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The Gospel According To James Holden

by G. Scott Huggins

Warning: this column includes extensive spoilers for The Expanse, Season 3.

Sometimes I’m astonished by the spiritual lessons to be found in places where they are not intended. It’s almost as if there are unavoidable truths that Someone is forcing us to face. I came across the latest of these while watching The Expanse.

Image by Alex Antropov

By season 3 of The Expanse, which is, if you hadn’t noticed, a wonderful show, humanity and the central protagonist, James Holden, are in serious trouble. An alien-engineered protomolecule, whose discovery nearly wiped out all life on Earth, has shaped itself into a giant ring. Ships that pass through the Ring find themselves inside a pocket universe, controlled by a station-like artifact at its center. Due to a number of events, the exploration fleets of Earth, Mars, and the Belt all become trapped there by a technology far beyond their understanding. Unable to leave the pocket universe or communicate with the alien station, the humans try to force their way free by detonating a small ship’s fusion drive.

The result is that the station begins charging itself with enough power to potentially wipe out the solar system, leaving the humans just hours to act. The Belter commander, Klaes Ashford, prepares to fire his ship’s communications laser at the Ring. If successful, he will destroy the Ring and doom all of the fleet trapped inside to death. If he is unsuccessful, he will likely ensure the doom of all of humanity.

 But there is another possibility: James Holden turns out to be the only person who can communicate with the alien artifact. Why this is, he doesn’t know. In fact, he can’t even prove that he can do it, because the way the artifact chooses to communicate with him is by speaking to him through the image of a dead man: Detective Miller, who was killed by the protomolecule and possibly absorbed within it. To everyone else, Holden appears to be holding conversations with thin air, if they witness it at all. The artifact refuses to speak to anyone else, but it does tell Holden that the only way to save humanity is for the trapped fleet to turn off their fusion reactors, leaving themselves utterly vulnerable to whatever might occur next.

So, to sum up, James Holden has special knowledge of how to save humanity, and he can’t prove that any of this knowledge is valid. He even questions it himself, and asks the Miller-construct some very pointed questions about his past, because he has to make sure that the man he trusted, who sacrificed himself to be consumed by the protomolecule, is still there and worth his continued trust. He has to rely on faith, and then get others to believe in his message.

Meanwhile, Ashford, also a man who is, to give him credit, trying to save the Earth – in fact, arguably more heroically than Holden is, because Ashford’s attempt will absolutely doom him along with every other human trapped in the pocket universe – has a solution that can at least be conceived of as partly rational, and which does not rely on any special knowledge at all: destroy the Ring, and we cut the alien artifact off from its ability to destroy humanity. Of course, this approach also does require a fair amount of faith, though this is disguised. It requires faith that a) the laser will actually be effective in attacking the Ring, that b) the artifact is really dedicated to destroying humanity, and c) that the laser attack will not be the thing that triggers the aforesaid destruction of humanity.

I have to admit that the whole thing is a stunning allegory for the position of Christians (and some other theists, but I’m going to speak from my own position here) in the world and their atheist opponents: as Christians, we believe that there was a man, Jesus of Nazareth – who was fully a man, but also God – who could speak with the words of God because he had been with God (John 1). He told the truth about God to a small group of his disciples, and the truth was about how to save humanity. And to most of the world, this seemed to be utter foolishness (I Cor. 1:25)

Of course, that really is the rub in matters of faith. James Holden is either right to trust the message he has received from the Miller-construct, or he is wrong. But let’s look at the consequences if he is wrong. If he’s wrong, there’s no way to save the humans trapped in this bubble universe. If he’s wrong there may be a way to save humanity – but only if Klaes Ashford is right that the Behemoth’s comms laser can sever and destroy the Ring. Given that the Ring is made of a substance that manipulates gravity, inertia, and made a hyperspace portal by transmuting chunks of Venus, I would not rate that probability as high. But if Holden is wrong his message is worse than useless. It’s disguising insanity as hope.

On the other hand, if Holden is right, what then? If Holden is right to trust the message he has received, then everyone can be saved, both the humans in the bubble universe and those in the Solar System. If Holden is right, then he is the savior of humankind. 

The parallel just leaps out, doesn’t it? And further, it’s not especially fair that there is only one way for humanity to be saved. It’s not as though Holden can provide any proof that he is correct, nor can Ashford either verify or disprove Holden’s claims, which is very frustrating for both of them. Holden even says to the apparition of Miller, “So it’s a magic trick?” Miller’s response is telling: “So is your whole damn reality, kid.” In the end, Miller is right. We know nothing that we cannot perceive through the magic of our senses, which is analyzed by a brain we are only beginning to understand.

One of the most common objections I get to the gospel of Christ is that it’s not fair, and it’s not properly Godly. Some readers are likely thinking that here is where my analogy breaks down: God is supposed to be omnipotent. The aliens of The Expanse, though powerful, are not. Why doesn’t God prove He exists? Why not just tell everyone, in words they can understand and that are incontrovertible, what salvation is?

But if someone like Holden can doubt the clear evidence of his senses, then it’s not such a stretch to think that the Ashfords of the world would, as well. If Ashford were to receive such a visitation from Miller or from someone else he knew, Ashford might well consider such a visitation to be a mere trick. If we take Scripture at all seriously, then it suggests that such a manifestation would solve nothing. God supposedly took the Israelites out of slavery and appeared to them in pillars of smoke and fire while destroying their enemies and feeding them daily by miracle. And still they worshipped golden calves. However, it’s hardly necessary to take Scripture seriously to encounter this tendency. When you consider how many people refuse to believe that the Earth is round, that vaccines are good, and that terrorists actually flew airliners into the World Trade Center, it’s hardly a stretch to think that God might win fewer converts than we might imagine by showing Himself.

 Many of my friends who are atheists harp on the fact that matters of faith cannot be proven, and if they cannot be proven, then they are under no obligation to believe in them. And so far as that goes, they are correct: there is no intellectual obligation to believe what cannot be proven. What this ignores is a very simple truth: we are not in a laboratory. Life is not an intellectual construct.

The circumstance we actually find ourselves living, dying, trusting and doubting in, is much the same as that which confronts Holden and those around him: we have no proof that will tell us what to believe and how to act. We have no time to acquire that proof. Like them, we cannot do nothing: our lack of action will have very serious and deadly consequences! A crisis is building in all of our lives. For the characters of The Expanse, it is the station’s imminent action. For us – every one of us – it is the knowledge of our impending deaths. We must choose to either believe the message of the one who claims to know, or to trust, like Klaes Ashford, that humanity’s desperate schemes to circumvent mortality will eventually save someone – though almost certainly not us, if we’re alive to read this – despite the massive evidence to the contrary. The quest for the fountain of youth and the elixir of life is at least as old as religion, as Gilgamesh’s tale will bear out.

So what choice do we make? In these circumstances, what choice should we make. It’s not about who should be right, who has the most scientific evidence, or who is smartest. In the end, all those things go away. And the only thing left is what is true? Who do you trust to tell you what is true? And how will you act on that trust?

I have no idea what the beliefs of James S.A. Corey or the writers of the screenplays of The Expanse are. But the message is clear.

Trust saves.

~

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