William M. Briggs

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The Theology of Science-fiction: Some SF “Gospels”—guest post by Bob Kurland

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Be sure to visit Bob’s main site, Reflections of a Catholic Scientist. Note: this article originally during Lent, 2015.

…when I was not prey to the temptations of this world, I devoted my nights to imagining other worlds…There is nothing better than imagining other worlds…to forget the painful one we live in. At least so I thought then. I hadn’t yet realized that, imagining other worlds, you end up changing this one.—Umberto Eco, Baudolino.

Introduction

For the past weeks we Catholics have been celebrating the central tenet of our faith as Christians, the Passion and Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. While I was meditating about this my thoughts strayed, and I recalled some of the science-fiction stories I had read before my conversion. It then struck me that there are different ways of contesting the reality of the Passion and Resurrection. One way is to deny the historical reality of these events; another, taken by non-believing science-fiction authors, is to transform these events into an alternative, what-if, type of reality.

I propose to explore (not in depth) how Jesus, the Passion and the Resurrection have been transformed by science-fiction to conform to a theology of non-belief. In subsequent posts I’ll discuss how science-fiction regards the intelligent non-human and its (his/hers?) possible relation to The Church, and what science-fiction has to say in general about a deity, the afterlife and the Eschaton. My survey will not be exhaustive, but references are given below to fill in gaps. (See for example the Wikipedia article about religious science-fiction.)

What if Jesus existed, but had not been crucified?

From that time forth began Jesus to shew unto his disciples, how that he must go unto Jerusalem, and suffer many things of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised again the third day.—Matthew: 16:21

A favorite mode of science-fiction is the alternative history, “what-if?” This should really be called “speculative fiction” (SF) since the science component is usually negligible—only a different possible world is envisioned. Such are the SF stories in which Jesus is not crucified and therefore is NOT resurrected. So much for Christianity, the Son of God, etc.

Some of these stories invoke time travel as a way to get around Christ’s Passion. The time traveler either takes the place of Christ or attempts to prevent it by other means. I don’t regard time travel as a worthy device in SF because of paradoxes of the “you can’t kill your own grandfather before he sired your parent” sort. That is to say, if you alter the past, the present in which you were born no longer exists and then where are you? The only SF story I know of that successfully deals with such paradoxes is Heinlein’s “All You Zombies” (warning: SPOILER!) in which a soldier of the future is his own mother and father.

Avoiding theodicy—the easy way out

There are more plausible alternative history approaches that still do no more than tickle the imagination (as is the case with most alternative history SF). In a story called “Friends in High Places” by Jack McDevitt, Jesus argues with God in the Garden of Gethesmane and changes his fate. I’ll quote from the description given in Holy Sci-Fi:

Jesus waiting in the Garden of Gethesmane for the mob to take him. Jesus does not want to die, as we learn from his thoughts:

“It sends the wrong message [Lord]. It will be a hard sell, persuading people You love them when you let this happen to me.”

and

“Why? Why must we do it this way? We create a faith whose governing symbol will be an instrument of torture. They will wear it around their necks, put it atop their temples. Is this what we really want?”

In this story, too, Jesus escapes (to become a librarian in Egypt!), and as he begins his journey to a new life he thinks “how much better it was than a cross.” What has happened is that God, apparently in answer to Jesus’ concerns about the Crucifixion, has changed the past.

I would review this as the Passion according to Saturday Night Live. All the profound theological arguments about obedience to God, Jesus suffering for our sins out of love for His brothers, the Crucifixion required for our salvation, are swept away with the broom of a naive theodicy.

In another story an alternative history dispenses with the Crucifixion in a more plausible way. (Unfortunately this old guy can not remember the title or the author, nor have extensive online searches been helpful; but he is sure about the story.) Recall Matthew 27:19: “When he [Pontius Pilate] was set down on the judgment seat, his wife sent unto him, saying, Have thou nothing to do with that just man: for I have suffered many things this day in a dream because of him.”

