Sunday, August 23, 2020

Would You Go With The Aliens?

Ever since the COVID-19 pandemic and quarantine began, Beacon Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Summit, NJ has been meeting online. Our services are broadcast via Youtube and Facebook, and our business and community meetings happen on Zoom. Even our traditional coffee hour after service has gone digital, with a half-hour for social interaction. Those who gather via Zoom are split into smaller groups with a volunteer facilitator, and a few questions are planned to keep the conversation going. This past week it was an oddball question that we discussed, and one that turned up something I think is important.

The question was: "If aliens were to visit earth and offer to take you with them, would you go?"

The discussion in my group was fairly lively. A couple of us were suspicious of the whole thing. What's in the fine print? Is anyone else from Earth going? Will they bring us back? Will we be free to walk around when we get there? Can we breathe in their atmosphere without assistance? Are their pathogens that we need to be aware of or inoculated against? These are important things to know! 

Even if they promise to bring us back 'in a week,' what does that mean? As we approach light-speed time gets weird because of relativity. It might be a week for us, but 1000 years or more for earth. That would be the same as being dead from the perspective of Earth. Our friends and family would all be long-dead, and our culture all but forgotten. Whatever languages arise in that time, they wouldn't be early 21st century English!

Most in our group wouldn't go, as I recall. Our explanations all sounded vaguely familiar. I cited having things to do here, thinking both of my grown children and plans I have for my own future. Someone else mentioned her grandchildren, and another the people she would miss. Then it became clear for me that this question points us to a valuable truth about belonging and community.

Some young adults might be more willing to volunteer for such an expedition than older folks, even if it takes longer than the lives of those who love them on this planet. I say this because I know the spirit of adventure I had in my late teens and early 20s, and although I loved my parents and had some friends, I didn't feel so embedded in where I came from. After all, I was more than happy to prepare for a lifetime of mission service in Brazil.

What held those in my discussion group back from going was our communities. We would miss family and friends. I would lose the dreams I have for the future, which all depend on interacting with other people on this world, not some other one. Even asking who would be going with us, if anyone, indicates the value we put on community. The aliens would presumably be...well...alien, and so perhaps not as easy to connect with on a deeper level as other humans would be. 

When government guidelines mandated that certain places be closed for the time being in order to reduce the spread of COVID-19, many evangelicals were incensed. They insisted on their 'constitutional right to assemble,' and weaponized a passage from the New Testament for their purposes.

And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching. — Hebrews 10:24-25 NRSV

Those verses were made into a commandment, sucking the purpose from them to make them binding for theological and political ends. Take a look at what these words are calling for, though. People are to 'provoke' one another not to hate and wrath, but to 'love and good deeds.' The reason for the believers not to neglect gathering together was for the purpose of encouragement. This is a far cry from the rhetoric of the evangelicals, and has everything to do with people sharing their lives. We seek out and hold fast to our groups, whether family by birth, by choice, or some of each, because they are part of our self-identity. The healthiest such communities inspire and support us to be better versions of ourselves. 

"Being engaged in some way for the good of the community, whatever that community, is a factor in a meaningful life. We long to belong, and belonging and caring anchors our sense of place in the universe." Patricia Churchland

Our individual senses of meaning are derived, perhaps to a large extent, from the groups we associate with. Take us away from those groups and we lose a big part of who we are and what motivates us. Without people to impress, to help, to inspire, to lead, to serve, or whatever else, our purpose collapses. There is always an element of what others will think about us in the things we do publicly. 

A solo trip with extraterrestrials doesn't sound like much fun at all. Besides, I'd rather not miss Social Hour.