Aliens and Angels
COINCIDENCE??!! I think NOT!!!
In all seriousness, I think there is a logic here, but of a more subtle sort. I touched on just the barest aspects of this similarity (though without mentioning angels) back here. Today I want to go into greater detail on this topic, and in a slightly different direction. In all seriousness, I think there are some striking similarities, and that’s what we’re going to look at.
I’ve written about angels before, so I will just give a brief rundown of the characteristics traditionally attributed to angels in the Western (Jewish, Christian, and Islamic) tradition (though I will emphasize the Christian, since the Christian theology of angels is the one with which I’m most familiar):
- Angels are immortal by nature. Not only do they not die, they cannot die nor be killed or destroyed in any way (except by God, who could annihilate anything if He so wished).
- Angels are pure spirit, or pure mind (which is another way of saying the same thing). They thus lack bodies and are not composed of matter in any way (but see here and here for dissenting views). As a corollary to this, angels do not need to eat, drink, or breathe. The general interpretation is that they refuse to do these things (see Judges 13:15-16) or that when they appear to do so (see Tobit 12:17-19), it is an illusion.
- Angels are not all-knowing (omniscient)–only God is–but what they do know they know perfectly and without confusion. This is because, not having bodies, they are not subject to the frailties inherent in brains and physiological phenomena, and also because they know directly through the ideas (in the Platonic sense) infused into them at their creation by God. Thus angels are, as noted above, more intelligent than humans and less prone (if at all) to error.*
- Angels are not usually asserted to be able to read human minds; but since they are more intelligent and understand human behavior perfectly, they can often infer what a human is thinking. They can telepathically send suggestions to humans, though, thus being able to send thoughts, though they can’t receive them.
- Angels can travel instantaneously anywhere in the cosmos. This is symbolically represented as “flying”, but being immaterial, angels do not fly, walk, or move in any way we understand. They just pop up wherever they want to be.
- Angels are immensely more powerful than humans. Though they are not made of matter, they are capable of interacting with matter. They are thus able to perform acts (technically referred to in theology as “preternatural” acts) that are far beyond what humans can do, and which appear to humans to be miraculous.
That summarizes the properties of angels. Let us now move on to aliens.
I should qualify the term “aliens” from the outset. I’m not in any way speaking about actual aliens. Whether aliens–intelligent or otherwise–actually do exist elsewhere in the cosmos cannot be determined with our present knowledge. The discovery of earth-like exoplanets has greatly increased the likelihood that aliens exist; but to date we have not a shred of solid proof of life beyond Earth (with one possible and controversial exception, which is not germane to the argument here). Even if aliens–and this time I’ll specify intelligent aliens, since no one is interested in the Martian equivalent of a wombat in this context–do exist, we have no way at present of knowing anything about what they’re like, how they behave, or how they’d interact with us if they came into contact with us. The last point is most likely moot, since, for reasons I’ve laid out before, I doubt that our species or any other will ever travel through the stars. Be that as it may, the point remains that we just don’t know if aliens exist; or, if they do exist, whether they’re intelligent; or, if they do exist and are intelligent, what they’re like.
What I want to look at in this post is the common cultural perception of aliens. I’m not interested in what aliens actually are like, in short, but in what we think they’re like. Aliens as presented in pop (and sometimes higher) culture, science fiction (both respectable and sci-fi) in various media, pseudo-science, and the general public consciousness have varied over the years. Despite this, certain common themes and tropes crop up again and again. These themes are what I want to consider now.
I. Long-lived or Immortal
This is a very common trope. Writing in the second decade of the 20th Century, Edgar Rice Burroughs, in his Barsoom novels, portrayed Martians as having lifespans of many centuries. Vulcans in Star Trek have a lifespan of over two hundred years, and other species portrayed on the series have been described as having very long lifespans. The Martians of Stranger in a Strange Land are in effect immortal. They have long lifespans, dying–or “discorporating”–voluntarily; but when they die physically, their spirits can still be easily perceived and communicated with by other, still-embodied Martians. Implicit in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey and explicit in its novelization by Arthur C. Clarke, the monolith-builders have transcended physical bodies and are immortal. Many, many other examples could be given; but you get the idea.
