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Contributed by:

Frank Pennington

United Church of Christ

Institute Advisory Committee Member


I have just returned from watching the film The Martian featuring Matt Damon. While not personally captured by all science fiction, I do enjoy space themed “Sci-Fi.” Examples of some favorites include 2001: A Space Odyssey, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and more recently, Interstellar and Gravity. The key word for all of these films is “fiction” and I get that. However, as one who enjoys the arts in general, and particularly enjoys film, the interface of science, human finitude, drama, and spirit intrigues me.

By the way, I’ve failed to mention that I am an ordained Protestant minister with the United Church of Christ which is a progressive denomination. I also serve on the Advisory Committee of the Institute for Religion and Science at Chestnut Hill College so my interest isn’t just personal, but has some broader traction.

One of the themes of The Martian is just do the science! The character Matt Damon plays is stranded alone on the planet Mars and faces the choice of either cashing it in, or valiantly struggling to save himself; the latter prevails. However, neither science nor technology are ever “done” in isolation. A great example of this reality is the film Particle Fever (discussed in a previous blog) about the active pursuit of the Higgs boson particle. What was fascinating about Particle Fever was the focus on the human personalities of the researchers and their families. By the way, Particle Fever is NOT “Sci-Fi”!

For better or for worse, science always has a human face. There is no “science” apart from the willfulness and emotions which are and will always be the catalysts for scientific change. In The Martian, Matt Damon’s character uses the “F” word with impunity. As a minister who thinks about the character of prayer quite often, I do not eliminate the possibility that the “F” word aimed at the heavens can be a prayerful expression. In this light I think about the biblical character Job who, when faced with profound life over death issues, raged against God and the heavens.

As a lay person (not a practitioner of science but of religion and spirituality), I reap the benefits and costs of scientific and technological endeavor. I witness the advances and the meltdowns and acknowledge that what I may view as an “advance,” others may view as catastrophic. Literally, science has “legs” in that there is no “science” without us—either as creators or as critics. What we call “science” never stands alone.

The reason I like the “brand” of science fiction this blog explores is because, while “fiction,” there is nothing fake about the human drama. In “Close Encounters” music served as a universal interplanetary principle which just might be the best common language serving all sentient life, and perhaps what we call emotion is interstellar, and perhaps even the “F” word has galactic credibility!

I need to be reminded that “science” is not cold and calculating but in fact has a heart. The “heart” in The Martian was about how the Matt Damon character transcended his fears and put “science” to work solving the biggest problem anyone of us faces—staying alive. But, the science alone doesn’t get it done. By the end of the film, human collegiality gets it done while the whole world is watching.

I believe that what we call “art” in whatever form is about our drive to transcend our finitude and this is what “science” is about too. And I will gladly add, religion and spirituality in their most open and embracing expressions. For too long religion, spirituality, science, and technology have been at one another’s throats. We have allowed for these false dichotomies and watched as some have fostered them.

The Martian might be “science fiction” but it prevails by giving “science and technology” a human face and more. Science doesn’t exist in a vacuum but in the context of the human heart, and no human heart can flourish alone. The nice thing about The Martian for me is that it brings science down to earth. I suspect the best of what we call “Sci-Fi” embodies what is real—all the qualities of the human spirit. Just as I have faith that we are more than a “bundle of bones,” I also believe that scientific advancement is centered in the drive to transcend our human limits. Just as I believe that we are more than a “bundle of bones,” I also believe that what we call “science” is more than the “nuts and bolts.” For a lay person, science fiction can be one way of dramatically experiencing what I can easily forget—the human pathos in the scientific quest for what religion and spirituality call transcendence.