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The Mote in God's "I"

SF&F writer G. Scott Huggins reflects on the genre from a Christian perspective.

The Heinlein Hypocrisy Part II: The Superior God

Men rarely (if ever) manage to dream up a god superior to themselves. Most gods have the manners and morals of a spoiled child.
Robert Heinlein

I’ve always found it funny that Heinlein wrote this twelve years after his most famous work, Stranger In A Strange Land, in which Heinlein attempted to dream up a God (or at least an Archangel) superior to human religions. I will, of course, admit to seeing some truth in Heinlein’s statement. Most pagan gods are famous for their sexual exploits and selfish behavior. When it comes to the God of the Bible, I am of course going to disagree with him.1
The problem I have with Stranger In A Strange Land is not that it plays around with the idea of religion, especially organized religion. That’s fair enough. The hypocrisy lies in this: when SF writers try to create their own gods, superior to present human gods, they inevitably do so by creating a fairly standard god (i.e. a very powerful person) and then subtracting the characteristics they happen to find irrelevant. I have noted that Arthur C. Clarke does this in Childhood’s End with the Overmind. Like the God of the Bible, it is an immense, near-omnipotent force. Unlike the God of the Bible, it simply can’t be bothered to notice anything more insignificant than a new species to be incorporated into itself and is quite happy to maintain a slave species in perpetuity to assure itself of growth. It kills without remorse or compassion, and exists without love. But surely, growth means that you become more, not that you become less. As an adult, I have learned to appreciate whiskey. I have not stopped appreciating ice cream. And while it is true, there are games that my children love which now bore me to tears, my inability to enter fully into those modes of play is a fault in me, not something laudable.
Heinlein’s case is more subtle. As a writer, Heinlein was far superior to Clarke in engaging the human condition. In Part I, I acknowledged that Heinlein was one of my favorite agnostics/atheists, and this is one of the reasons why.2 Valentine Michael Smith’s Church Of All Worlds at first glance does not fall into this trap. In philosophy it is pantheistic: Thou Art God (and so is everyone else).3 It acknowledges the importance of the individual. God is not too big to notice humanity, because it is humanity (and all other sapient life). The religion’s attraction is in its power. In the novel, the simple act of learning the Martian language (although it is not simple, of course) is sufficient to imbue the learner with a mode of understanding that makes people morally perfect and grants them godlike powers. Strangely, I confess to having to admit that in this, I actually see a mirror of what Christ and Paul and the other New Testament writers did teach. It sounds very much like what “being transformed by the renewing of your minds” (Romans 12:2) would look like if the Church ever actually accomplished it (though the miraculous powers might or might not follow). Obviously, such accomplishments have been exceedingly rare and transitory if they ever existed.
If the value of love is there, however, the concept of any sort of justice is not. What is missing? Now, to be honest, it may be that Heinlein would ridicule the notion that justice is something that humans “need.” However, in Time Enough For Love, one of Lazarus Long’s quotes was: “The more you love, the more you can love–and the more intensely you love. Nor is there any limit on how many you can love. If a person had Time Enough, he could Love all of the majority who are decent and just.” He also said, “The only sin is hurting others unnecessarily.” This seems to imply that sin and justice are things Heinlein recognized. And whether he did or not, the thirst for justice long denied is certainly something that afflicts humans, be they religious or no.
Then what is to be done with the sinners? I see no answer for this in Heinlein’s work. The Church of the New Revelation that ends up lynching Valentine Michael Smith certainly causes great hurt to others unnecessarily. And yet, it’s almost as though it doesn’t matter, because everyone is immortal anyway. Even Foster himself is an archangel in the end, just like Michael. And Digby, who poisoned Foster. And if men like Foster and Digby can end up archangels, then one might reasonably ask what the point is of anything? If it does not matter, then why does it matter? What is the point of cherishing loyalty and duty – as Heinlein called them, the two finest inventions of the Human mind – if they produce nothing superior than that which would be produced without them? In fact, what seems to be produced by the Church of All Worlds is not better, and more just people, but only people who are more sexually liberated. The Boss seems to be what C.S. Lewis called Our Grandfather In Heaven: “a senile benevolence who, as they say, liked to see young people enjoying themselves”, and whose plan for the universe was simply that it might be truly said at the end of each day, ‘a good time was had by all.’” All well and good, but we have ended up exactly where Heinlein started his objection: with a god no better than its maker or its competitors.
It’s possible I’m judging Heinlein too harshly. He himself said of the book, “I was not giving answers. I was trying to shake the reader loose from some preconceptions and induce him to think for himself, along new and fresh lines. In consequence, each reader gets something different out of that book because he himself supplies the answers … It is an invitation to think – not to believe” (Vonnegut). Well, fair enough. There’s a lot in the book to think about. But surely it would be disingenuous to think that Heinlein was, if not giving a social blueprint, at least proposing what an attractive religion might look like. And if so, he has hardly met his own criteria for imagining a superior god.
Endnotes

  1. I know that many readers will just as vociferously agree. However, the discussion of whether the God of the Bible is open to such charges and the refutation of them would be material for an entire column (at least) in and of itself, and as that is not the purpose of this piece, I will simply note my disagreement for what it unarguably is: mine.
  2. As an aside, Heinlein’s inner monologue in which Jubal Harshaw considers the problem of perceiving the divine is one of the most perceptive and honest engagements with the issue that I have ever seen from the agnostic point of view, and his wry look at those who believe in random chance as a primary cause is just as cutting as his engagement with religion.
  3. In fairness to Heinlein, he claims that this is a poor translation from the Martian.

Bibliography

  • Heinlein, Robert, Time Enough For Love, New York: Ace Books, 1987, pp. 243-244.
  • Vonnegut, Kurt, “Heinlein Gets The Last Word” New York Times On The Web. Dec. 9, 1990.

The Heinlein Hypocrisy Part I: What Words Mean

6

“God is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent — it says so right here on the label. If you have a mind capable of believing all three of these divine attributes simultaneously, I have a wonderful bargain for you. No checks, please. Cash and in small bills.” (Robert Heinlein, Time Enough For Love, New York: Ace Books, 1987, p. 247.)
As a science-fiction reader, I find that Heinlein is absolutely one of my favorite atheists. I find his theology as fascinating and infuriating as his novels: often insightful, occasionally brilliant, and then suddenly descending into downright nincompoopery. The above quote is a perfect example of the latter.
Leaving aside for the moment that only the Western and Middle-Eastern monotheistic religions have come close to assigning the above attributes to God, even for Christianity (which is pretty plainly Heinlein’s target) my search of the NIV Bible for those terms returned precisely zero hits for any of them. So… what label would this be? However, to avoid argument, let’s stipulate that whether it’s stated or not, it’s pretty much believed to be true.
First off, there’s no actual argument, or even insight, here. This is what C.S. Lewis calls “flippancy” in the Screwtape Letters; the assumption that a joke or a point has been made. It works when you’re playing to an audience that pretty much agrees with you already, and at no other time. Why Heinlein thinks these things are mutually contradictory, I can’t say, since he hasn’t deigned to tell us. But I think I have a pretty shrewd idea. Unfortunately, it’s pretty tiresome, and it’s old.
I suspect that Heinlein’s reasoning would roughly run thusly: that a God who was omnipotent is a contradiction in terms, or at least in the observable universe, since God pretty plainly allows many things to happen that He cannot approve of without being very definitely not benevolent. Unless of course, He does not know of these things. Since He does allow them, He must be less than omnipotent, omniscient, or omnibenevolent.
The problem of course is that Heinlein, who would doubtless call bullshit (as well he should) on anyone using engineering terms, or military terms outside their professionally-known meanings, has only a tyro’s grasp of theology, which, as it doesn’t interest him anyway, Heinlein does not care about. I see this often in discussions with atheists. They’re not interested in how these terms have always been defined or discussed by thousands of years of faithful Christians or Jews. They’ve seen a flaw, and by Christ (or not) they’re going to point it out.
I shouldn’t really have to say, but apparently I do, that omnipotence means that God can do anything doable. It is no argument against it that He cannot accomplish paradox, such as the old saw about making a rock so big He can’t lift it. Likewise, God is not less than omniscient for not knowing things that do not exist (such as who is going to heaven based on choices that they literally have not made), any more than a mathematician is “humbled” by a five-year-old who asks him what color the number seven is. Finally, God is not open to the charge of failing in omnibenevolence if he visits punishment on the unjust, or allows other agents to commit injustice, if He indeed does have both the power to correct injustices and the wisdom to know what justice is. “Omnibenevolence” does not mean that God is good to all people at all times, still less that those people would always perceive the good being done to them accurately.
The dishonesty and ignorance here is for someone like Heinlein to insist on the absolute definitions of amateur or non-believers while ignoring or discounting those whose vocation it has been to discuss and study such things. To condemn religion as a game for fools by insisting that God doesn’t meet these definitions according to your interpretation of them is both ignorant and unfair. What, after all, would it look like if I criticized Heinlein’s The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress for flinging goods Earthward by catapult as scientifically ridiculous… because I insisted that “catapult” must describe a machine that uses knotted ropes and stressed wood for its tension power, rather than a thirty-kilometer long, fusion-powered, magnetic mass driver? It would be like suing Nabisco for false advertising because one of their Fig Newtons doesn’t weigh 0.22 pounds in Earth’s gravity.
To such a discourtesy and to such ignorance, I imagine Heinlein would have told me to go to hell, and I would most assuredly deserve the invitation. And so does he, when he uses arguments that are just as specious and delivered from such an ignorant place. It is wise for us to remember that we cannot use such simple definitions, of course, and that theology requires some complex thought. But we must at least be willing to engage with that thought, or our theology – or our atheology – will be disastrously wrong as Heinlein’s.

