Twelfetide 23:07 Religion

December 31, 2023

Yesterday saw one author, today we will have a plethora as the sheer number of authors who have engaged with religion is (sic) legion, if not Gaderine in nature. There are also many ways in which religion is treated. One of the more interesting forms, and one of the first I came across is exploring what existing earth religions mean when we encounter an alien species. James Blish, one of the best of the early science fiction writers is best known for his prophetic Cities in Flight novels. He was a microbiologist and he brought that knowledge to bear in a series of novels on genetically engineered humans in a series of stories collected in The Seedling Stars. But the reason for bringing in today is his 1958 book A Case of Conscience which looked at the theological implications of a race of reptiles that have perfected morality in the absence of God. From there he moved on to Dr Mirablis a historical novel about Francis Bacon and Black Easter in which a magician summons every demon in Hell, but as God is now dead there is no way to return them. In the sequel The Day after Judgement Satan makes a Miltonian Speech arguing that compared to humans, Demons have angelic qualities. To this list, we should add Margaret Attwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale for its exploration of a near future (and regrettably coming closer) state dominated by a particular type of religion.

The Miltonian theme is picked up more extensively in Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. My sister gave the first novel to my daughter as a birthday present and I was then hooked and had to search for my copy of Milton to fully understand what Pullman was exploring. As in A Case of Conscience it uses a fictional setting to examine the Christian concept of original sin. Blish uses a Jesuit as his main protagonist and that is repeated in another overtly Catholic book The Sparrow and its sequel Children of God by Mary Doria Russell. This picks up on the historical role of the Society of Jesus in exploration, linguistics and religious, shall we say, accommodation to other religions. The conflict between the Jesuits and the Church portrayed in the 1984 film The Mission is one example of that, as is the fusion of Confucianism and catholicism generated from Jesuit expertise in Astronomy and its impact on the Chinese Emporer. That is one of the great what-ifs of history. If the Society of Jesus had not been temporally suppressed by the Pope the Emporer of China was close to repeating Constantine’s conversion. Both Blish and Russell explore the consequences of faith under fire from various forms of moral reality, not only for religion but for political society. Pullman in effect is challenging the whole idea of original sin and the power of the Church. But his novels are also about salvation and sacrifice in no small measure. The Jesuit angle is of personal interest, but also sees religion as constantly evolving with the nature of the world (or worlds in the case of science fiction) is a legitimate source of relation, it is not about a semi-literature interpretation of a book.

A completely different approach is to use the novel as an exploration of the origins of religion and myth in humans. One of the best of these is the four-volume Pliocene Saga by Julian May (another Catholic by the way). The basic theme of this is that one-way time travel is possible, and to a very specific location in the Pliocene, namely what is now the Meditarian Sea before the Zanclean Flood, which event provides a dramatic climax to the series. As such it provides a means for people on Earth to escape current political realities to find a simple life. All females are sterilised and no advanced technology can be shopped to prevent any radical time change. The problem is that two alien races (and sworn enemies), the Tanu and the Firvulag have also settled there but have suffered increasing levels of fertility. As net consequence the humans are enslaved and the males are forced to breed with the alien females. The Tanu are the elves of human myth, and the Firvulag, variously swarves and lepricorns. Both can be killed by iron. Julian May is a great storyteller and constantly dives down interesting rabbit holes in all four books. But there is another angle namely her concept of metaphysic powers. These are naturally present or augmented in the Tanu and Firvulag and anyone with them on Earth is forbidden from returning. There is a whole taxonomy of psychic powers and these are linked to the Galactic Milieu series by the same author. This second series is placed on current-day Earth and tells the story of the Intervention, where the human race reaches a level of maturity to be admitted to the Galactic Milieu, but that doesn’t entirely work out as expected. But the Milieu itself is heavily influenced by the work of Catholic Theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin in particular the ideas of mental unity. So in two brilliant series we not only have an account of mythology, but the introduction of a completely new religion.

It is difficult to know where to start with the classic fantasy tropes of Wizards, Orcs or their equivalent and evidence of higher powers and mysterious purpose. Remember Gandalf’s comment and Gollum still has some role to play in the story. We have multiple series in which prophecies are worked out, dragons appear for good or for evil and magic is either black or white. Tolkien has a lot to answer for but there is some real quality here in and amoung the dross. I deliberately have not used C S Lewis as I can’t stand the writing or for that matter the morality in Nania and the Screwtape letters. You can find virtually any human myth or religion somewhere in the literature. That includes a weird form of Atheism in books like The Three Body Problem. I must admit I didn’t like that or its sequels but Mandarin speakers I know say it doesn’t translate well. None of these series would stand up without a religious element, it is fundamental to human meaning-making. A lot of the series I have already mentioned also belong here.

I should give a passing mention to Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land along with Endymion by Dan Simmons. The Bene Gesseret of Dune I am keeping for a later post but will pick up on the Islamic mysticism when I do. MZB’s Mists of Avalon belongs here as to a degree does her Darkover series. Arthur C Clark has a delightful short story The Nine Billion Names of God and many of his other books have a decidedly religious theme. Star Trek tackled the subject and so did Star Wars, but I am a Trekie so let’s not go there. I could go on at length but I won’t. Religion, mysticism, and mythology are prevalent in most of the literature as they are in life. In this post, I’ve simply picked out some of the best exemplars.

For those interested the Vatican has a website devoted to Science and Religion, and there is also a journal on media and religion which has a special edition on science fiction which I found too late to influence this series. The Jesuit Review also has a good article written in 2022.

The banner picture of the alien and the dog is cropped from an original by Leo on Unsplash, for those familiar with The Sparrow may get the reference. The opening picture is. to quote Wikipedia from whom the image was obtained: The Flammarion engraving is a wood engraving by an unknown artist that first appeared in Camille Flammarion’s L’atmosphère: météorologie populaire (1888). The image depicts a man crawling under the edge of the sky, depicted as if it were a solid hemisphere, to look at the mysterious Empyrean beyond. The caption translates to “A medieval missionary tells that he has found the point where heaven and Earth meet…”
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