) At best, there is the movie The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) with Michael Rennie’s Klaatu come to warn Earth that it is in danger of destroying itself.

Myself, I am more inclined to think of any space invaders as Conquistadores come to enslave the planet and mine it for its riches.

Journey to the East

Indian Holy Man

In many ways, most of my life has been a “Journey to the East.” I was raised as a Roman Catholic, going to Catholic schools from the 2nd through the 12th grades. Even at Dartmouth College, I was a worshiper at the Newman Club. In fact, when I fell into a coma in September 1966, it was Father William Nolan, the Catholic chaplain at Dartmouth, who urged the school’s medical insurance program to keep covering me, even though my coverage had officially lapsed at the beginning of the month. So my family and I owe a debt of gratitude to the Catholic Church.

One does not undergo a massive physical trauma without affecting the way one thinks and believes. That September, I was getting ready to take the train to Los Angeles to start graduate school in film history and criticism at UCLA. I had to delay my film classes until the winter quarter to allow me to recuperate.

What was the first book I read when I arrived in Los Angeles? It was Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha, closely followed by Paul Reps’s Zen Flesh Zen Bones. I had begun my own Journey to the East, mostly in my reading.

Why did I never fly to Asia to experience Hinduism, Taoism, and Buddhism directly? Strangely—especially for someone who was visited so much of Latin America—I was afraid that I wouldn’t survive the experience. Among my fellow Clevelanders who attended Dartmouth College was a student by the name of Noel Yurch. I was shocked to find out from the alumni magazine after I had graduated from college that he had gone to India and died of some gastrointestinal disease.

Curiously, my niece Hilary went to India and studied Yoga at an ashram without suffering any major adverse effects. Today, she is a yoga instructor in the Seattle area. But I was convinced it would be fatal for me. Was it nothing but funk? Perhaps.

Today, I still read many books about the Eastern religions. I consider myself to be a strange combination of Catholic, Hindu, Taoist, and Buddhist. Although I do not go to church on Sundays, I do not consider myself to be an Atheist or even an Agnostic. And when I visit Mexico or South America, I spend hours visiting Catholic churches and even attending Mass. But I no longer buy the whole package.

So in my so-called Journey to the East, I still have one foot in the Catholic Church, or at least one or two toes.

Is and Is Not

Scene from Sesshu Toyo’s Long Scroll

The following is from Sam Hammill’s translation of Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching written some 2,500 years ago:

Beauty and ugliness have one origin.
Name beauty, and ugliness is.
Recognizing virtue recognizes evil.

Is and is not produce one another.
The difficult is born in the easy,
long is defined by short, the high by the low.
Instrument and voice achieve one harmony.
Before and after have places.

That is why the sage can act without effort
and teach without words,
nurture things without possessing them,
and accomplish things without expecting merit:

only one who makes no attempt to possess it
cannot lose it.

Allhallowtide

If you were to look closely at the word Halloween, you may notice that it means the Eve of All Hallows Day, November 1, which is also called All Saints’ Day. In fact, the period from October 31 through November 2 is sometimes referred to as Allhallowtide. In a way, the period is a kind of liturgical trifecta, in that November 2 is All Souls’ Day, also known as the Day of the Dead.

The idea of All Saints’ Day was primarily to commemorate the nameless martyrs who died for their faith at the hands of certain Roman emperors who persecuted them. Perhaps the largest single group is the Theban Legion, commanded by Saint Maurice, who was ordered by the Emperor Maximian to defeat rebels in what is now Switzerland and, in the process, to make sacrifices to pagan gods. Maurice and his men refused. As punishment, Maximian ordered the legion to be decimated, that is, to have every tenth man executed. After two rounds of decimation, it was decided to execute the entire legion, which consisted of some 6,700 legionaries. Their martyrdom took place in AD 286.

Above is a painting by Fra Angelico of various saints and martyrs, not including the entire Theban Legion. In fact, none of the saints depicted look particularly like Roman legionaries.

All Saints’ Day (November 1) is still considered a Holy Day of Obligation in the Catholic Church, during which all Catholics are required to attend Mass or commit a mortal sin for failure to comply.

Although I continue to hold warm feelings about my Catholic upbringing, I am pretty much a lapsed Catholic and am probably doomed to the fires of Heck.

Thirty-Six Streams

The following selection on desire is taken from the sayings of Gautama Buddha known as The Dhammapada:

If you sleep
Desire grows in you
Like a vine in the forest.

Like a monkey in the forest
You jump from tree to tree,
Never finding the fruit—
From life to life,
Never finding peace.

If you are filled with desire
Your sorrows swell
Like the grass after the rain.

But if you subdue desire
Your sorrows fall from you
Like drops of water from a lotus flower.

This is good counsel
And it is for everyone:
As the grass is cleared for the fresh root,
Cut down desire
Lest death after death crush you
As a river crushes the helpless reeds.

For if the roots hold firm,
A felled tree grows up again.
If desires are not uprooted,
Sorrows grow again in you.

