A few days ago—maybe weeks—I posted on discovering David J. Halperin’s website. His book, Intimate Alien: The Hidden Story of the UFO, had been on my reading list since it came out. Like Diana Pasulka and Jeffrey Kripal, Halperin is a religion scholar exploring UFOs. “In its essence,” he writes, “the UFO is a religious phenomenon.” I would tend to agree although Halperin holds a somewhat different interpretation than many ufologists do. Noting the deep, Jungian connections with such archetypes as quaternaries, and the profound experiences of death and sex, Halperin builds a case for UFOs as a modern myth. Myth in the sense that we religion scholars use it, that is. Myth is not a falsehood, but its exact opposite. Myth is truth expressed in ways that aren’t, and can’t be, literal.
Using this impressive interpretive matrix he considers some of the classic—and a few novel—cases such as the Socorro, New Mexico case and Roswell. He traces the phenomenon to its modern beginnings in 1947, but interestingly for a biblical scholar, considers seriously what Ezekiel might have seen. Here the quaternaries come in quite helpful. He spends considerable time on the abduction phenomenon, exploring what needs such stories might meet. Many of them involve individuals in unusual social circumstances and that adds credence to his interpretative model. He also considers the adjunct Men in Black. I had been unaware of the Shaver Mystery until reading this book. He ends by considering John Lennon’s famous New York UFO sighting.
Halperin offers a non-dismissive paradigm that allows for a high degree of rationalism. Since I’ve suggested elsewhere on this blog that the paranormal is kin to religious studies, I’m always glad to see some validation of this when someone publishes a successful book on the subject. Outrè topics, if they’re to be considered at all, fall within the open borders of religious studies. Ironically perhaps the most human of the humanities, it is a field rife with unusual experiences that sometimes lie beyond the reach of empirical measure. UFOs represent the problem of occasional phenomena. You can’t get them into the laboratory and they aren’t repeatable. How are we to study them? Since several military organizations, including the US Navy, are now taking the subject seriously, it would seem that academic fields should follow. Most don’t, or won’t. Religious studies is braver, it seems to me, than many disciplines. It takes on the unusual and tries to find respectful ways to understand what it finds.