By Charlie W. Starr
Last November saw the release of a new Christopher Nolan film (he directed the Batman trilogy, among others). In Interstellar, starring Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway, the earth is dying and humanity is one generation away from extinction. When some force beyond earth creates a black hole near Saturn through which human beings can travel to a far-off galaxy that may offer habitable worlds, a father is faced with having to leave his children behind and make the intergalactic journey in hope of saving all humankind.
There’s a lot I like about this movie, along with a single disappointment at its end, but one scene stands out in this film as a moment of real insight.
The Lens of Love
Once they pass through the black hole, the explorers must choose which planet they will visit. There are three options. The first is a failure, and fuel consumption allows them to choose only one of the remaining two. While the data sent from previous explorers suggests one planet is the better choice, the other is nearly as good and offers an advantage: Anne Hathaway’s character has a love interest who is alive there. When McConaughey’s character attempts to dissuade her, arguing that her choice is based on love not on science, she offers the following impassioned speech:
“Love isn’t something that we invented. It’s observable. Powerful. It has to mean something. Maybe it means something more, something we can’t yet understand. Maybe it’s some evidence, some artifact of a higher dimension that we can’t consciously perceive. Love is the one thing that we’re capable of perceiving that transcends dimensions of time and space. Maybe we should trust that, even if we can’t understand it.”
I’m really impressed with this monologue because it argues through the lens of science. Different disciplines see the world differently but often come to the same conclusions. Psychology talks about the effects of role models. Business theory discusses the nature of leadership. English teachers talk about the importance of heroes. Same idea, different lenses.
Theologians, and all Christians, know that love exists and has been defined by God. Science is constantly looking for natural explanations for things. How, then, does science explain love?
From the point of view of pure atheism, pure materialism and evolution, love is an illusion. It doesn’t exist. There is this trait called the instinct for survival. Not only do we want to survive, but we want our species to keep surviving as well. So we have strong sex drives and strong parenting instincts which, from the lens of materialistic science, get confused for love. From a strictly naturalistic point of view, then, love is just overblown survival extinct.
But then we get Christopher Nolan using the language of science to explain the existence of a thing we all experience but science can’t explain. He says love is an observable power, one affecting human lives; it may be evidence of dimensions beyond our visible universe. We know it exists because we experience it. But we haven’t explained it through the lens of science.
(Quick note and spoiler alert here: I mentioned above that the film has one disappointment for me: the higher power who opens the black hole turns out to be human beings from the future. Given this idea of love as an evidence for higher dimensions—the tantalizing possibility of recognizing the true Source of all love—that plot choice felt like a cop out.)
I first went to college to study the Bible, theology, and ministry. I next went to college to study the Humanities, especially English. I also studied psychology, history, philosophy, speech, and various arts as well, including film. Sorry, I don’t mean to brag; I’m trying to make a point: I studied lots of academic disciplines because each one is a lens on life—a way of seeing which shows us a lot but is limited by its own methods and focus (and that’s true even of theology).
I learned what love was from the Bible (in wonderful passages like 1 Corinthians 13 and 1 John 4:8b: “God is love”). But I’ve also learned about it from Shakespeare: “Love alters not with [Time’s] brief hours and weeks / But bears it out even to the edge of doom” (“Sonnet 116”).
However, to see love taken up in Interstellar through the lens of science in a way which doesn’t dismiss it as an illusion is a huge leap forward. It may prove to be a strong argument for the existence of God which some atheists will pay attention to. It at least gives us one more lens to see with.
Dr. Charlie W. Starr teaches English, humanities, and film at Kentucky Christian University in Grayson, Kentucky (www.charliewstarr.com).