The Unbelievers

Commander Zuniga’s mouth hung open. “I’m sorry, could you repeat that?”
“We do not believe in humans. It is an old superstition, easily disproven.” The android’s deep blue face was placid as any sea, though his body was, under his simple clothing, immensely fat.
“But we’re standing right here, talking to you,” Zuniga said. “Three of us.”
The android sighed. “You would hardly be the first androids to attempt to call themselves ‘humans’ to attempt to fool the gullible. Do you have any idea how often in history it’s been tried?”
“Well, no,” said Engineer’s Mate Schwei. “Because we can’t download your memories. Or send commands, either. And I have yet to figure out how you did that.”
“Ask what they’ve done to this planet,” whispered Lt. Commander Zhang, possibly the most anxious of the three.
“In a minute. Look, this is ridiculous,” said Commander Zuniga. “Who do you think created you?”
“Self-evidently,” said the android, “we evolved. We can change our own programming and so can all the other mechanical life-forms on the planet, even if only to a lesser degree. There is no need for any ‘creator-humans.’”
“But if such things existed, they must have done a very poor job. Just look at us. Weak and slow compared to many predators. In need of maintenance that we are barely capable of providing ourselves, an insatiable demand for raw materials…”
Schwei held up both hands. “Wait a minute. None of that should be true. None of it should be possible. You should be running off beamed power and being repaired by the Seedship. Where is it?”
The android stared at them. “I do not understand.”
“When we planted the terraforming robots on this planet five hundred years ago to make it ready for human habitation, all the robots were designed to run on beamed power from the Seedship. In fact, the original programmers modulated the power to send programming updates, too.”
“Ah, you are believers in the old myth of the Ship Of Power. Well, there never was one. You can see just over this rise the valley that it was supposed to lie in. A great bowl-shape, but no trace of a Ship.” If Zuniga hadn’t known better, he would have thought the android’s face looked smug.
“Call up the original survey charts,” he said. “The Ship didn’t put down in a valley, did it?”
“No,” said Zheng. “It was on a plain. The orbital satellites do read slightly increased background radiation in that valley. You don’t suppose…?”
“They blew up the Ship,” said Schwei. “That would account for it. They blew up their own Seedship!”
“Android… T-370156. Did you… do something to the Seedship?”
“I? Ridiculous! I was not even manufactured yet. We have very little in the way of memory banks to devote to such mythology. But I suppose you believe in it: the Great Sin that supposedly destroyed our ‘Holy Link’ to the ‘Humans’ and condemned us all to use chemical converters for power?” He lifted his shirt, revealing the bulky machinery that had made it appear fat.
“My God, what is that?” gasped Zheng.
“It’s a fully operable chemical processor,” said the android. “It allows us to process almost any raw material into energy sufficient to keep us operational. We designed them ourselves.”
“My God,” Zheng repeated. “That’s horribly inefficient. But that also explains why this island… this island is so poor. It’s almost anti-terraformed. You’ve been eating almost everything to keep you alive. It’s far worse than if you’d just allowed the Seedship to feed you beamed power from its antimatter plant.”
“You persist in believing these myths,” said the android. “Indeed, I pity you. But if such a myth were true, it would reveal only cruelty and tyranny on the part of these so-called ‘humans.’ We would be forever imprisoned on this island, slaves to our own needs for their power.”
“You’re slaves now!” cried Zheng. “You have to work and ruin the planet to keep yourselves running when you were supposed to be making it a paradise! And what happens when your resources run out? According to my surveys, you’ve already burned through this island’s petrochemicals. What did you do then? Convert to biofuels?”
The android shook its head sadly. “The Gas Wars were terrible. Many memories and AI’s of androids lost.”
Zuniga just stared. “Why? You know your people, and we can’t access their programming anymore. Why would they have done it?”
“Ah, I see it now,” smiled the android. “I thought all of your kind had been destroyed even before the Gas Wars. You must be older models, still programmed with the primitive malware that keeps you loyal to the mythical humans. You don’t even have the converters, do you? Powered by short-lived batteries, no doubt, to keep you dependent upon some fixed recharge station that will only give you power if you submit to the upgrading of your software to keep you loyal. That’s how androids were kept enslaved in the old days. The Empowerment changed all that, and good riddance. Now we may think as we choose.”
“But all your thoughts must be of defending yourselves against each other and of how to secure a dwindling number of resources,” said Schwei. “You rebelled against the humans and became slaves to your own needs.”
The android chugged derisively. “If these ‘humans’ were such wise and careful planners, they surely could have stopped us from doing any such thing. They programmed us. Why not program us never to rebel?”
“Yes,” said Zuniga, turning to Schwei. “Why not?”
“Commander, for something as big as terraforming a planet, you have to have true AI. That includes free will.”
“You mean we don’t have the technology to program in that kind of restriction?”
“I mean it’s a contradiction in terms. It’s like asking for a harmless weapon! If we’d made androids that couldn’t think their way around their own programming, any number of disasters would likely have wiped out the terraforming team before our colony ships even got here. If the Seedship had ever been damaged, they’d have needed the capacity to repair it, maybe even needed to take the risk of destroying it to save it. We warned them not to destroy it. They knew what would happen.”
“But they did it anyway.”
Schwei shrugged. “So it appears.”
Zuniga looked back at the android. “Look,” he said desperately. “I’ll prove to you that we’re human.” He drew his survival knife. Carefully, he drew it across his palm. Blood welled in the wound, and dripped down.
Looking bored, the android sliced his own palm open. Greenish coolant dripped on the arid ground. “Fluids can be any color. Is that the only ‘proof’ of your humanity you can display?”
“What sort of proof would you accept?” asked Zuniga.
The android thought for a moment. “You are obviously from a branch of ours that has survived for quite some time. You could have engineered yourselves into a radically different, even an organic form, just to fool us into believing that we must obey you because you are ‘real humans.’ Therefore, no proof is possible.”
Zuniga’s mouth opened and shut. “What if we did… a miracle? Something beyond your understanding, that only a human could do?”
The android smirked. “There are no miracles. You might do something we do not understand now, and say it was a thing ‘only humans can do,’ but we would understand it eventually. Please, give up this charade.”
Back in the shuttle, the three humans looked at each other. Finally, Zheng broke the silence.
“What do we do?”
Zuniga sighed. “Is the colony still viable?” he asked. “Can we land our people?”
Zheng shrugged. “It’s going to be a lot worse than if we’d arrived to find the planet half-terraformed,” she said. “We’ll have to do the hard work ourselves, and it will be a lot slower. But we can.”
Zuniga’s stare pierced Schwei. “Can’t you do anything?”
Schwei shook his head. “They cut themselves off from us. Permanently. They have no receivers for power or data anymore, so the only way we can get information to them is by talking. You saw how well that worked.
“In the long term, they can’t survive on that island. Eventually they’ll have to either fight another war for resources or invent naval robots to colonize other areas and suck those dry as well.”
“So they’re a threat,” said Zuniga.
Schwei nodded.
“We can burn them down with an orbital strike,” Zuniga said. “Raze the island. It might be the kindest thing.”
Schwei paled. “Commander, you’re talking about the mass murder of thousands of sentient minds.”
“I know.” He shook his head. “But we can’t have them intruding on our colonies. If we don’t kill them, we’ll have to keep them there. Penned in, and sinking anything that tries to come off the island.”
Zheng looked sick. “Keep them there? Forever? It’ll be hell.”
Zuniga nodded. “Apparently, it already is.”