II. Disembodied/Pure Energy
This is perhaps not quite as common as some of the other tropes considered here, but it’s not rare, either. As just noted, the monolith builders of 2001: A Space Odyssey are no longer bound to their original biological bodies. Earlier than that, in one of the vignettes in Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles, a priest encounters Martians who appear as balls of glowing light. They explain to him that they left bodily existence and all its limitations aeons ago and that they now live directly in the presence of the one the priest calls “God”. Beings of “pure energy” (in the words of Spock’s famous sample) were all over the place in Star Trek: The Organians in “Errand of Mercy”, Trelane in “The Squire of Gothos”, the caretakers of Charlie in “Charlie X”, and so on. The alien in the 80’s movie Starman seems to start out as a disembodied being of some sort, though it’s unclear. In the original Battlestar Galactica, the fleet encounters quasi-angelic disembodied beings who claim that they were once as the humans are. And so forth.
III. Superior Intelligence
This is probably the oldest and most typical trope, traceable back at least to the late 19th Century. After the “discovery” of the Marian “canals” in the 1870’s, it became common to view these as the last remnants of an ancient civilization, far older and more advanced than our own, now in its death throes. This was taken over (in a more sinister context) by H. G. Wells in his classic War of the Worlds, and appeared in various other stories about Mars (The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury and Stranger in a Strange Land, by Robert A. Heinlein, though very different, are two more examples of ancient, super-advanced Martians).
Super-intelligent/advanced aliens of other sorts are too numerous to count: Klaatu of The Day the Earth Stood Still, the extinct Krell of Forbidden Planet, the Vulcans of Star Trek, the monolith-builders of 2001: A Space Odyssey, and the aliens of Close Encounters of the Third Kind are just a few examples of aliens intelligent far beyond humans. In the execrable and mercifully short-lived Galactica 1980 (the attempted continuation of the original Battlestar Galactica), even though the refugees were unambiguously human, one episode portrayed the children as nevertheless all at genius level (in fact, they seemed to be smarter than their elders!). The idea, apparently, was that if they’re from space, they gotta be smarter than we are!
This trope is probably second commonest after elevated intelligence, and is sometimes connected with it. The Vulcans (checked another box!) are of course noted for their mind-melds, as well as displaying longer-range telepathy in some cases. The Betazeds, Deltans, and other species in the Star Trek franchise are also telepathic, empathic, or some combination of the two. The Altrusians (the race which later degenerated into the Sleestak) of Land of the Lost are telepaths, as are several species in Babylon 5.
Some telepaths, such as Betazeds, seem little different from humans in average intelligence. Often, though, telepathy is connected with increased intelligence, almost as if the latter implies the former. Vulcans, for example, are well-established as being more intelligent and more mentally disciplined than humans or in fact most other species encountered. The Altrusians are not only telepathic but far in advance of humans in intelligence and technology. The most explicit connection of intelligence and telepathy is in Poul Anderson’s novel Brain Wave.
The premise is that from before the evolution of humanity to the present, our solar system has been in a region of space in which a dampening field has slowed the speed of electromagnetic waves. When the solar system moves out of this region, light, electricity, and so on return to their “real” and faster speed. The effect of this on humans and other animals is to triple their intelligence. Thus, average humans become super geniuses, mentally impaired people attain what was previously normal intelligence, chimpanzees and some other higher animals become sapient, and so on. Among the effects of this increased intelligence is the ability to communicate without speech. At first this is described as the ability to infer so much from quick gestures and a word or two what another person means to convey that nothing more is needed. Later, this is explicitly referred to as telepathy.
