UFOs, extraterrestrials and faith: Compass 85

Deep in the media vaults of the United Methodist denomination are old radio shows all about UFOs and extraterrestrial life. It would seem odd that a religious organization would be so invested in that topic. Meanwhile, NASA has funded theological projects and several faith leaders have invested in the astro-sciences.

What is going on? Do UFOs and extraterrestrials have anything to with faith and theology?

Let's dive into the relationship...

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This episode features excerpts from "Night Call"--a radio production from the late 1960's. The show was produced by a predecessor of United Methodist Communications and discussed cultural issues of the day, including racial justice, Vietnam, the sexual revolution... and UFOs. There are many, many great episodes to explore.

More info on the history of Night Call: 

The innovative “Night Call” program was a major initiative of the Methodist Church. In 1965-66, this national call-in program originated in a studio in Dearborn, Michigan, with influential guests on the phone taking questions from across the country. The program dealt with difficult issues that faced the nation. After the church merger, the program was re-created, originating from New York City in 1968 and 1969. In this period of Civil Rights fervor, guests included Ralph Abernathy, Roy Innis, James Lawson, Stokely Carmichael, Julian Bond, A. D. King, James Baldwin, Andrew Young, Shirley Chisholm and so many other major figures in the movement.

The two episodes specifically excerpted in this program:

Also appearing on this Compass episode (from the modern day) are Drs. Lucas Mix and David Wilkinson. Rev. Dr. Lucas Mix is a writer, Episcopalian priest, consultant for NASA, project coordinator at Equipping Christian Leadership in an Age of Science (ECLAS), and the Baruch S. Blumberg NASA/Library of Congress Chair in Astrobiology, Exploration, and Scientific Innovation. Dr. Mix hosts the Space on the Page podcast for the Library of Congress. Reverend Professor David Wilkinson is a professor in the Department of Theology and Religion at Durham University and has PhDs in astrophysics and systematic theology. He also works with ECLAS.

Hear the full interviews with our guests:

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TRANSCRIPT:

Ryan Dunn (00:02):

This is the compass podcast. My name is Ryan Dunn. This is gonna be a different episode. We're not straying from our mission of disrupting our everyday experience with divine moments. Instead, we're gonna engage in our disruption in a different way. Instead of doing a straight up interview or walking through a spiritual practice, I'm gonna share an audio story of how my own experience was disrupted by some divine thought and theological challenges. And it's gonna seem like this comes out of left field, or I guess more appropriately, it's gonna feel like it comes straight from outer space. Let me explain. I work for United Methodist communications, the communications agency of the United Methodist denomination and deep within the confines of the United Methodist communications studios are vaults within these vaults are various archived materials. Things like footage from speeches, given at big church conferences or old Sunday school teaching videos from the 1980s, there is also a catalog of episodes from a late 1960s radio show called night call.

Radio Announcer (01:17):

This is night call broadcast live with host, Russ Gibb.

Ryan Dunn (01:26):

Night Call was one of the first national radio call in shows. I found myself sifting through some of those old night call episodes because the show hits some heavy topics for the time. Lots of conversation, especially in its later years about racial justice and promoting understanding, and it hosted interviews with the likes of Jesse Jackson and Bill Russell and Stokley Carmichael. Jackie Robinson. Other episodes include titles like, "Are we on the Eve of destruction?" Or "Do our kids dig religion?" Also "Is Vietnam necessary?". But as I was leafing through these episodes, I kept seeing the unexpected: several episodes on alien life and UFOs

Radio Announcer (02:10):

Tonight, subject UFOs. Are they real?

Ryan Dunn (02:15):

Why was this show so concerned with exploring alien life and UFOs? Maybe there's some serious theological work to attend to here. It got me thinking maybe I should take this topic a bit more seriously. So I listen to the episodes and the shows feature several witnesses of UFO events.

Russ Gibb (02:35):

Laura do flying saucers really exist.

