Saturday, November 7, 2009


Last night as a family we watched the movie Contact, starring Jodie Foster and Matthew McConnaughy. I remembered not being particularly impressed by this film back in 1997 when we first saw it in theaters. When Glen suggested we watch it, I was sort of lukewarm about popping the videotape into the VCR. But by film's end, I understood why I had not appreciated the film as much one decade ago as I do today. I realized that in order to fully appreciate this film you have to have faith, an aspect of my life that was not completely lacking in 1997, but was underdeveloped.

The fact that faith is the key to appreciating this film is not just a little ironic, since the film's protagonist, played by Jodie Foster, does not believe in God, and the novel on which the movie is based was written by Carl Sagan, an agnostic. Yet, the movie is one of the best expositions of the principle of faith that I have ever seen.

If I've not stated this for the record elsewhere, I'll state here now that I feel a special affinity with atheists and agnostics. I am not an atheist or agnostic, though I have at certain points in my life entertained serious doubts about the existence of God, and even publicly expressed the sentiment that if God existed we should disbelieve in him. (The inverse of Voltaire's famous aphorism that if God did not exist we should have had to invent him!) For more than a decade of my life -- from roughly 1993 until 2005 -- even though I was active in a church, I was what I would now consider a functional atheist. For all intents and purposes I lived my life as if God did not exist.

I am no longer an atheist in any sense at all. I have been too profoundly touched by God, I have had too powerful an experience of God's presence to be able to do anything but feel awed and humbled and grateful to him, to feel anything but the deepest possible yearning for continued, growing communion with him, a hunger for the full realization of his kingdom here below on earth, and unmitigated, endless fellowship with him in the Eternal realms.

Yet I love and feel affinity with atheists and agnostics. In fact, in many ways I feel as though my faith is much closer to the disbelief of atheists than it is to the lazy, hypocritical, legalistic, intolerant religious culture in which today's America is saturated. American "belief" is too much like Nebuchadnezzar's golden statute. America's self-appointed spokespeople for God are too much like Nebuchadnezzar's priests, demanding obedience, and threatening lion's dens and fiery furnaces for those who don't bow down. To the extent that God is identified with American nationalism and American wars and the American dollar, that god I want no part of. That kind of theism is nothing but filth and idolatry. And when the predominant culture is idolatrous, atheism is the beginning of faith.

In the faith that I embrace, God speaks to us not in the storm and whirlwind, but in the still, small voice. The voice that is so quiet it can only be heard in the silence. God does not compel, God persuades. God loved us into being, and loves us into motion. In the Mormon theology that I embrace, God purposely created a universe for us to live in that appears to be godless. God deliberately sent us into this dimension with no recollection of him. We live in an apparently godless universe, with no overt memory of God, in order to be tested, to see if we will live lives of compassion, justice and mercy even when we are free to live lives of greed, injustice and hate. No compulsion, no force should be used to require faith. That's the way of Satan. That is the way, incidentally, of the culture we live in.

The "believer" who is intolerant and mean-spirited is like the son in Jesus' parable, who promised his father he would come and labor in the vineyard but then reneges. The "unbeliever" who is kind to the stranger and merciful to the widow and the orphan is like the son in Jesus' parable, who told his father he would not come work in the vineyard, but then showed up anyway. I'd much rather have the latter kind of faith than the former. So, apparently, would Jesus (Matthew 21: 28-32).

In the film Contact, Ellie Arroway (the main character, played by Jodie Foster) stopped believing in God after her father died of a heart attack, when a well-meaning priest told her that her father's death was God's will. At a crucial moment in the film, Ellie is interrogated by a congressional committee about her beliefs. She truthfully admits that she cannot believe in God, because she has no evidence of his existence, and is punished for this truthful admission. Another scientist, David Drumlin (played by Tom Skerritt), lies to the congressional committee, feigning belief in God, and is rewarded. I love these moments in the film, because they so beautifully illustrate some of the crucial issues related to belief and unbelief: the problems created by idolatrous definitions of God (that put God on the side of injustice) and the problems created by coercion of the human conscience (that reward hypocrisy and punish the search for truth).

Yet, though Ellie Arroway does not believe in God, she is the person in the film who demonstrates the greatest faith. At the beginning of the film, she tirelessly promotes a SETI ("Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence") project against disbelief and opposition in the government, and in the scientific and philanthropic communities. She has no "proof" that extraterrestrial life exists, or that, if it exists, it is capable of communicating with us. Yet, she reasons, if there are over 100 billion stars in the Milky Way alone, and even if only one in a million of those had life, and if only one in a million again of those with life had intelligent life, there would still be millions of worlds "out there" with intelligent life like ours, capable of communicating with us. So she presses forward despite the disbelief of her peers, in search of that life -- seeking "contact." At the end of the film, Ellie makes contact with alien life using a machine that -- to outside observers -- looks as if it did nothing, as if she was in the machine for only a few seconds. When Ellie tells about her experience with the aliens, the rest of the world disbelieves her, dismissing her testimony as nonsense and explaining it away as a fraud and a hoax. Ellie finds that the transcendent truth she has discovered about life and intelligence and our relationship to the universe is incapable of being conveyed to others. It can only be experienced, or accepted "on faith."

At the end of the film, Ellie is portrayed teaching astronomy to young children. When one child expresses skepticism about what she is teaching, she encourages that child not to believe in something just because someone tells him to. Instead, we should each strive to gain understanding for ourselves, always testing, always proving, always curious and seeking.

