Thursday, September 22, 2011

Humility and Awe

Recently, a discussion in my Bible study reminded me about the movie Contact, based on a novel by Carl Sagan. I saw the movie back in 1997, and vaguely recalled enjoying it because it celebrated scientific inquiry while not denigrating Christian beliefs...a rare combination but not unheard of these days.

In the movie, a Christian writer and theologian Palmer Joss (played by Matthew McConaughey) and a scientist named Ellie Arroway (Jodie Foster) balance each other and, in the end, support each other after finding they aren't so different after all. Both were presented by the film as having valid, respected points of view.

Of course, I couldn't leave it at that vague level of recall: I found a DVD of Contact at the library and watched it again last night.

I remembered the movie correctly, so I guess my mind isn't completely gone. Yet.

The overall message of the movie is that science, for all its elegance and logic and valuable skepticism, isn't omnipotent. There are limits to how far science can take you, just as there are limits to how far religion can take you. The movie's message, at least as I see it, proposes that we need both, and that religion and science need to respect each other.

If you've read Questioning for very long, you can imagine how appealing this message is to me.

Science is a perspective, a mode of inquiry, that seeks to answer what and how questions, to explain what the universe is and how it works. Science doesn't deal in why. Why is the realm of philosophy and religion...perspectives that seek to explain purpose and intent and to find meaning.

Our universe is enormous, complex, and also beautiful beyond words. At one point in the movie, when scientist Ellie Arroway is being transported to another world, she witnesses an amazing cosmic event and says, "No words to describe it. Poetry! They should have sent a poet. So beautiful.... I had no idea."

Humility and awe. These are the emotions with which we should approach our thinking about the universe, our place in it, and the role of God.

Too often, science has led to beliefs about what and how that are erroneous. A century ago, doctors thought radioactive tonics would benefit patients; then, they figured out radiation causes cancer that kills patients; then they figured out radiation, used properly, can benefit patients by killing cancer.

This hurts my brain. It shows how arrogant assumptions lead to damaging conclusions, and also how gray the world is. We can't look at radiation as good or evil...just as something harmful or useful depending on the circumstances and how we use it. Yet often we want black-and-white answers, easy answers, and we cling to them even when evidence starts to mount that they are wrong. When we don't get the easy answers, we often get crabby and cross and demand them.

The value of science is its ideal of objectivity, even if that ideal is rarely met. Consider brain plasticity. I remember very clearly being told when I was in elementary school that our brains are pretty much developed by age seven. People who believed in brain plasticity in the 1970s were considered fringe and freakishly in denial. Now, however, brain plasticity is largely accepted as fact. The question being explored these days is just how plastic is the brain?

Which begs a question: how right are our other scientific beliefs?

Not very, it seems.

We need to be humble and in awe of how complex life is...because we can always be wrong. As Adam Savage says on Mythbusters, "Failure is always an option." We learn from failure. We learn from new information. We learn from asking questions no one has asked before. We learn from looking at the same old things in different ways. We learn that the good answers, the best answers, are almost never the easy ones.

"The more I know, the more I know that I know nothing."

True that.

Too often, why questions are impossibly hard to answer. Where, after all, is the proof? And when proof is thin on the ground, we demand those black-and-white easy answers all the more. A friend of mine once complained that if God wanted us to believe in dinosaurs, He would have mentioned them in the Bible. Her complaint implies that God spoon-feeds us through His Word, but most anyone who has actively engaged in reading the Bible can tell you there's nothing easy or pat about it. It's hard work to make sense of it, and reading it is a journey of discovery, an adventure into the mind and heart of that which is ultimately incomprehensible and so beautiful that there are not words for it.

As Foster's character in Contact discovers, sometimes it takes a poet to find the words, and even then, the words are not enough to capture the enormity of the universe. We experience bits and pieces of that enormity, and we struggle to make sense of it.

Some of us seek God in science and the laws of nature, some seek God in religion, some seek God in secular morality and ethics, and some would rather not think about God at all. I've come to believe that reading the Bible--or any religious text, really--is not about finding a weapon with which we can beat nonbelievers over the head, and it's certainly not a treasure-trove of easy answers. It's a way of exploring the why for ourselves.

Ellie Arroway concludes her testimony with this speech, which sums up quite nicely the dilemma facing those who seek and find some glimpse of truth in their quest for why.

"I... had an experience... I can't prove it, I can't even explain it, but everything that I know as a human being, everything that I am tells me that it was real! I was given something wonderful, something that changed me forever... A vision... of the universe, that tells us, undeniably, how tiny, and insignificant and how... rare, and precious we all are! A vision that tells us that we belong to something that is greater than ourselves, that we are *not*, that none of us are alone! I wish... I... could share that... I wish, that everyone, if only for one... moment, could feel... that awe, and humility, and hope. But... That continues to be my wish."

That's my wish, too.


  1. Insignificant and precious at the same time. Very thought-provoking post. I truly love your written thoughts.

  2. Loved the movie, even as a non-believer. And your discussion of it is really making me think this morning.

    I think religion and science are both framed by our limited (and limiting) understanding. One of the injustices in the moral and secular education of our time is that so many people are taught that scientific and religious truths are absolute. There is so much more for us to learn, yet many turn a blind eye to the vast unknown because they've been taught truths, not methods and lenses for viewing the world and incorporating new information into their own ideological framework.

  3. I have long loved this quote: Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.
    Albert Einstein, "Science, Philosophy and Religion: a Symposium", 1941
    US (German-born) physicist (1879 - 1955)
    Betsy B.


Thanks so much for taking time to comment!