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The Martian and our divine instinct to help

Last spring, I read Andy Weir’s sci-fi novel, The Martian, in less than 24 hours. It doesn’t disappoint—and neither does the recent film adaption.

Like the novel, the film centers on the crew of the Hermes during a mission on Mars, where astronaut Mark Watney is stranded after the rest of the crew evacuate and leave him behind believing he died during a storm. Using his humor, ingenuity and skills as a scientist, he strives to survive.

Critics and scientists alike praise The Martian’s depiction of science. A powerful tool, science not only continually reveals the secrets of our amazing universe but also helps us survive in and improve the world around us. Indeed, one of the best parts of The Martian is watching Watney science his way through one challenge after another.

But ultimately, science isn’t what saves Watney.

We get so caught up in Watney’s clever resourcefulness that we almost forget the toll of his struggle to survive. Near the end of the film, we get a glimpse of his body—bruised, marred and painfully thin. And as he journeys across Mars towards an assent vehicle that his crewmates will control remotely to rendezvous with the Hermes, his face and posture reflect the weariness wrought by starvation and constant threat.

When he reaches the assent vehicle, he strips it down to make it light enough to boost him higher into orbit to intercept the Hermes. When he finally lies back in the vehicle’s sole remaining launch chair, he is literally at the end of what he can do. Like the assent vehicle, he’s been stripped bare.

At that moment he hears a crewmate’s voice from the Hermes—the first human voice besides his own in over a year—and his eyes fill with tears.

And so do mine.

Science kept Watney alive but it is his crewmates—at immense risk to their own lives—who save him.

In one of the film’s trailers, Watney gives voice to a key passage at the end of the novel where he reflects on why people risked so much to save him:
“… they did it because every human being has a basic instinct to help each other out. It might not seem that way sometimes, but it’s true. If a hiker gets lost in the mountains, people will coordinate a search. ... If an earthquake levels a city, people all over the world will send emergency supplies. This is so fundamentally human that it's found in every culture without exception. Yes, there are [people] who just don't care, but they're massively outnumbered by the people who do.” 
This is the heart of The Martian—and it deeply resonates with the way I understand reality as a Christian.

In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis examines this attribute of our nature. When someone is in danger, Lewis says, you likely experience two equally important impulses: to help (herd instinct) or keep out of danger (self-preservation). Yet there is a third thing that judges between those impulses and tells you the right thing to do is help and the wrong thing would be to run away—a “Law of Human Nature” that “tells you to do the straight thing, and it does not seem to care how painful, or dangerous, or difficult it is to do.”

Human beings all over the earth exhibit this, says Lewis.

That this thing judges between instincts indicates it is not one itself, says Lewis, and that leads us to contemplate whether “there is something above and beyond the ordinary facts of men’s behavior” and “a Something which is directing the universe, and which appears in me as a law urging me to do right."

I loved The Martian for many reasons, but mostly because it resonates with the truth of the extraordinary reality that infuses and embraces our ordinary one—and me. And that brings God-talk into these open spaces.

This post is a slightly longer version of my column that originally appeared at MWR.