The movie Contact (Robert Zemeckis, 1997), starring Jodie Foster & Matthew McConaughey, is definitely one of my all-time favorite Sci-Fi films.
The film is adapted from a Carl Sagan novel by the same name. Sagan (1934-1996), an astronomer, cosmologist, and astrophysicist, was a self-professed agnostic. He spent most of his career as a professor and director of planetary studies at Cornell University. And he was a major supporter of SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence).
Sagan was a brilliant scientist, but like a true naturalist he was doubtful of God’s existence. Which is what makes the movie Contact so interesting.
Jodie Foster plays Dr. Eleanor “Ellie” Arroway, a MIT grad and agnostic scientist working for SETI. She listens for radio transmissions in outerspace until she eventually receives a signal repeating a sequence of prime numbers. The signal is from the star Vega, 25 light years away.
After the initial contact is made, the world undergoes mass hysteria and fear. Some believe it’s the end of the world, others can’t contain their excitement. What does it all mean? What will happen next?
We meet some interesting characters along the way. There is the leader of the “Conservative” Coalition who wants to suppress the new discovery out of fear. There is a Christian fundamentalist who preaches that the devil is at work in science and that God will judge all scientists. He even resorts to violence in an attempt to stop NASA. But nothing can stop Ellie.
In time it becomes clear to Ellie (Foster) and her colleagues that the signal outlines plans to build a machine. What was thought to be some sort of space craft turns out to be a portal into another dimension which transports Ellie to Vega and back again. Ellie was gone for hours, but it was only seconds to everyone else. What she experienced will change her forever.
Throughout the film Ellie had been in conversation with Palmer Joss (McConaughey), a renowned Christian philosopher. Palmer challenged Ellie to consider that faith and science were not mutually exclusive.
While Palmer may not be the most straight-laced believer you’ll ever meet, he deeply cares for Ellie and her unhealthy skepticism. He believes in her and wants her to accept a very real aspect of knowledge… that of faith.
But Ellie wants proof and evidence for everything. Knowing that Ellie lost her beloved father at an early age, Palmer asks, “Did you love your dad?” Ellie says, “Yes, very much.” Palmer replies, “Then prove it.”
The following video captures one of the final scenes from the film. Ellie (Foster) is being questioned by a congressional committee about what she experienced in the machine. She finds herself saying the same thing Palmer had told her about faith, only she had scoffed at it earlier in the film.
Palmer looks on as Ellie reveals her transformation.
Watch and ponder the relationship between faith and science. I find them both mysteriously intertwined, as I stand in awe of the God of science.
The church has often been guilty of setting the Scriptures (divine revelation) up against science (natural revelation). Let’s consider how we can hold both theology and science together. It’s time to move beyond the culture wars and allow science to reveal the glory of God.
D.D. Flowers, 2013.
January 24th, 2013 at 2:17 am
Yes, ‘Contact’ has been one of my long term favourites.
And I have long thought that the truth we know and believe from faith in God and the truth we can prove with scientific method must be parts of one whole truth.
January 24th, 2013 at 7:35 am
Truth is truth, this is regardless of our opinion, or traditions.
January 24th, 2013 at 2:50 pm
My study of science leads me to more awe of the creation and its Creator. What is dangerous, though, is our culture’s attempt to worship at the altar of science as the only source of truth.
January 24th, 2013 at 3:03 pm
Hey Sean, thanks for chiming in.
I think both Christians and agnostic naturalists are guilty of setting divine and natural revelation against one another. My desire is that the church can rise above the culture wars, politics, and a literal reading of Gen 1-2 as a litmus test of real discipleship. We also make an altar of worship upon our literal interpretations of a prescientific text when we demand that science bow down to theology, as if they are not intertwined and mysteriously bound together. They both testify to the same truth about God.