Here, Pontius Pilate’s wife implores to set Jesus free. In the story her pleas are successful. Jesus goes back to Galilee as an honored prophet, but is largely ignored in further history. Ironically, Rome accepts Judaism with the Emperor becoming the Chief Priest of the Sanhedrin and with a new Temple built in Rome.

Is the Passion and Resurrection too profound for SF?

An in-depth treatment of the Passion and Resurrection has not been given by science-fiction authors, not even by those who account themselves Christian. Perhaps Scripture gives too little to elaborate, although I have always wondered—given the two natures of Jesus Christ—what he thought about dying and being resurrected. As Scripture says, he knew of his resurrection, but was he sure? What did Jesus do when he was in Hell? There are theological speculations, but only those. Perhaps, as the Greatest Miracle, The Resurrection cannot be acknowledged by writers who don’t believe, and by those who do believe, what more can be said.

The New Testament writers speak as if Christ’s achievement in rising from the dead was the first event of its kind in the whole history of the universe. He is the ‘first fruits,’ the pioneer of life,’ He has forced open a door that has been locked since the death of the first man. He has met, fought, and beaten the King of Death. Everything is different because He has done so.—C. S. Lewis. Miracles, ch. 16.

More to come…

32 Comments

  1. Sander van der Wal

    December 12, 2015 at 10:02 am

    There is of course a solution for the paradox: don’t kill you grandfathers when you go back in time. It is not obligatory.

  2. Heinlein solved the “bad God” thing by introducing God’s brother, who then prevented God from actually doing all the things Heinlein thought God should not do. Clever, but a no-go, as bringing in a here-to-unknown character at the end of the book is tacky writing. I never read any Heinlein after that and wasted a great deal of time reading the book for nothing except disappointment in the author. (The movies Total Recall and The Langoliers were the same way—This why I don’t read or watch fiction often. It’s quite disappointing to waste so much time watching what appears to be good fiction dive into the realms of total waste..) “Job”, I gather, falls very near “avoiding theodicy”.

  3. The Passion and Resurrection are representative of literary and mythological devices that have been around long before, and long after, the ostensible lifetime of Jesus.

    JMJ

  4. Really, JMJ? Can you cite some of those “literary and mythological devices” that have been around long after? I know from C.S. Lewis the devices that were there before, but imperfect and not fully fleshed.

  5. 1) Interesting topic: I’m looking forward to part 2.

    2) I really like Jack McDevitt’s books. Well written, clear, etc – I have my 13 year old reading them all right now. He buys deeply into many kinds of utter nonsense (from noble savages to global warming), and is often inconsistent, but the stories are great despite this.

    3) Please think about addressing “The Force” as a directed evolution version of Christianity written in an era in which the U.S. had no kings or princes and so could not use the feudal metaphor for greatness.

  6. The only SF story I know of that successfully deals with [time] paradoxes is Heinlein’s “All You Zombies”.

    Although the actual subject matter was solipsism.

    JMJ,

    It’s unlikely the crucifixion was fabricated. It was a rather ignominious way to die. It’s right up there with today claiming your Savior of the World was also a convicted child molester. Not the best PR device.

  7. The only time travel novel I liked was Orson Scott Card’s “Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus”. People from a devastated future send travelers back in time to change history, knowing full well that the change would blot them out of existence.

    They send a Jesus figure back to early Central America to bring a Judeo-Christian religion to the indigenous empires of the day. This would change their course into one similar to the Europeans, with their own Renaissance and allow these cultures to meet the Europeans on equal footing when Columbus arrives.

  8. What if the timeline we currently experience is the changed one?

    I’m thinking of the story of the fig tree. (Mark 11:12-14) It seems to me that up to that point the disciples had seen only beneficial miracles. Feeding people, healing people, meeting patriarchs come down from Heaven … After the fig tree disappoints the messiah, and He curses it to withered twigs, I’m thinking at least one disciple is thinking to himself “Wow, what if we could get him close to, and mad at, Pilate?”

