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Contact: Conversations Across Ideological Divides

Ever discover a story that climbs inside your brain and refuses to leave? At some point, you maybe even realize that this thing has laid roots in your heart. It has even affected you at a core level.

The movie Contact is one such story for me. I've mentioned before how this movie is one the core stories that has shaped me, but I'd like to go into more detail here about why I so admire Contact. It is also one of the reasons I've long been fascinated by the theological implications of life on other planets since I have to agree with the movie's assessment that if there is no life out there, it seems like "an awful waste of space."

Why exactly do I feel like talking about Contact now? Well, I just finished reading the novel by Carl Sagan that the film is based on. I'd never read the book before--and I don't know for sure why. Now that I've read it, I see how clearly it is something that fits me so well that for the life of me I can't figure out why I hadn't gotten around to it sooner. Once I wrapped up the reading of the novel, I grabbed my Blu-ray of the movie and had myself an enjoyable evening with an old favorite.

Before we go on, a quick warning: if you're unfamiliar with the novel or movie, there will be some mild spoilers ahead.

The Quest For Truth

Reading the novel and revisiting the movie brought back a lot of memories for me. For one thing, when I first saw Contact, it was the first time I really started wrapping my head around the scale of our universe. I had to walk away from that experience and immediately go be alone for a while where I spent at least a half-hour on my face, weeping. I felt magnificently insignificant but also incredibly fortunate to exist at all.

The dialogue of the film also offered me a fascinating example of the passionate but ultimately respectful exchange that is possible between two very different worldviews: empiricism and faith. The two sides are presented with a sincerity that is often lacking in our partisan culture these days.

Watching Dr. Ellie Arroway and Palmer Joss argue over the feasibility of belief in God doesn't come across as hammy or corny or oversimplified. The two characters, coming from two different worldviews, are complex and interesting in their own right. They are both relatable, and thus compelling and sincere in their views.

Even as a teenager growing up as the son of evangelical missionaries to Brazil, I related profoundly with Ellie, the agnostic scientist. This stuck with me as I encountered people in life who did not share my faith. I particularly love the moment in the movie when Joss states that while he, as a person of faith, is bound by a different covenant than a scientist like Dr. Arroway, their goals are still the same in seeking the truth.

Between Contact's influence and The X-Files' "The Truth is Out There" slogan, my teenage years set me up for my eventual foray into philosophy in college.

Supernova: Expanding My Worldview

A surprising affect Contact had on me was that I slowly began to embracing the possibility that universe held much deeper mysteries than I or others around me seemed to ready to acknowledge. For one thing, I became fascinated with trying to understand the scale of the universe after watching Contact. The more I learned, the more my Young-Earth Creationism I'd inherited from the Midwestern evangelical church culture I was part of in my teens no longer made sense to me. The universe began to seem far bigger and more ancient to me.

I recall sitting in the library of my college and reading an article for my metaphysics class. The article, in part, dealt with issues relating to the speed of light and the observations of a supernova 2 million light years away. I recall having my own argument between my internal Palmer Joss and Dr. Arroway as I sat there. If Young-Earth Creationism was true, as I had passionately argued for while in high school, then something odd was happening with this supernova.

For the universe to be only a few thousand years old, either God had to have created an already exploded supernova that was mid-process of sending out its light beams through space, the results of a supernova that in fact never happened. Or something funny was going on with the speed of light.

Now, I didn't know a lot about special and general relativity at the time, but I knew enough to recognize that the speed of light isn't exactly arbitrary. So it seemed incredibly unlikely to me that the speed of light has dramatically (and given the distances we're talking about here, I mean pretty damn dramatically) slowed down. As a result, I found I could not accept this hypothesis.

So there I was, back to Occam's razor, a concept I was first introduced to by watching Contact. What seemed like the simpler explanation? Could it be that God created the universe only a few thousand years ago but for some reason went to great lengths to create the illusion of a far more ancient universe? Or could it be that universe is much older than my Creationism had allowed me to believe?

The first option seemed to me to make God out to be some kind of trickster or illusionist. But that perspective didn't strike me as consistent with the narrative of Scripture and the person of Jesus.

So there I was, in the library of my conservative Christian college, coming to the conclusion that the simplest explanation seems to be that our universe is incredibly ancient. This ultimately had other implications I wasn't quite ready to wrestle with right then, but that was the moment I took the first step away from my Young-Earth Creationism.

I recall sitting there and being reminded of the feelings swirling around me that night after I had first watched Contact. The universe is big, ancient, and mysterious. And so is God, I figured.

Embracing the Subjective

Being able to soak in this story over the course of a few weeks while slowly reading through Sagan's novel was a refreshing experience. While Sagan and I likely would not see eye-to-eye on all matters relating to faith, his novel and the resulting movie make compelling arguments for the possibility and even necessity of faith (faith is science and/or faith in God).

Ellie (and four other scientists in the book's version of the story) has a subjective experience she's not able to prove through empirical means to others when she returns from what appears to be a botched attempt at using the machine some alien species sent us instructions to build. She even acknowledges that as a scientist and as a logical person she must concede the possibility that she's wrong about her belief in this experience. Nonetheless, she had a visceral and life-altering experience she cannot walk away from.

Sagan seems genuinely sympathetic to the epistemology of religious experience and here presents a scientist who seems to have had a religious experience of sorts, with a particular scientific slant. She doesn't end up believing the God Joss believes in, but the story offers us a troubled romance between faith and empiricism. In the novel, this romance is more subtle and slow to develop, but still quite present.

Near the end of the novel, Palmer Joss expresses to Dr. Arroway something that I think lies at the heart of Contact's appeal for me. She has revealed to him all of what she's experienced and she wonders if he believes her. But more than just that, if as a man of faith he accepts her account as true, what implications does her experience have on his view of God. Joss replies with this:

"I've been searching, Eleanor. After all these years, believe me, I know the truth when I see it. Any faith that admires truth, that strives to know God, must be brave enough to accommodate the universe. I think of the scope of your universe, the opportunities it affords the Creator, and it takes my breath away. It's much better than bottling Him up in one small world. I never liked the idea of Earth as God's green footstool. It was too reassuring, like a children's story ... like a tranquilizer. But your universe has room enough, and time enough for the kind of God I believe in."

Upon reading that paragraph, I had to pause and reread it. There it was, words on a page that expressed what I found so resounding in the movie all those years ago. "Any faith that admires truth, that strives to know God, must be brave enough to accommodate the universe." Like Joss, I too find that the God I have come to believe in has time and space enough to be far more mysterious and patient than the God I once believed in as a Creationist.

Why Contact Still Matters

Why did I feel the need to revisit this story and to explore it in more depth through reading the novel at this particular time? All of the above realities resonate with me. But why did I need this story right now? I found I had this thirst for it that I needed to address right now. Lord knows I've bought enough books recently that I didn't need to go grab another one from my local library.

Our culture is currently quite divided. It's hard to have sensible and constructive conversations across ideological dividing lines these days. Arroway and Joss in both the novel and movie model the kinds of conversations we can have if we are willing to take a different approach. They're not perfect in their exchanges. At times emotions and preconceived notions get in the way. But they increasingly discover an admiration for the other person. In this, they also discover an unexpected connection.

How might we be served by being open to legitimately admiring the good qualities of those we disagree with? How might our culture change if our exchanges are informed by genuine love for those we cannot see eye-to-eye with? I, for one, needed this reminder at this time.

What about you? Do you think such dialogue across ideological divides is possible? Have you changed your mind on fundamental ideas? Is there something we can learn from the people we disagree the most with?

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