GREAT WHEELS OF LIGHT APPEAR OVER THE HIGH DESERT AT NIGHT, SPINNING AGAINST THE STARRY SKY. MESSENGERS FROM THE HEAVENS COME TO ORDINARY PEOPLE, BEARING NEW WISDOM AND WARNINGS OF COSMIC CATASTROPHE. MEN AND WOMEN ARE TAKEN FROM THEIR BEDS AT NIGHT AND RETURN WITH STORIES OF INTERCOURSE WITH STRANGE BEINGS, THEIR BODIES SCARRED WITH CIRCLES AND TRIANGLES.
LIKE SO MANY ASPECTS OF OUR CULTURE, THE UFO IS THE cause of controversy, a controversy which extends to the very existence of the object in question. Like God, the UFO divides our society into believers and nonbelievers, cautious hopefuls and equally cautious agnostics. But whether we believe in the UFO or not, its presence in our culture clearly has a great deal to tell us about ourselves--about where we are as a species and where we are going. This kind of cultural observation does not rule out the possibility that UFOs really do exist, nor does it require such existence. It merely asks what we can learn from the phenomenon regarding the current state of human civilization.
While the biological and metaphysical explanations vary and contradict one another, there seems to be at least one constant about our nature as human beings--and that is that we are not alone. We have a drive toward wholeness and completion which is apparent in everything we do. For instance, we join together in intimate union--and produce a new whole, the child. We live in groups because we can accomplish more together than a single individual ever could. Even our intellectual history is one of endless struggle to make what we know of the world fit into a larger pattern of significance.
But our desire for unity and completion is, perhaps, nowhere more clearly expressed than in our need for religious experience or understanding. Derived from the Latin religio, which means to reconnect, religion is the process by which we strive to link ourselves to the divine or cosmic order of things. Similarly, salvare, to save, originally meant to make whole. Salvation, the ultimate aim of religion, is the moment of reconnection--with God, with Christ, with the Universe, with the Sublime. It is a moment of mystery and reverence, terror and fulfillment. It is the experience of connection, touching, and becoming a part of something alien--something outside of us and very different.
Whatever the physical reality of UFOs and aliens may be, it is easy to see the religious dimensions of the phenomena. Carl Jung, as early as the 1950s, noted the resemblance of flying saucers to the mandala, an ancient symbol of wholeness and salvation. More recently, tales of abduction and alien encounters suggest that finding the Other--a being from beyond--connects these experiences to our underlying religious need for contact which transcends the daily intercourse of human existence.
This said, it is necessary to point out how the symbolism surrounding the UFO phenomenon differs from other types of religious symbolism. At least in its original form, the UFO was a machine, a technological artifact. While the technology which it embodies may be far in advance of our own, it is, nonetheless, something which beings like ourselves might eventually be able to create. The UFO literature is full of stories of attempts by the government to "reverse engineer" UFO propulsion systems. If only we could get our hands on a piece of their equipment, then, well, with a little bit of Yankee ingenuity.... Similarly the aliens--even as their "otherness" has intensified over the years and they have manifested such paranormal powers as the ability to walk through walls, to levitate, and so on--have remained finite, humanoid beings who have real limitations and who, in some inscrutable way, seem to need us as much as we need them.
All this suggests that we humans are beginning to see ourselves as real participants in the process of creating unity and organization. Where older myths regarded humanity as the plaything of the gods, or as the essentially powerless subject of a transcendent divine sovereign, the myth which has emerged around the UFO treats humanity as a real partner in the creation of a cosmic society. The scientific and technological advances of the postwar period brought with them grave dangers to be sure. But they also made it possible, for the first time, for humanity to end its earthbound existence, to visit the heavens and return to tell of the journey, and to imagine someday, on our own efforts and through our own merits, to become citizens of the great heavenly city.
There have, however, been a number of distinct--and even mutually opposed--reactions to the mythic character of the UFO phenomenon. It is possible to distinguish among these responses along three distinct axes. There are those who believe that the UFO comes to us, whether from another star system or another dimension, and those who regard it as merely a product of the collective psyche. There are those who interpret the phenomenon in language which is drawn from the scientific tradition, even as they stretch the limits of official science, and those who express open hostility to the scientific establishment. Finally, there are those who see in the UFO a sign of hope and a catalyst for growth, and those who sense something evil and profoundly destructive.