The beautiful young scientist has so distinguished herself among her colleagues, that she has been invited to join the permanent staff of the Arecibo Observatory, housing the largest array of radio telescopes on the planet. In Carl Sagan’s story, Contact, Ellie represents the fine balance each of us must strike as we seek contact with ultimate reality: she determined to be as tough-minded as possible (scientific, leaning on hard evidence, not given to fantasy) without abandoning the sense of wonder driving her to seek contact with extraterrestrial intelligence. [i]
Her hope of contact serves as a metaphor for our own search for God. The territory of the unseen is not as inaccessible as one might think, and we are well able to map what we walk out. The thing to remember is that no map has any more value than its correspondence with reality. For those who are serious about finding God, there is no room for magical thinking or make-believe. There is no room for copying someone else’s map, no matter how much you admire them, unless you’ve trod the same ground and found their depiction of the territory true.
Ellie reasoned that if there was any possibility that Someone might be intentionally transmitting to earth, spending her life to listen was worth it. And in Sagan’s story, an enormous investment was made in the telescopes at Arecibo to detect if someone from somewheremight be trying to reach them.
I’ve spent the best part of my last 40 years doing the same, convinced there is too much evidence to ignore, confident that we are better wired than those radio telescopes to receive the signals that are being transmitted to us.
Sometimes, after a very long time of sweeping the sky and finding no trace of a signal, we begin to doubt. Ellie confides her discouragement to her mentor, Valerian, “Maybe the whole business is a waste of time.”
Sensing her disillusionment, Valerian counters, “Nobody’s guaranteeing success. But can you think of a more important question? Imagine them out there sending us signals, and nobody on Earth is listening. That would be a joke, a travesty. Wouldn’t you be ashamed of your civilization if we were able to listen and didn’t have the gumption to do it?”
“What worries me the most,” she continued, “is the opposite, the possibility that they’re not trying. They could communicate with us, all right, but they’re not doing it because they don’t see any point to it. It’s like. . .”—she glanced down at the edge of the tablecloth they had spread over the grass—”like the ants. They occupy the same landscape that we do. They have plenty to do, things to occupy themselves. On some level they’re very well aware of their environment. But we don’t try to communicate with them. So I don’t think they have the foggiest notion that we exist.” [ii]
This expression of doubt has to be dealt with in each of us. We can go no further until we know deeply and personally for ourselves that He cares.
Valerian cautions Ellie that nobody is guaranteed success. But the premise of the Divine Dialogue is that our hope of success lies in The One who is on the transmitting end—if He wants contact, if He initiates it, and if He makes it possible for us to receive His transmissions—then contact is meant-to-be.
The day comes when Ellie’s team intercepts an actual message. Her cadre of devoted scientists, who have spent years listening to erratic radio emissions, suddenly hear the signal they have been waiting for. As their computers capture the data, they begin to recognize an emerging alphabet being spelled out for them, with which they will be able to translate the language of correspondence that is streaming to them from another world.
Their discovery plunges the nations of this planet into both panic and exhilaration. The entire Earth, with all of its languages, cultures, politics, and people is swept up in the incredible realization that a superior intelligence from deepest space cares enough to communicate with us, to reveal itself, and to encourage us forward in our discovery of the universe around us.
The intense parallels between this story and the reality of the Divine Dialogue exhilarate me, but crush me with frustration at the same time. I ring with recognition of the comparison. But Sagan’s description of the Earth-wide elation at making contact with an extraterrestrial intelligence breaks my heart—when so few, in real life, care that The One who created the stars, galaxies and every life-form throughout deepest space is sending us signals . . . telling us Who He is.
the universal language of transmission
We learn the language of correspondences the same way that Ellie’s team was able to decipher the alien language spelling itself out to them. The transmitting side takes what you know in your language, and lays it beside a corresponding element of their language. You make the connection, and you have learned a new word to help you translate their transmissions streaming from another world.
A correspondence lays two things down side by side: the first is something we know, the second is something the first helps to explain.
Jesus constantly used the language of correspondences, using earthly things to teach about heavenly things. He described the wind that comes and goes—corresponding it to The Spirit. He used the metaphor of earthly birth, bringing us out of the closed womb into the fullness of life, corresponding it to another event that ushers us into a whole new world. He likened the upwelling of water to being filled with The Spirit.
A correspondence takes something we can relate to in the natural realm and matches it to something in the unknown, creating a relationship by which the thing we know explains or describes what we don’t know. God is spelling Himself out to us, in the language of correspondences. He is building an alphabet with us, a mutual language by which we can understand what He is saying.
Learning the language
My parents once owned a sailboat they named Icarus. They loved sailing her off the New England Coast, mooring in a different harbor each night. One August morning they awoke to a light fog, with sunlight dancing on the water through low tendrils of drifting cloud. After breakfast, with the promise of a beautiful day, they pulled up anchor and motored out of the safe harbor of Martha’s Vineyard into the open sea and headed for Nantucket, where they planned on spending that night.
Rounding the last point of land, a dense fog suddenly closed in, and they found themselves blind. Daddy knew the compass heading required to find Nantucket, but he needed to track their course across the open water. Unable to see a thing, my Dad gave Mom the wheel as he headed forward, hoping to sight a marker in the channel. But he was swallowed up in fog, disappearing from her sight, before he even made it to the bow. Terrified and suddenly feeling terribly alone, my mother begged him to come take the wheel. But he shouted back to her that he had to find a buoy, or they would have no way of knowing where they were.
My mom didn’t know very much about God at that time in her life. And the circumstances of the moment gave her a distinct awareness of how ultimately alone, lost and vulnerable she was without bearings. Wondering if it would do any good to pray, she haltingly began, telling God that He seemed so very far away. Half to herself, half to Him, she asked “Do You really care? Do we really matter to You?”
Right after that prayer, the number “22” seared itself in her mind for the second time that day. The first time had been earlier in the morning, right after breakfast as she had been eagerly anticipating the sail ahead. She didn’t know what “22” meant.
As Icarus plowed slowly through the oblivion of fog-shrouded, cold, gray water, she and Daddy thought they heard the lonely haunting clang of a bell buoy in the distance. Inching toward its sound, the bell grew louder and louder, until they finally came upon it. There in the fog, out on the sea, it greeted them, telling them where they were. Its black number “22” painted large and bold against a solid background.
Daddy surely knew the number of the buoy that marked the channel to Nantucket, being the sailor and navigator he was. But my mom, his joyful companion along for the adventure, did not know the number of the buoy that was meant-to-show them the way. For my dad, finding that bell buoy was a huge relief, because it nailed their present location. With compass and chart he could set a right heading to pinpoint the island surrounded by open ocean. But for my mother, that buoy with the “22” brought a different kind of relief, giving her a far more crucial bearing than where she was in the North Atlantic.