Are We All “Conspiracy Theorists” Now? An Orthodox View on the Meaning of UFO Sightings

Originally appeared at: Orthodox Christianity

Recently, major news outlets and government officials have begun showing an eerily uncharacteristic willingness to seriously report on and affirm UFO sightings. To cite just one example, Tucker Carlson showed 2019 video footage—the authenticity of which was confirmed by the U.S. Defense Department—of pyramid-shaped objects flying over a US warship. If we assume that no country has the resources or technological know-how to devise such vehicles, then we’re effectively left with three explanations for these aerial phenomena—all of which are unavoidable “conspiracy theories.”

The first explanation is that these are fake (perhaps computer-generated or altered) images of supposed UFOs, created in order to divert our attention from current and controversial political developments. This is a “conspiracy theory” in the most literal sense of the word, for it holds that something is “the result of a secret plot by…powerful conspirators.”

The second explanation is that these vehicles are operated by extra-terrestrial beings. Along with the soon-to-be-discussed third explanation, this is a “conspiracy theory” in the more conventional sense, whereby people invoke the word in a lazy attempt to discredit any explanation that attributes a phenomenon to a cause beyond our planet or nature, itself. The theory is dismissed not because of some commitment to science—although many will certainly attempt to cloak their philosophical assumptions in scientific garb—but because of human arrogance. That is, many of us refuse to believe anything that can’t be directly proven by our beloved methods and instruments or fully understood by our finite minds.

The third and final explanation is one with which most people today, especially in the West, are unacquainted, and is the one to which I am partial. Any Christian familiar with Church history, and particularly the lives of the Saints, is aware of the reality of spiritual beings that manifest themselves in deceptive ways. I may have been a victim of such deception, myself (as were, I’m afraid, many of the people to whom I recounted the following experience).

One night, years ago when I was a lecturer in Vermont, I witnessed a bright round white-light hovering fifty yards or so above the roof of my home. At some point, it shot straight up into the sky without making a sound, and then it completely vanished. My first instinct, of course, was to interpret this event (which would likely be classified as a CE-1, or Close Encounter of the First Kind) as an alien encounter. However, the writings of Fr. Seraphim Rose of blessed memory have forced me to reevaluate my assumptions. In his highly prescient book Orthodoxy and the Religion of the Future, he stressed a distinction between “observations made of UFOs” and “the interpretation which people give their (or others’) observations—the former could be real, and the latter a ‘fairy story’ or a myth of our times” (p. 85, italics included). (I came to realize that my own flawed interpretation rested on post-Christian myths propagated by contemporary science fiction.)

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What I found especially instructive were the illustrations that Fr. Seraphim provided of demons—the head of whom, we mustn’t forget—“masquerades as an angel of light” (2 Cor. 11:14)—appearing in different forms in order to sow confusion and draw people to perdition. UFO sightings are simply another—and, in our secular culture, increasingly common—mode in which the demons attempt to beguile us. He quotes St. Symeon the New Theologian: “‘The struggler of prayer should quite rarely look into the sky out of fear of the evil spirits…who cause many and various deceptions in the air’” (p. 112).

Perhaps the most sobering aspect of Fr. Seraphim’s analysis is the eschatological significance that he attached to these aerial phenomena (see pp. 110-112), which he interpreted in light of yet unfulfilled prophecies of “fire from heaven” (Rev. 13:13) and “terrors and great signs from heaven” (Luke 21:11). In other words, the increased frequency of UFO sightings may be a sign that we’re approaching the end of time.

Two important lessons can be learned from the recent spate of UFO sightings. First, we should think twice before arrogantly dismissing a particular explanation with buzzwords like “conspiracy theory”. In this specific instance, we’re all, in one sense or another, conspiracy theorists, regardless of the explanation to which one subscribes. In becoming more humble, we may discover that the world is a far more interesting—if dangerous—place than we previously imagined.

The second, and incomparably more important, lesson is that it’s time to be spiritually vigilant. “The UFO phenomenon,” Fr. Seraphim explained, “is a sign to Orthodox Christians to walk all the more cautiously and soberly on the path to salvation, knowing that we can be tempted and seduced not merely by false religions, but even by seemingly physical objects which…catch the eye” (p. 113).

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