You didn’t say this, but that’s why I look suspiciously at those who say the Word of God trumps science. No, they work together. Science may mess with a person’s interpretation(s) of Scripture, but there’s a difference in the truth God inspired in the original context within a particular ancient genre, and an actual contradiction of divine truth.
When people (both believers and skeptics) try to use the gaps of science, or twist the evidence, to promote their particular agenda… we know we’re not allowing an honest search of truth.
January 25th, 2013 at 10:23 am
I don’t think Christians can rise above the culture wars, because the culture is anti-Christian. Christians must stand for truth, especially the truth of Scripture. Sure, the Scriptures do not always speak in scientific terminology. However, I think it is science that more often exceeds its bounds to try and present truth outside of its purview. There is a very big difference in world views that has be addressed.
January 25th, 2013 at 12:01 pm
Sean, what I mean to say is that we need rise above the demonizing of others who disagree with our interpretations and discuss theology and science differently than the way it’s been done in the past. The curse of the culture wars is the “wars” part, not the culture the so much.
How does science exceed its bounds? What do you mean? Can you give me an example?
January 24th, 2013 at 3:26 pm
Woot! Woot! Frankly, if we find our interpretation of Holy Scripture (special revelation) to be at odds with the realities of science (natural revelation) AND we demand science bow to our view of Scripture, then we have missed the mark. The god we worship is neither the God of Holy Scripture nor the God who made the stars.
I don’t want to hijack this thread with a discussion of special revelation, but when we adopt or continue to believe a strict “sola scriptura”, inevitably we will bow to a god of our own creation and substitute the Living Word, Jesus Christ, with the paper and ink testimony about him. I may believe the Scriptures, but I do not believe *in* them. They are not my Savior. They cannot wash away my sins. They cannot cleanse me from all unrighteousness. They cannot judge me. They cannot raise me from the dead. Woe to those who attribute to Scripture what belongs only to God!
January 24th, 2013 at 3:29 pm
Good word, Jason! Thanks for sharing, bro.
January 25th, 2013 at 10:26 am
This seems a bit of a false dichotomy to me. Psalm 119 would seem to argue that the keeping of the written word IS walking in His ways and knowing the God of the Scripture.
January 28th, 2013 at 11:46 pm
I love contact – one of my favorites of all time – i referenced this in my book also.
January 29th, 2013 at 6:35 pm
Excellent write-up, David. I’m of course a huge fan of Carl Sagan and am actually reading Contact right now!
I found the thoughts you expressed here very relatable, as they are issues I struggled with for quite a long time. I was raised in a fundamentalist Christian household and, as I grew older, discovered an affinity for science. It was not long before I was confronted with the tension between evolution and the Christian faith.
As someone who understands science, how it works and how it progresses, I came to realize that I could only deny evolution at the expense of reason. I am not alone. There are millions of Christians around the world who accept the overwhelming evidence for evolution and find no incompatibility between science and their faith. Theistic evolution is a position I occupied for a length of time.
I would take this a step further and offer that while there are no good reasons *not* to believe in evolution (i.e., there are currently no alternative scientific theories), I don’t think the issue holds any theological value, or any value in our relationship with Christ. If bioevolution via natural selection does in fact accurately account for the origin of man, who are we to question God’s means and design? This is to say nothing of the sheer elegance and grandeur of evolution juxtaposed with the unimaginative, simplistic two pages found in the Bible. Truly, the story of evolution is almost poetic in its autonomous ingenuity and nuance. A forceful argument can in fact be made that evolution is GREATER evidence for an “Architect”.
Obviously, there became a mutual exclusivity which arose between inelegant (i.e, literal) interpretations of Genesis and a contemporary understanding of evolution. However, because the Genesis origin story can only be understood allegorically today does not mean your entire theological house of cards topples along with it. There is no need to throw the baby out with the bath water. It only means you must adopt a more nuanced theology and understanding of god.
