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September 30, 2015

copyright Thomas Kadmon 



I would like to focus on one aspect of one film that holds an interfaith interest : Contact, a 1997 science fiction drama based on a Carl Sagan novel. Jodie Foster plays Ellie Arroway, a radio astronomer working on SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) and Matthew McConaughey plays Palmer Joss, a religious philospher. The plot develops a romantic relationship between these two characters, in circumstances where there is apparent contact with an alien civilisation. Their relationship represents a kind of conflict resolution between science and religion, precipitated by the appearance of ET. 


Those who are engaged in the dialogue between science and religion or between science, philosophy and religion are in their own way promoting interfaith. This is because the scientific worldview is a belief position in itself. Philosophy too has its own idiom.

Philosophy shapes politics. In Contact, the political power brokers decide whether pure or only applied science should be funded; and they decide who has ownership over scientific discoveries; who speaks into how they should be used; and whether a representative of humanity to the wider cosmos needs to be a theist. 


Ellie Arroway (Foster) never knew her mum, and her dad died when she was a little girl. He told her that the universe would be an awful waste of space if humans were alone. She had an unconscious yearning to reunite with her parents. The film culminates with her encountering an alien from the star system Vega on a surreal beachfront 25 light years away, manifesting in the form of her deceased father. There is the sense that this is the object of her longing - a kind of heavenly father. Palmer Joss (McConaughey), after their first night of intimacy, conveyed to Ellie, an atheist, that he had been stunned by the reality of God but could not prove it  - just as she could not prove that she loved her father. 


Joss actually blocks Ellie from being chosen to make the mission in the first transporter - manufactured according to alien-encoded blueprints - because she does not profess belief in God. Lucky for her, because a religious fanatic explodes the spacecraft and kills all in the Cape Canaveral vicinity. He represents half-baked religion at war with science. A clandestine billionaire supporter of Ellie’s quest for scientific truth has her launch from a second machine, built from the same blueprints, in Hokkaido, Japan. 


She thinks she needs to sacrifice a relationship and children to be the intrepid astronaut, because the time for a round trip would leave her partner aged 50 years in advance of herself. But it turns out she is propelled through wormholes in the space-time continuum, having an eighteen hour adventure from her perspective, but going nowhere in virtually no time from the observers’ perspective. So whilst there is no evidence to substantiate her experience, it turns out she can discover the Truth and have her man to boot.


The upshot is : the scientist becomes a believer in the benevolent presence beyond, through her own experience. The man of God can accept and love the scientist who keeps faith with her experience in the absence of “proof”. The intelligent life out there, may have had a billion years head start to evolve technologically and ethically. Even though Vega’s first communication sends an initial shiver down one’s spine - Adolf Hitler crackling down the radio waves, opening the Berlin Olympics 50 years earlier - it is abundantly clear from what unfolds that the alien intelligence is not really alien; it knows us better than we know ourselves; it is a benevolent and civilising force. It is probably as Carl Sagan imagined it to be; as is the point about the universe being an incredible waste of space if we are alone.   



So the interfaith cause is also a cause for the integration of thought systems belonging to different fields. By extension, it is a movement for the integration of the economy, the state and the religious order. Imagine a global order knitted together from every direction - between our ideals and practices, between our survival needs and our quest for meaning.