Contact as Exploration of Religious Experience

One of my favorite movies is Contact, based on a novel written by Carl Sagan. One reason I like it is that it makes such important statements about how we come to know things. (Spoiler alert: Those who haven’t seen the movie and would not like the plot spoiled for them should not read this post.)

Skepticism

The movie is about a woman named Eleanor Arroway (Ellie) who is an astronomer working for the SETI program (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence). She scans the stars using radio telescopes, looking for radio signals from other planets that may be communications from intelligent life outside the solar system. Ellie is an atheist (or at best, an agnostic); she does not find any compelling evidence to believe in God. She refuses to believe in anything unless she is shown public, replicable, and verifiable evidence. She does not feel that there is enough evidence to warrant belief in a Supreme Being.

Ellie befriends a man named Palmer Joss, who is a theologian and a humanitarian specialist who writes books about the lack of meaning in our lives. He finds it remarkable that despite an increased standard of living and incredible technology, we feel so much more distant from each other and still search for the meaning that is absent in our lives. At one point, he shares his conversion experience with her. He describes his troubled childhood and his first experience with God:

Joss: I had … an experience. Of belonging. Of unconditional love. And for the first time in my life I wasn’t terrified, and I wasn’t alone.

Ellie: And there’s no chance you had this experience simply because some part of you needed to have it?

Joss: Look, I’m a reasonable person, and reasonably intelligent. But this experience went beyond both. For the first time I had to consider the possibility that intellect, as wonderful as it is, is not the only way of comprehending the universe. That it was too small and inadequate a tool to deal with what it was faced with.

Ellie confesses that she can’t believe in his experience without the ability to replicate or verify it. Without publicly verifiably evidence, she has no grounds for belief.

The Experience

Soon Ellie discovers a signal from a neighboring star called Vega. The signal transmits a series of prime numbers (a phenomenon that cannot be naturally explained), with frequencies containing instructions for building a massive machine. Ellie and a group of scientists discover that the machine is designed to transport one person by unknown means to an unknown location.

Eventually she has an opportunity to use the machine, as a representative of the human race in its first contact with extraterrestrial intelligence. The machine works; Ellie is transported through a wormhole to another world, where she meets an alien being who appears to her in the form of her long-deceased father, on a beach setting recollected from her childhood. The aliens had downloaded her memory and created a setting that would be not only familiar but familial to her. They tell her that only she would be able to visit, and that in time her race would find its way to the stars. This was just one small step, and the next step would have to wait. This, they said, was the way it has been done for billions of years.

Ellie is transported back to earth, where she is stunned to learn that, by earth time, she was gone for only a fraction of a second. In fact, nobody thinks that she even left; they are busily trying to figure out why the machine malfunctioned. Ellie insists that the machine worked fine, that she had contacted alien life, and had been gone many hours. However, every scientific instrument in the room indicates that nothing significant had happened. Even her personal recording device showed only static.

The Conversion

The following video clip shows the subsequent inquiry, during which Ellie is interviewed/interrogated about her experience.

For those who can’t get the video to work, Ellie is asked if she can prove that her experience was real, to which she replies that she cannot. She is asked,

Dr. Arroway, you come before us with no evidence. No records, no artifacts—only a story that—to put it mildly—strains credibility. Over half a trillion dollars was spent, dozens of lives were lost. … Are you really going to sit there and tell us that we should simply take this all on faith?

The chairman of the committee presents a compelling alternative account of Ellie’s experience and discovery. He attributes the whole discovery to an elaborate hoax prepared by S. R. Hadden, an eccentric and incredibly wealthy man who not only funded Ellie’s SETI research, but also owns, as subsidiaries, the Japanese subcontractors who were paid to develop and build the machine. It seems that Hadden was made incredibly wealthy and famous by Ellie’s discovery, and thus had a strong motive to fake the extraterrestrial communication.

Ellie admits that there are other explanations for her discovery and her experience, that perhaps she had a delusional episode, and that possibly the whole machine was a hoax. She said, “As a scientist, I must concede that, I must volunteer that.” The chairman of the committee then asks, “Then why don’t you just withdraw your testimony and concede that this journey to the center of the galaxy in fact never took place?” To this, Ellie emotionally responds,

Because I can’t. I had … an experience. I can’t prove it. I can’t even explain it. All I can tell you is that everything I know as a human being, everything I am—tells me that it was real.

I was given something wonderful. Something that changed me. A vision of the universe that made it overwhelmingly clear just how tiny and insignificant—and at the same time how rare and precious we all are. A vision … that tells us we belong to something greater than ourselves … that we’re not—that none of us—is alone.

