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Chesterton House

A Center for Christian Studies at Cornell


For the Cornell community, the importance of the film CONTACT goes far beyond the fact that it is based on the 1985 novel by famous Cornell professor and scientiest, Carl Sagan. It is emblematic of issues formative to the founding of the university.

The debate over the relationship between science and religion is a topic that energized the thinking and vision of A.D. White, Cornell's co-founder and first president. Cornell was founded in 1865 in the first full blush of the Modern Era, and the rise to prominence of Enlightenment Humanism that aggressively pitted naturalism against super-naturalism, and reason against religion (i.e., historic Christianity). In 1896, White published his 2-volume, The History of Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom. White takes over 700 pages to document the success of German Higher Criticism in deconstructing and dehistoricising main-line views of the Bible, Jesus, miracles, and faith in God. Cornell University is (or at least was) the incarnation of his belief that the war was over. Here are some of White's concluding remarks:

"For all this dissolving away of traditional opinions regarding our sacred literature, there has been a cause far more general and powerful than any which has been given, for it is a cause surrounding and permeating all. This is simply the atmosphere of thought engendered by the development of all sciences during the last three centuries.... Vast masses of myth, legend, marvel, and dogmatic assertion, coming into this atmosphere, have been dissolved and are now dissolving quietly away like icebergs drifted into the Gulf Stream" (716).

"Sciences are giving a new solution to those problems which dogmatic theology has so long labored in vain to solve.... If, then, modern science in general has acted powerfully to dissolve away the theories and dogmas of the older theologic interpretation, it has also been active in a reconstruction and recrystallization of truth; and very powerful in this reconstruction have been the evolution doctrines which have grown out of the thought and work of men like Darwin and Spencer" (717).

Sagan held some very similar views. In short, one might say that White and Sagan believed that scientific ways of knowing trumped revelation, and therefore traditional or "revealed" religion. Yet implicit in their worldview are metaphysical assumptions of a decidedly naturalistic stripe. What comes through White and Sagan then is not "science" pure and simple, but philosophical naturalism--which is itself a kind of religion and a kind of faith. The new "scientific" view of the world turns out to be an ancient philosophical view of the world. It is therefore not surprising that CONTACT returns us to age-old questions:

 "Should we take all this on faith? Is there an all-powerful, mysterious God that created the universe, but left us no proof of his existence? Or, is there simply no God, and we created him so we wouldn't feel so alone?"

 Until his death, Carl Sagan worked closely with director Robert Zemeckis (Forrest Gump). The result is a thoughtful exploration not just of space and time, but of these ancient questions. Jody Foster gives a vibrant and mature performace as Dr. Ellie Arroway, a determined scientest who works with SETI (Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence). She has spent her life listening with a longing ear turned toward the stars. This is the story about what she hears, and how what she hears changes what she believes about science and about God. Ellie reflects:

"I had an experience I can't prove, 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 part of something wonderful, something that changed me forever; a vision of the Universe that tells us undeniable how tine, and insignificant, and how rare and precious we all are. A vision that tells us 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 with that everyone, if even for one moment, could feel that awe, and humility, and the hope, but... that continues to be my wish."