Laura Mundo (02:39):

Well, Russ, I guess you just never saw flying saucer. Did you? Or you wouldn't ask a question like that?

Russ Gibb (02:44):

Well, frankly, I haven't now have you.

Laura Mundo (02:47):

Yes. I have had my own proof that some very unusual craft is in our skies or I just wouldn't have stuck my neck out for about the past 12 years, investigating the situation and passing information on to other people who are interested

Russ Gibb (03:02):

Now, what did this flying saucer look like?

Laura Mundo (03:05):

Well, it happened to be right over my own home in Dearborn, several years ago, but 1958 and it was round as large as the two-story...

Ryan Dunn (03:16):

And while I found that this was an invitation for me to maybe take the idea of extraterrestrial life a bit more seriously, I found that they sometimes slipped into some skepticism.

Russ Gibb (03:28):

Now, why was it over your house?

Laura Mundo (03:30):

It has been many places that type, that very type of ship has been seen all over the world. So I'm nobody in particular.

Russ Gibb (03:37):

Laura, are you a drinking gal?

Laura Mundo (03:39):

Oh, I like a screwdriver once in a while, socially. But outside of that

Russ Gibb (03:44):

Had you been drinking the night that you saw the saucer?

Laura Mundo (03:46):

Well, it was in the daytime and I I'm really not a daytime drinker.

Russ Gibb (03:49):

It was during the day. Yeah. Now what did you do when you saw this saucer?

Laura Mundo (03:53):

Well, I just kind of looked at it and as I saw it hover for a few...

Ryan Dunn (03:58):

I'm not as curious about whether or not intelligent visitors are coming to earth as the listeners of the old Night Call show were. But I am curious about the theological implications of discovering life outside of our planet. Really, what would it mean for our faith? If we found that life existed elsewhere, how might that discovery impact our own understanding of God? And they did look for the theological thread on the old Night Call show. Here are a couple clips.

Russ Gibb (04:28):

You think that possibly Jesus was from another planet?

Laura Mundo (04:32):

I have no idea who Jesus was. I'm sure he tried his best. And what things did he get for it?

Ryan Dunn (04:40):

There's even a little bit of spiritual testimony wrapped up in those Night Call shows about UFOs and extraterrestrials.

Russ Gibb (04:47):

It seems to me that you have religious overtones in the saucer.

Laura Mundo (04:53):

Well, you're not going to be able to keep God out of anything. Now, God and religions--organized religions--are two different things. Mm-Hmm <affirmative> and he existed a long time before man ever organized thinking on God. So this is his universe. And even though earth man seems to have forgotten, and it's also his plan. So what is happening to us is a new horizon is opening, opening up here into outer space. Then we may discover that everything is is connected in some way or another...

Ryan Dunn (05:23):

Those were the voices of host Russ Gibb and guest Laura Mundo.

Ryan Dunn (05:28):

Okay. This is all fascinating stuff to think about, but is it really pivotal to our understanding of faith and theology? Or is it more or less a whimsical distraction? Dare I say, I had relegated all of this theology on UFOs and extraterrestrial intelligence to the latter--to just being a playful distraction. And I set the whole idea aside. But then in one of those serendipitous experiences that often happens in the life of faith--one of those things that we sometimes chalk up to being a movement of the spirit--well that brought this whole topic back in front of me, and then it happened again. The first instance of this recurrence was a viral report that NASA was employing theologians to address issues that might arise should extraterrestrial intelligence be discovered. Now this report wasn't completely true.

Ryan Dunn (06:23):

NASA, never employed any theologians, but NASA did provide some funding for theological think tanks that addressed issues of extraterrestrial life and cosmology.

