By returning and rest we shall be saved ...
— The Book of Common Prayer
One giant step to the moon 40 years ago today changed things. Possibly it changed everything for all the future and for everyone. Shortly thereafter, in 1977, film critic Stanley Kauffman went to the movies and saw a film that he called an epiphany, “an event in the history of faith.” It was Steven Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” This movie could not have been appreciated before July 20, 1969, when we landed on the moon, for prior to that we were afraid of the moon. We were afraid of space.
“Close Encounters” was distinctly different from sci-fi movies of the 1950s, movies like “War of the Worlds,” in particular, in which great “eyes” suddenly appear in the cities and blasted the cities away. We had been dreaming of going to space and dreaming of aliens for decades, even a century before. The ’50s response was to blast the aliens away before they blasted you, transferring a hostile enemy from Nazi Germany to the USSR to an ambiguous alien invasion in 10 short years.
What is interesting today is that we now dream of returning to earth with TV shows like “Lost” and “Survivor.” And in these, as in the space flicks back in the ’50s, it is a strange, new and even psychic place which we have got to and know it as if for the first time. In the late 1990s and early 2000s we were back to blasting away aliens again in movies like the 1996 “Independence Day” and Spielberg’s 2005 remake of “War of the Worlds” with Tom Cruise. Spielberg brought us up, then just as the end of his career he brought us back. This could be an event in the history of faith as well.
Swiss depth psychologist C.G. Jung was fascinated by UFO sightings in the 1950s and as early as 1946 he began to collect data on people who had “visitations.” He wrote the monograph Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Skies in 1958:
As we know from ancient Egyptian history they [UFO dreams and apparitions] are manifestations of psychic changes which always appear at the end of one Platonic month and at the beginning of another. Apparently they are changes in the constellation of psychic dominants, of the archetypes, or “gods” as they used to be called which bring about, or accompany, long-lasting transformation of the collective psyche. ... We are now nearing that great change which may be expected when the springpoint enters Aquarius.
Jung’s comments brought him a high place in a new hierarchy. He was positioned top row center in the Council of Elders on the cover of the Beatles’ most famous album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the definitive archeological artifact of the 1960s.
The circular spaceships are eyes, said Jung. It is the eye of God, the eye of Horus, the sky god, projecting down from the heavens.
We shouldn’t fear these things, he said. We should welcome them. And when we do we — we the world — will begin to engage a new awakening.
I don’t know if Steven Spielberg was listening, but I expect he was, as “Close Encounters” followed just that prescription. Spielberg’s screenplay was influenced by the book The UFO Experience (1972) by Dr. J. Allen Hynek, who portrayed alien encounters as optimistic, benevolent and loving. The dreamers in the movie follow their visions and welcome the intruders from Outer Space rather than blast them away.
This was followed by the Spielberg movie “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial,” screenplay by Melissa Mathison — a well-known contributor to Tibetan Buddhist causes. “E.T.” is the story of a sweet-faced extra-terrestrial and it was accompanied by a famous poster featuring the Hand of God touching the little alien. By the end of the century aliens are less than divine and we have become completely acclimated to critters from outer space. In the Spielberg blockbuster production a few years back, “Men in Black,” they pass for ordinary citizens in New York City, although the guardians, the Men in Black who first appeared in post-war folklore as UFO associates, cast a wary eye upon them.
“Close Encounters” and “E.T.” would set the course. From then on out, Outer Space would be an element we would feel familiar in. Indeed, from then until the end of the century all epics would take place in the air or in space. The “Star Wars” saga presented a Taoist and Zen primer and would carry for 30 years. There are specific references throughout the series to Zen, Buddhism and Taoism. A “Quigon-ginn” for example, is a Taoist avatar. John Wayne, the 1950s man on horseback, would be the last of the earth-bound epic heroes. But I half expect to see him pop up again in the next season of “Lost.”
The desire to conquer the universe is a phantom. We cannot conquer the universe. We cannot conquer the earth. We cannot conquer ourselves. The gods hide in low places and the new Twilight books and movies by Stephanie Meyers return the seeker’s genre back here to earth by asking the most deeply impressed human question of all the human ages: How do we and how can we engage our full human nature without encountering the beast which lives within us? How can we engage and contain our own bestial nature? The alien is no longer in space. It is within ourselves. Like Jung’s “eyes in the sky” the vampires here are “gods” as well, the “Shining Ones” who seek and sometimes find the solution to this question. In the Twilight narratives, the only others who have successfully mastered this dilemma are the Volturi; barely disguised old world Italian Roman Catholics; the kind who pop up again in the Ron Howard’s reworking of the Dan Brown novels such as The Da Vinci Code. Almost overnight we went from galactic millennia Jedi Knights to their 12th century European counterpart, the Knights Templar.
As all things looked to the sky in the 1950s, so today all paths return to earth. Tolkien’s Rings series enters a state preceding the medieval period, State of Heaven brings us Christian on Islam war is the 12th century, the best-seller The Da Vinci Code contains riddles of a far earlier day and Harry Potter, The Deathless Child of Old England, returns us to where we came.
Our space journey did not begin with Flash Gordon or Captain Kirk. It began with Columbus. These are the sentiments of the most American of poets, Walt Whitman:
Lo, soul, seest thou not God’s purpose from the first?/ The earth to be spann’d, connected by network,/ The races, neighbors, to marry and be given in marriage,/The oceans to be cross’d, the distant brought near,/ The lands to be welded together.
The passage would be to the sun and the moon and all of the stars and to Siruis and Jupiter. Then:
After the seas are all cross’d (as they seem already cross’d)
After the great captiains and engineers have accoomplish’d their work,
After the noble inventors, after the scientists, the chemist, the geologist, ethnologist,
Finally shall come the poet worthy of that name;
The true son of God shall come singing his songs.
We are a land-based species and cannot live in outer space. It should be the most obvious fact of human nature. But that we cannot live there and were not meant to does not mean we shouldn’t visit. The planned space missions to the moon and Mars that are to begin around 2020 bring six separate worlds, three in the West — Russia, the EU and America — and three in the East — Japan, China and India — to a new plane of human experience. This in itself brings a unique, new political constellation on a stellar plane of sky faring nations. It is a Group of Six which before July 20, 1969, could not have existed and could not possibly have been imagined. It is a new world in which the Dalai Lama has said the technical mastery of the West joins the psychic and spiritual influences of the East. The three in the East have found something they lacked in us and we three in the West have found something we had left behind in them. A meeting of the six in 2020 on the moon would be a fitting tribute to the great, heroic, human achievement of Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Mike Collins, the three avatars who went there in a very small boat 40 years ago today.
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