To those who find this problematic, is it not intellectually sustainable to entertain that perhaps God’s message to us and, as NT Wright says, his authority “as exercised through Scripture”, is a bit more nuanced, a bit more gray, and a bit more meaningful and transformative than the conventional “the Bible is perfect because it says it’s perfect” mantras allow? Perhaps God values a more responsible engagement with Scripture than the limited scope many Christians allot for it. Indeed, perhaps it’s not always as simple as many Christians would like to think.
I will simply say that religion and science should not be conflated as parallel conduits to truth. Religious faith does not extend beyond its jurisdiction only insofar as it does not conflict with science. Religion, and the theology which undergirds it, are, in effect, the gaps of science, and where matters of nature are concerned, science wins the day.
I struggled with these thoughts for years, but eventually, my faith collapsed. I simply recognized that what we know of the physical world and its past is comprehensively incompatible with a personal god, be it the Christian god or any other. I’d be lying if I said that evolution wasn’t a significant contributor to my deconversion from Christian theism.
I grew up a Christian all my life, and upon learning about our origins, I tenuously rationalized theism and evolution in my mind, thinking that they could peacefully coexist, that they could coalesce into a single, unified worldview. I no longer think this way. When you believe, as I once did, in a literalist interpretation of the Bible, where the earth is just 10,000 years old and man did not evolve via natural selection over millions of years, the idea of god is much easier to swallow. Yet when you take the long view, and are exposed to all that has besieged life on Earth and the breathtakingly violent process it took to get here, that same worldview just doesn’t work. Anyone who says they can simultaneously believe in a modern understanding of evolution and theism I would submit simply doesn’t understand enough about evolution and our past. Indeed, I now believe they are cognitively dissonant beliefs.
Thanks for listening. Love your blog David.
January 29th, 2013 at 7:07 pm
Hey Daniel, I so appreciate you taking the time to share your experience and perspective. I agree with everything you’ve written. I agree that a pop-view or “modern” understanding of theism doesn’t work very well with evolution. That’s one of the many reasons I appreciate Greg Boyd’s theological/philosophical work in this area. His academic books, “God At War” and “Satan & the Problem of Evil” allow for a theological framework (open theism) that fits nicely with theistic evolution. In fact, I believe it’s because I experienced a paradigm shift in this area, interpretively and theologically, that I can accept the “God of Science” mentioned in my blog post.
Check out my expose of Boyd’s view: https://daviddflowers.com/2010/12/10/an-open-theism-theodicy/
You’re a bright guy, Daniel. I readily admit that you know the science end of things better than I do. I can definitely learn from you. I’m continuing to learn and search for truth with excitement and wonder. (I love that I currently have a classroom between two science teachers!) But as you can tell, I do that with a firm belief in Creator, and that this Creator has been divinely revealed in the person of Jesus. Contrary to Dawkins, it’s not a petty thing for me, but an awe-inspiring mystery and a cosmic phenomenon.
I hope we can encourage each other to seek the truth with an open mind and heart. Thanks, bro.
January 30th, 2013 at 9:00 am
Darwin also faded in any faith he once professed, though his wife disagreed. There are serious issues between Creation and evolution stances. The primary theological one is that evolution requires death (lots of it) before you ever get to humans. The theology of Genesis asserts that death is solely the result of human sin in the garden.
Also, while the bulk of scientists accept the theories of evolution, I find that the evidence is much more lacking than convincing. Evolution has become the party line that all must accept to get funded. It is far from proven, except at the micro level (adaptations within a species). All the generations of fruit fly experiments have produced all kinds of fruit fly variations, but never anything else. It takes more faith to believe in evolution than it does to take the reliable word of the Creator.
When I look at Creation, I see the majestic work of a master artist. The immense variety of fish, birds, insects, etc. are not products of randomness and natural selection; they are the astounding masterworks of a Creator of limitless imagination and care. Tell me, how do salmon know how to get back to their spawning ground?