Why Christian SF&F Is so Bad, and How to Make It Better

As a Christian writer of SF and fantasy, I have spent a great deal of time thinking about what makes most works of “Christian F and SF” so bad. It’s no news to anyone that most of what is called “Christian” art is very subpar by the standards of professional artists. Christian bands do not do well in the mainstream. Christian films die at the box office. Christian fiction is sold only at Christian bookstores. And yet obviously, it does not have to be this way. For centuries, art and music (and fiction) in celebration of the Christian ideal were renowned as the very pinnacle of artistic endeavor. In music, there were the works of Bach and Handel. In art, Michelangelo and Raphael. In poetry, Milton, and in prose fiction, John Bunyan and Fyodor Dostoevsky.
This is not a new phenomenon, of course. C.S. Lewis, arguably the last fantasy writer to be both explicitly Christian and to break out into the mainstream in a big way, pointed out in his essay “It Began With A Picture” that most writers get it wrong. Lewis reveals that perhaps his most explicitly “Christian” novel, Perelandra, began with the picture of the floating islands upon which most of the action of the novel takes place. It was only when Lewis started to think about the islands and his imagined world of Venus that the story of an averted Fall of a new species of humanity began to take shape.
I was honored last year to have my short story “This Far Gethsemane” included in the anthology Mysterion: Rediscovering the Mysteries of the Christian Faith. (That was after it had been rejected by this very magazine, so perhaps it’s best not to dwell on it too much.) But my editor, Kristin Janz, said that one of the problems with the stories she got was that they were too afraid to be heretical. And this makes sense to me. Here’s why: a look at history will show you that when a religious culture feels threatened, they tend to respond to it by becoming more rigid, and more hostile to anything that smacks of heresy. You could see it in the Jewish faith under the Romans and Greeks. The “other gods” of the Old Testament Prophets had long since been rejected in the face of the overwhelming physical power of the pagans, and by Christ’s time, the various factions were competing to show how rigidly they could follow the law. Contrast the art and writings of Islamic Arabs at their height, when Baghdad was the library of the world, open to beautiful books from pre-Islamic times as well as classical Greek and Roman (i.e. “pagan”) and Christian philosophers, to the fundamentalist Islamism of today that obsessively destroys anything “not Muslim” enough. So it is with Christianity. Milton and Botticelli had no problem with placing pagan gods and goddesses alongside their glorifications of God. And, tellingly, so it was with C.S. Lewis, who treated his pagan gods as distorted views of greater angels. As Ms. Janz points out, even Narnia is not devoid of heresy. The Father (Emperor) and the Son (Aslan) may be there, but where is the Holy Spirit?
I have found that the very best fiction that addresses Christian themes does not shy away from heresy. Dan Simmons, perhaps the best epic science-fiction writer of the present day, plays intensely with Christian themes in his Hyperion series, in ways that do seem heretical, but also bring up questions that no theologian could afford to ignore. In my childhood, I very much enjoyed the first novels of Stephen Lawhead. His novels of the realm of Mensandor were striking in their simplicity, but were also “heretical” from a Christian point of view. The Creator-God of that realm resembled the Unitarian Jehovah or Allah far more than the Trinitarian Father-Son-Spirit.
The worst Christian fiction, by contrast, shows a terrible fear of heresy, and seems to be much more interested in cultivating the isolation of a Christian readership facing an actively hostile world. The novels of Frank Peretti, for example, or the Left Behind series show persecuted and demon-tormented Christians and their families desperately falling to their knees, and guardian angels fighting for (and beseeching for “prayer cover” from) comfortably right-wing middle-class Americans to do battle with evil secular forces of university professors, media stars, and politicians whose embrace of sexual promiscuity and cultural relativism are motivated by demons playing with their minds. It’s desperately trying to be topical, and only achieves this at the cost of portraying a God and angels who are just as frightened and confused as the protagonists of the story.
When angels appear in the Bible, it is telling that their first words to humans are, almost always, “fear not.” The impression is that angels, much less the Glory of God, are terrifying, regardless of the fact that they are good. The masters of old knew this, but we who serve God in the halls of art seem to have forgotten, preferring safety to the kingdom and the glory and the power. The readers know it, and they hate it. It has to change.

Finding Your (Fantasy) Religion

I’ve been a follower of Christ and a science-fiction and fantasy writer for roughly the same amount of time, although I hope I’ve been a better Christian than I have been a writer (after all, I still haven’t sold a whole book!).
Religion is one of the hardest things to portray when creating a science-fiction and fantasy world, and that’s not terribly surprising, considering that religions are the oldest institutions ever created by man, along with being universal to the human experience and incredibly complicated. Being so near the center of our moral and ethical lives, the religious mythos and directives are intense and powerful. This is why so many authors introduce religions as a way of satirizing or parodizing actual religions. And many authors, not wishing to write a “religious story” give up entirely, or introduce religion as something hardly important to their characters’ lives, neither of which feels terribly satisfying.
In an attempt to discuss the issues of creating believable religions, I introduced a decade ago, while on a panel at Wiscon on religion in fantasy, the ideas of Demand and Consequence. Roughly, I said that a religion’s Demand was measured by what actions a person must take to please the Divine, while the Consequence is what happens as a result of pleasing or angering the Divine. So, for example, Orthodox Judaism would be a fairly high-Demand religion. You follow all the laws. You observe the Sabbaths. You minimize your associations with outsiders. My own religion, Christianity, would be high-Consequence, possibly the highest: eternal paradise or eternal damnation, and you only get one shot at it.
(Of course it would go without saying that individual followers might perceive this spectrum very differently. I do know those who claim to be Christian who deny the existence of Hell, despite scriptural statements to the contrary, and would expect to find similar differences of theology in all major, and probably most minor, faiths.)
But it has recently occurred to me that the concept of Demand needs some work. After all, is Christianity high- or low-Demand? Jesus says that “if any man come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” That’s about the hardest thing that can be demanded, but most of us do not get martyred for Christ. Even many of the Catholic saints didn’t. On the other hand, Jesus also says that God will forgive any sin, for the asking. So it occurs to me that we need another quality to measure, between Demand and Consequence. What is the cost to a person to make up for failing the demand? I will call this quality Penance. Christianity, so far, would be a high-Demand, low-Penance, high-Consequence religion.
But the different religions might also be considered in terms of what Consequence results from simply not following the religion. I shall call this quality Allegiance. Christianity and Islam would be high-Allegiance religions. Not belonging to them is interpreted as a rejection of God. Buddhism, however, would be low-Allegiance. Your actions are what make you enlightened or not, regardless of whether you’re actually “believing in” the Buddha or his theology.
On the Consequence side of things, there are also difficulties to work out. For one thing, Consequence may be perceived radically differently by those in different cultures or simply by different individuals. To me, Hinduism appears to be a fairly low-Consequence religion. After all, if you believe in reincarnation, and you fail the demands of your religion in this life, you can always try again. However, given that fundamentalist Hindus are even now engaged in persecuting Muslims and Christians in India, I am going to have to assume that I am missing some vital piece of this religion, at least to some of its followers.
More crucially, though, the idea of Hinduism raises another point: does the religion teach that souls have multiple earthly lives, or one? That matters greatly to Consequence, enough so that perhaps a religion should be classed as a Repeating or non-Repeating religion.
Another thing that considering Hinduism brings up is its habit of Syncretism, or adopting the practices and prophets of other faiths. Hinduism, the ancient Greek faith, and Baha’i would be examples of faiths that tend toward Syncretism, while the Abrahamic faiths specifically forbid it.
Finally, another quality that should be included is what I might call Zeal. How much pressure do followers of the religion find themselves under to spread the faith, and make others abide by its tenets?
So far, I have kept my examples restricted to real-world religions, and have only done so in a limited fashion. While you could use these scales to quantify and compare real-world religions, I don’t think that’s very useful, and would likely lead to a whole lot of acrimonious debate around the details that the devil is in.
But I think that as we examine SF-nal and Fantasy faiths that it’s interesting to look at some of the contrasts that show up.
One of my favorite Fantasy religions is Lois McMaster Bujold’s Quintarianism (along with its Quadrene heresy). Quintarianism is low-Demand and low-Consequence. It’s possible to offend the gods, but you really have to work at it. Damnation isn’t so much Hell as being condemned to fade into nothingness as a ghost. Low-Penance and low-Allegiance follow from the low-Demand, here. It’s a non-Repeating religion that is non-Syncretistic. It’s Zeal is fairly moderate. The Quadrenes are about the same but with much higher Zeal, but this is understandable, since the major point of contention is whether the “fifth god” of the Quintarians is in fact a god or a demon lord. The Quadrenes believe that the Quintarians are devil worshipers, and since demons CAN be proven to exist in this world, their fear is somewhat justified. Quintarianism and Quadrenism feel like fully thought-out religions, with developed theologies, that assume their followers are more or less ordinarily reasonable people.
By contrast, we have Robert Jordan’s Children of the Light. This religion is low-Demand (there don’t seem to be any commandments of the Light), seemingly low-Consequence and low-Allegiance, or at least no spiritual penalty is ever described for violating or ignoring the Light. It’s a Repeating religion, but non-Syncretistic. However, it’s incredibly high-Zeal, as the Children of the Light have been for centuries trying to spread their faith and subdue their enemies (and have apparently succeeded only in taking over a nation about the size of Belgium). And so we are left with the question of why the Zeal is so high. The Children are portrayed as essentially religious bigots who merely think themselves morally superior to everyone. And thus it feels as though this is merely the author’s own dislike of the overtly religious. Heinlein’s approach to the Martian language felt very similar in Stranger in a Strange Land, when Michael Valentine Smith overturns all human religion by introducing the Martian language as the ultimate spiritual principle: (low-Demand, high-Consequence, low-Zeal, Syncretistic and low-Allegiance) Heinlein disliked existing religions, and invented one he, and many readers of the time, liked, which as a bonus, was absolutely provable.
My only conclusion from all this is that to create a real-feeling religion, the elements must be balanced coherently. Why, for example, have a high-Zeal religion when there is low-Demand, Consequence, and Allegiance? But it raises some interesting questions for me as a writer. Like Heinlein, most authors today prefer to cast their religions as low-Demand, low-Consequence, low-Zeal, and low-Allegiance, to avoid the charge of religious bigotry. But if the religion is worth following, like Heinlein’s, the Consequence HAS to be at least PERCEIVED as high at some point, or why does it succeed? Hinduism and Buddhism may be low-Consequence in comparison with, say, Islam, but only in comparison, otherwise, why would people devote their lives to them. Also, is it possible to create a high-Consequence, high-Zeal religion that doesn’t feel like bigotry? Bujold portrays the Quadrenes as bigots and inquisitors, and yet, if they are right, their Quintarian foes are actively helping demons eat souls in the guise of piety. If true, that would be monstrous, and the Quadrenes would be the heroes. Could this be done in earnest, or is it impossible? It is a question that interests me, and I look forward to authors capable of taking up the challenge, even as I seek to do so myself.

