UFOs, Heaven and Hell, and Crazy Christianity
The spaceships would arrive on January 5, 1974, and take the members of the “Lyman Family” to live on Venus. The hundred adults and sixty children waited all night, the children with the one toy they were allowed to bring on the trip. The aliens never came.
Being part of a cult, the people didn’t lose faith in their leader. “We were told that the spaceships hadn’t come because our souls weren’t ready,” Guinevere Turner explains. “We hadn’t done the work on ourselves that we needed to, and we had ruined things for Mel, whose soul was exactly where it needed to be.”
Turner tells her story in The New Yorker. Looking back from her fifties, she asks: “As individuals, how well are we positioned to say which systems of belief are right or wrong? When I was a teen-ager, I would ask my mother, ‘Did you really believe we were going to live on Venus? I mean, just for starters, we know that Venus is uninhabitable by humans.’”
Her mother would tell her, “It’s complicated. You can hold a lot of conflicting ideas at once sometimes.” She’d also say, “Not everything is black-and-white. You’ll understand when you’re older.”
What Turner understood is that religious faith is crazy-stupid.
What she doesn’t see is that Christianity is not. Christianity is sane.
She Can’t Take Religion Seriously
She stands for a lot of people who can’t take seriously anything religious. Understandably, because her childhood was so weird, but many of our friends and neighbors come down where she came down.
“To be fair,” she says in defense of her mother’s answers, “the notion that U.F.O.s are going to take you to live on Venus is not obviously crazier than the Christian idea of Heaven and Hell, not to mention the unscientific beliefs put forth by other mainstream religions. Sheer popularity and longevity can do a lot to render odd convictions reassuringly familiar.”
She’s right. Old beliefs can seem more believable than they are. Lots of people believed them and shaped their lives by them. Believers created poetry and art and a culture from their belief. Those people can’t all be crazy. The religion must make some kind of sense. You may not believe it, but you can see why some people do.
Christians know that other faiths feel normal to other people, because they’re right about some things. As fierce an apologist as C. S. Lewis was, he explained in Mere Christianity that Christians “do not have to believe that all the other religions are simply wrong all through.” We “are free to think that all these religions, even the queerest ones, contain at least some hint of the truth.” He builds his argument in his great book The Abolition of Man on what he calls “the Tao,” the fundamental belief shared by Christian, Buddhist, Confucian, Hindu, and Greek pagan alike.
And Christianity Agrees With Her
If you grow up in a belief, you’ll believe it. Even if the belief’s absurd. Turner’s right about that too. She writes now because the “Family” expelled her at twelve when her mother left it, so she can see it from the outside. You’ll believe its beliefs until you find reason to bail on the community, and you may well never find a reason to leave. You’ll think its beliefs obvious. The world’s crazy, not you.
Christians know this too. The New Testament spends some time explaining why we stick out. Jesus says, “Look, they hated me and they’re going to hate you.” St. Paul explains that the Jews will stumble over the idea of the crucified God and the Greeks will think it ridiculous. But we bet our lives on it.
And Turner’s also right that some beliefs are just crazy. We know man can’t live on Venus. The surface is hot enough to melt lead and the atmospheric pressure is 92 times that of earth. Mel Lyman, he was either crackers or a conman.
Christians also know some people hold crazy beliefs. Nothing in our faith lets us disregard what man knows. The opposite, in fact. Because we believe that God created the world, we must respect his creation by finding out as much about it as we can, with all the tools we have. God being God, we assume He gave us a revelation in line with His creation. If they seem to conflict, that’s only because we don’t yet see something we should.
What She Doesn’t See
I don’t think Turner understands that Christianity agrees with her critique of belief. She clearly can’t see that what she says hits Christians pretty hard, but doesn’t hit Christianity at all. Ours is a rational faith, even though we who believe it may not always be rational.
Look at her claim that her childhood belief in aliens taking the family to Venus is no crazier than Christianity’s idea of Heaven and Hell. It is obviously crazier. She and every agnostic should know this. They know man can’t live on Venus. They don’t know what lies after death. Dead looks like dead, but maybe it’s not dead. As far as they know, everyone might survive in some way. And if they survive, what they did in life (and what God did in them) might decide how they live from now on.
Turner may think this very unlikely, but it’s not crazy. It fits what we see in the world. Actions have consequences. We make ourselves into certain kinds of people, by living for ourselves or living for others. We want to see the good rewarded and the bad punished. The Christian idea of Heaven and Hell offers a perfectly sane idea of the afterlife: You are who you made yourself and you wind up where you were going. Perfectly reasonable, and a better idea than the alternatives.
Guinevere Turner grew up in the one of the weirder areas of American religion. Her childhood faith was crazy. That seems to have blinded her to the other possibilities. She throws out the baby with the bath. I might well do the same thing if I had only seen craziness. Jesus would say to her, I think: “Come to me, you who are heavily burdened by your childhood religion, and I will give you reason and sanity, and the way to Heaven.”