The X-Files told us that The Truth Is Out There. The search for meaning is one of humanity’s defining features. As far back as we can trace, human societies have in this sense been essentially religious. Prehistoric burials and ancestor worship indicate our grappling with life and death from the earliest times. The film Contact continues this exploration. In an otherworldly experience, the scientist Ellie Arroway is offered this answer:
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.
This is a fascinating moment. Contact’s answer to the meaning of life is relationships: life has meaning when we share it with others. It’s a message that resonates widely because deep down, no one wants to be alone. What could be more empty than loneliness? From the film’s perspective, although the mysteries of the Universe remain, a life shared is a life fulfilled.
This is a similar message to the one that Christians bear. According to Christians, the one who made the Universe wants us to share life with him. It is not enough to merely share with other created beings because we need to know our Creator. When we ignore this, life doesn’t make much sense because the only meanings left are the ones that we construct for ourselves. These meanings are changeable and temporary and can’t truly satisfy us, even if we never acknowledge this or even become aware of it. For Christians, meaning is found in living life with the one who created life: God made us, so it is with God that we belong.
Contact challenges us with a further question: how much do we actually seek the meaning of life? As Ellie prepares to be the guinea pig in an extraordinary experiment, Palmer Joss questions her motivations:
(Palmer) By doing this, you’re willing to give your life, you’re willing to die for it. Why?
(Ellie) 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?
This is perhaps Contact’s biggest question for us. Maybe meaning and purpose are out there, but how much do you want to know it? What would you give to find it? If it’s so important, would you give up everything for the meaning of life?
In first-century Palestine, someone who talked a lot about the purpose of life was a man called Jesus. He spoke about something that he called the kingdom of heaven, the kingdom of God. Jesus did not explain this kingdom exactly, but instead used parables to describe what it is like:
The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.
Jesus taught that this kingdom is something that we should give everything for. We shouldn’t hold back; we should throw everything into hunting it down, even at the expense of everything we have and everyone we know. While this kingdom may have been cryptic for some, Jesus was frank with his twelve closest followers. He connected the purpose and meaning of life with himself:
For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life?
This is one of Jesus’ most confronting claims. According to Jesus, the answer to life’s meaning lies with one man: Jesus himself. As Jesus said elsewhere, “I am the way, the truth and the life”. Jesus expects his followers to give up everything for him.
Ellie seeks meaning in the depths of space but, according to Jesus, the meaning of life is much nearer. Rather than having to discover it for ourselves, life’s meaning has already been revealed to us. For those who follow Jesus, the truth is no longer Out There. Instead, God has made the truth present in Jesus, “the image of the invisible God”.
Arthur Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.