I wish I could share it. I wish everyone, if only for a moment—could feel that sense of awe, and humility … and hope. That continues to be my wish.

Conviction Based in Experience

Traditional empiricism holds that the only experiences that are reliable are those that are publicly verifiable and replicable. However, despite the fact that Ellie’s experience was private, personal, non-replicable, and non-verifiable, she chose to trust it nonetheless. Ellie had discovered exactly what Joss was trying to convey earlier in the film. She even borrowed Joss’s own words as she tried to describe her experience. Some experiences cannot be proven, only reported. Some experiences can completely change us, and we can’t communicate that change in words; we can only invite others to seek their own life-changing experiences.

Bruce R. McConkie said, “The scriptures have many references to revelation. The prophets have said much about it. What it means to us is that we need religious experience. We need to become personally involved with God.”1 We need, he said, to seek experiences with God, of which we can then testify and report to others. I would like to invite everyone to seek for their own, personal, lived experience with God. If you have not experienced an encounter with the divine, I invite you to continue to seek that experience. Each of us can pray as the king of the Lamanites did, and say, “If there is a God, and if thou art God, wilt thou make thyself known unto me?”

As a Christian and a Latter-day Saint, I do not base my convictions on logic or reason. I had … an experience. I felt the witness of the Holy Spirit testify to my heart that God is real, and that Jesus Christ is His son. I base my convictions not on logic, reason, or public evidence, but on experiences that I have had. I’ve had experiences that I feel compelled to describe as divine communications. There was a time in my life that I can only describe as a daily conversation with God. Today, communications from Him seem few and infrequent. However, I trust that He is real, because He has spoken to me through the voice of His Spirit. And He has spoken to millions of others. And I continually, daily, seek to converse with Him more.

As you seek experiences with God, I can’t promise that God will reveal Himself immediately, nor can I tell you exactly how He’ll do it. But I personally believe that if you are persistent, He will reveal Himself, and that you too will be able to say that you have had a personal, lived encounter with God. And I personally believe that these don’t need to be singular, rare experiences. For many, developing a relationship with God can involve consistent, frequent contact with the divine. However, there is no “one size fits all” pattern of religious experience, or on how to obtain it. But I believe that there is one God, and that each person who communicates with God is communicating with the same divine being, so there will likely be some commonalities amongst our religious experiences. In the end, though, each person’s relationship with God is unique, and will manifest itself in unique ways.



Notes

1. Bruce R. McConkie, “How to Get Personal Revelation,” Tambuli, Apr. 1981, p. 4.

29 thoughts on “Contact as Exploration of Religious Experience

  1. Okay, I loved Contact. But I have to admit that I totally agree with Orson Scott Card that the ending was utterly lame. When the little girl asks “did it really happen?” the women it happened to said “you have to decide for yourself.”

    GOODNESS!!!!

    Now as the time for a “yes, it did, because I was there.” It was so bad it was ‘ug’ worthy.

  2. I agree. She should have reported her experiences simply and straightforwardly, rather than being all cryptic about it. She had an experience, and testified under oath that she saw what she saw. Why then get all timid about it?

    She could have said, “Well, I can’t prove it to you, but I’ve personally met an extraterrestrial. Perhaps you will too someday! That’s something you’re going to have to see for yourself.” So, there was a personal responsibility on the part of the child to learn and decide for himself, but that didn’t mean she couldn’t report what she learned.

  3. Thanks for sharing. The movie works great as a parable for personal revelation. But at the end of the film, I thought it was a bit of a cop out to show that physical evidence for her experience actually did exist, in the form of several hours of static in what was supposed to have been instantaneous. But maybe in a blockbuster like that, Hollywood just feels they can’t afford to leave us hanging like that on sheer faith.

  4. Sometimes scientists are uncomfortable with the idea that there are experiments which can only be reported and repeated, not transferred. Sometimes the religious are uncomfortable with the idea that there are experiments which can be transferred in complete confidence. I appreciate that the Restored Gospel leaves me access to both modes of truth-seeking.

    I wish I knew how to better bring either group to a firmer grasp of the range of truth-seeking activities. I don’t even want to get into faith-science debates anymore because they always seem to miss this point.

    I wonder how Ellie might have been more persuasive on the point–or rather, how I might be more persuasive in her position.

