Theological Themes in Science Fiction

From the beginning, many science-fiction novels have examined the tension between science and religion. If humans are indeed on their own in a mechanical cosmos, are we going to become our own gods? (H.G. Wells) Are we going to meet gods Out There to replace the ones we lost to the science that got us Out There? (Frank Herbert) Or do we need gods at all? (Soviet science fiction

Science-fiction has also addressed classic human questions of philosophy: What is the purpose of human life? What is our place in the cosmos? What does it mean to be "human"? What is a "soul"? If it exists, can an animal or a plant or a machine or an intelligent being not-from-earth have a "soul"? How can we tell right from wrong? Can we improve our nature and our society? How far?

Fantasy has often embodied questions or assertions about spiritual realities: the sense of wonder and the numinous; the power of love, the network of being, and the importance of human relationships; the nature of existence and our relationship to "that which is called reality"; the meanings behind religion and mythology and archetypal symbols.

By strict definition, "theology" is "systematic thinking about God." "Theological themes" could, by that definition, refer only to stories that explicitly deal with the concept of Godhead and develop the concept with internal consistency to more than a passing extent. The fact that the alien race with which Our Heroes have a laser shootout worship a big blue lizard God is not enough to give the book a "theological theme".

In common use, however, most people group questions of the existence of the soul, the basis for ethical decisions, the source of meaning, the purpose of human life, the nature of existence, and the limits to our control over That Which Is Called Reality in the same category as questions about the nature and existence of God. I would call any book or story with those themes "theological science fiction", provided it dealt at least a bit deeply with a concept, not just making a passing reference to ancient souls or new ethical systems.

Fables and Parables

The use of story as illustration of a teaching is ancient. Fantasy and even science-fiction have been used in this way by authors with a variety of beliefs to illustrate. H.G. Wells strove to write parables of the virtues of science and socialism. Isaac Asimov wrote a library of books illustrating the supreme virtue of reason. Robert Heinlein repeatedly demonstrated that the admirable human being stands on his/her own feet, makes up his/her own mind, is the Captain of his/her own soul, and can cook, paint a portrait and repair a rocket engine to boot. C.S. Lewis wrote allegories dramatising the Christian story and illustrating Christian virtues. Madeline L'Engle writes allegories relating Christian philosophy to science and the challenges of modern life. Fundamentalist Christian authors write fictionalized accounts of what they believe to be the true occurrences in the Old Testament, the life of Christ, modern assaults by demons and the coming Apocalypse -- accounts that read like science fiction fantasies to readers who are not Fundamentalist Christians. New Age believers write novels in which seagulls transcend to a higher reality, demonstrating what they hold as spiritual truths. Theodore Sturgeon's novel Godbody was an unequivocal statement of his lifelong beliefs.

Questions and Challenges

There is another kind of story that is written to ask a question, not necessarily to answer it; to test a concept, pose a challenge, explore a possibility. Harlan Ellison wrote Deathbird Stories, a collection in which each story examines another possible embodiment of the concept "god". Contact, by Carl Sagan, is an attempt by a scientist with a lifelong commitment to the virtues of skeptical reason to find a rapprochement between science and the human need for wonder and meaning and love. Even self-avowed agnostics like Poul Anderson often deal with Christian or other religious themes. One critic, Sandra Miesel sees the struggle against entropy as the common theme in Anderson's work. If the Second Law of thermodynamics decrees the Heat Death of the Universe, if there is no God or Immortal Soul to transcend these physical limits, how does a human find meaning and ethics? In the life of Dominic Flandry, The Boat of a Million Years, and other works, Anderson addresses that challenge.

The Rest of the Story

There are stories written to play with a previously unnoticed implication of a belief, like Ray Bradbury was fond of writing; or books whose main focus is on entertainment, which use a religious belief system as structure in a very systematic way, as Roger Zelazny repeatedly did.

Historical Development

When I was young, in college, in the 1970's, I found a pattern in the theological themes in science-fiction. I have either read too much or forgotten too much since then, because the pattern is no longer at all that clear. I like to think that there are deeper examinations these days, and more attempts at understanding, less simplistic variations on "Anyone who does not depend solely on scientific reason is a bigoted, nano-brained zealot" or "Anyone who depends solely on scientific reason will lead a barren loveless existence and then go straight to Hell."

I am probably naive.

My Patterns

I was strongly influenced, growing up, by my father's scientific rationalism, my mother's mysticism, and my grandmother's Fundamentalist Christianity. I have clung to what I see as positive aspects in each one. Finding a way to fit them all together took some exercise.

 One of my resulting beliefs is that the most growth comes when two opposing viewpoints are each willing to let the other be right -- but not too willing.

If God has ever spoken in any Scripture, then God is capable of speaking to any of us right now -- and does, in every bit of creation around us. But every single one of us is just as capable of being blind bassackwards dumb in our interpretation of what God says as any ancient hidebound traditional teacher -- the closest we'll ever get to understanding truth is in a dialogue between the present and tradition.

 Subjective truths can be just as real and often even more important than objective truths. But both our inner and our outer senses can lie to us. Each of us has to work out how to test our reality for holes. Usually we measure what we sense against what other people sense and are willing to admit we sensed wrong, but we're not too willing. We balance what we "know" emotionally against what we know intellectually, and we're willing to admit that either our heart or our head is wrong -- but not too willing.

 I like to read stories that carry on a dialogue between opposing viewpoints, rather than a monologue -- authors that show a willingness to understand an alien point of view, while not silencing their own.

 I think there are a greater number of such stories these days: Contact by Carl Sagan; Hyperion by Dan Simmons; Orson Scott Card; Andrew Greeley's books ...

 I hope I'm not being naive.


Blessed Be

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