An introduction: Decades ago, in the faraway land of Orange County, California, two young women made contact. Jen and I shared a number of classes but traveled in different social circles. I was scary nerdy awkward—E.T. and Laura Ingalls’ lovechild, and she was scary sexy cool—black eyeliner, skateboards, and bands I couldn’t pronounce. Only in the past few years have we developed a deeper relationship, sharing our lives with one another on Facebook.
Recently, during an intense chat about religion, science, and philosophy, Jen told me that the movie Contact—a 1997 sci-fi flick based on Carl Sagan’s novel that engages the intersection of science and faith—is the key to understanding her spiritual struggles.
Maybe we can write something about it together, she said, comparing our points of view as a Christian and an atheist. Well, that was an offer I couldn’t refuse.
Yesterday’s post featured Jen’s letter to me, using Contact as a central theme. Today I respond.
If someone told me thirty years ago that one day I’d be writing you a letter about God, a letter that virtually anyone in the world could access on a pocket-sized screen with the click of a button, I would have called it science fiction.
And today, as we write to one another about aliens, science, and spaceships—the stuff of Contact—I realize how quickly those thirty years have gone.
I became a Christian in the mid-eighties, around the same time you transferred from the local Catholic school to the public middle school, where we found ourselves in the same classes with the other gifted weirdos, parsing equations and quoting Animal Farm in sheep voices. But with my new spiritual identity that I didn’t quite understand, I became a weirdo among weirdos, trying to figure out how to fit in.
By my fundamentalist peers, I was taught that evolutionists were arrogant shysters who made fake fossils out of plaster. Nuclear weapons were a good and holy protection for God’s chosen people of the USA. Artists and writers were morally suspect, which confused me, a prolific writer and violinist who wanted to live a creative life but now had to first and foremost obey God.
I also learned that atheists required special treatment: orchestrated debates laced with smug comebacks and Bible verses meant to “convict” them of their need for God. Unbelievers were not to be valued or loved for who they were. Clearly, there was nothing to learn from them. They were a project, a salvation tally mark in the Bible. One young man in my youth group, in fact, kept such a list on the blank pages after Revelation.
Jen, you’ve been burned by—shall I say it?—my people. No, immolated. You’ve been physically and mentally abused by people claiming kinship with God. You’ve been judged and rejected for your sexuality, parenting, and politics. Understandably, you’re angry. But you’re also strong. You refuse victimhood. So the fact that I am your only Christian friend, “by choice,” you recently told me, both stuns and humbles me.
That you love me not in spite of my faith, but, in some ways, even because of it, is nothing short of a miracle to me.
Recently I watched Contact, your totem movie, because you said it was the best way to understand your identity, your journey. I hadn’t seen it in the almost twenty years since its release, so I looked forward to processing its images and ideas freshly through your eyes.
You are Ellie Arroway, you told me, the main character played by Jodie Foster, a scientist searching for alien life with unquenchable passion. I am your Palmer Joss, the seminary dropout who supports Ellie in her journey while holding both God and science to the light. I’m grateful for the comparison, not only because Matthew McConaughey resides in the upper firmament of physical beauty, but because I firmly believe that God and science are in cahoots, not at odds, betraying and informing the beauty and mystery of one another.But perhaps I’m more Ellie than you think.
The most moving part of Contact, I think for both of us, is when Ellie encounters the beauty of a golden, swirling celestial event. Her face melts into awe.
“No words…no words,” she stammers. “So…beautiful. I had no idea. I had no idea. I had no idea.”
It turns out that her experience will have no logical, observable scientific explanation to those outside the pod. Her only testimony to the truth is that she lived it.
I believe there is plenty of logical support for the existence of God: cosmological, teleological, and moral evidence. But there is beauty and mystery in the face of Christ that cannot be proven, only lived.
Despite my faith and commitment, every day I wake up and have to say, like you and Ellie, I am okay to go. I hand myself over to the unknown of how this God, the one I risk believing is good and faithful all the time, will make contact with me.
The other day I told you I was embarrassed by the kind of behavior done in Jesus’s name. “Don’t be,” you wrote, with so much honest and straightforward grace, I started to cry. Your words came directly from the Prince of Peace’s lips on a windy night as, yes, I sipped my wine and snuggled deeper into my knitted scarf two thousand miles away.
Undefinable love. Those are the moments that, like Ellie, I can’t always explain.
If there were a Facebook in the 1980s, leaders from my church would have told me to unfriend, block, or otherwise flee people who post “pro-abortion” or anti-Bible memes. But since I know you love and trust me, I look at your posts as an entryway into your heart and experience. I want to learn from you. In fact, I’m touched that you feel comfortable posting your opinions, knowing that I will stand by your side, even when I disagree.
I agree with much of it.
Yes, I believe Jesus is the son of God and the Bible is the word of God. But like you, I believe much of biblical literalism has, well, literally destroyed people. I believe that the marriage of church and state usually hurts both, the obsession with flags and markings on currency bordering on idolatry. I believe that too many of us have gone the way of the Pharisees, doing the exact opposite of what Christ preaches with an irony so exaggerated, it would be funny if it wasn’t so dangerous.
In your letter, you ask me this: “Can we, as Palmer and Ellie have, find common ground in our profound regard for transcendence? Can we together decipher the Big Message from the Beyond—whatever shape our Beyonds take?”
By God’s grace, yes. We already have. And I look forward to traveling with you as the universe continues to expand.
Tania Runyan is the author of the poetry collections Second Sky (Cascade Poiema Series), A Thousand Vessels, Simple Weight, and Delicious Air, which was awarded Book of the Year by the Conference on Christianity and Literature in 2007. Her book How to Read a Poem, an instructional guide based on Billy Collins’s “Introduction to Poetry,” was recently released by T.S. Poetry Press. Her poems have appeared in many publications, including Poetry, Image, Books & Culture, Harvard Divinity Bulletin, The Christian Century, Atlanta Review, Indiana Review, and the anthology In a Fine Frenzy: Poets Respond to Shakespeare. Tania was awarded an NEA Literature Fellowship in 2011.
The above image is by Monika, used with permission under a Creative Commons License.