In 1927 the wife of Scottish preacher Arthur Gossip died suddenly. When he returned to the pulpit he preached a sermon titled “When Life Tumbles In, What Then?” In that sermon Gossip compared life to watching a plane pass through the sky during wartime. There you are, lying on your back watching a plane fly gracefully across a brilliant sunlit blue sky when all of a sudden it is blown apart by gunfire and falls to earth a tumbling, tangled mess of metal. Only on this occasion the gunfire was the tragically unexpected death of his beloved wife.
Gossip went on to explain that he didn’t understand this life, but what he did know was that during this darkest period of his life he needed his faith more than ever. “You people in the sunshine may believe the faith, but we in the shadow must believe it. We have nothing else.” Without his faith there was no hope.
Source: Reported in Hans, God on the Witness Stand (Baker 1987). Hans sourced the sermon from Arthur Gossip, The Hero in Thy Soul (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1930)
Christian writer Tim Stafford tells of an unusual approach to teaching about religious truth adopted by a pastor he knows. You might expect this, for the pastor, Stephey Bilynskyj, holds a Phd in Philosophy from Note Dame University! Whenever he runs a confirmation class the pastor takes a jar full of beans with him. He then gets the students to guess how many beans are in the jar, and writes down their guesses on a notepad. Pastor Bilynskyi then asks the class members to list their favourite songs, writing them down alongside the bean estimates. Pastor Bilynskyi then returns to the bean guesses, revealing the actual number and then whose guess was closest to being right. After congratulations have been offered attention is then refocussed on the song list. “And which one of these is closest to being right?” Pastor Bilynskyi asks. Invariably the students argue that when it comes to “favourite songs” there is no right answer. It’s purely subjective, a matter of taste. It’s at that point that Pastor Bilynskyi asks “When you decide what to believe in terms of your faith, is that more like guessing the number of beans, or more like choosing your favourite song?” Always, Bilynskyj says, he gets the same answer: Choosing one’s faith is more like choosing a favourite song. Bilynskyi disagrees, and though he still confirms those who hold this view, does his best to try to argue them out of it!
Source: Reported by Tim Stafford, Christianity Today, September 14, 1992
The Holocaust is one of the terribly traumatic episodes of modern history, yet it has also yielded some astounding stories of bravery and faith. In France a Jewish family were hidden by some concerned French nationals in the basement of their house. The Jewish family waited and waited for their deliverance. At the end of the war these words were found scribbled on the wall of that basement:
“I believe in the sun even when it does not shine.
I believe in love even when it is not given.
I believe in God even when he is silent.”
Source: reported in Hans, God on the Witness Stand (Baker, 1987)
Contact, starring Jodie Foster, tells the story of astronomer Ellie Arroway’s search for extraterrestrial life. It is more however than a movie about aliens. It raises profound questions about life, faith and science.
Ellie’s parents both died while she way very young, and she is left with a keen sense of aloneness and a drive to discover some sense of meaning and purpose to life and existence. Her chosen path to truth is science. She refuses to accept anything on the basis of faith. Only that which can be scientifically demonstrated can be intellectually embraced.
The other central character in the movie is Palmer Joss, a spiritual adviser to the president. Ellie and Joss find themselves attracted to each other, but their relationship forces them both to explore the place of faith and reason in their lives. Ellie challenges Joss to proven that God exists. Ockham’s razor demands that the simplest explanation is the best. On this basis she asks “So what’s more likely? That a mysterious, all-powerful God created the universe, and then decided not to leave a single evidence of his existence? Or that He simply doesn’t exist at all, and that we created Him, so that we wouldn’t have to feel so small and lonely?”
Joss responds by asking Ellie if she loved her father. She affirms that she loved him deeply. Joss then turns Ellie’s demand back on her. “Prove it”. Joss explains that although he may not be able to scientifically prove God’s existence, he once had a deeply moving experience where he felt overwhelmed by the presence of God. It’s on this basis that he believes. Ellie however can’t accept this. If it cannot be proven it cannot be true.