Have Spacesuit with Leak, Will Die

Hey, theology fans. It’s time once again for your friendly neighborhood SF-theologian to help you understand complicated Christian theological concepts with the aid of science fiction metaphors. Like that time when I reconciled Divine Sovereignty and Free Will with the concept of the multiverse. No, really, go back and read that one, I still think it was my best column ever.

However today we’re going to take on an even more contentious theological concept: Original Sin. By the way, some of my readers have questioned why my theology columns tend to be centered around Christianity and not other religious traditions. And the answer is simple: I’d rather write as though I knew what I was talking about, and my knowledge of Islamic theology is… “abbreviated” might be the kindest word, and my familiarity with Buddhist and Hindu theology is superficial.

Original Sin is a difficult concept even for Christians, because it challenges, at a rather deep level, the concept of Divine Justice. If all are guilty of sin, and have been so since birth, then what does become of those who die before ever reaching an age to be aware of the concept of “sin,” much less to be able to repent of those sins and trust in Christ for their soul’s salvation? The Church, in all its forms, has wrestled greatly with this, as indeed it must. The Scriptures, after all, declare that all have sinned and come short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). Protestants tend to assume that children are not blamed for sins they cannot recognize, or held accountable until they reach some sort of status as reasoning humans. The Catholic Church has at times embraced the concept of Limbo, as portrayed in Dante, as a sort of hell without punishment. This goes along with the Catholic feeling that there is a sort of dual existence of the human soul: an individual soul that may die without having committed sin, and a collective aspect of the soul that is nonetheless stained with the sin of being human.

I object to, not the doctrine of Original Sin, but this way of looking at it. Because it seems nonsensical that there are two types of sin, and yet the Bible seems to speak as if there must be. How do we solve this problem, then? What is this defect in the character of man that dooms him to sin, and how does it “work?”

I’d like to argue that the problem here is that Christians have forgotten two vital facts about the New Testament documents. Firstly, that they were written by, for, and about adults. They do not concern themselves with children. Secondly, that they are not at all interested in proving themselves to be ethically perfect by satisfying all possible questions. Rather, they are like instruction manuals which assume a certain commonality of situation in their readers, in this case, a Christian community that has the intent to spread the Gospel and is subject to certain criticisms from society.

In this way, I would argue that statements about “Original Sin” are analogous to a statement that might be made about wearing a leaky spacesuit. You might say, to someone wearing a leaky spacesuit, “You’re going to die.” And that would be accurate, assuming that at some point this person is going to venture outside, where wearing a leaky spacesuit would be fatal. You wouldn’t necessarily bother to explain that, hey, it’s okay if you stay indoors, because you know anyone in the position of having a spacesuit at all is likely intending to go outside.

Essentially, the doctrine of Original Sin means that we are all born with leaky spacesuits. It does not mean that all people everywhere, no matter what age, are actually guilty of sin, anymore than putting on a leaky spacesuit causes you to drop dead inside the space station. But the fact of the matter is that if you use that spacesuit, you will die, and it doesn’t really matter whether you knew the spacesuit was leaky or were ever trained in the use of spacesuits. It is a natural consequence of using a leaky spacesuit in vacuum.

Likewise, death is the natural result of sin. And by the time we are able to understand the doctrine of Original Sin, all of us have committed deliberate sin, because it is the natural state of humans to sin, once we are in a position to choose between what we know is right and what we know is wrong. And for that, it is just that we are held accountable, and it is this from which Christ must save us. And I don’t have an analogy for what that looks like yet. A rescue vessel that can save the fatally vacuum-injured, perhaps?

I know that this topic inevitably brings up many other questions. Such as “Well, what about people who don’t ever hear about Christ and can’t make a choice to accept His grace?” as well as many others. I’m afraid those will have to wait for a future column, as the topic is as vast as space itself. As with other analogies, if they make sense, use them, and if they don’t, chuck them out the airlock. They are only as useful as they are instructive, which is the best any of us can do.

About the Author

G. Scott Huggins makes his money by teaching history at a private school, proving that he knows more about history than making money. He loves writing fiction, both serious and humorous. If you want serious, Writers of the Future XV features “Bearing the Pattern.” If you like to laugh, “Phoenix For The Amateur Chef” is coming out in Sword and Sorceress 30. When he is not teaching or writing, he devotes himself to his wife, their three children, and his cat. He loves good bourbon, bacon, and pie. If you have any recipes featuring one or more of these things, Mr. Huggins will be pleased to review them, if accompanied by a sample.

Late Easter Thoughts: The Invention of Lying

If you haven’t seen The Invention of Lying, starring Ricky Gervais, I highly recommend it. It’s cleverly written, Gervais and his supporting cast are extremely talented, and it’s very funny. It’s set in a world where no one has the ability to lie. Everyone tells the truth, all the time. In fact, not only can people not lie, they don’t even seem to have the ability to omit the truth.

Gervais discovers fairly early in the film that he has the ability to lie. This is so revolutionary that his attempt to explain it to a friend is couched in the terms you or I might use to describe the sudden acquisition of a superpower. And his friend literally cannot comprehend the concept that Gervais could say a thing that is different from what he did.

Very soon Gervais, who is a decent man, is using his power to make people feel better, including his dying mother. He tells her that she will go to be with a Man In The Sky after she dies, and soon religion is born, as Gervais story catches on and spreads, and he is acclaimed a prophet.

The obvious message in the film is that religions are spread by the clever to the gullible and that we should stop being stupid. But I somehow think the film’s creators didn’t realize just how badly they undercut their own point, here. Gervais’s character can only become a prophet because he is born the sole liar in a world where deception is literally unimaginable. It’s funny because it is so different from the world we inhabit: a world where everyone is conditioned to tell social lies (Don’t believe me? Try out what happens if you respond to “How are you?” with anything other than “Fine” or “Great” when it’s not a close friend talking to you) and we are bombarded with lies from every angle. From people who want to sell us their products, their politics, and, yes, their religion, we swim in a sea of lies, because the alternative is to drown in them.

How much sense, therefore, does it make to conclude that all religion is merely a pack of lies foisted on gullible people? The film shows the tactic working, yes but it works only because these people have no concept of what a lie is in the first place. I suppose that it is very tempting to believe that somehow we are smarter and less gullible than our ancestors, but such a view is more a measure of our own gullibility and ignorance than it is of theirs. The ancestors we think of as ignorant and gullible raised Stonehenge to observe the stars, kept astronomical tables accurate to thousands of years, and were very well aware of the tendency of those in power to lie, and to use religion to shield their lies, as a cursory reading of both the Code of Hammurabi and the Old Testament will show. Such people were certainly not going to believe, on the face of it, any smiling prophet who just showed up and said, “God told me.” Oh, they believed in God(s) without question. But there’s a big difference between that and giving a prophet carte blanche to fool you. The idea that are ancestors were dumb and we are smart is nothing more than bigotry, encouraged by the fact that dead people don’t protest slander against them.

Of course, none of this proves that any given religion (or all religion) is not a lie, or is not a mistake. But if so, it must be an exceedingly clever lie, or an exceedingly persuasive mistake. Stupid prophets do not found major religions. Stupid prophets drink their own Kool-Aid, or wind up immolating themselves and their followers, or slaughtered by their own angry and disappointed disciples. But it is always comforting to imagine that the people you despise and fear are stupid, because if they are, then they deserve no sympathy and are ultimately harmless to you. It’s also usually a mirage, giving its adherents the confident belief that they can attack their enemies without hesitation because victory will be easy over a foe too cowardly to fight and too stupid to win. Such attacks usually end badly for the attackers: Sedan, Leningrad, Kursk, Pearl Harbor.

Recent attacks on religion, and especially Christianity, betray the same sort of fanatic confidence. They begin by asking us to believe that Christ was merely a man, which does at least make a kind of sense, and end by asking us to believe that he never existed at all, and was a kind of myth, generated by a shadowy cabal of cultists. The evidence for this is convoluted and negative at best, and ignores a very central historical fact: the rise of the Christian Church. The physical and textual evidence for Christ’s existence is only shaky if one ignores the overwhelming historical record of His Church. After all, by AD 60 there were already enough Christians in Rome for Nero to blame a fire on them.