Thirty-six streams are rushing toward you!
Desire and pleasure and lust ...
Play in your imagination with them
And they will sweep you away.
Powerful streams!
They flow everywhere.

The Missionary and the Space Alien

My Guess: Even This Space Alien Is Too Humanoid

In science fiction films, there tends to be two views on encounters with space aliens. One is the romantic view, as exemplified by Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T., and Cocoon. In these films, the space aliens are benevolent and almost humanoid. Then there is the realistic vision of War of the Worlds. In this film, we don’t even get a good look at the aliens because they come out shooting from the get-go.

What with all the recent press about UFOs espied by military planes (see picture below), the subject has come up: What is the first encounter going to be like? I don’t think we are likely to encounter humanoids or anything even resembling them. They are probably not even likely to breathe our atmosphere.

I have this picture in my mind of a Christian missionary attempting to convert space aliens to his religion. How is that conversation likely to go? Will the space aliens crucify the missionary because that’s what they think he wants? How would the Christian religion look to a completely alien mind associated with a non-biped without the usual eyes, ears, nose, hands, and feet? I would think space aliens would laugh at what we would consider to be organized religion.

It would certainly sober up many Evangelicals in particular. But then, they are used to not believing in the evidence of their senses, given their political preference.

The image from video provided by the Department of Defense labelled Gimbal, from 2015, an unexplained object is seen at center as it is tracked as it soars high along the clouds, traveling against the wind. “There’s a whole fleet of them,” one naval aviator tells another, though only one indistinct object is shown. “It’s rotating.” The U.S. government has been taking a hard look at unidentified flying objects, under orders from Congress, and a report summarizing what officials know is expected to come out in June 2021. (Department of Defense via AP)

The interesting question is this: How would one go about reconciling the beliefs of space aliens with those of Earthlings, of whatever religious background? Oh to be a fly on the wall of that “conversation”!

Christian Archeology

Interior of the Palace of the Archbishop, Lima, Peru

What shocked me more than anything during my 2014 visit to Peru was that the archeology of Spanish Catholicism in Peru was fully as interesting as the archeology of the Incas and other pre-Columbian peoples. The pictures here all come from my visit to the Palace of the Archbishop next to the Cathedral in Lima on November 9, 2014. I was guided through the Palace by a very cute young Peruvian nun who kept addressing me as “Gentleman.”

As I visited the Palace and the various churches and convents, I thought to myself that the Christian religion in Peru had passed its peak. What remained was partially syncretic, but in any case visually stunning.

Chalice Flanked by Two Monstrances

I have often thought that it was not the King of Spain who benefited from the wealth of gold and silver transshipped from South America, as much as Holy Mother the Church. The churches and monasteries in the historic center of Lima are glistening with gold, silver, and precious stones. At the Monastery of Santo Domingo are the remains of three 17th century Limeño saints: Rose of Lima, Martín de Porres, and Juan Macías—all of whom were affiliated with the Dominican Order.

Brought up as a Roman Catholic, I found myself spending a lot more time in the churches than at the Inca ruins. They were usually beautiful and peaceful, even if I wound up attending Mass a number of times. In fact, I felt myself more a Catholic in Peru than I do in Los Angeles.

Statue of the Blessed Virgin

Whatever their original colors, it seems as if the paintings and statues of Christ, the Virgin, and the saints are predominantly reddish brown. This is particularly true of the Cusco School of Painting which predominated at the time. At some point soon, I will repeat a past post on the iconography of archangels shown in Peruvian paintings of the Cusco School.

The Dalai Lama and I

The 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso

The circumstances behind my seeing the Dalai Lama in April 1991 are indelibly etched in my memory. I arranged to first meet my friend George Hoole at his girlfriend’s apartment in Santa Maria, and then we would both go to the University of California at Santa Barbara to see the Dalai Lama give a speech.

I had only been driving for six years at the time, and I did something that killed the engine on my 1985 Mitsubishi Montero. Instead of staying on U.S. 101, I decided to take San Marcos Pass to Solvang, where I would have lunch before making my way back to the 101. Unfortunately, I drove up the pass in second gear. By the time I got to the top of the pass, my engine was a smoking ruin. I arranged to have the car towed back to Santa Monica Mitsubishi for repair, which was no easy thing as ’85 Monteros with automatic transmissions were a rarity.

George came to pick me up in Solvang and I was his passenger for the weekend. We heard the Dalai Lama give a great talk in his broken English … and this turned out to be the beginning of a difficult period for me. I teamed up with George to start a new company called Desktop Marketing Corporation, along with several of my co-workers from Urban Decision Systems, where I had been working since 1971.

It never took off, and I had to live on my savings for over a year, Ultimately, I left Desktop Marketing and managed to get a job in a Westwood accountancy firm called Lewis, Joffe & Company. Plus I had to shell out several thousand dollars for a new Montero engine.