    (Incidentally, I heard that Sagan’s original novel was far less committed to the idea of faith as a positive and constructive force alongside reason and skepticism. Can someone who’s read the novel tell me if this is at all true? The film seems to basically vindicate religion’s methods, but I don’t know that I’ve ever seen Sagan do that…)

  5. Nate: Maybe the static is OK, though! At least I can think of analogues, like the Book of Mormon, that require a good deal of faith to really accept but can get you going. Maybe the BoM and the static are like starter-miracles, or miracles for spiritual babies, that are only likely to affect the willing in heart…

  6. Nate, I understand and mostly agree with you. I think the story’s message would have been stronger without that buried evidence.

    jstrick, I’ve read most of the original script for the movie, which was much more closely aligned with the original novel. You are correct, Carl Sagan’s version of the story weighed against faith and in favor of skepticism. And, if I remember, Sagan’s story ends with aliens making public contact with earth. The story in the movie is a result of the meddling of the director. Sagan would likely have been irritated by the movie’s vindication of faith. But this is one example where I like the movie version much, much better. =)

    As far as being more persuasive, picture this: imagine you are an apostle in 35 AD. You have personally seen a dead man walk, talk, and eat. You have personally seen him perform miracles. You have personally seen him ascend into to heaven. How do you convince someone that what you’ve seen is true? You have no physical evidence with you, all you have is your memory of what you saw. To that extent, all you can really do is report your experience, e.g., testify (some of the apostles performed miracles as evidence, but that was not always a luxury that was available). I love this quote from Richard Williams:

    Truth, I am convinced, can be rendered reasonable, but it does not arise from reason. For example, the truth of Mormonism does not rest on reason. … We do not draw upon theology at all as justification for our truth claims. The truth of Mormonism rests on the occurrence of certain events. Chief among the founding events are these: the Father and the Son either appeared to Joseph Smith in New York or They did not; there either were gold plates holding a history of real people or there were not; apostles and prophets laid hands on Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery or they did not. We can go beyond this. The truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ itself rests on the occurrence of events. There was a Man, Jesus, or there was not; He overcame the whole of sin and darkness in the garden or He did not; the tomb was empty or it was not. The truth of an event is very different from the truth of a proposition. The truth of propositions is established by reason and argument, the difficulty of which I have just described. The truth of events is established by witnesses. … This is why the apostolic authority of special witnesses and the restoration of the gifts of the Spirit are essential to the true church.

  7. Just wanted to point out that the bad guy, wacko religious yahoo in this movie who blew up the first machine, and was seen at multiple times preaching sanctimoniously had his headquarters in Panguitch, Utah. The guy was almost always dressed in white, making you think he was an LDS nut job, but he also had crosses on things. So either he belonged to the 1 baptist church that google could find in Panguitch or he was LDS and they just got their religious symbols wrong with the crosses. It seems like he was supposed to be mistaken for a Mormon fanatic though, otherwise why pick small town Utah.

    Just watched the movie recently actually and it has some interesting notes on faith, but ultimately shows the producers/writer(s) don’t get it. The example of good faith actually doesn’t really have much faith in anything that has any bearing on his life. He sleeps with Ellie on the first date, and although he seems saddened that she never called back he doesn’t seem to be a person who has a religious conviction that he has to do anything except merely believe. Similar to the take on the example of faith by the south park guys in the BoM musical with “Just Believe” as though believing over and over again in something, without actually being able to define what that belief is or what it compels us to do.

    Joss is at his best the kind of religious person that the boogeyman “Hollywood” types can appreciate. He seemingly does and is open to whatever they do as long as he believes in the process.

    I really enjoy the final speech by Ellie though, and I think something similar could and should be said about our individual testimonies. It’s a deeply personal experience we know to be true. It’s a little strange though, because as the movie ends, instead of being bold in her new testimony of live beyond earth, she almost reverts back to an agnostic. When a little child asks here if there are people out in space, she just returns to a common theme laid out in the beginning that “if there aren’t it would be an awful waste of space”. Now, I understand we don’t want to take our testimony and bash others over the head with it, but if she really had such an experience, I think she would give a better answer than the agnostic-ly sounding one she gave after having the experiences she did. But in this sense, I recognize the movie was playing a bit more with the parable of faith in general and less about alien life (or so it seemed to me).

    Still, Paul, after having the personal experiences he did, didn’t just go around telling people, “If there is no Christ, that would be a real shame”. But he testified of what he knew. So again, we see the preferred type of religious experience is to have one, but then still treat it agnostically when talking about it to others. No real conviction other than what you can prove with numbers to your neighbor, even if you have personal convictions yourself.

    In spite of sounding negative though, I think it’s a great movie and its one of those you could watch once a year and not get tired of — and when it ends you find yourself wanting more. They get a couple things right about faith in general, but it actually ends up being shallow because they don’t really seem to have a deeper understanding. Of course, I’m writing this from my Mormon shoes, and maybe this is the way it works for non-Mormons and it only looks shallow to me as an outsider.

