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.
Today’s post features Jen’s letter to me, using Contact as a central theme.
Contact features Jodie Foster as Ellie Arroway, an athiest research scientist, who has devoted her career to making contact with extraterrestrial life. She and theologian Palmer Joss (Matthew McConaughey) are drawn to one another in their passion for seeking the truth, despite their differences. When Ellie receives a message from the star Vega, millionaire S.R. Hadden (John Hurt), who has anonymously funded her research, deciphers blueprints for a transporter to the distant star. With challenges from her self-serving supervisor, Drumlin (Tom Skerritt), and support from blind fellow astronomer Kent (William Fichtner), Ellie prepares for an astounding, yet controversial, trip.
My response follows tomorrow.
I often imagine you luxuriating in your cozy home workplace or snoozing in an airplane on your way to a workshop, a convention, or a scarf sale. Always a scarf; never a church. I imagine this from my dank living room—a space I share with dog hair, flung afterschool socks, and a constant TV hum. Always a TV; never a church.
You revel in the community of God and grace. I search for connection in activism and apathy. You love a deity. I love controversy. You are a woman of scripture and wine. I am a woman of Facebook and whine. That part of us so alien to the other is the beauty of our similarity: “In all our searching, the only thing we’ve found that makes the emptiness bearable is each other.”
You are the Palmer Joss to my Ellie Arroway. We’ve made contact.
To watch Contact is to bear witness to my spiritual struggle. As Ellie travels a wormhole between our sun and distant Vega, I too travel between the pain of my Catholic upbringing and the atheistic reality that I have spent a lifetime constructing. It’s a lonely reality, devoid of hope for an afterlife, for reunion with loved ones, for any post-death reward.
If only I had the world’s wealth of support. If only I could discover a hidden second machine untouched by Western fanaticism. If only they’d let me float freely—no harness, no bolts, no stiff straps. If only they’d send a poet to document my strange spiritual journey.
But they have.
Like Palmer and Ellie’s post-lovemaking pillow talk, you and I connect secretly and sincerely—as humans, not as spiritual opposites. Your private empathy quells my fight. Your humor and worry are familiar.But I wonder: Do you delight in the fall of religious and scientific leaders as I do? Do you understand the sounds of the universe as I do? Can you understand that I am as willing to die for my nonbelief as you are for your faith? 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?
You and your scarves, your coffee selfies, and your Facebook tags are rewriting my alien schema. You speak to me in primes—the simplest complexity of a universal language.
A truth that eludes us both is the blueprint for our friendship.
Ellie’s grueling search for the primer—the connective tissue between the alien language and human understanding—is feverish and frustrating. She is unable to unlock the relationship between the equations of Earthly science and the fuller dimension that comes only from considering the transcendental—in this case, alien knowledge and promise.
Oh, how I envy her moment of revelation—a moment, unfortunately, handed to her from Hadden, an eccentric man who floats in the sky.
This is my issue: I don’t want a floating man to provide my ultimate answers. I will find the primer, I promise myself. I will discover these new dimensions on my own.
As Ellie prepares to launch—an obvious rebirth—she loses contact with her reality: with NASA scientists, her roots; with blind Kent, her hopes; with wise Palmer, her support. She is alone, afraid. Her life’s work teeters on the precipice of validation, yet her doubt shakes her. We see her breathless, eyes closed, chanting, “I’m okay to go…okay to go.” But is she really okay?
Am I really okay?
The moment she truly breaks free from her human harness, she reaches out and grasps Palmer’s gift—a gift of direction that she has until this moment rejected. It’s a quietly gorgeous moment in which the mundane and the unknown come softly together. Hers is a rebirth into beautiful confusion, of reconnecting with the awe of a child’s innocent wonder.
For over thirty-five years, I’ve searched for a wormhole to fling me between the majesty of the universe, the comfort of scientific logic, and the peace of spiritual community. I’ve tried so many –isms: atheism, apatheism, humanism, Buddhism. None yet has truly transported me to a place of understanding and connection. And so I turn to science. To ancient philosophy. To the literature of those both lost and found.
And now, to you.
When Ellie lands in the Vegan system, she remains safely in a bubble of awe, humility, and hope. She can see the place she has never touched in all her years of study and rejection.
Is our Facebook friendship my alien bubble, or is it my wormhole? And are you my compassionate alien?
Because of you and your acceptance; because of your humor, compassion, and success; because you ease my existential frustrations—you are at once my Kent, my Hadden, and my Palmer. Essentially, you are my Contact.
What I’ll find out about myself through our union, I’m not sure. How I’ll grasp the compass you’ve given me, I can’t yet imagine. The only thing I’m confident in:
I’m okay to go.
The above image is by The European Southern Observatory, used with permission under a Creative Commons license.