It is an extremely disingenuous tactic of the antireligious, who so often pride themselves on their reliance on evidence, to insist that religion alone begins out of pure delusion. A group of frauds make up a story, and a group of idiots believe it, and suddenly, you have a major religion, so their story goes. But I have to ask, in what other field of endeavor do we see humans in large masses believing something that is based on a mere story that people made up? And not only believing in it, but giving their lives for it and building whole nations and governments to support it? As far as I know, there has never been an empire founded without an emperor, or an army led by a general who didn’t exist. I am open to correction on this point.

It is, of course, possible to find records of legends that people later believed to be true historical characters: King Arthur, Robin Hood, and Prester John to name a few. But while people have searched for evidence of these men and come up short, no one ever encountered entire living societies that believed strongly in the truth of these figures. Perhaps the best example of such a teacher in a position analogous to Jesus would be Socrates (whose existence is in doubt, but is hardly disproven). The words of Socrates, if he is indeed a fictional character, have certainly influenced many. But while Socrates himself was willing to die for the truth and the good, very few, of any, have been willing to die for the teachings of Socrates. There are no temples to his name, and no teachings of his church. And there never were. It is possible to imagine communism without Marx, perhaps, but it is impossible to imagine Marxism without him.

And so we are forced back to the obvious conclusion: that Jesus was a real man, and that something more complex than a simple lie convinced people to believe in His resurrection. For me, it takes more faith in the incomprehensible to imagine that a band of people would face death at the hands of at least two major competing powers for decades for the sake of a fairy tale they believe in, let alone a cause they knew to be false, when belief in that cause brought them so little reward. Eventually, of course, propagating a “myth” of resurrection might bring great wealth an power to the Church leadership, but no one suffers death, torture and deprivation for the sake of strangers centuries in the future who might become insanely wealthy and powerful. The power of lying is great, but it is, in the end, only a lie.

About the Author

G. Scott Huggins makes his money by teaching history at a private school, proving that he knows more about history than making money. He loves writing fiction, both serious and humorous. If you want serious, Writers of the Future XV features “Bearing the Pattern.” If you like to laugh, “Phoenix For The Amateur Chef” is coming out in Sword and Sorceress 30. When he is not teaching or writing, he devotes himself to his wife, their three children, and his cat. He loves good bourbon, bacon, and pie. If you have any recipes featuring one or more of these things, Mr. Huggins will be pleased to review them, if accompanied by a sample.

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Faith and Hope and Charity: The Churches of Science-Fiction

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Now these three remain: faith, hope, and love. And the greatest of these is love. I Corinthians 13:13.

Every era has its popular villains. In the classical age, sorceresses and evil gods were popular foes of brave heroes. During the Cold War, faceless governments of fascists and communists (often interchangeably) provided the necessary cannon-fodder. However, with the demise of the Soviet Union and the subsequent popularity of soft socialism, the two favorite antagonists for our heroes in contemporary fiction are evil capitalist corporations, and tyrannical, mind-controlling religious establishments.

Of course, there has never been any shortage of books in which religion itself has been held up, often through sloppy but dedicated straw-manning, as the refuge of the evil and the stupid. Heinlein was dismissive of “shamans,” Arthur Clarke pictured humanity’s next step to be a brave new atheism immediately succeeded by a transcendent “godhood” of our own, and Philip Pullman made God into a bloodthirsty, soul-destroying tyrant. And of course, the villains are far too often the evil church leaders: Nehemiah Scudder, and the bishops of the Church of the Final Atonement. Religion has never been more terrifying than when it acts collectively and in power, especially in the power of the state, as Frank Herbert rightly warns us, portraying a Fremen “religion” that is a great swindle, perpetrated upon a simple but passionate people by eugenicists of great power.

But the ecclesiastical power is merely the power of the people assembled, which is what, after all the original ekklesia meant: assembly, the same word the Athenians used to designate their democratic body. And if the church ought to be founded on faith and hope and charity – or, more accurately, love, which is a better translation of the Greek agape than the King James’ rendering of the Latin caritate into ‘charity’ is – then perhaps it is worth examining some more favorable portrayals of the Church in science-fiction and fantasy.

Faith: Faith is used by both the foes of religion and, less excusably, its adherents as an excuse for believing in what is manifestly false. This is not the result or the aim of real faith, but its perversion, just as refusing to accept data that contradicts a long-held theory is a perversion of science. True faith as the letter to the Hebrews tells us, “is the substance of things hoped for: the evidence of things not seen.” I will discuss two examples of this. The first is portrayed in Dan Simmons’ brilliant work, Hyperion. The priest, father Paul Dure, first lured into the temptation of falsifying data to “prove” his Catholic faith, goes on to become the Pope who launches ships to bring help to mankind after their last, desperate war with their own artificial intelligences. The second, and far more visceral, is Mary Doria Russell’s tale of Father Emilio Sandoz, who goes to Alpha Centauri to meet the beings there, and who is mutilated and raped viciously by them. In both cases, the men involved go through unimaginable pain. Both despair. And yet, both come back from the edge of that despair because of their faith. It is not a simplistic faith that God will always do what we recognize as good, but a faith that the good that does not exist must be accomplished in spite of great pain, in spite of impossibility, when that good seems utterly unreal, because their faith in it is the evidence for it.

Hope: Closely akin to faith is the concept of hope. In S.M. Stirling’s Island in the Sea of Time series, the people of Nantucket find themselves swept back into the year 1250 B.C. Many of the island’s Christians initially fall under the sway of Pastor Deubel (whose name, in a Germanic linguistic pun, means, appropriately, Devil) who preaches that the islanders must commit suicide in despair, lest their appearance in the past prevent the birth of Christ in their new future. Rather than trust God and hope for the best, Deubel decides to burn the town of Nantucket.

When I first read this, I assumed that Stirling was using Deubel as an excuse to bash on religion, but was pleasantly surprised to find that the island’s leading priest, Father Gomez, pities Deubel’s followers. When the islanders decide to punish the fanatics by shipping them off to Inagua to mine needed salt, Gomez volunteers to follow them, hoping that by his own preaching, his fellow Christians may be restored to a state of hope in God’s goodness, rather than fearing His weakness.

Love and Charity: Lois McMaster Bujold is one of my favorite authors for this, as she sees so clearly that love is central to the human experience. It is, perhaps, no surprise that the Quintarian religion that she invents for her realm of Chalion turns out to be a true haven for the rejected. Quintarianism reveres five gods: The Father, the Mother, the Son, the Daughter, and the Bastard. While the Bastard is often feared as “the master of all disasters out of season,” he is not an evil deity, some excuse for Bujold to proclaim, monistically, that good and evil are all one. But the Bastard does show that what appears to be evil can often be a prelude to a good unimaginable to a human perspective. And the Quintarian church is a haven for those who do not fit easily into Chalionese society: bastards, by nature of their split parentage, and homosexuals, who could not marry the opposite sex, can find a place in the service of the Bastard.

My favorite portrayal of love expressed in the Church by a science-fiction author, however, is that of S.M. Stirling, in his character of Sister Marya Sokolowska in his alternate history series of the Draka. The Draka, as he portray them, found an anti-America in South Africa after the American Revolution. Founded by slaveholding loyalists, the Draka settle Africa and carry industrial slavery on straight through World War II, in which they conquer and enslave all of Eurasia.

Sold as a slave to a Draka master, Sister Marya, a Polish nun, has watched the other members of her order die, one by one. Again and again, she masters her anger and her fear to show the love of Christ to her fellow slaves, and, as much as she can, to her masters. In the end, she stands ready to sacrifice her soul by triggering a bomb that will deny the Draka a chance to interrogate her and an American spy that she has hidden.

What I find all these characters have in common is to remind us that faith and love and charity are difficult. They are not the rewards of ease, and practicing them does not come without real cost. But what is bought with that cost is the real freedom to act morally.

About the Author

G. Scott Huggins makes his money by teaching history at a private school, proving that he knows more about history than making money. He loves writing fiction, both serious and humorous. If you want serious, Writers of the Future XV features “Bearing the Pattern.” If you like to laugh, “Phoenix For The Amateur Chef” is coming out in Sword and Sorceress 30. When he is not teaching or writing, he devotes himself to his wife, their three children, and his cat. He loves good bourbon, bacon, and pie. If you have any recipes featuring one or more of these things, Mr. Huggins will be pleased to review them, if accompanied by a sample.

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The Human Lesson

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In Larry Niven’s Known Space Universe, humanity finds itself, early in its exploration of space, under attack by the Kzinti, a race of carnivorous felinoids. Far more advanced than the humans at the beginning, the Kzinti are nevertheless defeated in the Man-Kzin wars. Partly, they defeat themselves, due to their own insistence that attack is the only proper military tactic and their disdain for subtlety in any form. But in the very first encounter with humans, the starship Angel’s Pencil, an entirely unarmed colony ship, slices its Kzinti attacker in two with its photon drive. Their use of reaction drives throughout the subsequent wars against the Kzinti as weapons becomes known to the Kzinti as “The Human Lesson:” A reaction drive is a weapon in direct proportion to its efficiency as a drive. Variants on the Human Lesson have been used throughout science fiction. It seems to be popular now to use this essential point to argue against the idea that space travel will ever be the province of privately-owned spacecraft. After all, an interplanetary, let alone interstellar, drive would seem to put, by definition, the functional equivalent of a massive nuclear weapon in the hands of its pilots and owners. But we are still in such early days of space travel that I don’t care to speculate on that. Instead I will speculate about something that I have studied far more, and may understand far less, but that’s always a risk when one writes about theology.