January 30th, 2013 at 9:02 am
Sean, the Scripture says death came to humans because of sin. Also, I would be willing to bet that if Darwin really faded in his faith (I honestly haven’t read much on the man himself), it’s because he felt that evolution contradicted Scripture (as he was taught to read it). I think it’s the same issue we’re dealing with today.
January 30th, 2013 at 9:13 am
So animals and plants died, but humans didn’t? When did homo sapiens receive the breath of life if there needed to be millions of years of evolution? Created in the image of God has to mean something or lots of theology starts to fall apart.
January 30th, 2013 at 9:21 am
I touched on that in my response to Stephen in the comment thread on “Creeds & the Local Church.”
Of course I believe that man being created in the “image of God” has deep theological meaning. I don’t see how theistic evolution changes anything. So what, God may have used the evolutionary process to bring about all that we know, even human beings created in his image. I understand the initial reaction to this after folks have been hammered with atheistic evolution, but if it’s given some thought… I think it actually gives us marvelous insight to the creative process. In this way, life grows freely (being guided by God) instead of being forcefully (unlike God in Christ) brought into existence with the appearance of age.
Greg Boyd postulates that death entering into the evolutionary process can’t be understood apart from demonic powers seeking to intervene with God’s good processes. Death comes to creation as a result of this interference, and death comes to man by his choosing evil, as portrayed in mythological form with the Garden of Eden.
January 29th, 2013 at 7:19 pm
I am hearing more and more about Greg Boyd and his process theology. I plan to pick up a couple of his books when I have some spare time. Needless to say, I have not shut the door on the Christian faith and will continue searching, seeking and asking questions.
January 29th, 2013 at 8:48 pm
That’s good to hear, Daniel. Btw: Greg will tell you he is not a process theologian. http://reknew.org/about/faq/
Talk to you later.
February 9th, 2013 at 10:22 am
I really enjoy reading your blog! Your posts get me to think much more about faith (your thoughts on open-theism made me realize i would classify myself as being open-theist, thanks for that). I have spent quite some time reading some of your many threads of comments, but this one had me pondering for what seemed to be an eternity, so I feel forced to comment.
You see, I have always been taught by my family that science never contradicts God, and it is actually a way in which humanity tries to understand his creation. I have no problems in believing in theistic evolution, to be totally honest, it seems much more poetic and beautiful of God to create the world in such complex ways. Ones that are logical and understandable.
I have found, though, that this opinion is causing major upsets in doctrine and how people read the bible in our times. I like the fact that people are beginning to look at evolution not so much as an evil thing anymore, but as a great process.
All of this, of course, should apply for all sciences. The physics in gravity, electromagnetism… their are many other scientific theories that are not argued by faith. It seems to only be the big bang and evolution. I believe in God, I was raised (and I am still being raised) a Catholic. I love science more than any other subject, and refuse to give up my reason, because, logically, it seems so much more God-like to have complex reasons for why everything is the way it is, after all, we cannot FULLY understand Him.
So Mr. Flowers, I wanted to thank you for making me think so much about this subject, it really made me appreciate the grandeur of the universe, a universe made by God.
PS. Really enjoy your class 🙂
February 9th, 2013 at 11:56 pm
It says a lot that you read my blog and give a great deal of thought to my posts. Your observations are correct. And yes, Catholics have been more accepting of evolution than Protestants/evangelicals. Many evangelicals are not able to rise above the culture wars to reconsider the possibility that there is continuity between mainstream scientific theories and the sacred Scriptures.
Of course, agnostics often do the same thing, thinking that science trumps faith. This assumption is due to their own misunderstandings of the biblical text, and their “faith” in naturalism to answer all of the mysteries of creation.
I appreciate your honesty and your willingness to seek the truth. I’m glad that you’re in my class, and reading my blog. 🙂
February 10th, 2013 at 12:47 pm
Of course with the lack of evidence, it actually takes more faith to believe in evolution (from one species into another) than in Creation.
February 10th, 2013 at 5:04 pm
I’ve heard that one before.