The novel by Carl Sagan, as I understand it, is actually a bit more theistic than the movie. Sagan steadfastly refused to deny the existence of God. But he also refused to believe in a God for which he had no evidence. All the same, the novel posits the existence of intelligences greater than ours capable of astonishing things (capable of building an interstellar communication and transportation system), and even the existence of an intelligence greater than these, that created the universe itself. The film doesn't go as far as the novel in its potential affirmation of a universal creator. But the film does inspire awe and humility, the importance of understanding our rightful place in a universe that is much, much larger than we are. This, like the refusal to believe in idols, and like the hunger to know, is another cornerstone of true faith.

Faith is far too often presented to us as requiring belief in unbelievable dogma. Worse, it is presented as requiring belief in a God of hate and intolerance and injustice. But faith is far more powerful and far more fundamental than any sort of "belief." Faith is rooted in the deep human yearning for "contact," for connection with others like ourselves, and with others greater than ourselves, and with ultimate meaning, the ultimate other. With God. Faith is not believing in the unbelievable, but rather, putting ourselves -- our bodies, our souls, our very selves -- on the line in that quest for contact.


Sean said...

Excellent thoughts!

Alan said...

I have liked this movie from the first time I saw it, and for exactly the reasons you state.

Knight of Nothing said...

Nice post. I am intrigued by your assertion that "atheism is the beginning of faith." In its most reductive sense, "faith" simply means "belief without evidence." I often struggle with using the word, because of its religious connotations. But when I think about about the vastness of the universe and the immensity of the eons and my own infinitely small existence within time and space... well, friendship, love, trust, the very act of living all become acts of faith. There's really no other word for it.

Right now I'm reading The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark by Carl Sagan. He really is a great and gentle thinker - I have come to admire him a lot. The book could be considered a manual for skepticism. I never read Contact, but from what you said about it, this work of non-fiction has a decidedly more agnostic tone than the novel (and by extension, the film). In it he examines modern-day superstitions such as UFOs, channeling, psychic surgery, faith-healing, and other pseudo-scientific phenomena that grip the public's consciousness. But he does so without disdain; rather, his simple adage "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence" is apparent throughout the book as he explores the stories and facts surrounding these supernatural tales. I can loan it to you if you're interested.

Slight tangent - check out
Greeting Card Emergency - Coming Out as an Atheist Cards. This video blogger suggests different ways that one can talk about one's atheism to believers without offending or causing discomfort.

And on a related note, you should see his Coming Out Cards. Very funny and touching.

J G-W said...

Sam - Thanks for the thoughtful comment! I was wondering if this one might get your attention..!

When I said that in an idolatrous culture, "atheism is the beginning of faith," I meant that in a more narrow sense. Namely, that, "negative atheism" performs a service for religious faith by critiquing and demonstrating falsehood in religious belief. If we are going to put our trust in a God, it should be a true God. I gave a couple of examples of this purifying/critiquing function of negative atheism in my essay. Does God really will evil things to happen to us? Does God really demand that we believe in things that are contradicted by basic observable facts in the world around us? By pointing out the absurdity of such attitudes, negative atheists give people of faith the opportunity to achieve a deeper, more meaningful kind of faith.

(By the way, I use the term "negative atheism" in a very precise sense. Negative atheism critiques belief by demonstrating illogic or falsehood. That is to be distinguished from "positive atheism," which seeks to explain the world through reliance on observable, physical phenomena.)

I'm not the first to point out that atheism actually renders a valuable service to people of faith. Harvey Cox, in his book The Secular City also argued that Christians should regard atheists who critique absurdity and atrocity in faith as friends and allies. In a conversation I had once with the late, eminent Asian Christian theologian Ko Koyama, he told me that Christian theologians in Asia have long been making common cause with atheists, whom they similarly appreciated for critiquing imperialistic and false views of God emanating from Western theologians.

Personally, I believe Mormon theology creates an opening for common cause as well, because Mormonism theologically takes account -- in a way that classical Nicene Christianity never has -- of the "apparent godlessness" of the Universe, insisting on its necessity as a premise in humanity's relationship with God. (I suspect that this may account, in part, for why Mormonism continues to be one of the world's fastest growing religions. Mormonism is very "modern" in this sense...)

My definition of faith is slightly different than yours. In my lexicon, faith and belief are not synonyms. I define "faith" as "an act of trust." I define "belief" as "opinion."

Of course it is possible to be agnostic as to belief, and yet to act in faith. In fact, I'd argue that in many realms of our lives, we do that all the time. We are forced to do it, because we often must make choices without all the facts we'd always like to have in making those choices! As you point out, in many of the most important choices we make in life, faith is required.

As you and I have discussed before, I actually don't believe in faith that requires us to believe "without evidence." A central metaphor in Mormon faith is faith as a seed. You plant the seed, and then you watch to see if it grows. As it grows -- as you see evidence that the seed is good -- you invest increasing faith, always watching for further growth/evidence.

Mormons also insist on revelation as the grounds for faith. My own recent journey of faith is grounded in a spiritual experience -- God speaking to me in a powerful, clear, discernable, undeniable way. I planted the seed of that revelation, and experienced growth, and so continue to invest, and continue to experience growth.

I'll have to check out Sagan's Demon-Haunted World... I have growing respect for him as a creative thinker and writer...

Jon said...

Thanks for this. I just found your blog after reading your post on Mormon Matters. I saw Contact shortly after returning home from my mission and I was definitely in a different place then than I am now. I think I need to watch it again.

J G-W said...

Thanks, Jon... The movie did definitely give me a lot to think about.

Sara said...

Ooops ignore the comment on the other post I guess.