Late in my adolescence, I began to see odd things at night. Shortly after falling asleep, I would find myself awake, my eyes locked on a small, glowing object. It would hover over me, float this way and that, and disappear. Once during my senior year, the strange light even resembled a person. It entered my room, froze for a moment, then proceeded to sit gently at the foot of my bed. What I remember is the peace I felt at the time.
Years passed and these night visions stopped. But this string of experiences recently came to my mind while reading a classic study of the Azande of Central Africa (along with being a Catholic priest, I’m also an anthropologist). The author of the book — the great British anthropologist EE Evans-Pritchard — mentions that, during a midnight stroll through the Azande village, he encountered a soft light floating through the darkness. The next day, a person died in the area where the light had appeared.
For the Azande, this sighting was easy to explain: it signaled witchcraft. But Evans-Pritchard did not believe in Azande witchcraft, which left him wondering, as I did long ago, what to do with experiences that exceed our ability to explain them.
UFOs fall in this category of the “unexplained,” and are a curiosity I like to ponder. What captures my attention about “Unidentified Aerial Phenomena” (as they are officially classified now) is not the scientific evidence we’re so hungry for. I’m much more interested in how these otherworldly encounters actually unfold in very human ways.
Even as the pandemic has dominated the news cycle for the last two years, there have been a series of recent articles in places like The New York Times and The New Yorker that examine the yet-to-be-explained flying objects that Navy pilots witnessed and recorded in 2004 and in more recent years.
If you dig around the content on the Internet, you will find a variety of explanations — some more sophisticated, some less so. A common argument among skeptics is that these objects are likely just secret projects run by the military, which has its own history of framing civilian sightings of spy planes as UFO encounters. But if the military was in fact doing a test run for such extraordinary technology nearly two decades ago, why has it remained hidden this entire time? This new evidence is making it harder to appeal to these stock explanations.
Yet new accounts are not likely to surface anytime soon. Institutions are maneuvering to offer their own resources and expertise: the Pentagon has established a new office to study UFOs, and Rice University has created an archive dedicated to the topic. The UFO community on Twitter, which I follow in my spare time, has expressed some mixed feelings regarding these developments. Many fear that critical details will still be withheld from the public. We may come to learn more about these strange objects, but the full story will remain out of grasp.
Casual observers will likely withhold judgment until scientists — that is, Science — has spoken. In fact, it is possible that a scientific consensus might follow in the wake of better visual, radar, and thermal observations of UFOs.
Still, there are limits to scientific inquiry. Science might be able to clarify if something is real or imagined, and it can explain how something operates. But accounting for why people are seeing these objects is a trickier matter. That kind of knowledge would require a sustained encounter, one that would locate these fleeting glimpses of flying objects within the broader arc of a story. Even within science, the full truth — an account of what is really going on — lies elsewhere.
At the moment, the UFO sightings that draw the most attention are those that are best documented and therefore most compelling. Yet as an anthropologist, I find some of the stranger stories of alien encounter to be more interesting, even endearing. These accounts are less believable. Some are flat out bizarre. But for that reason, they also offer a wide range of possibilities of what a full account — the full truth — of these strange experiences might look like.
One such story came to me by way of Passport to Magonia, Jacques Vallee’s classic book on UFOs and other experiences of the uncanny. This particular story involves a Wisconsin chicken farmer who, in 1961, encountered a large chrome object. A hatch opened, and out came three five-foot tall men: smooth shaven, sporting two-piece suits with turtleneck tops and knit helmets. They held up a jar they wanted filled, perhaps with water, and proceeded to make food on what seemed a flameless grill. They then handed the chicken farmer some large “cookies perforated with large holes,” which, upon later inspection by the police, simply turned out to be nothing more than pancakes.
It’s one thing to ponder objects captured on radar traveling at high speed. But Gucci aliens making pancakes on a hi-tech skillet? I chuckle at what alignment of circumstances might have brought this poor Wisconsin man chicken farmer — by all accounts an outstanding member of his community — to report such an outrageous incident. Even 70 years ago, this is not the kind of story you would tell if you wanted people to believe you.
Yet I also pause, for at the heart of this odd “close encounter” is something instantly recognizable, something that would be familiar to humans living in any place and time: the ritual of hospitality, where goods are exchanged and a meal is shared. It would seem that, if aliens do exist, they would have to present themselves in ways that humans might understand and respond to. Of course, doing so would also make us wonder if such an encounter is therefore just an elaborate production of the human mind. If aliens make themselves familiar, would not that also by necessity seem a little ridiculous?
But for a Christian like myself, that is precisely what God has done. In order to make himself known, he became like us, taking up human flesh and our ways of life. It is not clear to me that aliens cooking pancakes is any stranger than God the Son enjoying a large picnic near the Sea of Galilee. At the same time, it makes perfect sense, for if we are to understand that which is beyond understanding — the truth beyond the half-truths of this world — that truth would have to act and even speak like us. It would have to make itself human, a transformation that could be frightening, or silly, but also beautiful.