  8. Chris, one of the things I enjoyed about the movie is that it explored the entire spectrum of religious belief. You have the terrorist who used religion to rationalize violence. You have the politician who pretended religious faith in order to gain political points (and to be chosen as the test pilot for the capsule). You have Joss, who talks the talk, but doesn’t walk the walk. And you have Ellie, who does none of the above, but is simply a person struggling to make sense of a “religious” experience.

    While they were wrong to depict the terrorist as a Utahn, those sorts of people actually exist in the world. And if you’re going to explore the spectrum of religious experience in a film, you can’t ignore that faction of religious people. And the movie did a good job of portraying the terrorist’s attitudes and actions as evil, just as they should. I have no problems with a film depicting the utter evil of religious jihad, particularly a film that is otherwise very positive about faith in general. In fact, the terrorist wasn’t the main villain of the movie. Sure, he was a villain, but he wasn’t the villain. He actually gets very little screen time, and is dead 2/3 of the way through the film. The main villain was portrayed as skepticism itself, I think, as manifest in the bureaucrats who refuse to trust in Ellie’s personal witness of her experiences. So, denouncing violence in the name of religion, while at the same approving of religious faith, what more can we ask of a Hollywood film? Sounds great to me. =)

    So, just because they portrayed a bad guy as a religious man doesn’t mean they didn’t get the deeper meanings, or that the movie was shallow. In fact, it deepens the movie for me and shows me that they do get it, because it shows the truth that being religious doesn’t automatically make us good or bad. The movie was replete with bad examples of religious faith, examples of large numbers of people that actually exist in the world, and I feel like the movie invites us to self-reflect, and see if we can relate with any of the characters, and perhaps make needed changes in the way we approach our religious faith.

    Also, as I mentioned in the comments above, I completely agree with your assessment of Ellie’s final scene. But that doesn’t ruin the rest of it for me.

  9. Actually, where I meant shallow is faith is never explored as something that makes or contributes you to being better. But faith is just something you have independent of whatever you do. That’s where I don’t think they get it… the struggle of becoming better through our faith. There’s a line if I remember right in the movie where the pro-religious “good guy” Joss says he’s “bound by a different covenant” than Ellie but that in the end, they “are both searching for truth” and that he believes her.

    What’s interesting is that what he does with his truth seemingly has no impact on his life other than just advise people (apparently) that faith is good and makes you happy. That’s I guess the shallowness I mean, because to many who have rejected faith, they don’t see it serving any useful purpose in better ourselves, other than perhaps in the context of the movie to know we are not alone. But it’s just this sort of internal knowledge that seems to have no bearing on what your responsibilities are, or what you will do with it. No concept of where much is given, much is required. No concept of overcoming the natural man and struggling to follow in the footsteps of Christ both in our interactions with others and in how we turn ourselves away from the distractions of the modern world which have varying degrees of destructiveness (both individual and societal).

    Now I don’t expect all of this out of a movie, and I can enjoy it. So like I said, I like the movie for what it is. But I also just get the feeling of the reason for one’s faith just not being established in the movie. Like I said in the previous comment though, perhaps it’s because we’ve fleshed out a lot of those reasons in Mormonism, and it’s not so clear fleshed out in other examples of lived-faiths?

  10. All good points, Chris. I too have a problem with religious experiences and religious faith that has “no bearing on what your responsibilities are, or what you will do with it.” And so it’s true that Ellie’s experience is vastly different from yours and mine, because our encounters with God will likely carry with them obligations that we can’t rightfully ignore. So, in that sense, the movie is, indeed, shallow. However, for what the movie was trying to convey, I think it does it well.

  11. While chris makes some good points, I also think it’s a bit overstated to say that faith has basically no bearing on Joss’ life as he is depicted in the film. Granted, it’s been a while since I’ve seen Contact, but my reaction was not the same as chris’. The one example chris gived is that Joss doesn’t live the standards of chastity that we believe in. While it may be that his faith does not, apparently, involve a belief in the law of chastity as we understand it, it doesn’t necessarily follow that his faith has no bearing on his behavior. I know many people who believe in God and strive to be moral people but that do not share our beliefs on marriage, sexuality, and chastity. I don’t think that invalidates their faith or relegates it to some theoretical plane where it has no bearing on their behavior.