Something similar to this appears in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series. In the second novel, Foundation and Empire, the mutant known as the Mule has the ability to read minds and alter them. Asimov stops just short of calling this true telepathy and mind control, seeming to prefer to hedge on the matter, much as Anderson does; but the Mule’s powers are in practice no different from telepathy. The members of the shadowy Second Foundation turn out to have similar powers, which they’ve developed not by mutation but by research and intense training over the centuries. In any case, both the Mule and the telepaths of the Second Foundation, are also portrayed as extremely intelligent.
V. Extraordinary Strngth/Durability/Invulnerability
Vulcans are canonically stronger than humans because of the high gravity of their home planet (notice how they’ve managed to check off every trope so far?). Klingons, Jem’Hadar, Andorians (probably), and many other races in the various iterations of Star Trek could also easily put the smackdown on humans. Dylan Hunt of Andromeda and the Xelayans from The Orville are also super-strong because of high gravity environments, or bioengineering for such environments (in the first example). Many times, especially in the 50’s, aliens were portrayed as stronger than humans with no particular scientific rationale.
In a distinct but related vein (which also ties in to point II above), aliens are often portrayed as far tougher than humans. Vulcans are less easily injured than humans, and have greater healing powers. Klingons literally have back-ups of every organ. Time Lords in the Doctor Who franchise are capable of regeneration after severe injury or death. The Nietzscheans of Andromeda, while not strictly aliens but bioengineered humans, are super tough, heal rapidly, and can survive environments that would kill ordinary humans. The Magog, from the same franchise, also seem incredibly resilient.
VI. Extraordinary Powers
This is a somewhat broad category that actually includes some of the previous things discussed (telepathy, super intelligence, etc.), but it’s still distinct. This is partly because of the unimaginably high level of technology to which aliens are said to have access–recall Arthur C. Clarke’s famous dictum that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. The technology in The Day the Earth Stood Still is even capable of raising the dead, to give one spectacular example. Sometimes, though, the aliens themselves are shown as having amazing powers, with no clear explanation being given. One thinks of E. T.: The Extraterrestrial in which the eponymous alien can heal with a touch of his glowing finger. Telekinesis, levitation, and other abilities that we’d categorize as paranormal are routinely demonstrated by aliens in pop culture.
Now that we’ve laid out the characteristics of angels and aliens, let’s compare and contrast. Points about angels from above will be in Arabic numerals, and points about aliens in Roman numerals.
Points 1 and I: Both angels and aliens are long-lived or immortal. Angels, of course, are immortal (though in some pop-culture franchises such as Xena, Warrior Princess, Supernatural, and Lucifer it is either stated or implied that angels can under some circumstances die or be killed). Aliens are more often presented as very long-lived, but they are sometimes described as immortal or nearly immortal.
Points 2 and II: Both angels and aliens are often pure minds. There is a minority tradition, which I’ve discussed here and here, in which angels have bodies, but of a much finer nature than our own; but even in this case, angels are not material in the sense we are. In the case of aliens, the trope is that the more ancient and advanced an alien race becomes, the likelier it is to abandon bodies altogether, either through evolution or technology, to become beings of energy and thought.
Points 3 and III: Both angels and aliens are vastly more intelligent than humans. In the case of aliens, this is sometimes connected to their disembodied state (see previous point). More often, though, the assumption seems to be that any species that has evolved intelligence will over time inevitably increase in intelligence. This is a questionable assumption for many reasons, but it is routinely taken for granted in pop culture. As to angels, they are said to know directly rather than discursively. Thus, they are not necessarily more intelligent than we are as such. Rather, they don’t have to think things through, knowing directly and intuitively instead. Also, being pure mind, they are unencumbered with things such as illness, drunkenness, gradual decline of the brain, etc., that affect our thinking. Finally, being immortal, they’ve been around much longer than we have, and thus have learned more. The net result is greater intelligence and understanding.
Points 4 and IV: Many aliens are telepathic and/or empathic. Angels are close to empaths–they are said to be unable to read human minds as such, but through their vast understanding are often able to accurately infer what a human is thinking. It is also said that angels can, in effect, drop hints to us by what boils down to one-way telepathy. Thus, angels are more like Deanna Troi than Mr. Spock.