    Later the same day occurs the unpleasant scene in the temple: more cursing, furniture broken, business disrupted, reputations impugned…

    I’m thinking that some time-traveler from a history in which the Redeemer calmly and gently leads Jews and Romans into accord and peace and a great civilization (one capable of inventing time travel) goes back and mucks it up. I hypothesize a traveler who, attempting to hasten a result, manipulates various courts into confrontation with a Vast Power who could, if He chose, wither them as easily as a fruitless tree.

    A viewpoint that can see not only all, beginning and end, of History but can also see all beginningS and all endS of all HistorieS might then react with Plan B. Which back-up plan either made the science of time travel impossible, or at least postponed it until science catches up with the moral teachings that would otherwise have been directly revealed.

  9. Pouncer: you should write that story!

  10. JMJ is of course correct, DAV too in a way. I am loathe to recommend actual books, perhaps for some light browsing start here:http://www.jesusneverexisted.com/surfeit.htm

  11. AndyD? JMJ is correct? With what evidence? And I don’t need to go to a web site with a title “Jesus never existed”. Are we going to be beset by atheist trolls? Well, treat them with compassion, and pray for them. JMJ, I’ll pray for you too.

  12. sheri:

    I never read any Heinlein after that and wasted a great deal of time reading the book for nothing except disappointment in the author. (The movies Total Recall and The Langoliers were the same way …

    Heinlein can be hit or miss … theologywise, I enjoyed Stranger in a Strange Land – (Number of the Beast was terrible)
    Total Recall (based on PKDick) … which movie? the Arnold version was painful at times but was a great movie compared to the recent version
    Langoliers (Stephen King) … King just doesn’t always translate well on film

  13. John B(): If the new version of Total Recall was worse than the Arnold version, I’m happy I never bothered to see it. The first version stole 2 hours of my life that I can never get back—I would not want to lose another 2 on a worse version.

    Thinking back on Heinlein and “Job”, part of the problem with much science fiction is the writer has no belief in the subject he/she is writing on and often use the sci-fi to mock religion. Writers who believe in what they write will produce a very different product. That’s true of virtually all writings—one is a much better writer if they believe in what they are writing about.

    Christians may shy away from sci-fi about religion for fear of looking like they are doubting or questioning their religion, in spite of the fact they would be writing fiction.

  14. “An in-depth treatment of the Passion and Resurrection has not been given by science-fiction authors…”

    Except of course for Stranger in a Strange Land, by Robert A. Heinlein, which addresses all those issues and many more, and is considered one of the most important science fiction works ever written.

  15. “Lest Darkness Fall”, by L. Sprauge de Camp is one of the better alternative fiction scenarios (in which the destruction caused by the Byzantine reconquest of the West in the 6th century is averted), and anything written by Harry Turtledove (especially the timeline that begins with “How Few Remain”).

    A world in which both Islam and Christianity never made an appearance on the world stage is one I wish I could travel to. Just imagine it – no crusades, jihads, terrorism, fundamentalism, ‘pro-life’ fanatics murdering doctors (irony escapes those people), no guilt over the odious concept of ‘original sin’, no intolerance based upon fables and myths, a Middle East that is actually peaceful… et cetera, ad infinitum. It would be paradise by comparison with the sad, horrible world we now have because of monotheism.

  16. Will N, I’ve read “Stranger in a Strange Land”; it’s a fine SF story, but if you are implying the hero is an analog of Jesus Christ, I don’t think your theology is on track.
    Sheri, there are SF stories sympathetic to theism. See the Wikipedia article on “Christian Science Fiction”; it cites stories stories by R.A. Lafferty, Gene Wolfe, C.S. Lewis, and that great classic, “A Canticle for Leibowitz”, by Walter M. Miller, Jr. There are others not so well known. One favorite of mine is “The Theology of Water” (on which I wrote a post).

