Over a decade ago, I was asked to sit on a panel at WisCon. The subject of the panel was whether religion and science-fiction are antithetical. One of my fellow-panelists and authors was a woman who thought that they were. I suppose it’s no secret that I disagree. On a side-note, I was rather surprised, because I had read one of her stories, wherein an alien becomes a devotee of Thomas a Beckett. It was quite well-done and I’d be grateful if anyone could let me know what the title of the story and the name of the author was. It was published in either F&SF or Asimov’s between 1997 and 2004. All my research has failed to turn it up.
Essentially, this woman’s argument was that religion is inherently antithetical to science-fiction, because religion professes to know all the answers to humanity’s questions, and is a closed system. Science-fiction on the other hand, is the literature of exploration, and deals with what we do not know. Thus, religion was for people who were not curious about the universe and refused to explore it, lest they find answers that conflict with received revelation.
The really sad part is that while part of me was horrified, part of me also knew exactly what kind of religion this author was reacting against. Doubtless, she had encountered the same breed of Christian that my little sister’s sixth-grade teacher belonged to. This was the woman who, in a Christian school, told my sister that she wasn’t allowed to read Anne McCaffrey’s Pern books in school because there was a dragon on the cover, and dragons were a symbol of Satan. And of course, the infamous reaction of certain Christians to the Harry Potter books because magic (even ridiculous, obviously-not-intended-to-be-real-on-any-level magic) is Evil. Therefore, Christians don’t like the spirit of science-fiction, even when they’re the ones writing it. There’s some real evidence for this charge, I’m afraid. Love him as I do, and love the novel as I do, the one thing that struck me as abhorrently wrong about C.S. Lewis’s Perelandra was his statement that since Christ’s Incarnation, all sentient beings would henceforth have to be humanoid, or risk dishonoring the Image of God. (As humans are explicitly forbidden from making an image of God per the Second Commandment, I pretty much always assumed it was understood that that “image of God” referred to spiritual, not physical, matters).
The fact is that her charge has some truth to it: there is a real and saddening tendency in the Church to want solid answers for everything, and, if those answers do not appear in Scripture, to “house rules” them in, and so we get doctrines of the Church that are at best vaguely (if ever) mentioned in Scripture, such as Purgatory, Limbo, an apocalyptic Anti-Christ, and many others. But I would argue that the Bible leaves immense amounts of room for unanswered questions, which the Christian God is simply uninterested in explaining to us. Perhaps – shocking thought – because He figured that we could find out the answers for ourselves? God’s challenges to Job, such as “By what way is the light parted, or the east wind scattered upon the earth? Who hath cleft a channel for the waterflood, or the way for the lightning of the thunder?” (Job 38:24-25), stripped of all their metaphorical content, basically boil down to, “you don’t know any of this [in retrospect, very basic stuff] and you think you can figure out really complicated stuff like Divine Justice?”
Fortunately, there has been room for some truly amazing science-fiction that was related to religious themes. In Speaker For The Dead, Orson Scott Card imagined aliens so different from humanity that the only way of understanding their life cycles was to explore it in terms of an afterlife, which is a challenge, but not an insurmountable one, for both his Catholic and his atheist characters. Going even further, Dan Simmons explicitly explored the possibility of godhood in the Hyperion series, as the TechnoCore decides to try to build its own Ultimate Intelligence: a machine god with power to challenge the Human Creator. Perhaps most explicitly, and Mary Doria Russell used Jesuit priests as her first-contact specialists when humanity detects intelligent life around Alpha Centauri in The Sparrow and Children of God. Her characters go exploring specifically because of their faith in God. And I would argue that the torturous spiritual and physical paths her characters tread display an awesome comprehension of the mysteries of the Christian faith. While not all these writers were Christians (Russell was, when I had the privilege of meeting her, Jewish by conversion), the Christian faith certainly informed and shaped their exploration of vast imagined universes. And if this does not show that Christian thought cannot be capable of exploring the universe, then I confess I am not sure what would, and can only imagine that argument descending into tautology.
The chief flaw I see in my fellow-panelist’s argument is that she wants to see Christianity as a wall, closing us off from exploration. Because Christianity professes that the nature of God is known: that He is One, and He is Three, but He is not many. That while He understands and creates the Female, He does not identify as Female. That He declares that there is good, and there is evil, and dares to tell us which is which. But the very science that makes science-fiction possible is also about limits: the gravitation constant is not open to debate, nor is the mass of the proton. The boundaries that God and physics set are quite literally as big as the universe, and as small as a lifetime: there is always, as Heinlein said, time enough for love. What more can we ask of any philosophy, or any religion?
About the Author
G. Scott Huggins makes his money by teaching history at a private school, proving that he knows more about history than making money. He loves writing fiction, both serious and humorous. If you want serious, Writers of the Future XV features “Bearing the Pattern.” If you like to laugh, “Phoenix For The Amateur Chef” is coming out in Sword and Sorceress 30. When he is not teaching or writing, he devotes himself to his wife, their three children, and his cat. He loves good bourbon, bacon, and pie. If you have any recipes featuring one or more of these things, Mr. Huggins will be pleased to review them, if accompanied by a sample.
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