Point 5 matches to Points V and VI: Being immortal, angels are of course invulnerable. Their strength is not often noted, but sometimes the assumption is that angelic powers give them the ability to manipulate huge masses. Really, the “preternatural powers” of angels equate both to the strength and invulnerability of aliens (Point V) and to the extraordinary abilities (Point VI). Simply put, both classes of entity can do all kinds of things humans can only dream of.
If all these similarities seem to be less than coincidental, they are, as I am far from the first to notice. Eminent and ground-breaking UFO researcher Jacques Vallée, has often pointed out that ancient and Medieval accounts of human encounters with gods, angels, demons, fairies, and various other such beings are strikingly similar to accounts of UFO’s and aliens. Mysterious lights in the sky, the capturing of humans, who are taken off to “castles in the air”, assault, often sexual, by strange beings, distortion of time, space, and memory, and quasi-religious messages are just a few of the common elements of both folkloric accounts and those of UFO observers and abductees. Some (see this article, for example) have interpreted this in terms of a natural human tendency to hallucinate or fantasize, with the affected individuals interpreting the hallucinations in terms of their own cultural expectations (angels or demons for a Medieval person, aliens for one of us).
Vallée says there is reason to believe there is something real behind the UFO phenomenon. According to him, there is a real, probably non-physical (at least as we understand that term), non-human intelligence which has been interacting with us since the beginning of the species. This intelligence–whatever it is–seems bent on manipulating and/or guiding human behavior, toward which end it appears in whatever form is appropriate to the culture in question. Journalist and paranormal researcher John Keel, author of The Mothman Prophecies, expressed similar views on the nature of “aliens”. While not speaking to the parallels with folklore, the late UFO researcher J. Allen Hynek agreed with Vallée and Keel in positing some non-human intelligence, neither fully mental nor physical, behind the UFO phenomenon.
I’m somewhat agnostic on the matter, though I tend towards the side of Vallée, Keel, and Hynek. I’m also not particularly interested in the theory that angels and devils are aliens, as perceived by our forebears. Both of those notions are a bit beside the point here, though. What interests me is the pop culture parallels. Most of the examples I’ve given of the parallels between angels and aliens popped up in science fiction before Vallée, Keel, or Hynek became active and their work well-known. Whatever one thinks of the reality (or lack thereof) of angels–or aliens–it does seem that they speak to some deeply archetypal notions in the human mind. The archetypes don’t go away in these days of high tech–they just clothe themselves in different garments.
Another factor, I think, is something I’ve noted before. There is something in our psyche, something I’ve called the Gnostic insight–though it occurs among the orthodox, too–that is uncomfortable with the limitations of time, space, and mortality in the material world, something that feels alienated and longs for something more. We want to believe in a world beyond ours populated by beings better than we are. In a secular culture that has largely lost its faith, these longings are transferred from heaven and angels to space and aliens. After all, surely aliens would be wiser than we are, and not prone to suffering and death as we are, right?
Of course, from an evolutionary perspective, there’s no reason to believe that any complex, non-colonial life-forms would be immortal, any more than those on Earth are. The long-term adaptiveness of intelligence, from an evolutionary perspective, has yet to be demonstrated (we’ll have to see if our species makes it through the next few centuries), nor is there evidence of increasing intelligence in intelligent species. Just on the odds, a given alien species is as likely to be shorter-lived, stupider, and weaker than we are as it is to be longer-lived, wiser, and stronger! That’s not the point in pop culture, though. With a few exceptions, the idea isn’t to portray aliens as they might actually be in reality, but rather to use them as a canvas on which we paint our own dreams and desires, hopes and fears.
So are the parallels between angels and aliens a coincidence? Not at all, as I hope I’ve demonstrated. But do either or both exist? And if they do, are they the same or different? That, dear reader, I leave to you, as each must decide for himself.
