Tuesday, July 26, 2011

God of Speculative Fiction

Christian fundamentalists, militant atheists, and some of the more irresponsible corners of the media like to paint Religion and Science as two discrete forces in a binary opposition. To scientists, this narrative asserts, faith is a mendacious force wilfully blinding people to the truths of scientific endeavor and the methods of rationality; while religious believers bury their hands in the sand of the like-minded community or seek to discredit the facts that would falsify their faith or at least render it unnecessary.

Needless to say, I despise binary oppositions with the white-hot hatred of a thousand suns, and this one is an especial desk-denter. I'll not insult my readers' critical thinking skills by explaining how you can totes believe in God and evolution at the same time!!eleventy (though if you've stumbled upon this blog, say in a Google search for “rob bell gay” [spoiler: he's not!], consider fine-tuning your reading comprehension skills before commenting, ta very much).

Christian writer Alister McGrath observes that university Christian groups are often populated primarily by science students, and my own experience bears this out. I think there's an argument to be made for the intellectual humility of scientists, as opposed to liberal arts students like myself who arrive at university convinced that, if we don't already know everything worth knowing, we certainly will after three/four/ten years of studying Latin/gender studies/ancient Sumerian. McGrath's explanation, though, is that “scientists are used to talking and thinking about reality in terms of models, in terms of partial and conceivable representations of reality, and thus have little difficulty in handling the same tools when speaking and thinking about God”.

The same, I believe, applies to speculative fiction fans. Whereas the practice of scientific inquiry endows a way of conceiving reality that can be transferred to thinking about meta-reality, sci-fi and fantasy provide images that we fanpeople can use as our models for conceiving God. (And, before you ask, I have indeed uttered the sentence, “Dammit, Jim, I'm a speculative fiction fan, not a scientist!”)

It's not just that fantasy's Big Three – the writers whose worlds even haters of fantasy are familiar with: Tolkien, Lewis, and Rowling – are all Christians whose culturally-ubiquitous works incorporate and recreate aspects of Christian mythology. It's that speculative fiction has a unique power to tap into our deepest longings, magic wands and talking animals and interstellar travel and time travel and epic quests and all the things that are OMG SO FREAKING AWESOME and I WANT TO GO TO THERE: things that transcend our everyday reality and echo back to our little earth-bound time-bound physics-bound lives some small taste of eternity. If you believe in the Christian story, with its great cosmic happy-ever-after, then it makes sense that you'll experience some profound yearnings for better, cooler, more miraculous worlds than our own.

For example:

Talking about God the Holy Spirit is difficult. This is the aspect of God that lives inside every believer. (If you thought the concept of the Trinity was a head-scratcher, consider that one of the persons of the Trinity is also a zillion persons. HEAD ASPLODE.) People just don't talk about the Holy Spirit as much as they talk about God the Creator and Jesus Christ, because it is one baffling concept. Here are some of the models I use for thinking about the Holy Spirit:

All images taken from nerddom; each one something every geek has longed desperately to have; each one partial and inadequate as a model, but taken together representing something of the power and awesomeness of literally having God living inside of you.

I think the parallels between fandom and Christianity are striking. How do we respond to Middle-Earth? Some with indifference; some with hostility; some with passionate love and longing. Some people are cautiously interested in the story itself, but grow to despise it on account of the intense nerditry of the fanbase. Some people are introduced to it by their friends, while others find it on their own. Some people are switched off by the story as presented in one medium, but love it in another. Some people think it is a load of crap and can't believe grown humans are wasting their time on a pointless fantasy world.

To those on the outside, the intensity is often alienating. But to those within the fold, all things are given through the connection that we share based on our deepest longings and the magical world that, for brief moments at a time, promises to meet and surpass them.

(Have I ever ended a prayer to God, you ask, with the words “I leave it entirely in your hands”? I HEREBY INVOKE WHATEVER IS YOUR COUNTRY'S EQUIVALENT OF THE FIFTH AMENDMENT.)


  1. I quite liked this post, thanks for writing it!

    Have you read Lewis's essay "On Science Fiction?" I think it, as well as some of Tolkien's work on myth, would be particularly interesting and useful to a further exploration of the relationship between a love of speculative fiction and faith.

    Lewis talks about how one of the great strengths of science fiction is its ability to fulfill our desires for new experiences, and I've always felt that tied into his conception of Joy, that fleeting, ecstatic happiness which is really a desire for God.

    Anyway, thank you very much for writing this!

    As a tangential aside, one of the stranger things I noticed when I was in undergraduate was that even at our ostensibly American Baptist-affiliated liberal arts college, the Science faculty was much more likely to be Christian (and even relatively conservatively Christian) than the Religion or Philosophy faculty. I never really did figure out why.


  2. Okay, I had to make a quick trip over to TVTropes to get this quote, but one of my favorite quotes on the subject of imagination and fantasy comes from video game developer Shigeru Miyamoto:

    "What if everything that you see is more than what you see? The person next to you is a warrior and the space that appears empty is a door to another world? What if something appears that shouldn't? You either dismiss it or accept that there is more to the world than you think. Perhaps it is really a doorway, and if you choose to go inside, you'll find many unexpected things."