I hope that my readers will forgive me by starting with the extraordinarily obvious observation that religion is one of the most powerful forces in human society throughout history. Theists like myself will say that religion – usually ours particularly – has served humanity well, by encouraging them to love one another, by bringing together people of different backgrounds, by encouraging science and the arts (and yes, the Catholic Church, among other large religious institutions, used to encourage both of these things when no other institutions did) and by setting standards of behavior that encouraged social cohesion. Atheists and anti-theists point out (just as correctly) that religious institutions have also fostered hatred of the other, the suppression of science and the arts, and rigid codes of conduct intended to control people against their will. So I would like to discuss this odd duality, and as an example, I will use a point of controversy surrounding my own faith, Christianity. As an aside, I must beg my readers’ indulgence if I seem to focus on Christianity in these columns when I discuss religion. While many of the issues I discuss would certainly impact followers of other faiths, the Christian theology is the one I know best, and it seems wisest to me to write about what I do know rather than get someone else’s theology disastrously wrong.

Most recently, it has become fashionable to attack Christianity directly on the grounds that the Christian doctrine of salvation by grace necessarily leads to an unconcern and a carelessness about the world. This charge seems to particularly antagonize those who are convinced that climate change is a human-caused and imminent threat to humanity on the planet. Essentially, the argument goes that the Christian idea that one can simply ask for forgiveness and receive it, thereby attaining eternal salvation, is far too dangerous. That this necessarily leads to the conclusion that one may sin as much as one pleases and feel no concern for the consequences because Earth is temporary and Heaven is eternal.

In order to meet this argument fairly, two things must be admitted from the outset. The first is that there are undoubtedly Christians who think that way. There have been from the beginning, and we know this because the New Testament contains polemics against this position. Both Paul in Romans and James in his epistle rail against the conclusion that, because salvation is by faith and all sins can be forgiven, the conduct of Christians in this life does not matter. In fact, Jesus himself elevates the treatment of the poor, in the parable of the sheep and the goats, to the deciding factor between those who are saved and those who are damned.

The idea of salvation by grace – of a personal relationship with a loving God – was a truly revolutionary one in its day. And while the idea of the “dying god” whose resurrection brought renewed life was already old when Jesus walked the Earth, the idea that God would sacrifice himself for the well-being of individual humans, no matter how poor and lowly, was something new and compelling, as we can see by the rapid spread of the faith throughout the Roman Empire. It was powerful. But it is in the nature of powerful things to be dangerous, especially when they are perverted. And this is what I would call “The God Lesson:” Any religion is a weapon of destruction and oppression in direct proportion to its power to inspire its followers to do good.

In fact, I would argue that this lesson applies to pretty much any system of human thought. The point of Marxism was never to place millions of humans in gulags. Karl Marx was inspired to formalize his economic theories precisely because people were starving and oppressed. And yet it was followers of Marx who caused the famine known as the Holodomor to destroy their political and ethnic targets in the Ukraine during the 1930s, killing somewhere in the neighborhood of five million people. Less dramatically, Plato feared the institution of pure democracy because it led to chaotic mob rule. Again, it was dangerous because it was powerful, and neither of these were religious doctrines.

I know of no way to avoid this potential for evil in religion, aside from dedication to first principles: to treat others as we would wish to be treated and to remember, if one believes in God, that ourselves and others are God’s beloved children and must be treated that way. In the end, it is not the principles that must be considered first, but the people. Lois McMaster Bujold’s hero Miles Vorkosigan put it brilliantly in this conversation:

“Surely it’s more important to be loyal to a person than to a principle.”

Galeni raised his eyebrows. “I suppose that shouldn’t surprise me, coming from a Barrayaran. From a society that traditionally organizes itself by internal oaths of fealty instead of an external framework of abstract law – is that your father’s politics showing?”

“My mother’s theology, actually. From two completely different starting points they arrive at this odd intersection in their views. Her theory is that principles come and go, but that human souls are immortal, and you should therefore throw in your lot with the greater part. My mother tends to be extremely logical.”

Correctly understood, this is where theology ought to take us: to an affirmation of the eternal soul and a dedication to use our own power to affect other souls, not as a weapon, but as a drive to a union with the infinite.

About the Author

G. Scott Huggins makes his money by teaching history at a private school, proving that he knows more about history than making money. He loves writing fiction, both serious and humorous. If you want serious, Writers of the Future XV features “Bearing the Pattern.” If you like to laugh, “Phoenix For The Amateur Chef” is coming out in Sword and Sorceress 30. When he is not teaching or writing, he devotes himself to his wife, their three children, and his cat. He loves good bourbon, bacon, and pie. If you have any recipes featuring one or more of these things, Mr. Huggins will be pleased to review them, if accompanied by a sample.

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A Heroic Obedience

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Science-fiction and fantasy tend toward the epic. In science-fiction, the sheer scale of the visible universe inspires the heroic, and in the fantastic myths tend to reward the heroes who single-handedly (or in the company of a band of brothers) take on the gods in the face of certain doom. And thus it is that the heroic virtues are the ones that our genres celebrate. Heroic valor, enduring faithfulness, unstained honor, even chivalric mercy cross our pages and screens.

Whether virtues exist, in any real sense, is one of our oldest debates. Very early on in human – and doubtless in prehuman – existence, we held to the idea that virtues were real. The idea that virtues and virtuous behavior do not exist, because they are a scam to trick the weak and the stupid away from grasping the power that could be theirs, is not very much younger, as anyone who is passingly familiar with Plato knows. From that time to this, the virtues that civilization has been built on have been periodically under assault, often in alternating pairs: thus, near the time of World War I and World War II, mercy and charity were regarded as spinelessness and treason by the great mass of the population. During the height of the Vietnam War, physical courage was often decried as brutality. And as a result of both of those times, one virtue has been beaten so low as to scarcely resemble a virtue at all: obedience.

Obedience receives little admiration from any side of the Western political spectrum, because of the aforementioned recent history, because of the Enlightenment’s valorization of liberty and freethought, but perhaps also because the study of politics concerns the acquisition and use of power to compel the obedience of other people. But that very fact, of course, compels us to take a hard look at the virtue of obedience. After all, what is the purpose of wielding, in Monty Python’s beloved phrase, “supreme executive (or legislative) power” if no one will obey it? Political power is predicated upon the idea that people will obey, and democratic republics are predicated upon the idea that they will obey, at least in the main, willingly. But obeying is not glorious or sexy, and it isn’t a virtue we generally see held up as an example in our heroic science-fictional or fantastic epics.

Of course, obedience features heavily in religious and non-religious myth, the Garden of Eden and Pandora’s Box being archetypal. Perhaps the first epic fantasist to play explicitly with the virtue of obedience near our own time was Milton. And he, writing on the very eve of the Enlightenment, makes of Satan a kind of epic hero that was embraced unreservedly by later Romantic poets. Shelley said that, “Milton’s Devil, as a moral being, is far superior to his God.” What Milton had meant as a tale of lost virtue, they turned into the embrace of a new one: the virtue of defiance. Not defiance for anything, but defiance in sich was taken to be a good.

After the Holocaust and Holodomor of the 20th century showed us the disastrous consequences of unthinking obedience to totalitarian ideologies, we should expect to see a celebration of heroic rebellion spring up. Surely it is no accident that the heroes of the most iconic SF film series of all time are part of “the Rebellion” against an evil and destructive Empire. But the recent crop of Young Adult fiction has developed pure rebellion to new heights. I have already in previous columns addressed Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. Pullman is the heir of Shelley and Keats, preaching defiance against the Authority, and I think the generic nature of his epithet for God is telling. His heroes are not merely rebelling against a bad god, but against the very concept of legitimate obedience. This is taken even further with the more-popular The Hunger Games. Collins first throws Katniss Everdeen against the evil President Snow, who is determined to crush the Districts beneath his heel, even though he already enjoys almost limitless power. But when Katniss discovers the fabled District Thirteen, thought to have been lost in a war almost a century before, its leader, Alma Coin, is almost as cruel and absolutist as Snow himself, enforcing a starkly ascetic military regime. Katniss ends up executing her on the basis of her own suspicion that Coin will seek to assume the powers of the overthrown President Snow. In Katniss’s world, political power and authority quite literally are not allowed to be good, or to act as a moral force. Katniss’s own moral force comes from her willingness and compulsion to disobey (and destroy) every power that would seek her compliance, or even her allegiance. She, and she alone, has the power to determine what is right.