Things don’t always tend to go your way. The early 1990s were a time of career change and retrenchment for me. But I never regret seeing the Dalai Lama in person. There is perhaps no religious figure I respected more, not even Pope John Paul II. There was something about the twinkle in his eyes which helped see me through a difficult period in my life.

I’d see him again if I could, but I would definitely avoid San Marcos Pass.

Favorite Films: Winter Light (1963)

The Middle Film of Ingmar Bergman’s Trilogy on the Silence of God

The film is almost impossibly bleak. At the very beginning, a parishioner comes to the Lutheran pastor played by Gunnar Björnstrand and confesses that he is depressed because the Red Chinese have the atomic bomb, and they have no respect for human life. Because of the stresses of his own life, Björnstrand admits his own depression (he is a widower who has recently lost his beloved wife) and winds up sending him away even more depressed. Within minutes, we discover that he has committed suicide next to a roaring river by sending a rifle shell at his head.

It gets even worse. Björnstrand is being pursued by the local schoolteacher, played by Ingrid Thulin (in above photo). But the pastor remains stubbornly alone as, coming down with a cold, he must conduct a service at nearby Frostnäs. He goes there, with Thulin in tow, only to find that none of the parishioners have shown up. He gives the service anyhow, beginning with the words “Holy Holy Holy, Lord God Almighty; Heaven and Earth are full of Thy glory.”

Swedish Film Director Ingmar Bergman (1918-2007)

Bergman’s trilogy includes Through a Glass Darkly (1961), Winter Light and The Silence (both 1963). These are, in no sense of the word, cheery films, as they deal primarily with God’s silence or even absence in the light of an increasingly disjointed world.

So why would anyone want to see such depressing films? For the same reason that they would see a performance of King Lear or read Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. It doesn’t take long before one realizes that there is no laugh track in our lives. I keep thinking about what the Philosopher Karl Jaspers wrote regarding the study of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche:

We live, so to speak, in a seething cauldron of possibilities, continually threatened by confusion, but always ready in spite of everything to rise up again. In philosophizing, we must always be ready, out of the present questioning, to elicit those ideas which bring forth what is real to us: that is, our humanity.

Although I do not consider myself to be an atheist, I do believe that no one can accurately describe God or God’s relationship to mankind. The Christians have this book which is several thousand years old and written by a number of authors. Some religions, such as Buddhism and Taoism, do not even have a God in the Christian sense of the word.

So when a great artist like Ingmar Bergman is honest about his own doubt, I am refreshed by his honesty. The problem, to me, is not how to worship God, but how to make one’s way in this bewildering world without benefit of Providence or God’s love.

I used to be a devout Catholic. Then, in September 1966, I survived major brain surgery and moved to Los Angeles to begin graduate school in film history and criticism at UCLA. For a brief while, I felt grateful to God for my survival; then, I thought: Why did He try to destroy me with twelve years of excruciating pain? The only masses I have attended since then have been funerals and nostalgic visits to beautiful old South American churches.

10,000+ Saints

Saint Andrew, Patron Saint of Scotland

Today is All Saints Day, which neatly occupies a space between Halloween and the Day of the Dead (All Souls, or the Dia de los Muertos in Mexico). It is one of the Catholic “Holy Days of Obligation,” when the observant believer was required to attend church services, even if they didn’t fall on the Sabbath.

It is said that there are more than 10,000 saints recognized by the Catholic Church. Just one grouping consists of St Maurice and the entire Roman legion he commanded, the garrison of Thebes in Egypt, consisting of over 6,000 souls, who had converted to Christianity and were martyred by decimation in AD 286 by order of the Emperor Maximian. I’m not even sure the Church knows the names of the members of that garrison.

When I was in grade school at St Henry (himself the Holy Roman Emperor Henry II who ruled from AD 1004 t0 1024), the Dominican nuns would reward us for good behavior with what we called holy cards, which are now called prayer cards. They’re still around:

Prayer Card for St Cecelia, Patron of Music

I remember once visiting San Cristobal de Las Casas (named after St Christopher, who is no longer officially venerated) during the Feast of St Cecelia held around the local church named after her. It was one of the best Mexican fiestas I ever attended.

When I visit Christian churches that are not richly decorated with statues, stained glass windows, and paintings depicting the saints, I feel that there is something missing. I often think the bare white walls could do with a few saints. After all, the Bible was written two or more thousand years ago: I see the saints as manifestations that the Christian God did not simply go on vacation after the Crucifixion to work on His tan.

In Lima, Peru, I visited the burial of three New World saints of the 16th century, one of whom, St Martin de Porres, was African-American. His feast day is celebrated on November 3, Election Day this year.

St Martin de Porres in the Chapel Dedicated to Him

If it seems strange to you that a non-practicing Catholic such as myself feels the way I do about the saints, I see it as part of the richness of the Catholic (and Eastern Orthodox) religion that appeals to me. In their own way, the saints update Christianity.

I may not be a good Catholic, but I prayed to St Martin de Porres when I visited his chapel and saw where he was buried.