Ryan Dunn (06:36):

And we need to take a little aside here because cosmology is a term that might need some description. It's important to address it because some traditional Christian assumptions about cosmology might be challenged by the discovery of life outside of our planet. And cosmology is a confusing term. On one hand, it's a branch of astronomy involving the science of the universe's origin. But on the other hand, cosmology is used in metaphysical spheres too. Here. It describes the origin and general structure of the universe with its parts, elements and laws, and especially with such of its characteristics as space, time, causality and freedom, scientifically cosmology deals with the what and when and how in determining how we've gotten to this point of time that we're in. But metaphysical cosmology speaks to the why of existence. And possibly it can speak to the who as well, because as we start talking about cosmology, Christianity and life beyond our planet, we're gonna face some new understandings of who we are as humans and how we relate to a God who just might be a lot more creative than we thought.

Ryan Dunn (07:51):

So NASA was already engaged in theological research, but then the United States Senate renewed investigations into UFO sightings. This is the other serendipitous event noting that Naval intelligence has now documented some 400 incidents with UFOs.

Ronald Moultrie (08:11):

We know that our service members have encountered unidentified aerial phenomenon and because UAPs posed potential flight safety and journal security risk, we are committed to a focused effort to determine their origins. Our effort will include the thorough examination of adversarial platforms and potential breakthrough technologies, us government or commercial platforms, allied, or partner systems and other natural phenomenon.

Ryan Dunn (08:41):

That was the voice of under secretary of defense for intelligence and security, Ronald Moultrie, as he testified before Congress. Again, NASA is taking the topic of theological engagement seriously. My country's government is taking the issue of possible extraterrestrial intelligence seriously. Why shouldn't I take it seriously? So I decided to reopen my own personal exploration of the topic of extraterrestrial intelligence and it's theological implications.

Ryan Dunn (09:11):

And I suppose one part of my fascination with the topic was in figuring out what it might mean for my own faith should we have close encounters with intelligent beings. But also I was just really curious as to why this was a thing. Why would NASA fund this kind of research like what's to gain for them? And what's for me to gain by thinking about this, it turns out there's actually quite a community of people out there who are working across the seemingly separated fields of the Astro-sciences and theology.

Ryan Dunn (09:47):

And the two areas have been in conversation with each other for centuries. Some people have even claimed that extra terrestrial intelligence shows up in the Bible. One claim asserts that a prophetic vision recorded in the first chapter of Ezekiel is a primitive understanding of a close encounter with extra terrestrial beings. "I Looked out and I saw a windstorm coming out of the north, an immense cloud with flashing lightning and surrounded by brilliant light. The center of the fire looked like glowing metal and in the fire was what looked like four living creatures in appearance. Their form was that of a man, but each of them had four faces in four wings."

Ryan Dunn (10:29):

There have also been claims that some references to angels are veiled references to visiting extraterrestrials. There's of course no proof to substantiate these claims, but they can't be totally refuted either. I suppose, when humans pushed towards space exploration, the topic of course gained a lot more interest.

Ryan Dunn (10:50):

CS Lewis, the science fiction, fantasy writer and Christian theologian, he actually wrote a series of novels exploring the possibility of meeting extraterrestrials and how it impacts a human understanding of God. And reading these books helps provide an understanding of both why people of faith may want to consider the implications of life on other planets. And also why an organization like NASA would invest in philosophical and theological endeavors because there's a responsibility to be assumed if we encounter life elsewhere, how are we to react if such a discovery were made? What responsibilities would we have as far as making contact in a non-harmful way? But that didn't become clear until after I spoke with some of the people engaging in theological discourse around the Astro sciences. One of these people is Dr. Lucas Mix.

Lucas Mix (11:49):

Hello, my name is Lucas Mix. I am an Episcopal priest and an evolutionary biologist. I have been working with NASA for the last 25 years on the search for life beyond earth. And I am deeply interested in this question of what we mean by life. Both in theology and in science,

Ryan Dunn (12:10):

Besides consulting for NASA, Dr. Mix hosts the space on the page podcast from the library of Congress and is an Episcopalian priest. I asked him why NASA was interesting in working with well with people like him.