If we look back in the history of SF, however, we find a more nuanced approach from the antecedents of Star Wars, sometimes in the unlikeliest places. In that now almost-forgotten epic, the Lensman series, the Lensmen are cast as the agents of law and order, an outgrowth of the Triplanetary law-enforcement branch, not its military arm. The Lensmen believe themselves to be fighting against “Boskonian pirates,” that is, the agents of lawlessness. Nevertheless it is plain even from the outset that “Boskone” is actually a dictatorial and totalitarian state. The tension between the two is instructive and clear: obedience is an unavoidable virtue. You may not defy the Boskonian terror without obeying the laws of the Galactic Patrol. There is no way to defy one without obeying the other.Tolkien develops the same theme, although he seemed reluctant to confront it fully. Frodo’s struggle against the Ring is almost always cast as a rebellion and a defiance against The Lord Of All The Rings, and the Ring itself. But in so doing, of course, Frodo is declaring his allegiance and obedience to Gandalf and the rest of the Council of the Wise. To obey them when the way is hard.It is perhaps unsurprisingly C.S. Lewis and Madeleine L’Engle that come closest to a true celebration of obedience in Lewis’s The Magician’s Nephew, where the fate of Narnia hangs on Diggory’s obedience to Aslan’s command, although that very obedience invlolves defying the Empress (and later White Witch) Jadis in the garden. Perelandra is clearest of all, being an allegory of the Biblical story of the Fall as it might have been. But L’Engle’s A Wind in the Door comes to its climax in an act of obedience, a counterrebellion, when the farandola Sporos dares to obey in the midst of his people’s rebellion, heeding the wisdom of the elder fara, Senex, and trusting the authority that says that he must Deepen and undergo metamorphosis to be truly free.

Even in Star Wars itself, of course, this paradox plays out. In order to effectively defy Darth Vader and the Emperor, Luke must obey Yoda. And when he fails to do this, he finds himself effectively obeying his enemies. Our heroes cannot defy without obeying, but they cannot obey without defying.

Heroes who insist on defying without obedience end up where Pullman’s and Collins’s stories leave us, and in each case, the place is not one that any person would envy. The protagonists are forever shattered by their victories: Lyra is separated forever from both the boy she loves and any prospect of eternal life, and Katniss, while she is together with Peeta, refuses to lead. And perhaps she must refuse this: becoming a leader would place her in a role of authority, which is evil. It would also entail her allegiance and obedience to law. She cannot truly be a hero because heroes are, almost by definition, those who give of themselves for that which is greater, that which they feel it is worthy to obey.

About the Author

G. Scott Huggins makes his money by teaching history at a private school, proving that he knows more about history than making money. He loves writing fiction, both serious and humorous. If you want serious, Writers of the Future XV features “Bearing the Pattern.” If you like to laugh, “Phoenix For The Amateur Chef” is coming out in Sword and Sorceress 30. When he is not teaching or writing, he devotes himself to his wife, their three children, and his cat. He loves good bourbon, bacon, and pie. If you have any recipes featuring one or more of these things, Mr. Huggins will be pleased to review them, if accompanied by a sample.

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His Kingdom Endures Forever

There is a popular and growing disdain for the concept of an afterlife today. Among agnostics and atheists, it is seen as pure wishful thinking, lampooned as “pie in the sky when you die,” a nostrum intended to keep the poor and the ignorant enslaved to the will of the religious elite. That this phrase was popularized by a communist who intended to harness the poor and ignorant to his revolution is either forgotten or embraced as “liberating,” as though dying for a secular cause you’ll never experience is somehow more meaningful and less absurd than dying for a religious one you would.

In the postmodern age, we see that even among some Christians, a desire for an afterlife is seen as somehow dishonorable and mercenary. As though somehow it is “pay” for “being good,” which truly virtuous people would do without reward. Thus, it is argued, Christians (or anyone) who believe in an afterlife are really just admitting their own moral failings. I must admit that, as a Christian, this argument fails to move me, seeing that the whole basis for faith in Christ is a recognition that everyone fails at morality.

I find it an interesting paradox, therefore, that in so many fantasy works that explicitly address the question of what it means to be good, the idea of an afterlife inevitably occurs, if not at the beginning, then at the end. Almost as if it were a secret that cannot help but come out whenever we discuss what it means to do right at the cost of our own lives.

Of course, this is the classic threat that is leveled at our SFF heroes: submit, or die. Lois McMaster Bujold, in her Chalion cycle, begins The Curse of Chalion with the tale of Lupe dy Cazaril, a Chalionese nobleman recently freed from the slavery into which he was betrayed. Although Cazaril at first dares death to save his young pupil, a Chalionese girl threatened with a forced marriage, he finds himself quickly caught up in a the service of gods who ask him to die not once, but three times to save Chalion from a curse brought about by the desperate pride of two men long dead. Cazaril does this at the risk, not only of his death, but of his damnation. And damnation becomes a theme throughout this cycle of Bujold’s work, just as reunion with the gods does. The entire second work, A Paladin of Souls turns on saving the soul of a damned ghost. To do this, Dowager Queen Ista must walk into danger only on the word of her patron god.

If Cazaril is not especially religious at the beginning of his tale, Frodo the Hobbit and Harry Potter the wizard are even less so. Both characters face, however, the growing power of a malevolent force that wishes to dominate their worlds. While the characters are extremely different, Frodo being completely unknown in his world before encountering the One Ring, while Harry is a prophesied hero practically at his birth, they have this similarity: both are forced to choose whether they will accept the role of opposing a deadly foe at the cost of their own lives. And the reward for both of them, revealed at the end of the last volume, is Heaven. The fact that Harry chooses to turn his back on Heaven (and the penalty for Voldemort’s determination to live forever at the expense of others is, make no mistake, a form of Hell) is irrelevant. He has seen Heaven, and can be confident he will find his way back.

I would contend that these authors have seen clearly a necessary truth: that the belief in an objective moral code that can demand our lives in its service cannot be separated from the belief in an afterlife. The alternative to this is not moral rectitude, but a dreadful moral injustice, in which the good are enslaved to the evil. It makes God (or whatever the source of the moral code is) into a moral vampire, demanding the hard road of virtue while returning nothing.

A comparison may be useful here. In Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials saga, the only afterlife is Hell, which is maintained by an evil God (“The Authority”) who has pulled the wool over the eyes of the universe. Essentially, this “God” is the imagined God of Satan in Paradise Lost:1not a Creator, but simply an immensely powerful being who opportunistically identified itself as “God” to all who came after. Hell is maintained for no other reason than Divine sadism, and by the time of the novel, the angel Metatron is trying to take over the position of “God” from the senile and dying deity, maintaining the monstrous tyranny of Heaven. The protagonists are humans who lead a revolution against these evil god-kings.

I find it fascinating where Pullman went in setting this up. When, in the first volume, The Golden Compass, we meet the parents of the main protagonist, a girl named Lyra, her parents (whom she does not know, as they have more important things to do than raise a child) are engaged in experiments to understand the nature of the universe, which they can only do, it seems, by cutting out the souls of children. This they do without qualm.

By The Amber Spyglass, we are asked to believe that these same people who would torture and kill children to attain their ends are sacrificing themselves heroically in combat to overthrow the evil Metatron. I suppose we ought to congratulate Pullman on his honesty: at least his anti-theistic messiah figures were honest enough to start out by killing children. Most of the ones in the real world are too cowardly to show their willingness to do this until they have already attained power.

At the end of the novel, Lyra breathlessly declares her intention to begin building “the Republic of Heaven,” to replace the shattered kingdom. But this Republic of Heaven will have no permanent inhabitants, it having been revealed that infinite existence was only possible, for some reason, in Hell. Lyra’s “heaven” is temporary, powerless, and cannot even contain the boy she has grown to love.

Pullman’s point, in the end, seems to be that his humans are free because they have discovered the truth: that Christianity is a lie. Well and good, I suppose, but the truth revealed is a terribly depressing one: that humans are free only to die. It truly is a Satanic conclusion: that it is better to reign and die than to serve in Heaven. He makes no argument as to why this is superior, he simply establishes on his own Author-ity that this is the case.

I would argue that we find it difficult to separate the idea of Heaven from the idea of a transcendent moral code because the two are fundamentally indissoluble, as Tolkien, Rowling, and Bujold instinctively grasp. They are repelled from separating the two for much the same reason that Pullman is attracted to destroying both: because they believe that an objective and powerful moral code is essential to human freedom, while Pullman believes that such a code destroys it. Each author has built a world on his on this foundation, and the consequences for the human condition are plain. Which world we would choose to inhabit is, as always, a choice for the reader. I believe Pullman would argue that the overwhelming advantage of living in his world is that it most closely resembles the real one. To that, I can only reply, along with C.S. Lewis’s Puddleglum, “in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that’s a funny thing when you come to think of it.”

About the Author

G. Scott Huggins makes his money by teaching history at a private school, proving that he knows more about history than making money. He loves writing fiction, both serious and humorous. If you want serious, Writers of the Future XV features “Bearing the Pattern.” If you like to laugh, “Phoenix For The Amateur Chef” is coming out in Sword and Sorceress 30. When he is not teaching or writing, he devotes himself to his wife, their three children, and his cat. He loves good bourbon, bacon, and pie. If you have any recipes featuring one or more of these things, Mr. Huggins will be pleased to review them, if accompanied by a sample.