    On an unrelated note, I wonder if part of the point of having her not take the strong testimony role at the end is that it is as much a sermon to believers about how to share faith as it is a sermon to unbelievers about the reality of the experience of faith. That is, while it feels good to give bold testimony like Paul, and while it is a good way to strengthen the converted, a more gentle approach may ultimately be more effective with a certain audience. When I share my faith with my atheist friends, I find I get more purchase by acknowledging that my religious experience is subjective and private, and that while I unreservedly believe that it is real, I must also acknowledge the possibility that I am wrong. I ultimately reject that possibility, but I must acknowledge it because if I do not, then it is no longer faith. Faith is, ultimately, a choice, and to choose to believe, there must be the option to not believe. In my view, faith is very much intertwined with the concept of agency.

    In such conversations, I am often reminded of the exchange from the film K-Pax (also, a sci-fi type film that is potentially, a good parable for the problem of communication religious knowledge to those who don’t share the religious experience on which it is founded) where Jeff Bridges begs Kevin Spacey to “at least acknowledge the possibility that you are Robert Porter.” Kevin Spacey replies; “I will admit the possibility that I am Robert Porter, if you will admit the possibility that I am from K-PAX.” I’ve found that much of what many sincere agnostics and atheists find objectionable about believers is that we come across as smug because we appear to refuse to acknowledge that an unbeliever is as capable as we are of deciding what is true and what is not true. We can acknowledge that capability (their agency) and with it, the possibility that we could be mistaken, without abandoning our faith.

    So instead of saying “I know God exists,” which many who do not share our faith understand to mean “You are wrong and I’m obviously superior than you because you just don’t get it,” we say, in effect, “I believe that God is real, and my belief is so strong that to me it is the same as knowing that he is real. I haven’t seen him or touched him or perceived him empirically, and from a purely rational point of view, it is possible that I am wrong, but I choose to believe because ____________.” (fill in the blank, it could be the Book of Mormon, some answer to prayer, whatever)

  12. Actually JKC, I guess you might be surprised that I agree with what you’re saying…. I didn’t want to type on longer than I already did, but I made the statement “Now, I understand we don’t want to take our testimony and bash others over the head with it, but…”

    I think that is a point that can come across with how the movie ended and what we can take away from it as a principle with our own testimonies. You don’t just run around saying it’s true because I know it’s true. You need to help others discover that truth for themselves. But I guess what’s strange is, if you have a person that literally saw God (aliens in this case) if someone asks you about it, you would expect that person to testify of it, unless they were expressly forbidden from doing so because it was a private circumstance. In the case of the movie, it was exactly the opposite. She was the one who was supposed to go back and tell others. She did that in one scene, and then reverted back to her same thoughts as before.

    I think it’s more than appropriate to combine the two — and I agree and would like to expand on your concepts of faith and agency, but don’t want to type too much. But it should be possible for her to say, I had an experience, that is as real to me as you and I talking, but I can’t rationally prove it to anyone. The best you can hope for is to look to the stars and find out for yourself. In this way she’d be honoring the questioners agency, while not shying away from the experience she had. Again, I don’t think the movie has to in one neat way sum up the best way possible to share a testimony or faith. I’m not expecting that of it. It was entertaining and moreover thought provoking.

    But looking at it from my perspective that’s what it’s lacking. On a broader note, I have often approached the faith/testimony conversation the way you do with agnostic friends. But I’m starting to think it’s not the best idea to hedge so much. I don’t think I should have to testify someone into a rhetorical corner to where they have to wholly accept what I say or think that I’m nuts. But the hedging also sometimes feels a little lukewarm instead of hot or cold. It sometimes feels like a nonchalant way to approach a miraculous faith, where if true it’s the greatest truth in the world.

    For instance, if the BoM is really what it says to be, it’s not just a bunch of fragments piece together by unconnected parties over the the years, added and subtracted to like our Biblical manuscripts (no disrespect there, just trying to reflect reality) but really is a marvelous work and a wonder considering how it was expressly written and passed down through the generations with an intent to have an impact nearly 2000 years later. Can you imagine any piece of a quasi-historical record or literature for that matter, being worked on over a period of hundreds of years, and under the direction of men inspired by God specifically for the use of generations a couple thousand years later? If true, it’s not just a series of disconnected men over hundreds of years patching together various commandments or sermons, but a book compiled by an ancient prophet/historian who had the responsibility to blend history and spirituality of an extinct culture and pass it on to us. If it’s true, there really isn’t a great book in the world or antiquity as far as it’s scope and origins.

    And in the face of all of that, sometimes we hedge and say, well, maybe it’s true, maybe it’s not, I can’t rationally prove it, but I’ve had some nice experiences and I’m a nice person because of it. Doesn’t that sometimes downplay the marvelous work and wonder of it all?