Lucas Mix (12:25):

Well, I think we need to start with the science research, which is to say that NASA has exobiology and astrobiology programs, which are doing the scientific work of figuring out what it would take to convince us there is life elsewhere and what the, the context of life is astronomically geologically in terms of planetary science and all these other things. And from that part of NASA's mission has always been studying the societal implications of space research. Okay. So recently NASA has done a little bit of work. It's a very small portion of what NASA does on astrobiology. Thinking about the societal implications of astrobiology, what it means to look for life as well as what it might mean to find life.

Ryan Dunn (13:16):

All right. So NASA is concerned with the societal implications of extraterrestrial life. That includes apparently the implications on our shared spiritual lives. Why would the discovery of extraterrestrial intelligence be of any concern to people of faith or specifically Christians? Here's Dr. Mix.

Lucas Mix (13:35):

I think that there are Christians who are really concerned about what life beyond earth might mean for our relationship with God. And I think those are great questions to ask. My sense is that every time we look to God and ask, am I special? God says, yes, and others are special too. We want to have our, our privileged place in the economy of salvation. And I think Jesus has a privileged place in the economy of salvation, but I'm not sure that that means humanity does other than our particular role there much like Israel has a very particular place in the economy of salvation, which is indispensable and important. And yet that is not to say, God, can't be working more broadly in the world.

Ryan Dunn (14:33):

Our theology is very human focused. There is a biblical case for this in Genesis, during the creation stories, God charges humanity with a role to be caretakers of creation. That seems like a special commission given to humans to help describe this. Let's meet Reverend professor David Wilkinson. Dr. Wilkinson is a professor in the department of theology and religion at Durham university in the UK. He has PhDs in astrophysics and systematic theology. He spoke with me about this human-centric view of creation.

David Wilkinson (15:07):

And I think there are two main areas of that. The first is does that somehow undermine the the status or uniqueness of human beings? Now, some folks say that the Christian faith says that we are special because we are unique. It's a specialness based on exclusivity. It seems to me that that we don't have to be the center of the universe or the only ones in the universe to be important or special. Nicholas of Cusa, a 15th century Christian theologian, made a very important theological move when he said that human beings are special, not because of their place in the universe, but because of the gift of relationship that because God has gifted intimacy of relationship with human beings with himself. And we've seen that in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. That doesn't mean that it has to be the only type of relationship that God has.

Ryan Dunn (16:17):

That's an important note that the human relationship isn't necessarily the only relationship that God has. In fact, the evolving story of relationship throughout the Bible is a story of God's ever expanding relationships. Biblically speaking, God's relationships often began with singular people or a couple of people. Right? First there was Adam and Eve, then God's relationships expanded. Then there was Abraham and God had a singular relationship of revelation through that one individual, then an expanded to Abraham's family, then to a whole group of people and a nation. And this nation, the nation of Israel was supposed to embody the revelation of God. It's a very hyper localized or hyper-specific view of God's action, but in the Bible, it keeps expanding. Then Jesus interest the picture, and some of Jesus' Jewish/Israelite followers suggest that that's revelation isn't just for one place or for one people group it's for all places and all people groups.

Ryan Dunn (17:26):

And in the New Testament, Paul makes an important turn for our understanding of God's relationships. Paul suggests that God is at work in building relationships with people who were not a part of the chosen nation in communicating to a new people group. He told them that they already had a relationship with the God that Paul was talking about the Jewish God, they just called this God something else. And then in communicating back to the chosen people of Jewish lineage, he said, "look, God is already at work out here." We can be participants with that or not.

