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Wednesday Word — August 12, 2020

August 12, 2020 | Jay T. Smith

First Contact

Forty-eight years ago, I became a fan of science fiction. For my eighth birthday, my aunt gave a copy of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars (1912) to me. I read the rest of the Barsoom series before I entered high school. I was hooked. Since then, I’ve read Frank Herbert’s Dune series and C. S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy, and watched all of the Star Wars movies, Star Trek movies and television shows, Battlestar Galactica television shows, and several non-series movies, such as First Contact, Melancholia, and Arrival.

This passion for science fiction tends to be universal throughout my generation. But I also realize that its appeal lies in the fulfillment of some very real human needs. It reflects the human quest to know the future. It reflects the human need to know safety in the middle of threat and confusion. It reflects the human fear of the inevitable. It reflects the human need to exercise the imagination. And, it reflects the very human need to experience hope and love.

The great experiment of modernism, with its emphasis on scientific method, needs an eschatology in order to it to work as a “worldview.” Human beings are future-oriented; it is part of who we are at our core. We need to know what the future holds for us, from where we originated, and what our highest function is. A worldview that does not provide those assurances is not a worldview.

When Darwin proposed his theory of evolution, it was quickly appropriated by others as the answer to human origins and a means by which religious belief could be undermined. The success of science through technology in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries gave hope to humanity that disease, warfare, and hunger could be eradicated within a century. When the exploration of space became possible in the mid-twentieth century, it began as a means of besting the Soviet Union in the race to control the “space” around us. However, once that goal was achieved, exploration—in search of habitable planets and evidence of extraterrestrial life—became the priority. We wanted to know that we were not alone in the vast universe.

Indeed, over time, a scientifically-oriented eschatology was derived and propounded by scientists such as Thomas Huxley, Julian Huxley, Carl Sagan, Richard Dawkins, and Neil deGrasse Tyson, as well as authors such as Edgar Rice Burroughs and Jules Verne—the new prophets of the scientifically-oriented modern worldview. With these scholar-authors, the modern worldview was cast. As they insisted that faith in God—or in many gods—was unverifiable, futile, and even foolish, they ushered in the era of atheism, where faith is ridiculed and dismissed. The only belief that was necessary was faith in the human ability to achieve greatness through science.

Amazingly, the fire of faith still burns within most of humanity. The modern atheistic worldview with its unique trust in science has proven to fall short of its promised goals. Disease continues to ravage the world. Warfare has become more complex, and the threat of nuclear annihilation continues. Poverty, hunger, and violence continue unabated and even increase. Christian religious observance has been altered as well: some churches accept the critique of science, and reject the doctrines of the faith that cannot meet the criterion of scientific “truth.” Other churches reject the findings of science completely and have made Scripture the ultimate, fundamental truth of our world. A church divided against itself is struggling to stand. In light of this situation, the Western world labors to find meaning, hope, and love. The prophets of the scientific establishment have no answer to this question of existence.

Obviously, I enjoy and appreciate science and the possibilities it opens for humanity. After all, we are created and have a responsibility to understand this magnificent creation. Yet human beings are more than molecules and synapses, and we need to exercise our faith, have hope, and deeply love. If we cannot have these essential human experiences, we fall short of being human. To attempt to lay these experiences at the foot of science is simply asking for disappointment. When we use the phrase “first contact” we have come to believe that refers to the first time human beings come into contact with an extra-terrestrial life form.

I argue that the extra-terrestrial should not, and will not, be our “first contact.” For all of us, “first contact” should be with God, and that contact is through faith. It is in our communication with God that science finds its proper place in our lives. It is in our contact with God that hope becomes a reality of our worldview. It is in our contact with God that we can nurture friendship with the Eternal, and learn to receive and give the Love that is God. First contact with God enables all of our other contacts to flourish and thrive in the story of our lives.

Jay T. Smith

President and Bridger Professor of Theology & Ethics

Dr. Jay Smith leads the Yellowstone Theological Institute as its president. Dr. Smith has served as minister of youth, music and as senior […]

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