Are we alone in the universe? The answer was obvious to me as a kid in the '90s, when my belief system was informed by both a Catholic upbringing and "The X-Files." "X-Files," in particular, presents a worldview where aliens are among us. Encouraged by my dad, who believes (or wants to believe) that aliens built the Egyptian pyramids, I remember wondering if aliens knew about Jesus. This posed troubling considerations—like whether Jesus had a spaceship.
It turns out, there's a scholarly, philosophical work asking the same questions I once did. Boston University theologian and part-time Helena resident John Hart recently wrote Cosmic Commons: Spirit, Science and Space, a weighty consideration of the spiritual and social ramifications of humans exploring outer space and interacting with aliens. Hart says the book was inspired in part by hearing physicist Stephen Hawking warn that humans need to set up self-sustaining colonies on Mars and beyond, because Earth is under threat from climate change and nuclear war.
An encounter with aliens might sound a bit far-fetched, but the discussion of how we should handle it is interesting, nonetheless. In advance of his March 8 reading at Fact and Fiction, we talked with Hart about UFOs over Poughkeepsie, baptizing ET and shaking up Christian faith.
I understand you believe you saw a UFO, and that seems to have really shaped a lot of your ideas since then.
John Hart: Sure. At the time I went to college, I was in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., on the Hudson River, and a couple friends and I went out to look at the stars. It was just an absolutely clear night, no ambient moonlight and the stars were just sparkling. ... And watching there, I saw the brightest, fastest, largest meteor I'd ever seen. I kept waiting for it to fizzle out, and it didn't. It went right angles to itself and shot up into the air, and it was traveling at extreme speeds. ... I just didn't say anything; I blinked my eyes, and figured I must have been mistaken. And then one of my buddies said, "Did you see that light go perpendicular up there?" And we laughed, and said, "I guess we saw a UFO," and I guess we forgot about it. ... It turns out there were hundreds of sightings in that [1963–1965] time period, and seen by a lot of what they call "credible witnesses," that is, professional people, educated people, or otherwise serious people.
I remember some fundamentalist Christian groups saying, "Well, if we meet extraterrestrials, we have to baptize them to save their souls." ... And to say that everybody for the last 8 billion years went to hell or God didn't love them until Jesus came to just one species on one planet in one solar system, in one galaxy among billions—that, to me, is really the height of arrogance.
Given how many religions we have on Earth, isn't it possible extraterrestrials might have more belief systems than we could ever imagine?
JH: Right. We don't know what concept of the divine [aliens] might have or what concept of the spirit might be out there. Some atheists say that Christian faith will be so shaken up if extraterrestrial intelligent life is found that Christians will lose their faith. But surveys, particularly out of [UC] Berkeley, for example, say religions tend to be good at incorporating new insights into their belief systems.
Tell me about your personal faith.
JH: I really affirm the best in all religions. Some I might feel a closer affinity toward because I have more familiarity with them, some actually make more sense to me. I'm not strictly confined with any one faith tradition at this time in my life.
Do you think human colonization of space will happen soon or even within our lifetimes?
JH: To have a base on the moon seems likely. It's interesting, the U.S. Army was called the U.S. Army Air Corps before the Air Force was set up as a separate institution. They had plans for a military base on the moon, because they wanted to defend Earth from aliens from space. And the International Space Station was a cooperative effort between nations ... I think that's a good sign for the future if we can learn to cooperate on further space exploration, if we get beyond demagogues to pool our resources for peace instead of war. I think the space station is just a shining example—literally, when it crosses the night sky—of what can be done when humans work together.
What can people expect from your presentation that's coming up for this book?
JH: The book is what I call a thought experiment. In order for people to consider seriously the implications of what I talked about, they should think as if—or what if—intelligent extraterrestrial beings have come here or will come here soon, and that sharpens things ... I welcome true skeptics.
John Hart presents Cosmic Commons: Spirit, Science and Space, at Fact and Fiction Sat., March 8, from 1 to 3 PM.