Jeffrey Kripal, a professor at Rice University, came to speak at my university earlier this week for our annual Witherspoon Religious Studies lecture.
His lecture, “Biological Gods: Science (fiction) and Some Emergent Mythologies”, focused on three specific works by individuals who identify themselves as “Experiencers”, or those who have had alien or UFO encounters.
Kripal discussed how these kinds of experiences are socially scripted into our psyches. A contemporary tale of an alien encounter is the modern equivalent of ancient tales of divine encounters. For Kripal, this scripting doesn’t mean that the experiences are necessarily invalid (though he remains neutral, neither advocating for the objective reality of UFO sightings or alien encounters nor dismissing them as hogwash).
As I understood it, he thinks that it makes perfect sense that a culture so enmeshed with technology would perceive these supernatural experiences through a technological lens. Just as a Catholic Catholic child in, say, the 1500’s would naturally see a Marian apparition.
He finds that these seemingly radically different experiences are linked; they are an emergence of the scripted form of some sort of encounter that is inexpressible. The person sees a UFO (or Jesus’ face in a piece of toast) because they expect to, but this is the result of some sort of other-worldly touch that only has the option of emerging through the lens of something we are already familiar with.
I think Kripal’s approach is interesting. He advocates for putting the mysterious (or the divine) back into the study of religion. While I think that this can create some issues (some might immediately jump to the realm of the miraculous when attempting to explain religious phenomena), but I think it is an interesting idea.
Religious Studies is so often incredibly depressing, Kripal noted. I’m afraid I agree. Though I love the field with all my heart, sometimes I feel like it is missing an air of wonder and incredulity.
Maybe it’s just me, but at times I feel that everything is reduced to a theory or explanation, and all of the amazing “stuff” that makes up the so much of what we study is ignored or extinguished.
What would it mean to attempt to reinvigorate the study? How could this be done carefully? Could it be done at all at this point?