Contact by Carl Sagan

  UFO groups had organized round-the-clock vigils at Brooks Air Force Base, near San Antonio, where the perfectly preserved bodies of four occupants of a flying saucer that had crash-landed in 1947 were said to be languishing in freezers; the extraterrestrials were reputed to be one meter tall and to have tiny flawless teeth. Apparitions of Vishnu had been reported in India, and of the Amida Buddha in Japan; miraculous cures by the hundreds were announced at Lourdes; a new Bodhisattva proclaimed herself in Tibet. A novel cargo cult was imported from New Guinea into Australia; it preached the construction of crude radio telescope replicas to attract extraterrestrial largesse. The World Union of Free Thinkers called the Message a disproof of the existence of God. The Mormon Church declared it a second revelation by the angel Moroni.

  The Message was taken by different groups as evidence for many gods or one god or none. Chiliasm was rife. There were those who predicted the Millennium in 1999—as a cabalistic inversion of 1666, the year that Sabbatai Zevi had adopted for his millennium; others chose 1996 or 2033, the presumed two thousandth anniversaries of the birth or death of Jesus. The Great Cycle of the ancient Maya was to be completed in the year 2011, when—according to this independent cultural tradition—the cosmos would end. The convolution of the Mayan prediction with Christian millenarianism was producing a kind of apocalyptic frenzy in Mexico and Central America. Some chiliasts who believed in the earlier dates had begun giving away their wealth to the poor, in part because it would soon be worthless anyway and in part as earnest money to God, a bribe for the Advent.

  Zealotry, fanaticism, fear, hope, fervent debate, quiet prayer, agonizing reappraisal, exemplary selflessness, closed-minded bigotry, and a zest for dramatically new ideas were epidemic, rushing feverishly over the surface of the tiny planet Earth. Slowly emerging from this mighty ferment, Ellie thought she could see, was a dawning recognition of the world as one thread in a vast cosmic tapestry. Meanwhile, the Message itself continued to resist attempts at decryption.

  On the vilification channels, protected by the First Amendment, she, Vaygay, der Heer, and to a lesser extent Peter Valerian were being castigated for a variety of offenses, including atheism, communism, and hoarding the Message for themselves. In her opinion, Vaygay wasn’t much of a Communist, and Valerian had a deep, quiet, but sophisticated Christian faith. If they were lucky enough to come anywhere near cracking the Message, she was willing to deliver it personally to this sanctimonious twit of a television commentator. David Drumlin, however, was being made out as the hero, the man who had really decrypted the prime number and Olympic broadcasts; he was the kind of scientist we needed more of. She sighed and changed the channel once again.

  She had come around to TABS, the Turner-American Broadcasting System, the only survivor of the large commercial networks that had dominated television broadcasting in the United States until the advent of widespread direct satellite broadcasting and 180-channel cable. On this station, Palmer Joss was making one of his rare television appearances. Like most Americans, Ellie instantly recognized his resonant voice, his slightly unkempt good looks, and the discoloration beneath his eyes that made you think he never slept for worrying about the rest of us.

  “What has science really done for us?” he declaimed. “Are we really happier? I don’t mean just holographic receivers and seedless grapes. Are we fundamentally happier? Or do the scientists bribe us with toys, with technological trinkets, while they undermine our faith?”

  Here was a man, she thought, who was hankering for a simpler age, a man who has spent his life attempting to reconcile the irreconcilable. He has condemned the most flagrant excesses of pop religion and thinks that justifies attack on evolution and relativity. Why not attack the existence of the electron? Palmer Joss never saw one, and the Bible is innocent of electromagnetism. Why believe in electrons? Although she had never before listened to him speak, she was sure that sooner or later he would come around to the Message, and he did:

  “The scientists keep their findings to themselves, give us little bits and pieces—enough to keep us quiet. They think we’re too stupid to understand what they do. They give us conclusions without evidence, findings as if they were holy writ and not speculations, theories, hypotheses—what ordinary people would call guesses. They never ask if some new theory is as good for people as the belief that it tries to replace. They overestimate what they know and underestimate what we know. When we ask for explanations, they tell us it takes years to understand. I know about that, because in religion also there are things that take years to understand. You can spend a lifetime and never come close to understanding the nature of Almighty God. But you don’t see the scientists coming to religious leaders to ask them about their years of study and insight and prayer. They never give us a second thought, except when they mislead us and deceive us.

  “And now they say they have a Message from the star Vega. But a star can’t send a message. Someone is sending it. Who? Is the purpose of the Message divine or satanic? When they decode the Message, will it end ‘Yours truly, God’…or ‘Sincerely, the Devil’? When the scientists get around to telling us what’s in the Message, will they tell us the whole truth? Or will they hold something back because they think we can’t understand it, or because it doesn’t match what they believe? Aren’t these the people who taught us how to annihilate ourselves?

