What Aliens Teach Us About God, part 2: ‘Alien’ Aliens
Sometimes science fiction has attempted to deliver aliens that are not based on human beings at all. The “attempted to deliver” has to be added because these efforts are usually incomplete. If a fictional alien is intelligent at all, its at least a little like a human being.
But some of these efforts are worth noting. A recent example is from the movie, Arrival. The key feature of the aliens portrayed in the film is they have a language in which an entire sentence is said at one moment, no one word preceding any other in time. So therefore, the aliens have no concept of beginning or end like humans do. Which in in the story was supposed to give them the power of being outside of time as we know it–since, apparently, living one moment at a time in order is a function of how humans process language, one word after another in order, no matter in which language of all human languages.
Of course the story does not focus on the fact the aliens issue their entire-sentence-in-a-circle-without-beginning-or-end statements one at a time. These come in an order from the first time they met the humans, when they were strangers to our race, to including more familiarity with individual humans over, ahem, time.
Still, even if the ideas about time don’t quite work, the fictional language in which a sentence has no beginning or ending is something that makes the aliens in Arrival distinctly separate from every human being who has ever existed. These aliens, unlike Klingons, are not projections of human beings–they are truly alien, that is, unlike any human being who has ever lived.
By the way, fiction aliens who are entirely “alien” is not the same as writing non-human (or “inhuman”) aliens. The Alien film franchise created space monsters with very little in common with human beings–but they do have quite a lot in common with some insect forms of life, with a queen mother (like ants or bees), laying eggs in hosts (like some wasps and may other parasites), with a rapacious desire to kill and devour like some insect predators, and with rapid and dramatic metamorphic changes in body form (like caterpillars to moths).
When I say “alien” aliens, I mean beings that have completely different motives than humans. Or have aspects of an intelligence that is more foreign to the entire human race than individual human ethic groups are foreign to one another. After all, all humans smile when we are happy and cry in distress and share other features that transcend all human cultures. “Alien” aliens manage to be different from every one of us.
Most science fiction aliens are not that alien, but some have been. And these “alien” aliens can help us understand that like them, the Creator God of the Bible is in fact very different from human beings in important ways.
Isaiah 55:8 records the Lord proclaiming: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways.” In theology God is called omnipresent, omniscient, omnipotent, omnisapient, and in short, transcendent. No human being shares these characteristics with God.
God is also devoid of sin, incapable of sin, incapable of lying. That means human beings share a feature (sin) that is completely separate from God. So in some important ways God is like an alien being to us–unlike all humans who ever lived.
In future installments here we’ll look at how this fact of God being “alien” can be compatible with the human race being made in the image of God, how this has nothing to do with “ancient alien” theories, how it does have to do with the longing some people feel to meet aliens, and how the UFO phenomenon in some ways shows an alternate or substitute for communion with God. But in the meantime, what are your thoughts on the basic idea here?
Do you agree that sometimes science fiction shows aliens who are in no way human? Do you think that God, like these particular science fiction aliens, is in some ways completely different from any human who has ever lived? Is thinking of God as “alien” a useful concept?
I loved the movie Arrival. However, the writer of the short story the movie is based off utilizes an Eastern mindset about time. Time, in some forms of Eastern thought, is a circle. It does not start at a single point and goes forward from there. It is a unifying element of everything. Therefore, when the Aliens from Arrival observe they will need humans in X number of years, they are stating time is constant loop.
Also, there is a deterministic view of events in Arrival. That life is inescapable and the choices we make are pre-determined. It was a great movie. I loved the language aspect of it as well.
As to your points about how ‘alien elements’ can be consumed by human thought as it relates to our understanding of God, you make a good point. The Christian fringe community would ascertain the aliens are spiritual beings made of the same ‘stuff’ (for lack of a better) of God. Whether or not that’s true, is up for grabs. But perhaps that’s the point.
Parker, I took the deterministic element to be a product of the time-travel-by-mind aspect of the plot. That is, you can make any choices you like, but in the end, if you know the future beforehand, you will know what happens to you based on your choices before you arrive there. (Though the whole thing about one of the aliens being killed and being there before his death and NOT being around after his death is totally linear and contradicts the basic idea of the rest of the story.)
Knowing the future outcome of choices before you make them winds up being rather deterministic, even if you argue the choices were not predetermined. If you know what your future is going to be as a result of your present actions, before you do anything, how can you really have a free choice?
This is one of the ways the concept of God can be difficult if you really think about it. God offers us real choices (or someone could say “at least it seems he does”) but at the same time completely knows our future, knows what we will do in advance. How could anything a human being does be anything other than what the Lord already expects of us? E.g. how could God call on the kings of Israel to follow him faithfully and bless or curse them based on their actions, when he knew in advance exactly what they would do?
I think the answer to that involves God thinking in ways beyond our capacity, as opposed to the divide between human freedom and Divine sovereignty being some kind of illusion. Or as opposed to God putting on some kind of show for the benefit of humans, pretending to ask people to make choices while at the same time knowing the choices are not real. We have genuine freedom of will AND also from God’s point of view all our choices are already known, revealing a divine understanding totally unlike that of a human being.
The aliens of Arrival and some other science fiction aliens help demonstrate that a mind we would call “alien” has some things in common with the mind of God. We are only like our Creator to a degree, in aspects, but not in the whole. (I think so-called “real” aliens are another topic, one I will get to later.)
Thank you for your comments!