Q: What does faith believe with regard to life on other planets? Reports of fighter pilots viewing strange activity makes you wonder. -- From M on Long Island, N.Y.
A: Now that the government has brought the study of UFOs out of the whack-a-do shadows and into the we-need-to-study-this-more-closely realm, your question is both relevant and theologically very interesting.
Are UFOs real? My deeply considered answer is, "Who the hell knows?" Perhaps intelligent life forms exist on other planets, and perhaps they have, and they are, visiting our planet in their spaceships. Eventually I expect that we will know for certain. I, for one, can wait for the proof. One thing seems clear right now. If aliens from outer space are real, they seem to have minimal to no influence on our lives here on earth. If they are not real and the only intelligent life in the universe is our own team of Homo sapiens, well that just makes our lives, cultures and theologies even more precious. So, UFOs are either here and don't matter much or they are not here at all. Either way, not much is at stake. However, there are some very real theological issues regarding UFOs.
The first thing to understand is that the Bible is agnostic regarding UFOs. The key is the first verse of Genesis, which is mistranslated as "In the Beginning God created the Heavens and the Earth." This has led religious folk to conclude that God made this earth the centerpiece for life in the entire universe. UFOs don't exist by this reading. Only we do. However, the Hebrew translation grammatically means something closer to this, "In the beginning of God's creating of this Heaven and this Earth." That translation leaves open the door a bit for there to be other accounts of other creations of other planets with other civilizations, meaning that we perhaps ought to at least prepare a welcome wagon for the little green guys.
The big theological question about extraterrestrial life is, IF they exist, do they have a moral core? Have they evolved, or had revealed to them, a moral code like our Bible, or are they just predatory creatures with no morality? We can see this choice depicted in our films. Some movie aliens are big chomping insects who just want to chomp us. Other aliens are like the precious and cuddly and morally admirable E.T., who just wants to go home. The questions are whether all life -- regardless of its galactic address -- can evolve relatively similar moral codes to our biblically inspired moral code, or whether our code is just one arbitrary moral choice?
We can see this choice in the anthropological study of isolated human communities here on earth. Some so-called primitive people have highly advanced moral codes that have developed without any (or limited) contact with biblical civilizations, while others will ... well ... eat you. Sign me up for the basic goodness of all humans and the natural law that flows from every human grouping leading to kindness and justice (and just a few cannibals). I know the other option is real; that without God's revelation no morality is possible. But I vote for natural reason and God as an unbeatable source for universal morality everywhere and always. I do not believe that primitive people are actually primitive at all. They just found a different path up the same mountain to morality and a divine spirit that is the author of life and love.
Alfred Tennyson wrote about the cruelty of nature in his poem "In Memoriam," in which he referred to nature as "red in tooth and claw." He meant that there are forces right here on our own planet that are completely devoid of morality, and nature shows us this savage truth. This, for me, is in fact the best argument for the necessity of God and for the genius and grace of the Bible. We humans need to be tutored out of our brutal animal natures, and that is what God has done for us through both our natural reason and our sacred scripture. I believe that if aliens are real -- and if they are smart and self-reflective -- they will have found their way not only to our planet but also to our God.
In the meantime, I am perfectly willing to remain agnostic about UFOs and their inhabitants. I am both fascinated and concerned about the problems and joys of life on earth right here and now, and I am happy to let God sort out the rest.
Or, to put it in God's own words, "The heaven, even the heavens, are the Lord's: but the earth hath he given to the children of men." (Psalm 115:16, KJV)
(Send ALL QUESTIONS AND COMMENTS to The God Squad via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Rabbi Gellman is the author of several books, including "Religion for Dummies," co-written with Fr. Tom Hartman.)(c) 2019 THE GOD SQUAD DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.