  13. JKC, I do agree with just about everything you said. Very good points. One thought, though: Joseph Smith saw with his eyes and heard with his ears the Savior Jesus Christ. Peter, James, and John laid their hands on his head, which I imagine was a tactile experience. He knew that these people were real just as surely as I know that my roommate is real (who I’ve seen, heard, and touched). He had empirical experience to the extent that I think he could claim to know.

    Now, it could have been a hallucination, but so could my roommate (a la John Nash, as depicted in A Beautiful Mind). So, while my knowledge of the existence of my roommate is about as sure a knowledge as anybody on this earth has experienced, I could still choose to disbelieve, and to that extent, my belief in his existence is choice. Laman and Lemuel saw and heard an angel with their own eyes and ears, but later chose to believe that Nephi produced the illusion “by his cunning arts, that he may deceive our eyes.” So, even physical experience is not enough to constitute knowledge of any indubitable kind, at least not in this mortal life.

    So, if Joseph Smith’s experience with Christ, and my own experience with my roommate, constitute some of the strongest empirical evidence there is, then I have no trouble claiming that Joseph Smith knew Christ lived, and that I know my roommate is real, even though both of us still have a choice on whether or not believe or trust our experiences. For that reason, I have no trouble with Latter-day Saints claiming to know that God is real. I don’t know what experiences they have had, and for all I know they may have had an experience with God akin to my experience with my roommate. Maybe their experiences were less “empirical,” so to speak, but maybe that’s still enough to constitute a form of knowledge. After all, even tangible experience isn’t enough to never allow doubt. Ellie saw with her eyes and hear with her ears, but still acknowledged the possibility she could have been deceived. But I have no problem her claiming to “know” that aliens are real, because there isn’t any stronger brand of experience for her to rely on than what she had.

    The issue at hand, I think, is not the strength of our knowledge, but the private, personal nature of our experiences. Although Joseph Smith knew Christ was real, others weren’t there to see Him. And to that extent, all Joseph Smith can do is report his experiences, and invite others to seek their own. They must decide for themselves what to believe. Others who have had real, tangible experiences with God can also claim to know. But in line with what you said, they can and should acknowledge that their knowledge is based on private, personal experience (rather than public, verifiable evidence), and that requires humility. It means that someone isn’t necessarily irrational for disbelieving you. It just means that they haven’t yet had the same experience you have had. And I think acknowledging that difference is important.

    In summary, admitting the possibility that my roommate doesn’t exist doesn’t mean that I can’t claim to know he exists. In other words, the kind of indubitable knowledge you are talking about (the kind that you absolutely cannot doubt, or admit any other possibility for) simply doesn’t exist in this mortal life. And for that reason, telling Latter-day Saints that we shouldn’t claim “know” because it’s possible for them to doubt their experiences and choose to believe otherwise is holding them to a standard that no knowledge claims can meet. However, your point is well taken—we need to be more humble in the way we approach others. But this doesn’t mean we can’t boldly testify, or claim knowledge based on our experiences.

    Congratulations! You’ve gotten me to spill the contents of a future post. =)

  14. All good points.

    I think this summed up what I was trying to say especially nicely: “admitting the possibility that my roommate doesn’t exist doesn’t mean that I can’t claim to know he exists.” That’s exactly what I was getting at, and that’s exactly why we shouldn’t be afraid to admit the possibility that (at least from a purely rational/empirical point of view, if nothing else), we might be wrong. We can admit that without giving up the fact that we know. I do not think we should be afraid to claim that we know, we should just be clear what we mean and what kind of knowledge we are talking about (i.e. spiritual vs. empirical).

    It’s a bit trite, but kind of like the line from Contact where Joss asks Ellie whether she loved her father, and then challenges her to “prove it.” It’s trite if you take it to mean that her love for her father is an analog to the existence of God, but I think it’s more interesting if it is taken not as an analog for the existence of God, but as an analog for the type of experience that forms the basis for the believer’s belief in the existence of God. You can see outward evidence of that belief, but you can’t actually replicate it to another person.

    And if I had an experience like Joseph Smith, or Ether or Moses, then perhaps I would feel more inclined to testify as to knowledge as opposed to belief. But since I haven’t, I don’t feel like I’m being honest if I don’t acknowledge that I choose to believe. And I would suggest that those who have had such experiences are few. I don’t mean that there aren’t any anymore because I certainly believe that there are those even now to whom the savior reveals himself in the literal sense (I know that sounds totally crazy to an outsider), but they are instructed to keep that experience to themselves. (I also don’t buy into the idea that all the apostles have had such experiences). Those who have both seen and been told to testify are, I would argue, extremely few, so how they should react is not all that useful in a discussion about how those of us who don’t have empirical knowledge should act.