  “I tell you, my friends, science is too important to be left to the scientists. Representatives of the major faiths ought to be part of the process of decoding. We ought to be looking at the raw data. That’s what the scientists call it, ‘raw.’ Otherwise…otherwise, where will we be? They’ll tell us something about the Message. Maybe what they really believe. Maybe not. And we’ll have to accept it, whatever they tell us. There are some things the scientists know about. There are other things—take my word for it—they know nothing about. Maybe they’ve received a message from another being in the heavens. Maybe not. Can they be sure the Message isn’t a Golden Calf? I don’t think they’d know one if they saw one. These are the folks who brought us the hydrogen bomb. Forgive me, Lord, for not being more grateful to these kind souls.

  “I have seen God face to face. I worship Him, trust Him, love Him, with my entire soul, with all of my being. I don’t think anyone could believe more than I do. I can’t see how the scientists could believe in science more than I do in God.

  “They’re ready to throw away their ‘truths’ when a new idea comes round. They’re proud of it. They don’t see any end to knowing. They imagine we’re locked in ignorance until the end of time, that there’s no certainty anywhere in nature. Newton overthrew Aristotle. Einstein overthrew Newton. Tomorrow someone else’ll overthrow Einstein. As soon as we get to understand one theory, there’s another one in its place. I wouldn’t mind so much if they had warned us that the old ideas were tentative. Newton’s law of gravitation, they called it. They still call it that. But if it was a law of nature, how could it be wrong? How could it be overthrown? Only God can repeal the laws of nature, not the scientists. They just got it wrong. If Albert Einstein was right, Isaac Newton was an amateur, a bungler.

  “Remember, the scientists don’t always get it right. They want to take away our faith, our beliefs, and they offer us nothing of spiritual value in return. I do not intend to abandon God because the scientists write a book and say it is a message from Vega. I will not worship science. I will not defy the First Commandment. I will not bow down before a Golden Calf.”

  • • •

  When he was a very young man, before he became widely known and admired, Palmer Joss had been a carnival roustabout. It was mentioned in his profile in Timesweek; it was no secret. To help make his fortune he had arranged for a map of the Earth in cylindrical projection to be painstakingly tattooed on his torso. He would exhibit himself at county fairs and sideshows from Oklahoma to Mississippi, one of the stragglers and remnants of a more vigorous age of rural itinerant entertainment. In the expanse of blue ocean were the four gods of the
winds, their cheeks puffing forth prevailing westerlies and nor’easters. By flexing his pectorals, he could make Boreas swell along with the Mid-Atlantic. Then, he would declaim to the astonished onlookers from Book 6 of Ovid’s Metamorphoses:

  Monarch of Violence, rolling on clouds,

  I toss wide waters, and I fell huge trees…

  Possessed of daemon-rage, I penetrate,

  Sheer to the utmost caverns of old Earth;

  And straining, up from those unfathomed deeps,

  Scatter the terror-stricken shades of Hell;

  And hurl death-dealing earthquakes throughout the world!

  Fire and brimstone from old Rome. With some help from his hands, he would demonstrate continental drift, pressing West Africa against South America, so they joined, like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, almost perfectly at the longitude of his navel. They billed him as “Geos, the Earth Man.”

  Joss was a great reader and, being unencumbered by a formal education past grade school, had not been told that science and classics were unseemly fare for ordinary people. Aided by his casual, rumpled good looks, he would ingratiate himself with librarians in the towns along the carnival’s trek and ask what serious books he should read. He wanted, he told them, to improve himself. Dutifully, he read about winning friends and investing in real estate and intimidating your acquaintances without their noticing, but felt these books somehow shallow. By contrast, in ancient literature and in modern science he though he detected quality. When there were layovers, he would haunt the local town or county library. He taught himself some geography and history. They were job-related, he told Elvira the Elephant Girl, who questioned him closely on his absences. She suspected him of compulsive dalliances—a librarian in every port, she once said—but she had to admit his professional patter was improving. The contents were too highbrow, but the delivery was down home. Surprisingly, Joss’s little stall began to make money for the carnival.

  His back to the audience, he was one day demonstrating the collision of India with Asia and the resulting crinkling up of the Himalayas, when, out of a gray but rainless sky, a lightning bolt flashed and struck him dead. There had been twisters in southeastern Oklahoma, and the weather was unusual throughout the South. He had a perfectly lucid sense of leaving his body—pitifully crumbled on the sawdust-covered planking, being regarded with caution and something akin to awe by the small crowd—and rising, rising as if through a long dark tunnel, slowly approaching a brilliant light. And in the radiance he gradually discerned a figure of heroic, indeed of Godlike, proportions.

  When he awoke he found a part of himself disappointed to be alive. He was lying on a cot in a modestly furnished bedroom. Leaning over him was the Reverend Billy Jo Rankin, no the present incumbent of that name, but his father, a venerable surrogate preacher of the third quarter of the twentieth century. In the background, Joss thought he could see a dozen hooded figures singing the Kyrie Eleison. But he couldn’t be sure.

  “Am I gonna live or die?” the young man whispered.

  “My boy, you’re gonna do both,” the Reverend Mr. Rankin replied.

