Smile indulgently about it if so inclined. That's OK with the Rev. Barry H. Downing. But he firmly maintains that UFOs are real and that they have key religious significance.

He said recognizing the existence and operations of these Unidentified Flying Objects could do much to strengthen faith and renew confidence in biblical accounts."It would establish scientific plausiblity for the whole biblical field," he said. "It would reinforce faith and make it possible in a scientific context."

The Rev. Downing, a Presbyterian pastor with a scientific bent, said government equivocation has caused skepticism about UFOs, and so he expects some scoffing at his views.

"You have to have a good humor about it," he said in an interview. "I can't prove I'm right, but there's lots of evidence for it, and until it wins out, some people are just going to have to laugh."

He theorizes that activities of UFO-borne "higher beings" or "angels," likely from another dimension rather than other planets, are indicated in biblical events ranging from guiding the Israelites from Egypt to Christ's ascension.

He said postulating such activities in forming biblical faith would open a middle ground between fundamentalist literalism and liberal theology's "demythologizing" of supernatural events as only symbolic.

"It would cut down the distance between liberals and fundamentalists, and serve as a mediating force between the two extremes," he said.

The Rev. Downing, 50, of Endwell, N.Y., has a B.A. in physics and, after completing Princeton Theological Seminary, got a doctorate at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland on relations of science and religion.

He details his ideas about UFOs and about eternity as a coexisting universe, based on Einstein's relativity theory, in a new paperback edition of his book, "The Bible and Flying Saucers," issued by Berkely Books.

"What is clear through the biblical material is that God's will for the Jews, and eventually for all mankind, was `revealed' by beings from another world," he writes.

The Rev. Downing said a hovering, UFO-like "cloud" by day, and glowing "pillar of fire" by night guided the Israelites out of Egypt, projecting some propulsive force that parted the Red Sea, leading them for years across the desert.

Other events he sees as carried out by UFOs include:

The fire-like phenomenon on Mount Sinai in which Moses received the Ten Commandments, the Prophet Elijah taken to heaven in a fiery chariot, the star of Bethlehem, the engulfing light of Jesus' transfiguration, his being "lifted up" at his ascension and the blinding visitation of Paul en route to Damascus.

"All these were UFO types of reports," the Rev. Downing said.