  17. Peter A.
    Careful what you wish for—your Paradise could just as easily been a place where you were one of the chosen children burned alive for the god Molek.

  18. Bob, there’s no reason to be so condescending. Of course these themes had been around before Jesus. How else would the prophesies be fulfilled? And I’m not arguing that there wasn’t a man Jesus. I don’t think it matters.

    JMJ

  19. Of course Michael Valentine Smith is meant to be an analog of Jesus. That is the entire point of the story, hence why it was so controversial when published and also why it remains so interesting today. That doesn’t mean you have to *like* it or *approve* of it. It would not be controversial if that was the case. Although it seems strange to me that you didn’t mention it in your article and even stranger now, when you admit to having read it.

  20. “A world in which both Islam and Christianity never made an appearance on the world stage is one I wish I could travel to. Just imagine it – no crusades, jihads, terrorism, fundamentalism”

    The Tamil suicide bombers are Buddhists. The Zulu kingdom under Shaka Zulu exterminated a good portion of a continent, including women, children and pets. Genghis Khan (who identified religiously as a shamanist) ordered the extermination of all males in Bukhara… I doubt very much it would all be bong smoking and free love had Islam and Christianity not entered the scene.

  21. Will:
    I don’t even think you believe that or if you do you don’t understand human nature. Where have you been all your life?

  22. JMJ, my apologies if I seemed condescending. I’ve read Frazer’s “Golden Bough” and C.S. Lewis’s account of pre-Christian mythologies that prefigure in parallel the sacrifice of “The Son”, and how they differ significantly. There are no accounts of such occurring after the Passion. When you make comments with assertions, it leads to a more fruitful discussion if you back them up with references or other statements that indicate they’re more than your opinion.

    Will N, it’s been some 50 years since I read “Stranger in a Strange Land”, and that was more than 30 years before my conversion, so I didn’t put the novel in a Christian context. But, as I recall, there were the following significant differences between the hero and Christ: Michael Valentine Smith was not born of a virgin (he was raised by Martians, but his parents were human); he did not claim to be the Son of God, but rather everyone was “God–in the Martian translation”; although he was persecuted and killed, he was not crucified. He did come back after being killed and he did found a new religion, but he did not descend to Hell. Can you point out other similarities between Smith and Christ that I missed? I think the differences that I mentioned are significant.

  23. Wlll N, I should add, that his murder was not like the torture and pain of the Passion.

  24. JMJ,
    The dying/rising god really wasn’t as much of a theme as you seem to think it was. Even atheist Richard Carrier who is one of the few mythicists that can actually claim to be a legitimate scholar can only find two examples that predate Christianity: one is a story of a con artist that doesn’t actually die and the other is of the goddess Innana. Just two examples from all the myths of the millennia before Christ.
    You mention the prophecies. Until after the rise of Christianity there is no evidence of any kind that anyone interpreted those passages in that way or were even close to doing so.
    Your views are several decades out of date. The idea was once very popular but evidence and argument has caused it to be properly rejected.

  25. In 1979 I read a book, “A Case of Conscience” by James Blish. I was considerably moved by it; all these many years I could not remember the title but I can easily picture the book cover. Wikipedia’s book report on it reads like a longer version of my own book report. Unlike some stories, it neither avoids nor disrespects the existence of religion in most people’s lives.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Case_of_Conscience

    In it, a Jesuit priest on a scientific expedition to the planet Lithia wrestles with his conscience because everything about this planet is perfect, it is a garden of Eden, and yet he finds no mention of God and concludes that it is the work of the devil, but that also creates a crisis for him since that imputes the power of creation to the devil.

    Overall the story is rather complicated with several themes proceeding.