Ryan Dunn (18:05):

Of course, though, this presents a question for Christians. There's the whole Jesus revelation, right? God incarnated, or God became flesh as a human being. So we have a very specific instance of God being explicitly tied to humanity. And in some veins of theology, this revelation of God in Jesus is exclusive. Meaning you can't really know God without knowing Jesus. So what might the discovery of other intelligent beings mean for our understanding of Jesus being the human revelation of God? Here are some more thoughts from Dr. Wilkinson

David Wilkinson (18:46):

And therefore we're called to be cosmic missionaries taking the message out. Well, that's a very long missionary journey. If you think about this billions of light years, some other Christians have said, no, the God that we see in Jesus is a God who becomes incarnate in flesh. And maybe if there are little green women and little green men out there, God would become incarnate in little green flesh. And there's been some popular Christian spirit spirituality about that from Larry Norman part of the, of the early Jesus music scene through to a heh called Sydney Carter talking about other incarnations in other star systems. I think the difficulty of that particular view is this sense of multiple incarnations for some Christians, would God really become incarnate in different worlds? And it's something that's actually, I think quite difficult for Christians really to come to a clear answer to because Christians believe that in the case of human beings, the incarnation of God is about two things.

David Wilkinson (20:04):

The first is God becomes a human being in order to demonstrate his love to us, show what God is like, but also in order to achieve a mechanism for the forgiveness of sin of a new start now, CS Lewis great poly math and British science fiction writer. And some of his science fiction posed the question, well, if there were intelligent life, would they have send in the same way human beings would, they need to be redeemed in the same way. And that's, you know, that's an interesting question, which we don't know the answer to. And partly, that's why we need to wait and look and see and see what the situation is. If and when we do meet any other life in the universe, John Polking horn, a British writer on science and theology once said, when asked this question, it would God becoming connate in other flesh said that God, that I see in Jesus would do what is necessary. And I'm pretty happy with that

Ryan Dunn (21:12):

In the CS Lewis books, Dr. Wilkinson mentioned some chosen earthlings are transported to other planets where they meet intelligent life forms. These creatures already have established relationships with a creator being and because their relationship has a different nature, they have seen God revealed in different ways, ways that don't necessitate an event like the life of Jesus. One group of extraterrestrials is so innocent that they have yet to actually commit this sin of disobedience. And this situation presents an amazing little theological sandbox for us to play around in where the humans learn about the goodness of God from the extraterrestrials experience of God and the extraterrestrials learn about the extent of God's love through our human experience. This isn't so much about sharing our own human centered experience of God with other life forms is about gaining a fuller picture of what God does. Here's Dr. Wilkinson. Again,

David Wilkinson (22:15):

I think theologians would have a reconciling role within the community to say let's see this as an opportunity to learn more about ourselves, to learn more about God. And one of the things that I think is the central message of the Bible and has been often something within my Christian life is what a theologian, a number of years ago called JB Phillips gave us the title of a book. Your God is too small. And so part of astrophysics in general, and part of this exploration in terms of life elsewhere in the universe, I think for me, is always that I find out more about the richest extravagant diversity and surprising nature of God, which is not well, it can be disturbing, but ultimately is exciting. So I think for those reasons, and, and then there's a kind of the professional theologian, which comes in at the end, which says there is something actually in this exploration, which is a bit of a theological sand pit or a play pen, where at the moment we can explore questions of sin and redemption incarnation and revelation, and we can do so by posing questions about aliens in a playful way which is actually really helpful,

Ryan Dunn (23:50):

Dr. Mix expressed really similar ideas as he talked about his own personal calling or interest in the overlap of astrobiology and theology.

Lucas Mix (24:00):

I think that God is so much greater than anything I could ask or imagine, and have always been most surprised and most delighted when I find out I just didn't have a clue before <laugh>. And and so I like looking in, in odd places to see what God is up to. And you know, I think what, what could be better than, than finding an intelligence that wasn't human intelligence that would have this whole new perspective on God and the world. I just think that would be amazing. So I, I don't know whether we, we will find extraterrestrial life or intelligence in my lifetime, but I would, I would love to. And in the meantime, I think that I've learned a whole lot about myself and my planet, just from trying to ask these questions in a meaningful way.

Ryan Dunn (25:01):

So why did those Christians putting together the old Night Call radio show express such an interest in extraterrestrial visitors? Well, whether they meant for it to or not the topic allowed them and their listeners, some space to grapple with an expanding understanding of God and God's work and revelation.

