Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Downing's The Bible and Flying Saucers Part II

"The degree of probability of my hypothesis depends on (1) the probability of the existence of flying saucers (which transport beings from another world to ours) and (2) the probability that these space vehicles are the same ones the Bible describes as having been pivotal in the development of the Biblical religion."[1]

This is how Downing opens his second chapter, titled What is the probability that Flying Saucers exist? However, Downing never answers either of those questions. Indeed, his writing style is haphazard, jumping from topic to topic. As a result, this review will probably follow the same style.

On his first issue, the probability of flying saucers, Downing does not offer statistics or scientific facts. Rather, Downing tips his hand early by saying, “the degree of probability which I emotionally feel about the existence of UFOs is 70 per cent belief and 30 per cent doubt, or something on that order.”[2] After stating this, in his usual slapdash fashion, Downing jumps into a discussion on Angels in History.

Downing traces a short history of Angelology, differentiating from the Greek and Biblical thoughts on Angels. The main difference, according to Downing, is that Greek Angels were “geometric soul-points” out in distance space, whereas the Biblical angels are “essentially humanlike beings that have come from above.” After the comparative discourse, Downing puts forth the idea that the Hebrew religion was brought to earth from another planet and being primitive (thus gullible), the Hebrew people accepted it as truth. Downing doesn’t imagine that all of Judaism was given by the angels/aliens, as he notes that the Bible is both “witnessed and digested revelation.”[3] The “primitive” people of this time looked upon the UFO(s) and created a religion out of what they saw.

The author then deals with a few stories he heard from Air Force pilots seeing UFOs, or stories he heard about Air Force pilots seeing UFOs. Speaking about a pilot with whom he had a personal encounter, Downing confesses, “I have, of course, no way of knowing that the pilot was telling me the truth. But this contact was personally important for me because it tended to support what men such as Keyhoe and Edward maintain; that is, that it is Air Force personnel who have the only overall picture of the UFO situation.”[4] Do you notice a trend? “I emotionally feel” that this is the probability. This contact is “important for me” regardless of the veracity of the pilot’s claim. In fact, the man with whom Downing spoke may not even be a pilot for all he knows! I’m not statistician, but I’m pretty sure one can’t “feel” the probability of something.

Once again taking to task the “demythologizers”, Downing writes that “if flying saucers do exist…theologians attempting to develop a realistic Biblical interpretation will have one good historic example of how ‘demythologizers’ have drawn premature conclusions”[5] Similarly, Downing writes “I believe that this will automatically have importance consequences for theology, whether or not modern UFOs have anything to do with the Bible…”[6] Downing’s use of the non sequitur is impressive. Even if UFOs do exist, you have a great deal of hermeneutical work to do to put them in the Bible. Also, I have no idea how, if UFOs have nothing to do with the Bible, they would have any impact on theology.

Getting back to Bishop Robinson, Downing states that Robinson “has the right to maintain that the ascension is highly improbable, but it is by no means impossible in the light of present scientific thinking, particularly if one provides Christ with an adequate space vehicle.” Later, Downing makes a similar statement that if “flying saucers exist, then perhaps we can again argue for a realistic interpretation of the Ascension of Christ (honestly).”[7] At this point, I have to interject. The idea that you cannot argue for a literal Ascension of Christ as is stated in the Bible is unfounded. It may be simplistic, it may be en vogue to find some “demythologized” version of the Ascension, but it is in no way impossible that Jesus literally rose into Heaven to be seated at the right hand of the Father. I appreciate what Downing is trying to do here, to be an apologist against the Bultmannians and Bishop Robinsons, but one doesn’t need to appeal to UFOs in order to do so.

A second point on which I want to comment is the use of the word “primitive”. Numerous authors employ it in the same fashion that Downing does, denoting this “gullible” culture that just couldn’t understand the truth of an event, so they come up with wild tales. This is ridiculous and pompous. I don’t like the use of “primitive” to mean “simple-minded”. If you want to describe farming tools as being primitive, then fine. Of course today’s culture is more technologically advanced, but this in no way means that we’re inherently less “primitive” than people who lived during Jesus’ time and before. Indeed, studying the cultures of Biblical times shows advanced thinking. Perhaps we should be mindful of the way we use the term, in order to pay due respect to earlier cultures.

[1] Downing, 45.
[2] Downing, 46.
[3] Downing, 47.
[4] Downing, 59.
[5] Downing, 62.
[6] Downing, 65.
[7] Downing, 67.

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