    The writers of Wikipedia also missed an important element; or maybe not and chose not to go into it. By the end of the story, a mentally disturbed offspring of the Lithians is returning home to the perfect planet, but he’s not perfect, and will likely destroy them. The priest realizes that Lithia probably was just another garden of eden, why should there be just one? But that he has facilitated letting loose the serpent to that garden.

    Well, there’s some deeply religious symbology in the story that a Christian will recognize but others not so much.

  26. Michael 2, I also have read that book and may have commented on it briefly in another post (can’t find the reference right now). I don’t agree with your idea, even though it’s intriguing, that Lithia was another Garden of Eden; I’m more sympathetic to the point of view of the Jesuit, that it was a contrivance of the devil, made to seduce man from belief.

  27. Well I have a few things to say to Peter but unfortunately two attempts have failed.

    ERROR: Your comment appears to be spam.

    Please go back and check all parts of your comment submission (including name, email, website, and comment content).

  28. well three different edits right now to a single line and it still won’t go. How about just the words and no link. Hrolf Kraki’s Saga.

  29. Bob Kurland writes “I’m more sympathetic to the point of view of the Jesuit, that it was a contrivance of the devil, made to seduce man from belief.”

    That was the Jesuit priest’s conclusion but had one serious problem: It granted to the devil the power of creation which by definition belongs only to God.

    I cite the test Jesus offers: A good tree bears good fruit. That is slightly circular since one must have not only a sense of “good” but a true and correct sense. In the story, everything about the Lithians is good and the author went out of his way to make it so.

    I view the Lithians in the same way as most people on Earth right now that have no knowledge of God, and yet are still charitable to each other and possess faith, hope and charity; perhaps a mention of Shinto or Buddhism would help illustrate my point: Good is of God, even where no mention of God is made; and maybe especially in that case, where good things are being done out of goodness rather than obligation to God.

    But let us consider the author and the book itself; never mind Lithians — on what shelf would you put this book? Faith promoting or anti-faith promoting?

    There’s some seriously bad anti-religion writing; Philip Jose Farmer is probably the worst I have stumbled across in that regard and “Riverworld” wasn’t even the worst of it.

    I see this particular story as effective in telling the story of the Garden of Eden; how mankind ought to have been living and ought to live. God has his beasts at his throne singing his praises for ever and ever; I don’t see that as the purpose of creating human beings.

    What about the millenium? Jesus will be on Earth; but won’t be but one place at a time — what will people DO? Well, everything they are doing now, except of course, without the greed and crime.

    Consider a ladder; its feet are in muck, its top is in the heavens. You are on this ladder somewhere and so am I. Whatever causes me to take a step upward is “good”, even if that thing is below where you are now. I cannot see the top. It might not even seem good and desirable. To encourage me to take steps upward I must be enticed by a thing that is only one step, or a few steps, above where I am right now.

    For that reason and for that purpose quite a lot of science fiction has been “good” to develop my thoughts and behaviors. As I climb this ladder I might look down on where I once was, and judge some of those stories to now be less useful than it seemed at the time, and yet, some other person is climbing that ladder where I once stood, and maybe some of these stories will be as powerful to him as it was to me.

  30. C. S. Lewis approached the Garden of Eden marvelously well in a “what if” Adam and Eve had obeyed God completely. This is written in the Perelandra trilogy, very good science fiction in its own right. It’s been a few years so I don’t remember all that much about it

  31. Michael 2, your ideas about “A Case of Conscience” are very interesting. I’ll have to think about them. In the next installment of these posts, “Theology of Science-Fiction: Paradise Not Lost”, I discuss the “Out of the Silent Planet” and “Perelandra”.

  32. I must endorse both Perelandra (paraphrasing out of a bad memory: “We will step up where your parents stumbled”) and Pastwatch. Orson Scott Card’s book is informed a great deal by his LDS faith; both Christopher Columbus and American aborigines play important roles in LDS theology. But don’t let that discourage you! It’s still a good read, one of his strongest.

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