  Joss was soon overcome with a poignant sense of discovery at the existence of the world. But in a way that was difficult for him to articulate, this feeling was in conflict with the beatific image that he had beheld, and with the infinite joy that vision portended. He could sense the two feelings in conflict within his breast. In various circumstances, sometimes in mid-sentence, he would become aware of one or the other of these feelings making some claim on speech or action. After a while, he was content to live with both.

  He really had been dead, they told him afterwards. A doctor had pronounced him dead. But they had prayed over him, they had snug hymns, and they even tried to revive him by body massage (mainly in the vicinity of Mauritania). They had returned him to life. He had been truly and literally reborn. Since this corresponded so well to his own perception of the experience, he accepted the account, and gladly. While he almost never talked about it, he became convinced of the significance of the event. He had not been struck dead for nothing. He had not been brought back for no reason.

  Under his patron’s tutelage, he began to study Scripture seriously. He was deeply moved by the idea of the Resurrection and the doctrine of Salvation. He assisted the Reverend Mr. Rankin at first in small ways, eventually filling in for him in the more onerous or more distant preaching assignments—especially after the younger Billy Jo Rankin left for Odessa, Texas, in answer to a call from God. Soon Joss found a preaching style that was his own, not se much exhortatory as explanatory. In simple language and homely metaphors, he would explain baptism and the afterlife, the connection of Christian Revelation with the myths of classical Greece and Rome, the idea of God’s plan for the world, and the conformity of science and religion when both were properly understood. This was not the conventional preaching, and it was too ecumenical for many tastes. But it proved unaccountably popular.

  “You’ve been reborn, Joss,” the elder Rankin told him. “So you ought to change your name. Except Palmer Joss is such a fine name for a preacher, you’d be a fool not to keep it.”

  Like doctors and lawyers, the vendors of religion rarely criticize one another’s wares, Joss observed. But one night he attended services at the new Church of God, Crusader, to hear the younger Billy Jo Rankin, triumphantly returned from Odessa, preach to the multitude. Billy Jo enunciated a stark doctrine of Reward, Retribution, and the Rapture. But tonight was a healing night. The curative instrument, the congregation was told, was the holiest of relics—holier than a splinter of the True Cross, holier even than the thigh bone of Saint Teresa of Avila that Generalissimo Francisco Franco had kept in his office to intimidate the pious. What Billy Jo Rankin Brandished was the actual amniotic fluid that surrounded and protected our Lord. The liquid had been carefully preserved in an ancient earthenware vessel that once belonged, so it was said, to Saint Ann. The tiniest drop of it would cure what ails you, he promised, through a special act of Divine Grace. This holiest of holy waters was with us tonight.

  Joss was appalled, not so much that Rankin would attempt so transparent a scam but that any of the parishioners were so credulous as to accept it. In his previous life he had witnessed many attempts to bamboozle the public. But that was entertainment. This was different. This was religion. Religion was too important to gloss the truth, much less to manufacture miracles. He took to denouncing this imposture from the pulpit.

  As his fervor grew, he railed against other deviant forms of Christian fundamentalism, including those aspirant herpetologists who tested their faith by fondling snakes in accord with the biblical injunction that the pure of heart shall not fear the venom of serpents. In one widely quoted sermon he paraphrased Voltaire. He never thought, he said, that he would find men of the cloth so venal as to lend support to the blasphemers who taught that the first priest was the first rogue who met the first fool. These religions were damaging religion. He shook his finger gracefully in the air.

  Joss argued that in ever religion there was a doctrinal line beyond which it insulted the intelligence of its practitioners. Reasonable people might disagree as to where that line should be drawn, but religions trespassed well beyond it at their peril. People were not fools, he said. The day before his death, as he was putting his affairs in order, the elder Rankin sent word to Joss that he never wanted to lay eyes on him again.

  At the same time, Joss began to preach that science didn’t have all the answers either. He found inconsistencies in the theory of evolution. The embarrassing findings, the facts that don’t fit, the scientists just sweep under the rug, he said. They don’t really know that the Earth is 4.6 billion years old, any more than Archbishop Ussher knew that it was 6,000 years old. Nobody has seen evolution happen, nobody has been marking time since the Creation. (“Two-hundred-quadrillion-Mississippi…” he once imagined the patient timekeeper intoning, counting up the seconds from the origin of the world.)

  And Einstein’s t
heory of relativity was also unproved. You couldn’t travel faster than light no matter what, Einstein had said. How could he know? How close to the speed of light had he gone? Relativity was only a way of understanding the world. Einstein couldn’t restrict what mankind could do in the far future. And Einstein sure couldn’t set limits on what God could do. Couldn’t God travel faster than light if He wanted to? Couldn’t God make us travel faster than light if He wanted to? There were excesses in science and there were excesses in religion. A reasonable man wouldn’t be stampeded by either one. There were many interpretations of Scripture and many interpretations of the natural world. Both were created by God, so both must be mutually consistent. Wherever a discrepancy seems to exist, either a scientist or a theologian—maybe both—hasn’t been doing his job.

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