    I also very much agree that it is not the empirical/spiritual nature of the experience of belief that is crucial as much as it is the public/private nature of such experience.

  15. Not to be cantankerous, but I actually think that if it really is what it claims to be, the Book of Mormon really is “a bunch of fragments pieced together by [semi-]connected parties over the the years, added and subtracted to like our Biblical manuscripts.” The difference is that unlike the Bible, those fragments were then synthesized with a very clear agenda by an editor who was human and fallible (and who unlike many editors, actually admits that!) but was divinely inspired. What I mean is, if the Book of Mormon really is a historical document, as I believe it to be, then it necessarily carries all kinds of baggage with it like other historical documents. One example: I don’t mean to sound blasphemous, but I don’t believe that God actually cursed the Lamanites with dark skin because of wickedness, as Nephi claims. I do, however, believe that Nephi believed that he did. I know he was there and I wasn’t, but I think it’s more likely that the Lamanites either intermarried with a darker-skinned indigenous population, or spent more time in the sun, and that Nephi and his people attributed that to some divine retribution.

    Here’s where I connect it back to the discussion so it’s not so off-topic as it seems to be: The merits of my opinion in this example are a discussion for another day. But, given what I “know” about the character of God, I do not believe that God curses people with dark skin, so I choose to believe that there is another explanation and that Nephi was wrong about this. But I might be wrong on this, which I am totally willing to admit, and that’s why I don’t let it bother me too much.

    But that’s the great thing about believing in the Book of Mormon as an actual historical document, you can think of its characters not just as characters in a story, but as real people who lived in their time and their culture and were affected by it just like we are.

  16. if I had an experience like Joseph Smith, or Ether or Moses, then perhaps I would feel more inclined to testify as to knowledge as opposed to belief. But since I haven’t, I don’t feel like I’m being honest if I don’t acknowledge that I choose to believe.

    I think my point is: so do they. They choose to believe too, just like I have to choose to believe my roommate exists. No empirical experience overrides that choice and forces us to believe. So while I agree with your analysis, I think the fact that we choose to believe doesn’t itself obviate our claims to knowledge.

    When it comes to spiritual knowledge, the choice to believe is more evident, because in our modernist age we don’t traditionally consider spiritual experiences as reliable, so we (rightfully) assume that subsequent belief is uncompelled and freely chosen. Because empirical experience is traditionally considered to be reliably compelling (in fact, we often talk as if empirical experience compels us to believe), the choice to believe is less noticeable when we are confronted with empirical experience. However, I think the choice is equally present in both. So, for me, when it comes to claiming knowledge vs. declaring belief, distinguishing between Joseph Smith’s private, empirical experience with God and my private, spiritual encounters with God isn’t as helpful a distinction.

    I think sometimes Latter-day Saints will declare what they know to be true due to private experience, and treat others as lessors or irrational beings for not coming to the same conclusions. We just need the humility to remember that others are not irrational for not accepting our reported witness of our private experiences. They don’t choose to believe, because they haven’t had the experiences we have had. And that’s why, as missionaries, we invite others to seek personal experience with God, so that they too can have grounds for making a choice to believe.

  17. True, except I would like to add one thing. I think that having the same experiences is not the only thing that separates those who choose to believe and those who do not believe. Laman and Lemuel actually saw angels and felt the power of God, but chose to believe it was a trick. How is that any different from Pilate or King Agrippa who felt and chose not to believe?

    It is a little prideful to assume that if everyone had our same experiences, they would make the same choices. It isn’t true. It can’t be true, or agency has no meaning.

    We tend to worship empirical evidence, and ignore that even the concept of incontrovertible empirical evidence is an illusion. We like to think that because others use similar words to ours to describe an experience, they are having the same experience. But truthfully, we don’t even know that everyone else sees “green” the way we see it, or processes “soft” the same way we do.

    Why does touch/hear/see take such precedence over feel/sense/believe? Because we are children of a scientific age. But, in reality, the senses beyond the physical five are just as valid, and in ages past have been MORE valid than the physical world. Many ancients believed it was easier to fool the five physical senses than the intuitive senses.

    But I am as much a mystic as a scientist. I try not to discount any source of information I have open to me.

  18. SilverRain, you are right of course. I had no intention of implying otherwise. Mainly, what I’m saying, is that we can’t be others over the head with rational logic and think them inferior for not accepting “obvious” truths, when in reality they are obvious to us only because of the personal, private encounters with God that we’ve had. Those encounters don’t force us to believe, but absent them, there’s also less grounds for belief.

