Theology and Science Fiction?

(This is Neil) Improlific as I am, this is an overdue post. I would like to express my gratitude to Todd for letting me contribute to this blog. This isn’t a tiresome case of one person congratulating another for belonging to the same ecclesiastical faction. Todd and I have never met and we certainly don’t agree on everything. But I think that he recognized that we have shared commitments and invited me to post here, believing that I might have something interesting to say about some of the issues that concern both of us. I am grateful for the trust, especially because I know that I don’t attract traffic to the blog. I want to express my gratitude by posting on one of the non-astronomical subjects that fascinate Todd.

And that brings us to science fiction. What does science fiction have to do with theology? The question might seem opportunistic, even desperate. And I might lose yet a few more readers when, drawing from an very interesting short article by Christopher McMahon, I suggest that we relate science fiction with theology by thinking about apocalyptic language. After all, apocalyptic language seems to either fascinate or repel with its lurid and even violent imagery – that is, it seems to lend itself to either a disturbing literalism or marginalization. As an example of marginalization, on an academic level, some distinguished exegetes who use social scientific methods suggest that the apocalyptic form is meant only to relativize the present social and politic conditions that would be of primary concern to agrarian societies. Recently, it has even seemed as though apocalyptic language is more comfortably found in “secular” culture than church – see Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Road, or, in popular music, the very interesting joint interview with Bruce Springsteen and Arcade Fire’s Winn Butler in the November/December 2007 Spin.

So, why apocalyptic? We first have to ask just what apocalyptic language really is. Here McMahon turns to the work of the Notre Dame theologian J. Matthew Ashley. Apocalyptic language, Ashley tells us, persuades us that God is active in history and will come in judgment, so that particular historical events might even now be transparent to God’s activity. Apocalyptic prevents us from seeing time as merely a “closed continuum, in which the future can be nothing more than the extrapolation of past and present, that paralyzes our imaginative sense for the new bursting out among us, that leaves us trapped in the failed ideologies and structures (be they liberal or conservative) of the past.” Instead, realizing that God’s vindication will interrupt this “closed continuum,” we see that we must act “on God’s side,” rather than the side of the idols of the present, always asking ourselves if we truly look at the world with “God’s own compassion.”

But isn’t apocalyptic language dangerous? Ashley would say possibly, but not necessarily. He notes that Karl Rahner wisely said in an interview, “I was present in Frankfurt when Cardenal explained that the kingdom of God had begun in Nicaragua, that there were no prisons there anymore, that everyone loved one another  … I won’t have anything to do with such nonsense!” Apocalyptic can help us recognize such nonsense, instead of adding to it, if it follows a lesson from mystical theology. In mystical theology, the via positiva, in which we can say that God is x, exists in tension with the via negativa, in which we realize that God is beyond any x. This tension opens for us “the space within which the mystery of God can be disclosed.” We can find in this space a “learned ignorance,” docta ignorantia. In apocalyptic, then, there should be a tension between a via positiva, in which particular countries or systems are identified with the kingdom of God (“such nonsense”), and a via negativa, in which we assert that no country or system could ever be identified with the kingdom of God (this would lead to passivity). In Franciscan mystical theology, the “positive” and “negative” ways meet at the foot of the Cross, and reason yields to love. In apocalyptic theology, then, the “positive” and “negative” ways meet in “these least ones,” and intellect yields to what Jon Sobrino calls “the black darkness of hope.” We can then make sure that we “won’t have anything to do with such nonsense,” without closing off history from God’s saving activity.

Perhaps the weird and disturbing images in apocalyptic language are meant to point us to “the space within which the mystery of God can be disclosed,” and help keep us from, on one hand, excessive (and dangerous) conceptualization, or, on the other hand, the deadening silence of pure negativity.

But what does this have to do with science fiction? First, just as we questioned apocalyptic language, we have to ask what science fiction is. Science fiction has to have a degree of realism, but it also explores new possibilities in an imagined future – What happens when new technologies are introduced? How might cyborgs change what it means to be human? If society changes, will it have utopian or dystopian consequences? And so on. The familiar world is made strange. McMahon notes that some critics suggest that this future has to have scientific plausibility (and strongly distinguish science fiction from myth, fantasy, and fairy tale), but others suggest, in McMahon’s words, that science fiction has to “recover unapologetically the strange, the grotesque element constitutive of the genre.”

If science fiction can recover these elements, it will have something in common with apocalyptic – and it is interesting to note that apocalyptic literature and fantastic science fiction might be marginalized for similar reasons. Apocalyptic language is itself full of the strange and grotesque because that is the only way to show the “future possibilities” that the “closed continuum” of failed ideologies and structures would prevent us from seeing. Of course, apocalyptic language is so fantastic because it, as McMahon says, “seeks the transparency of God’s saving work in history,” but without idolatrously conceptualizing it.  

This commonality between apocalyptic language and science fiction might help us rethink catechesis. Many of us still think of catechesis as inevitably abstract – questions are asked, and objectively true answers are provided to establish cognitive content persuasive for all reasonable inquirers. But a great deal of public interest, perhaps subtly theological, seems to revolve around fantasy literature: Tolkien, Lewis, and, also, Philip Pullman, whose anti-theological work shows us, as Rowan Williams notes, what happens “if you have a view of God, which makes God internal to the universe.” This interest might exist because, through fantasy and science fiction, we can reimagine the world as re-enchanted without risking being taken in once more by those who would tell us that “the kingdom of God has begun in Nicaragua.” Ralph Wood, in a review of a recent book by Alison Milbank, reminds us that, after readers encounter Tolkien’s Treebeard, a “fantastic tree with human features,” they “can no longer look upon real trees as mere objects meant only for our manipulation,” but rather see “transcendent symbols … linking natural things with both human and divine things—and perhaps also with things demonic.” But, of course, nobody reading Tolkien would think that Treebeard is not a “constructed thing” and go in search for him. (Hopefully, that is.)

This reimagining of reality in fantasy and science fiction is self-consciously a work of imagination, not reason, metaphor, not definition. But is it less secure? Christopher McMahon uses Alison Milbank’s spouse, the controversial theologian John Milbank, to suggest not. “[John] Milbank counters that it is primarily through stories and symbols that the Christian faith manifests its inexhaustible character and demands the theologian be silent in the face of the mystery expressed in the drama of liturgy.” Theology, then, might be most faithful when it is “plurally mysterious,” existing, despite attempts to eliminate its possibility, but resisting total decipherment – when it learns from science fiction and apocalyptic.

So, can science fiction, in a small way, echo apocalyptic language in drawing us to “the space within which the mystery of God can be disclosed”? Should more bishops write science fiction? (Avoid the obvious jokes.)

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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4 Responses to Theology and Science Fiction?

  1. If the bishop can write, I say yes! Of course, I write sci-fi stories, and I do think they (and the horror genre) have potential to relate God to the world in ways we need (and also to show how God could relate in the future, before we get there).

  2. Neil says:

    Dear Henry,

    Thanks, as always, for writing. I think that I will try to write a post about theology and horror next week. I would be grateful for your insight.


  3. Neil

    There really is quite a bit that can be said of the horror genre. Certainly it gives room to the supernatural, which opens the door to many questions and concerns of Christians. Popular forms, like Vampires, seem to imitate Christian views (drink blood to remain “alive”=eucharist). And we can certainly see the power of religious symbols as protection in many horror stories. Of course, there are deeper issues, but those are ones I see almost immediately.

  4. Pingback: Theology and Science Fiction? « Catholic Sensibility « Scifi Picks

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