    He is, as far as I know, a Shintoist, not a Christian, but I still thought it a good quote to share here. A militant atheist online made fun of me when I shared the quote to make a point about imagination - but he completely missed my point. I think that if I ever lose my faith, the best I could become is an agnostic because I honestly think like that - that all things are possible. I don't see why it's so "logical" to slam all doors shut, completely and forever (when science has discovered things that the scientists of past times thought impossible).

    It's not that my imagination leaves me without skepticism. I have plenty. I watch "Ghost Hunters" and laugh at the play-acting for the camera. I'm pretty well certain that Madame Fufu, the friendly neighborhood psychic is just adept at obesrvation and emotional manipulation that parts vunerable people from their money.

    Lots of atheists write science fiction and fantasy, and as you mentioned, plenty of Christians do, too - both ranks carry people with imagination, but I do wonder if "extremism" or "militantism" is the thing that kills imagination. I remember getting into a conversation on Slacktivist once about how it seems like Fundamentalist Christians actively fear imagination (the context being panning the "Left Behind" novels and how little realistic human behavior is in them - it's like the authors couldn't venture to imagine that people of other religions or no religion were as human as they are - many on that blog would argue that most people in the world are "more human" than the authors). And, of course, the "Moral Subsitute" works are often so atrociously bad that people inevitably go back to the "wicked" originals.

    I think extremists of both (all) stripes... seem to fear imagination one way or another, they want people only to imagine things that they approve of.

    I, too, have made the comparison between arguing theology and fandom. Sometimes, (whether it's between people of the same theology/ideaology, or people who are vastly different)... the comparisons to a Shipwar are amazing. In both fandom and in "serious" arguments, it seems like it *almost never* concludes or even starts out with an "agree to disagree" attitude, but instead, is an "I am superior/you are inferior unless you drop agenda and agree with me right now" contest.

  3. I would argue that this is virtually true of any faith which has a basis in mystical experience/an overwhelming sense of awe. I would suggest that this is especially true of faiths which have distinct mystic traditions (so including Christianity, where it is accessible, if sometimes not encouraged, and Judaism, where it is more likely to be encouraged). I think the traits that you latch on to (humility, desire for wonder, and a relatively fluid understanding of the nature of the world) are things found both within and without Christianity, and which are useful both within and without Christianity, as you mention in your lead-in regarding science. I mention this mostly because you focus on Christianity, and I think that the idea extends beyond it.

    Regarding your opener, it's also worth considering that science and faith do meet sometimes; they both attempt to describe the world, after all, and so there are moments when one's claims are mutually exclusive to the other. So as tempting and peaceful as holding the two apart is (and, y'know, it's good to do that in some cases), it isn't an ultimately sustainable solution. You may feel that as well, I don't know, but I think it's very, very important to address the points of friction.


  4. @Bill - glad you liked it! :) That's a good idea about reading Tolkien's and Lewis's essays to write more on this subject. I'll definitely look into it.

    @Shadsie - it certainly makes sense that extremism should kill imagination. Imagination invariably leads to empathy, and if you want to maintain an "Us vs. Them" mentality you have to squash that pesky empathy. And I *love* the comparison between doctrine debates and shipwars... wish I'd thought of that!

    Thanks for the lovely, thoughtful comments :)

  5. @Matthew - thanks for pointing out that what I wrote applies equally to other faiths. I should have mentioned that. As to the points of friction between science and faith, well, I guess everyone resolves them in different ways. Personally I think that to hold to an article of faith that's directly and indisputably contradicted by the facts (e.g. the Earth being 6000 years old) is unconscionably foolish, but when it comes to less falsifiable aspects of my faith (say, the very existence of God) I'll roll with Shadsie's doors.

  6. Yes, of course! But then there are instances that are more fuzzy. For instance, modern science generally argues for the universe as a closed system, and any model of God that allows for divine meddling with the universe contradicts the accepted laws of physics and understanding of the universe (unless we're talking about a pantheistic deity, in which case it is wholly part of the closed system!). For the most part, though, Christianity isn't content with a pantheistic divine, nor a solely deistic divine, and Christianity also generally argues for a spiritual reality, or at least the existence of a "soul" that is super-material, but definitely "connected" to the material world, and perhaps with impact on the world. For the most part, evolution v. new-earth arguments are settled affairs, but there are stickier issues out there, and there are plenty of theologians using the most up-to-date model of science to attempt to re-imagine the divine to fit with our modern understanding of the universe! Even if their models sometimes have issues, it definitely implies that certain models representing the nature of divinity are falsifiable, as much as anything is.

  7. True enough; I guess it depends on your definition of the divine (which of course has been under debate for as long as humans have been debating stuff, and is one of those "shipwar" issues). I don't know for a certainty, but I'd bet that there are plenty of Christians who say, "Obviously God, by definition, is part of the closed system of the universe", and plenty of Christians who say "Obviously God, by definition, is outside the physical laws of the universe". I tend to think that our models of the divine absolutely should change to fit with our modern understanding of the universe (and I've horrified conservative Christian friends by saying so!). I like the idea that "certain models representing the nature of divinity are falsifiable" - that definitely deserves further thought.

  8. It's pleasant to hear that! I come at these things as an outsider now, so it's nice to hear somebody on the "inside" say that, yes, these ideas make sense for us too.

    But the very traits that you identify in the post that are found simultaneously in science, religion, and spec. fic. fans are invaluable, I think, and should cast doubt on one's ability to define a divine entity at all. In any case, thanks again for the post!