Then one day, as Ellie is listening for signals from outer-space contact is made. Aliens from deep in space have returned radio signals to earth and then send details for the construction of what seems to be a time machine. After one person has died when the first machine explodes, Ellie is chosen to travel in the second. When Joss asks her whether she is willing to die for this she replies: “For as long as I can remember, I’ve been searching for something, some reason why we’re here. What are we doing here? Who are we? If this is a chance to find out even just a little part of that answer… I don’t know, I think it’s worth a human life. Don’t you?”
So Ellie finds herself sitting in a small metallic sphere suspended from massive circular arms. The arms start rotating furiously, reaching a point where the sphere is dropped. This time the machine doesn’t explode, the sphere simply falls to earth. Nothing has happened…
Or at least that’s how it appears to inside observers. Ellie’s experience within the capsule is extraordinary. She finds herself hurtling down a “wormhole”, a doorway through space, until she emerges on a beautiful beach. A figure walks across the sand toward her. It’s her father…in fact an alien life form coming to her in the guise of her father so that she will feel comfortable. Finally Ellie has overcome her sense of cosmic aloneness, perhaps found some of the answers she is looking for. In some poignant lines the alien says: “You’re an interesting species, an interesting mix. You’re capable of such beautiful dreams and such horrible nightmares. You feel so lost, so cut off, so alone, only you’re not. See, in all our searching, the only thing we’ve found that makes the emptiness bearable is each other.”
After 18 hours Ellie has to return. When she does she finds herself confronted by the same skepticism towards her experience that she showed to Joss when he spoke of his experience of God. From the viewpoint of everyone observing from outside the capsule nothing happened. Surely Ockham’s razor demands the simplest explanation – that nothing did happen other than Ellie being fooled? Surely they can’t be expected to accept Ellie’s story on the basis of nothing but faith? Ellie’s confronted with a terrible dilemma. Can she now embrace her experience on the basis of nothing but faith? It seems her answer is “yes”. She says “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 undeniably how tiny, 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 wish that everyone, if even for one moment, could feel that awe, and humility, and the hope, but… that continues to be my wish.”
Application: Science and religion, truth, God’s existence, evidence for God, apologetics. The movie suggests that faith and science are not opposed, as Ellie thinks, but can complement each other as Joss believes. Truth can be accessed not only through scientific experiment but also through experience. Indeed, the film suggests that the greatest truths – love, meaning, purpose, etc – are outside the ability of science.
Application: Meaning of Life. Ellie’s closing words represent a wonderful description of the Christian perspective on life. “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 undeniably how tiny, 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 wish that everyone, if even for one moment, could feel that awe, and humility, and the hope, but… that continues to be my wish.”
Application: Relationships, Loneliness, God’s presence. The alien in the movie provides a poignant expression of our desperate need for others (and God), when he says of humans, “You feel so lost, so cut off, so alone, only you’re not. See, in all our searching, the only thing we’ve found that makes the emptiness bearable is each other.”
Is it possible to believe in miracles? The famous philosopher David Hume didn’t think so. He believed that miracles were so improbable that it was impossible to believe in them. To believe a miracle had occurred would require the testimony of people of such great learning that they could not possibly be deceived, of such good character that they could not possibly be deceitful, of such high reputation that the loss of face if they were found to be deceitful would be overwhelming, and with the miracle performed publicly in a celebrated part of the world that detection of fraud would be uncovered. In Hume’s view these criteria could never be satisfied. Hume even admits that he knew of miracles in France which “were immediately proved upon the spot before judges of unquestionable integrity, attested by witnesses of credit and distinction, in a learned age, and on the most eminent theater that is now in the world.” This would seem to meet his criteria, but still he rejects the miracles on the grounds of “the absolute impossibility or miraculous nature of the events which they relate.”
Source: Adapted from C. Brown, History and Faith (IVP, 1987). The Hume quotes are taken from Brown, citing Hume, Enquiries Concerning Human Understanding.