Ryan Dunn (25:21):

And this is especially important if we consider the cultural context of Night Call. The show aired during the late 1960s, a period well known for its cultural upheaval and a push for new understandings of what it meant to be human. Maybe in the midst of wrestling with topics like racial justice and agnosticism and the sexual revolution, they needed a bit more of a removed space to consider what it would mean for God to be revealing God's self in ways that hadn't previously been considered.

Ryan Dunn (25:55):

And maybe this is a jump, but perhaps we're asking questions about extraterrestrial intelligence today because we're in a similar cultural space when we're still wrestling with an awareness of the need for racial justice.

Ryan Dunn (26:10):

And now we're opening up to new understandings of things like human sexuality and gender identity, and even Christian colonialism, which is a whole different area in which we need to engage theologically. As we consider extra terrestrial life. For example, do we need to try to convert et, or do we learn about God instead through et such a conversation gives us a sandbox in which we can explore ideas of sharing faith in a culture that doesn't share our exact understanding of Christianity and faith. Will we ever need to practice these theological findings in relation to extraterrestrial life? I'll let astrobiologist Dr. Mix share some thoughts on that.

Lucas Mix (26:54):

I am honestly pretty completely on the fence. I think there is water everywhere. There is carbon and nitrogen and oxygen and phosphorus and sulfur in such abundances. And there are, are planets and even liquid water. It seems really weird that we would be the only place that this was going on. If it is, that means something special. So whether we, whether we find life or not, it would be, I think pretty significant.

Ryan Dunn (27:29):

Okay. Maybe the implications of Astro-theology, aren't gonna be demanded in our lifetimes in terms of extraterrestrial life. However, I think asking the questions, this whole topic presents are worthwhile now because they help us build an understanding of the spiritual experience outside of ourselves and our own specific cultures. Even when the other parties involved are not green, nor are they arriving in spaceships, not bad Night Call, not bad. Stay tuned to the end of this episode for one last word from Night Call.

Ryan Dunn (28:07):

My name is Ryan Dunn. The Compass podcast is a production of United Methodist Communications. Big, thanks for the time given by Dr. Lucas Mix and Dr. David Wilkinson. I encourage you to check out Dr. Mix's podcast space on the page. They have several recent episodes on life outside of our planet, and a cool series on myths and facts about Mars.

Ryan Dunn (28:29):

And Dr. David Wilkinson most recently, co-authored "God, Stephen Hawking and the Multiverse." So if Dr Strange blows your mind, this might be worth the looksy. I used excerpts of our conversations in this episode, but there was a lot of cool ideas that were thrown around by both theologians. So I'm making our whole conversations available on the podcast website. So if you go over to the episode page for this episode at umc.org/compass, you can find those full conversations, which include the stories of how one follows a call into both ministry and Astro-science. It's interesting.

Ryan Dunn (29:09):

Anyways, if this was anywhere near as fascinating of a journey for you, as it was for me, then please do me a favor and leave a rating and review on apple podcasts. I've found that good ratings and reviews help us connect with potential guests. Thanks much. And now a word from our sponsor. Thanks tonight. Call.

Radio character (29:32):

Well, I can't this Sunday, I'm playing golf and the following Sunday, I promise to take the kids to the beach. Mm-Hmm <affirmative>, man's gotta spend some time with these kids, you know? Yeah, sure. Besides we seem to get along just fine without church, you know, it's up to the individual. Gee, look at the time I gotta run, but anyhow, we'll try to get along to church. One of these days, Uhhuh <affirmative> well, how about two weeks from second? Oh, I never planned that far. I had two weeks. The whole world could blow up by then. <Laugh> that's right.

Sung jingle (29:57):

You get you idea. You could make it all by yourself. Doesn't it get a little lonely sometimes out on that limb without him. It's a great life, but it could be greater. I try and go in and at

Radio character (30:26):

The preceding was presented by your council of churches.