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Asking the Clergy: How does your theology view the possibility of  alien life-forms?

From left, Rabbi Perry Raphael Rank of Midway

From left, Rabbi Perry Raphael Rank of Midway Jewish Center, the Rev. William McBride of Brookville Multifaith Campus and Arvind Vora of Long Island Multi-Faith Forum. Credit: Newsday / Ken Spencer; Aditya Vora; Interfaith Community Religious Education Program

This month, U.S. intelligence agencies are expected to deliver to Congress a much-anticipated report on unidentified aerial phenomena — aka the UFOs that have piqued the national interest in widely seen photographs and videos. This week’s clergy discuss how proof of alien life-forms as well as an actual visit by extraterrestrials should be greeted by this planet’s faithful.

The Rev. William McBride

Religious director, Interfaith Community Religious Education Program, Brookville Multifaith Campus

This question triggers a memory of my first significant disagreement with my wife. We were standing on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean looking at the night sky. Suddenly she cried out, "I see a strange light. I think it's a UFO."

My skeptical mind immediately jumped to a conclusion: "I don't think so."

After a heated 20-minute debate about UFOs and alien life-forms, we agreed to disagree on the matter. Looking back, I realize that her point of view was more in line with Catholic teaching than mine. She was witnessing and defending a universe of wonder, and I was naysaying an occasion of fascination to ponder universal questions like, "Did God create worlds beyond this one?"

Recent scientific discoveries and religious insights have developed a theology that is incredibly open to the possibility of UFOs and alien life-forms. In fact, the Vatican has assigned Brother Guy Consolmagno, a Jesuit with a doctorate in planetary science, as caretaker of the Vatican Observatory to raise profound questions of the universe and maintain a lively dialogue between religion and science. When asked the question, "Would you baptize an alien?" Consolmagno has reportedly quipped, "Only if she asks."

Rabbi Perry Raphael Rank

Senior Rabbi, Midway Jewish Center in Syosset

The problem with unidentified flying objects is the rush to identify them as alien ships from another planet or galaxy here for a nefarious purpose. The evidence for such conclusions is thin. Such claims feed into people’s anxieties and suspicions about government conspiracies.

Considering UFOs from a religious perspective casts into the limelight the interplay between science and religion. May people of faith believe in the possibility of intelligent life beyond Earth? Frankly, why would faith deny such a possibility? The biodiversity on Earth is so tremendous that only a fraction of millions of species — animal and vegetable — have been identified. Why limit divine creativity to only Earth, or only our galaxy, or even only to our particular universe?

Discovery of life elsewhere would not diminish the miracle of our own lives, only enhance it. Nonetheless, let’s not jump to conclusions about UFOs. But if some cosmic alien meets you and requests that you board its space ship, I give you permission to say, "Sorry — I’m late for Mass, services, Bible study, etc."

Arvind Vora

Chairman, Long Island Multi-Faith Forum

As a Jain, I believe that nonviolence toward all living things leads us on the path to enlightenment. That would include reverence for alien life-forms.

The possibility of speeds that might allow intergalactic travel is suggested in one of our modern reference books, "The Jain Cosmology," by Colette Caillat and Ravi Kumar (Harmony Books, 1981), which discusses the cosmos as depicted in Jain artworks with text in the Prakrit language. In these texts, according to the authors, "Measurements are given in units of length which baffle the mind: the compilers of the Middle Ages employed the rope (rajju), which is defined as the distance covered by a god flying nonstop for six months at a speed of 2,057,152 yojanas (say 10,000,000 miles) a second."

Although I’d never heard of UFOs while growing up in India, since immigrating to the United States in the 1960s I’ve followed developments in the evidence now being studied by the federal Unidentified Aerial Phenomena Task Force. I also have a keen interest in science and engineering, so I would of course demand concrete proof of extraterrestrial visitations.

Yet as a person of faith, I must point out that 150 years ago airplanes were the stuff of science fiction.

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