*Update: A friend, after reading this, said something to the effect that the fall of Lucifer and his minions was a pretty big error. Thus, I should nuance what I said above. Knowledge and understanding have traditionally been distinguished from will. When I say that angels are not prone to error, I’m speaking specifically about knowledge, not will. Because humans always function through the senses and a knowledge base deriving from the senses, we can err in our knowledge. I might have been taught something that was actually erroneous, and thus think I know something, when I’m actually wrong. For example, when I was growing up, the giant panda was thought to belong to the racoon family (Procyonidae) instead of the seemingly more obvious bear family (Ursidae). Years later, molecular biology proved that the panda is indeed a bear. Thus, during the years in which I thought giant pandas were procyonids, the “knowledge” I had on this matter was not, in fact, true knowledge. I was mistaken. Humans can also err because of faulty sense perception. If I see an animal in the headlights of my car late at night and think it’s a coyote, I may be right. Alternately, I may have misidentified a feral dog. In both of these cases–the taxonomy of pandas and the critter I saw in the dark–it would be correct to say I made an honest mistake. I thought I was right, but because of the imperfections of human knowledge, I was not, in fact, correct.
By contrast, angels know directly because of the ideas (in the Platonic sense) implanted in them by God. Because of this, an angel knows infallibly and with no possibility of error. If an angel knew of pandas at all–that is, if God has put the idea of “giant panda” into a particular angel’s mind–it would know everything about them, perfectly and unerringly. An angel would know directly what the creature in the headlights was, since it doesn’t know through senses in the first place. An angel either knows, fully, perfectly, and unerringly, or it does not know at all.
Will is a different matter. Will is connected with knowledge–if I know a particular mushroom is poisonous, I will not to eat it (unless I’m suicidal). However, will can be independent of knowledge. I may know that such-and-such is wrong, but will to do it anyway. I think almost anyone reading this will have had this experience, if they’re honest with themselves. St. Paul knew this two thousand years ago (see Romans 7:15-20). Of course, in a case like this, I can’t say I’m making an honest mistake. If I serve someone poisonous mushrooms because I’ve misidentified them, the mistake, while tragic, is honest, and I am not morally culpable. If I serve them up with the intention of bumping off those who eat it, then I have no excuse.
This is why the fall of Lucifer is traditionally said to be so enormous. Whether or not it is to be understood mythologically is immaterial in this context. Traditionally, Lucifer is said to have been the highest of all the angels. Thus, his knowledge and understanding would have been second only to that of God Himself. Having angelic knowledge, Lucifer understood quite well what he was doing when he rebelled; and yet he rebelled anyway. His error was not in his knowledge–his knowledge was perfect–but in his will, in what he freely chose to do. This would be the worst conceivable sin, in a sense. After all, humans have faulty knowledge, and our weakness, resulting from bodily passions, makes sin all too easy. As angels, Lucifer and his minions were incapable of misunderstanding or erroneously assessing the situation, and would have had no bodily passions to interfere with their judgement. Thus, their rebellion was one hundred percent deliberate and completely unjustifiable. No appeal to “honest mistakes” or “crimes of passion” could be made.
Of course in those strains of universalist thought that hold out the possibility of reconciliation of the Devil himself, along with his hosts, this shows the greatness of God’s mercy even more strongly. Humans, because of the concupiscence resulting from Original Sin, as well as our weak knowledge, have an excuse that the demons completely lack. Nevertheless, God is forgiving anyway. That’s a bit off topic, though. The main takeaway from this extremely long footnote is that angels are unlike us in being unable to err in knowledge, but all too much like us in being quite able to err in will by making wrong choices. Hopefully that’s a bit more clear now.
Part of the series “Reviews, Views, and Culture, Pop and Otherwise“.
Also part of the series “Religious Miscellany“.
Posted on 07/06/2019, in aliens and tagged aliens, Andromeda, angels, archetypes, Doctor Who, Edgar Rice Burroughs, energy beings, Foundation Trilogy, idealism, Isaac Asimov, J. Allen Hynek, Jacques Vallée, John Keel, pop culture, Poul Anderson, Star Trek, telekinesis, telepathy, The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Orville, Vulcans. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.