  19. I totally agree, SilverRain, that with respect to certain truths, such as love, charity, humility, God, etc., the mystic/spiritual/intuitive sense is more adept than the empirical senses, and with respect to other truths, such as physics, geology, forensics, the empirical mode is more adept. I think the more aware we are about what mode we’re using, and the more clear we can be about that when describing it, the better we will understand the nature of faith and the better we will be able to convey it.

  20. Sorry, I didn’t mean to imply that you were implying anything. ;) I was just adding a thought that had occurred to me.

    Thank you, JKC. I like that line of thought. When we try to explain spiritual experiences using purely rational terms, we are selling ourselves short. The message will never come across.

    Part of the key is to accept the validity of irrational, intuitive senses, and stop thinking that “emotional” is a negative word.

  21. For those who were curious about why the Christian terrorist was based in Panguitch, Utah and whether or not this was meant as a (not-so) hidden jab at Mormonism: consider that Panguitch is the burial place of John D. Lee (my thrice-great grandfather and who is unfortunately) most well-known for his part in the Mountain Meadows Massacre. I’m sure I don’t have to explain that this is an event that many non-LDS still hang over the head of the church even 150 years later.

    As far as the message of Contact goes, it seems to me that it had a few parallels to LDS belief. Namely, the idea that there is a cosmic order that has been going on since time immemorial (or rather on an eternal clock) and that our life as earth-bound humans is only one small step in our eternal progression. Maybe I read too much old school Mormon theology and am not up on current ideas (I’m not a church member) but looking for and speculating on scientific explanations for religious experience isn’t necessarily foreign to Mormonism. In his book “A Rational Theology” John Widtsoe uses numerous parallels to then-current scientific understanding. My favorite being his comparison of communication via the Holy Spirit to wireless telegraphy. Personally, I believe there is a scientific explanation for all experience, religious or otherwise. Some of it, like the trippy wormhole scene in the movie, is simply too far out of our collective experience and knowledge base as earth-bound humans that one must take such experiences on what we deem as “faith.”

    If I’m remembering correctly, Foster’s character makes three stops along the way. One might compare this to the Apostle Paul’s experience of being whirled up to the third heaven and, by extension, to the LDS belief in the Three Degrees of Glory. Her second stop (again if I’m recalling it correctly) was to see a *terrestrial* civilization and her third stop was to see something of supreme *celestial* beauty. Obviously, one shouldn’t look to the film as THE scientific explanation for such a religious belief. Yet, as a work of art, it was to me a very beautiful vision of what the afterlife might hold. Regardless of how one might try to explain experiences and theological concepts using art and/or science, I have a feeling the reality will be light years beyond what the human mind is capable of understanding. Hence, I agree with anyone on here who asserts that faith is just as important as reason, but I can also empathize with those who seek scientific explanations even if they can’t provide a definitive one.

  22. @ldsp in #19. There is one more thing to consider. Having an imaginary roommate in A Beautiful Mind, where you actually see him and he pushes things out the window is 100% fiction.

    One of the interesting things about hallucinations is that, if you are in your right mind, it’s not hard to tell if you are hallucinating or not. The problem actually is that generally they only happen when you are not in your right mind and thus your regular ability to judge reality is disabled (as happens in dreams before you wake up).

    There is an ‘information’ problem that exists with hallucinations. The mind simply can’t create a real life-like experience without first *having* real life available to input the information via the body.

    So if you see an angel standing before you, the first thing you should do is walk around him a few times and then offer to shake his hand. Because it’s easier to see an hallucination then feel it. The fidelity of hallucinations is such that generally hearing things is the most common (the real Beautiful Mind story was only audio hallucinations), seeing things is less common, seeing things that look real and not dream-like and stays consistent (i.e. you can walk to the back of the angel and see his back), is even less common, being able to hear/see/feel it in a consistent manner, as in real life, is so uncommon that if someone claims such a thing there is much much better chance they are a fraud then that they had an hallucination. Such hallunications are incredibly rare.

    So if you were Ellie and experienced what was shown on the movie screen, there is really no need for humility at this point. You just tell people what you saw and, while you can’t be 100% sure, you can be as sure as anything you can be sure about.

    (I was going to do a post on all this at some point.)

    I agree the director had Ellie say what she did because he was expressing his view on how to handle religion properly. But I think this, largely, may just disprove his case because in real life having such an experience and then refusing to testify of it is unrealistic and not even a good idea. Who would think you weren’t crazy then?

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