Gods from Outer Space

Transcendent Outsiders, Alien Gods, and Aspiring Humans: Literary Fantasy and Science Fiction as Contemporary Theological Speculation by Ryan Calvey, discusses a range of such entities, and I wish to fill out his discussion further. His hierarchy is:

  • Transcendent outsiders: entities much more powerful than us.
  • Human beings.
  • Aspiring human beings: a huge collection of robots, software constructs, magically-animated toys, assembled organisms, and the like. They want to either become human or else to have the sort of respect that we give each other.

About the first one, RC distinguished between authoritarian and friendly ones, and I have expanded on his classification.

  • Authoritarian and Punitive: the movie The Day The Earth Stood Still
  • Friendly and Helpful: Carl Sagan’s book and movie Contact
  • Aloof: the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey
  • Absent or Nonexistent: Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series
  • Emergent: Isaac Asimov’s short story “The Last Question”

I’ll explain more about each of them after the fold.

Authoritarian and Punitive

In The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951), Klaatu and Gort come to our planet in a flying saucer with a message: “Behave yourselves — or else!!!” They then play good cop bad cop with us. Klaatu, the good cop, is a Jesus Christ figure, while Gort, the bad cop, does not hesitate to use force.

Ryan Calvert then gets into HG Wells’s The War of the Worlds (1897), with the Martians as punishers. I think that he is right that the book is an allegory for imperialist and colonialist arrogance. We would not like it if we were treated like that, with technologically superior entities trying to conquer our homeworld.

Friendly and Helpful

Here, the ET’s’ message is very different: “You’ll be much better off if you behave youselves.” RC discusses Carl Sagan’s Contact (book: 1985, movie: 1997) in detail. He says about it

Perhaps more explicitly than any other work I’ll discuss, Carl Sagan’s Contact places alien transcendent outsiders in spiritual roles and uses their arrival (even their very nature) to facilitate a deep exploration of broader, Eastern-influenced progressive spirituality which it suggests can satisfy both its scientist protagonist and open-minded religious believers and which it contrasts favorably with the traditional approaches to religion and spirituality it critiques.

In her wormhole journey, Ellie Arroway meets an ET “Caretaker”. He appears in human form for her convenience, and he fits this picture very well.

‘It isn’t like that,’ he said. ‘It isn’t like the sixth grade.’ […] ‘Don’t think of us as some interstellar sheriff gunning down outlaw civilizations. Think of us more as the Office of the Galactic Census. We collect information. I know you think nobody has anything to learn from you because you’re technologically so backward. But there are other merits to a civilization’

When she returns, all the physical evidence of her journey has been erased, something that I thought of as grossly contrived when I read it in the book. That’s why I have not seen the movie. Ellie then says about her experience,

Because I can’t… I had an experience. I can’t prove it, I can’t even explain it.
But everything I know as a human being, everything that I am tells me that it was real. I was given something wonderful, something that changed me forever, a vision of the universe that tells us undeniably that we are not, that none of us, are alone. I wish I could share that. I wish that everyone, if even for one moment, could feel that awe and humility and hope, but… that continues to be my wish.

I would have lamented the lack of independent evidence, and I would have grumbled that this makes me seem like some UFO contactee. It’s worth noting that Carl Sagan disdained UFO contactees for his entire career, starting with when he testified at the trial of one for fraudulent business dealings. However, he had long expressed hopes that ET’s contacted over interstellar space might be as friendly and talkative as the alleged contacts of UFO contactees.

RC himself only briefly mentioned UFO contactees, like Orfeo Angelucci, but it’s worth noting that notable UFO contactee George Adamski’s alleged ET friends fit this profile very well. In his coauthored book Flying Saucers Have Landed (1953), he meets a human(oid) flying-saucer pilot in the southern-California desert. That pilot expressed great concern about nuclear bombs, yet was much more like Klaatu than Gort:

To this, too, he nodded his head in the affirmative, but on his face there was no trace of resentment or judgment. His expression was one of understanding, and great compassion; as one would have toward a much loved child who had erred through ignorance and lack of understanding. This feeling appeared to remain with him during the rest of my questions on this subject.

In his book Inside the Spaceships (1955), he meets some of that pilot’s fellow spaceship crewmembers, and they have similar attitudes. Like about war, a human(oid) crewwoman states

It is a great pity that we must talk of such sorrowful things—and still sadder that such woe exists anywhere in the Universe. In ourselves, we of other planets are not sad people. We are very gay. We laugh a great deal.

Getting back to RC’s thesis, he also mentions some other movies with friendly and helpful ET’s: Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), and also Starman (1984) and Cocoon (1985).

However, CEIII is rather odd, because the ET’s behave in rather unfriendly ways over the first 2/3 of the movie, like planting an impulse to go to Devil’s Tower in Wyoming. Toward the end, however, everybody stands around blissfully as the ET’s make a big light show with their spaceships when they show up at that geological structure.

Aloof

Something like a deist sort of god.

The ET’s do little or no communication with us, despite their involvement in our affairs. The movie 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) is a classic presentation of this possibility. Advanced ET’s show up as mysterious black slabs, and they help humanity emerge. We later discover one of those slabs on the Moon, and when it is illuminated after being uncovered, it sends a signal to Jupiter. An expedition then follows that signal, and at Jupiter, its only survivor encounters another slab and then goes on trip through a wormhole. Even then, the ET’s barely communicate with him.

This movie was co-written by Arthur C. Clarke, someone who has written about this theme in other works, like his 2001 sequels and his first novel, Childhood’s End (1953).

Turning to UFO lore, alien abductions fit in very well. The abductors take their victims aboard their spacecraft, examine them, and then return them to their original states. They act much like wildlife biologists, and they hardly ever communicate with their victims.

It is worth noting that many UFOlogists are much more skeptical about UFO contactees than about UFO abductions. Could such skepticism be from contactee stories seeming “too good to be true”? Something lacking from most abduction stories.

Absent or Nonexistent

Something like agnosticism and atheism, where the only forces and entities known to us with more power than humanity are completely impersonal ones.

Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Series is a good example of that, especially his original Foundation Trilogy. The only sentient species in the entire Milky Way Galaxy is our species, Homo sapiens (sapiens), though in later installments, our robot creations also appear.

That appears to be the real-life situation, where we have yet to find any broadly-convincing evidence of extraterrestrial visits or contacts. Even though it is at least possible that sentient entities may emerge elsewhere in the Universe. That conundrum is known as the Fermi paradox, and I’ve seen numerous proposed solutions of it.

Emergent

A deity that emerges from the Universe has been proposed by some theologians, like paleontologist, Catholic priest, and philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881 – 1955). He proposed that the Universe and its inhabitants are evolving to some “Omega Point”, a state of maximum complexity and consciousness which may also be called God.

Isaac Asimov’s short story “The Last Question” features a similar sort of emergence. In the near future, some computer technicians get concerned about the Universe running down, and they then ask their computer how to reverse this increase in entropy. Their computer responds “Insufficient data for meaningful answer”. As humanity and humanity’s computers get more advanced, those technicians’ successors repeatedly ask that question of that computer’s successors, and those computers also return that answer.

Until the last bit of humanity asks that question once again, and merges with the last computer, a super entity that has become all that is left of the Universe. That computer then finds a solution to that problem, and implements it.

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