On God and the Cosmos

What would happen if humanity received a message from the sky? The answer depends primarily on how the message is delivered. If the message is blasted down from the heavens into the ears of the people, instantly translated into the language of each individual listener so everyone can understand, then perhaps more people will end up in church the next Sunday. Comparatively, if a message is blasted down from a specific star in the heavens, broadcast in the language of mathematics, would more people enroll themselves into college astronomy courses? How would the discovery of a message from extraterrestrials impact the religions of earth?

Contact implies that everyone would go to church anyway. People are seeking answers to their questions about the world, and now that their world has expanded past the earth, they need new answers to their new questions. They thus turn to the churches and religion. However, the religious have issues providing the answers as well. A mass of possibilities appear: the Message could be from God, an official proof of existence; the Message could potentially be from Satan, attempting to trick humanity; the Message could lead to doomsday and salvation in the apocalyptic tradition. But how would any of them know, until they read the message and examined the Machine? Interestingly, Rev. Rankin demands that religious groups be responsible for collecting and decoding the message. This is part of the showdown between the religious and the scientific that permeates the novel.

The meeting between Ellie, Ken der Heer, Rev. Rankin, and Palmer Joss at the Bible Science Research Institute is the collision of the two worlds. Rankin complains that scientific skepticism rules out just about everything that religion stands for, while Ellie makes a stand for science as the way to being sure of the truth. The talks eventually break down into a verbal fight about why the other side is wrong about almost everything. When discussion about the Message does come about, Rankin argues that God is almost surely the one broadcasting, while Elle claims thathaving God talk to radio astronomers in math is bizzare. The fact that the best attempts of Joss and der Heer to mollify the talks and keep the meeting on track fail to get either of the arguers to understand the other's position suggests that there's an inability for either to find common ground. However, Joss manages to reconcile the two after a while, deciding that both are ways of reaching a common goal. At the end of the book, he seems eager to understand the scientific viewpoints while explaining the religious ones as well.

Ellie seems to note a fear among the strong religious that a message from another species could hurt the chances of any god's existence, especially one that seems too focused on Earth. Sagan has criticized many religions on this ground, claiming that the mainstream Christian God is too narrow, too small to be in charge of all the Earth. His own character refutes him though, as Palmer Joss claims that the cosmos “has room enough, and time enough, for the kind of God I believe in.”(420) With this being said after the trip through the Milky Way, has Joss found a God truly in line with the discoveries of science?

The book ends on an interesting note: there is a Creator of some sort, and He, She, It, or They have left at least one signature in the universe. While the implications of a new Message, this time from a proper God of some sort, are never truly explored in the book, what would a Creator imply? Presumably, this finding would prove Joss right about a god big enough for the Universe, and not just Earth. However, would it be able to vindicate any of the existing religions? Would new ones have to appear? Would there still be atheists? (It is arguable that as an infinite number, pi could hold pictures of anything if it was just looked at in the right way.)

At the end of Contact, Joss tells Ellie that her experiences match up with Scripture as he quotes a description of Jacob's Ladder. He also suggests that she may be the one to bring the next Gospel to humanity, and that through her the truth of Creation will be better understood. Perhaps if the religious and the skeptical understand that all are searching for truth, then theology and science could be put to use together.


Of course, we'll have to make sure the theologians aren't still confused about the age of the earth.