UNDERSTANDING THE TRANSCENDENT EXPERIENCE
By: Spencer Pennington
In the film Contact several heavy social, theological, spiritual, and personal questions are dealt with. There is of course the question of Are we alone in the Universe? Then there is the follow-up question, If we are not alone, where do Humans sit in the Universe? What is our importance? The other great questions in the film are much more personal in nature: Is there a God, and if so, what is God? Did God create both us and the aliens? Perhaps the most perplexing question though is that of How do we explain and justify the transcendent experience?
The film does this by showing the double-edged nature of skepticism: Skepticism is displayed as a means of analyzing and strengthening one's own faith through questioning and examination. However, it is also shown as being a possible block to the great realm of the transcendent, the spiritual, where explanation is beyond science and conventional reasoning.
Where then, do we find a middle ground? Certainly, one could argue that it could not be in blind faith, as this would shut away the very purpose of faith itself; to believe in that which gives us strength and that which rests on solid foundations and having this blind faith would only limit us to ignorance, something that is condemned by all major religions. Yet it could neither be at the other end of the spectrum, where Science serves as our only means of explanation, as this itself would be illogical; too many things have occurred throughout Human history to be explained solely by Science, yet to be completely ignored at the same time. Perhaps Bishop John Shelby Spong says it best in a similar manner in his essay The Vehicle of Words: Once this experience is put into words, with all of the limitations that this implies, the words themselves take on a life of their own. However, based on the course of Human history, we can be sure that something within all of these events did occur.
Historys greatest examples of this lie in the transcendent experiences in the early stages of the worlds major religions. In Christianity, for example, the Gospels tell us that Jesus was approached and tempted by Satan three times. In Judaism, Moses is alone in the desert when approached by God in the form of a burning bush. In Islam, Muhammad is meditating in a cave on the Mountain of Light in Arabia when approached by Gabriel and commanded to become the next of Gods Messengers. In Buddhism, the Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama sits beneath a bodhi tree in India, tempted by the evil within himself, challenged with overcoming it before he can, and finally does attain Enlightenment or Nirvana.
Can these things be proven strictly by science? No. There are no fossilized footprints of Jesus in the desert; there are no remains of a burnt bush in Egypt that can be traced to Moses; there is no radiation or form of physical or tangible energy to prove Muhammads encounter with Gabriel; there is no archeological imprint of the Buddha underneath the bodhi tree where he was said to have reached Enlightenment. But we must then ask ourselves: can these things be completely disproved or discounted by Science. Again, the answer is no. We need only to look at the development of these religions and the impact that they have had upon humanity, both good and bad, to know that something did indeed occur. Could something so earth-shaking and history-altering be based on pure untruth? To say yes to that, some might argue, could also be unscientific because it rules out the fact that something must have occurred in order for Human history to develop in the way that it has.
The theological implications, validities, and nature of these events could be (and have been) debated for centuries. Those are questions to which we may never know the answer; things that Science may never prove. But perhaps this is where faith comes in, not of a blind nature, but of an objective one: From these great experiences of transcendence, we are able to see the true presence of God all around us When we examine openly, questioningly, and objectively, we are able to draw our own understanding of transcendence. Thus, we may be able to understand Christ when he said The Kingdom of God is within you, or the Qurans words in Sura 50, verse 16 that God is closer to man than his jugular vein.
Thus, the key may be then, not to believe or disbelieve all of or any of the transcendent events that are presented to us, but to approach them equally with the same respect and integrity that we may study them for ourselves and form our own beliefs about them with a scientific mind in terms of being objective and open. In Contact Dr. Ellie Arroways experience meant nothing to those that had her on trial; when they looked, they saw nothing, and why should they? Her experience didnt affect them or their views, nor should it based simply on her words. Perhaps, though, there was one inescapable truth that they did not see: That regardless of God, religion, spirituality, or theology, something truly transcendent had occurred for Ellie and thus something did happen. This does not make her experience more or less valid, but certainly, one can honestly and understandably come to the conclusion that something did occur based not on Ellies story or the way she said it, based not on her scientific degrees, but based on the change evident in her as a person. Perhaps, then, what is needed is objectivity and respect and the ability to think for ourselves in careful, analytical ways. As Heather Keith and Steven Fesmire note about Ellie in their essay Our Place in the Cosmos: Faith and Belief in Contact: Rejecting blind faith, even in her own experience, Ellie finds meaning in examining her beliefs by embracing and encouraging doubt wherever possible. Yet maybe it begins all with us and our ability to perceive.
In the words of Van Morrison: No guru, no method, no teacher
just you and I nature
and the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost
in the garden.
Spong, John Shelby. The Vehicle of Words An Unsteady Ship. Resurrection: Myth or Reality? A Bishops Search for the Origins of Christianity. New York, New York. Harper Collins Publishers, 1994
Amjad, Moiz. Where is Allah?. Understanding Islam. http://www.understanding-islam.com/related/text.asp?type=article&aid=104, 1998
Keith, Heather and Fesmire, Steven. Our Place in the Cosmos: Faith and Belief in Contact. Class handout, Geary. English 4, 2007
Morrison, Van. The Best of Van Morrison, Volume 2. Lyrics from In the Garden. Produced by Van Morrison. Distributed by Polydor Records, 1993