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During this year’s Perseid meteor shower I took my 10-year-old son camping to get a good view of the dozens of shooting stars that were expected. We set up camp on what turned out to be an unseasonably cool August evening. We settled in around 10pm and saw the first few stars dart across the sky. My son was mesmerized. A few moments later, something odd appeared on the northern horizon. It was a long trail of 12-15 bright lights moving in a perfect line across the sky. “Look at that!” I blurted out. It was unlike any of the other streaking meteors we had seen that night. Rather than relish the mystery of the thing, I checked my smartphone. It turned out that we were looking at Elon Musk’s Starlink satellites. 

The moment we realized we were looking at something man-made was disenchanting to say the least. I felt like I had let my son down. I promised him the stars and instead we got some internet satellites. The moment also brought all of my academic work in technology and culture into sharp relief. Our experience of nature has become highly adulterated by virtue of our technological surroundings. Fifty years ago, media theorist Marshall McLuhan said that the satellite gives us such a startling new perspective on our planet that it effectively “ends ‘Nature’” by turning the Earth into a “global theater” that can be programmed. 

I can remember looking up at the stars one autumn night in 1984 in my front yard in suburban Pittsburgh. I was suddenly overwhelmed by a feeling that I can only call mystical. It was as if everything around me had become one. The stars in Orion’s belt felt as close and connected to me as the grass under my legs. It sounds hokey but it was as if the stars and the grass and everything in between loved me. I don’t know if I said it out loud at the time, but the only thing that came to my mind was, “thank you.”

The feeling probably lasted 10 seconds but I still carry it with me 40 years later. In the Christian tradition, mystics would refer to this as a kind of mystical union with the divine. In certain Eastern traditions, it’s called samadhi, a sense of oneness and union between individual consciousness and cosmic consciousness. I learned the term samadhi while reading American Cosmic by religious studies scholar Diana Pasulka. In the book, Pasulka suggests that after years of secularization and religious decline that there is a re-enchantment afoot. 

But it’s coming from an unlikely source. While it has fallen out of fashion to talk about angels and demons in the modern age, there is plenty of interest in alleged encounters with aliens and UFOs. Pasulka takes up both by situating modern UFO accounts in a much longer story of experiences that don’t fit neatly in pre-existing categories. Her conclusion is that we are witnessing the emergence of a contemporary mythology that sits at the intersection of religion and advanced technology. 

I recently spoke with Diana about how the recent fervor around unidentified aerial phenomena (UAP) bears similarities to the experiences of Christian mystics in the medieval period. She told me that the theme that connects mystical experiences from centuries ago, with UAP encounters today, is the moment of shock. Something presents itself to the senses that exceeds the normal cognitive framework for understanding reality. 

For Saint Teresa of Ávila, it was an encounter with a small supernatural figure that pierced her with a spear and sent her into a spiritual ecstasy (later depicted in Bernini’s famous sculpture, The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa). Teresa, who had other experiences of angels in the form of interior illuminations, could not account for this diminutive figure moving around her cell and piercing her. Pasulka said that Saint Teresa’s reaction is similar to that of Navy fighter pilot Alex Dietrich, who witnessed a UAP shaped like a “tic tac” flying at breakneck speed over the Pacific Ocean. Dietrich describes the feeling of being 

“a little bit shocked, a little bit delighted, a little bit nervous, confused, all of that.”

Dacher Keltner and Jonathan Haidt note that the etymology of the word “awe” comes from a sense of “fear and dread, particularly toward a divine being.” Awe represents a unique admixture of something that exceeds our imaginative capacity while also evoking a sense of fear that borders on the holy.  

In 2015, Pasulka interviewed UFO experiencer Edward Carlos, a former Fine Arts professor at the University of the South. Both Carlos and Saint Teresa had encounters with “small, luminous beings of light” and experienced levitation. When asked about the fear he experienced during his encounter, Carlos said that he felt something more like awe, 

“facing the holy…you discover your body is shaking from awe, the overwhelming realization of being face to face with an immensity out of the range of comparison.” 

Keltner and Haidt refer to this aspect of awe as the “need for accommodation,” when knowledge structures change so dramatically that new theories have to be explored. 

The difference between the late medieval mystics and modern encounters with the numinous is the technological environment in which they are situated. In the case of the former, Saint Teresa was born at the tail end of the “Middle Ages,” before inventions like the telescope would change the way people thought about our place in the cosmos. The shift from a religious worldview to one that was more scientific was not a smooth one. Galileo’s use of the telescope to advocate heliocentrism put him in hot water with religious authorities. In the 17th century, the cultural trajectory was one of a rising scientific authority snuffing out fading religious sensibilities despite the protests of religious authorities. 

However, to paraphrase Mark Twain, reports about the death of enchantment have been grossly exaggerated. On the surface, today’s advanced technological environment seems to signal the triumph of the scientific over the religious. For the fighter pilots observing the UAP phenomenon, supposed encounters with advanced technological craft are filtered through advanced imaging technologies, and yet, a sense of the numinous persists and can be heard in the eyewitness accounts. 

What’s happening here? No matter how scientific or technological we become, we are still drawn to mystery. Even if that mystery can eventually be known by the laws of physics, we want to know that there is always more to know. 

The significance of today’s UAP experiences, soaked in this epistemic tension, shows the way in which religion and science are becoming less helpful as hermetically sealed categories. The membrane between the two is permeable enough that hardened fighter pilots can describe anomalous encounters in similar terms to religiously-minded medieval mystics. This means that the apparent conflict between religion and science is overstated—it’s not a zero-sum game. Rather, the quality that both of them share, the ability to surprise and delight the human spirit, spurring us on to deeper discoveries about the nature of reality, should be celebrated and explored more deeply.