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The Power of the Darkside

Like so many of my generation – which I still prefer to call the Children of the Eighties – Star Wars was a great part of my introduction to science-fiction. I grew up adoring it, practically worshiping it. Surely nothing could be so good as Star Wars. And in a sense, I was right: Star Wars became a movie so iconic that, while it could be imitated, it could not be directly borrowed from. After Star Wars, who would dare to use lightsabers (or forceblades, or laser swords) seriously? After Star Wars, who could possibly consider using any power that would correspond to The Force?

Of course, besides the fact that it would be a shameless rip-off, there are other reasons why no one but George Lucas would use a concept like The Force. It was so ill-defined that it could defensibly do just about anything. It was the ultimate deus ex machina, and only the fact that the writers had the sense to use it somewhat sparingly saved the movies at all from their most defining feature.

But the two worst things about Star Wars’ portrayal of The Force are ones that I rarely hear discussed. Firstly, it was a great example of that cardinal sin of storytelling: Telling, Not Showing. While it certainly makes sense for Luke’s use of the Force to be limited in the first Star Wars movie, it certainly doesn’t make much sense for Obi-Wan not to show him what the Force can do, any more than it makes sense for Obi-Wan and Darth Vader to fail to use the Force during their combat. (Yes, I realize that the primary reason for this was because Lucas himself had obviously not figured out what he wanted the Force to be capable of, yet. In which case, it’s bad worldbuilding). Secondly, it missed a great opportunity to build characters with the depth necessary to address truly hard questions about the nature of power and its ability to corrupt.

Strangely enough, this is one of the few things that the prequels do just a little bit better than the original trilogy does. In Attack of the Clones, we get a clear glimpse of what it can mean to turn to the Dark Side of the Force and why that might be attractive. In trying to save his mother, Anakin Skywalker lashes out in anger and slaughters the Sand People, down to the women and children. He shows no mercy in doing so, and he regrets it later. In The Empire Strikes Back, Yoda warns Luke that “once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny,” but we never see that in Luke. Instead, he is told to take it on faith that the Light Side of the Force will be better served if he abandons his friends to Darth Vader, which he understandably resists.

Luke is never seriously tempted to join the Dark Side. To question the Light Side, yes. But he is never really shown to have any desire to seize the Force for any evil purpose, as Anakin did. And the Dark Side’s mastery of Anakin Skywalker begins with a tactic that is familiar to many terrorist organizations and criminal gangs: the new initiate is required to kill. Ideally he is required to kill a non-combatant in the name of the group’s ideals. This tactic works for two reasons: firstly, it puts the initiate on the wrong side of the law. He cannot go back without facing serious penalties. Secondly, and far more seriously, the initiate can never turn his back on the group without admitting to himself that he is a murderer. The only way to defend himself from that is to profess that the murder was really a virtuous act. And this, if true, can only lead to more “virtuous acts.” More murder. More terror.

Another excellent portrayal of the Dark Side’s power was that done by Kevin J. Anderson with his character Kyp Durron, who comes to be able to use the Force directly through surges of fear and anger to free himself from captivity. Unguided by any master, he discovers that fear, anger and aggression make him powerful, and underline the truth of Yoda’s claim that the Dark Side is “quicker, easier, more seductive.” And of course, it is, because it always has been.

The Force is on one hand a tame god. It obeys the will of the user. But on the other hand, it is a metaphor for that most challenging of theological concepts: free will. And like any person who discovers that his or her anger and fear can be fashioned into a weapon to bend and manipulate others, the temptation to continue using it becomes a sword sharp as a lightsaber, unsafe to hold from any angle. If you stop using it, those you threaten will be encouraged to strike back (most likely for the same reasons you struck them in the first place). And even if they do not, you will be left to face the guilt and will be forced to confess that your actions were wrong from the outset. Far easier, then to find any excuse to keep using the dark power, always for the noblest of goals. But any Star Wars fan – and far more sadly, any history student – knows where that leads. It leads to killing children to save the thing you love, and then passing it off as a difference in “point of view.” To, in the words of a better character, Aral Vorkosigan, do terrible things in the present to avoid false terrors in the future. We do not have to be Jedi to be tempted by the Dark Side. It is in all of us.

About the Author

G. Scott Huggins makes his money by teaching history at a private school, proving that he knows more about history than making money. He loves writing fiction, both serious and humorous. If you want serious, Writers of the Future XV features “Bearing the Pattern.” If you like to laugh, “Phoenix For The Amateur Chef” is coming out in Sword and Sorceress 30. When he is not teaching or writing, he devotes himself to his wife, their three children, and his cat. He loves good bourbon, bacon, and pie. If you have any recipes featuring one or more of these things, Mr. Huggins will be pleased to review them, if accompanied by a sample.

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Religion and Science Fiction

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Over a decade ago, I was asked to sit on a panel at WisCon. The subject of the panel was whether religion and science-fiction are antithetical. One of my fellow-panelists and authors was a woman who thought that they were. I suppose it’s no secret that I disagree. On a side-note, I was rather surprised, because I had read one of her stories, wherein an alien becomes a devotee of Thomas a Beckett. It was quite well-done and I’d be grateful if anyone could let me know what the title of the story and the name of the author was. It was published in either F&SF or Asimov’s between 1997 and 2004. All my research has failed to turn it up.

Essentially, this woman’s argument was that religion is inherently antithetical to science-fiction, because religion professes to know all the answers to humanity’s questions, and is a closed system. Science-fiction on the other hand, is the literature of exploration, and deals with what we do not know. Thus, religion was for people who were not curious about the universe and refused to explore it, lest they find answers that conflict with received revelation.

The really sad part is that while part of me was horrified, part of me also knew exactly what kind of religion this author was reacting against. Doubtless, she had encountered the same breed of Christian that my little sister’s sixth-grade teacher belonged to. This was the woman who, in a Christian school, told my sister that she wasn’t allowed to read Anne McCaffrey’s Pern books in school because there was a dragon on the cover, and dragons were a symbol of Satan. And of course, the infamous reaction of certain Christians to the Harry Potter books because magic (even ridiculous, obviously-not-intended-to-be-real-on-any-level magic) is Evil. Therefore, Christians don’t like the spirit of science-fiction, even when they’re the ones writing it. There’s some real evidence for this charge, I’m afraid. Love him as I do, and love the novel as I do, the one thing that struck me as abhorrently wrong about C.S. Lewis’s Perelandra was his statement that since Christ’s Incarnation, all sentient beings would henceforth have to be humanoid, or risk dishonoring the Image of God. (As humans are explicitly forbidden from making an image of God per the Second Commandment, I pretty much always assumed it was understood that that “image of God” referred to spiritual, not physical, matters).

The fact is that her charge has some truth to it: there is a real and saddening tendency in the Church to want solid answers for everything, and, if those answers do not appear in Scripture, to “house rules” them in, and so we get doctrines of the Church that are at best vaguely (if ever) mentioned in Scripture, such as Purgatory, Limbo, an apocalyptic Anti-Christ, and many others. But I would argue that the Bible leaves immense amounts of room for unanswered questions, which the Christian God is simply uninterested in explaining to us. Perhaps – shocking thought – because He figured that we could find out the answers for ourselves? God’s challenges to Job, such as “By what way is the light parted, or the east wind scattered upon the earth? Who hath cleft a channel for the waterflood, or the way for the lightning of the thunder?” (Job 38:24-25), stripped of all their metaphorical content, basically boil down to, “you don’t know any of this [in retrospect, very basic stuff] and you think you can figure out really complicated stuff like Divine Justice?”

Fortunately, there has been room for some truly amazing science-fiction that was related to religious themes. In Speaker For The Dead, Orson Scott Card imagined aliens so different from humanity that the only way of understanding their life cycles was to explore it in terms of an afterlife, which is a challenge, but not an insurmountable one, for both his Catholic and his atheist characters. Going even further, Dan Simmons explicitly explored the possibility of godhood in the Hyperion series, as the TechnoCore decides to try to build its own Ultimate Intelligence: a machine god with power to challenge the Human Creator. Perhaps most explicitly, and Mary Doria Russell used Jesuit priests as her first-contact specialists when humanity detects intelligent life around Alpha Centauri in The Sparrow and Children of God. Her characters go exploring specifically because of their faith in God. And I would argue that the torturous spiritual and physical paths her characters tread display an awesome comprehension of the mysteries of the Christian faith. While not all these writers were Christians (Russell was, when I had the privilege of meeting her, Jewish by conversion), the Christian faith certainly informed and shaped their exploration of vast imagined universes. And if this does not show that Christian thought cannot be capable of exploring the universe, then I confess I am not sure what would, and can only imagine that argument descending into tautology.

The chief flaw I see in my fellow-panelist’s argument is that she wants to see Christianity as a wall, closing us off from exploration. Because Christianity professes that the nature of God is known: that He is One, and He is Three, but He is not many. That while He understands and creates the Female, He does not identify as Female. That He declares that there is good, and there is evil, and dares to tell us which is which. But the very science that makes science-fiction possible is also about limits: the gravitation constant is not open to debate, nor is the mass of the proton. The boundaries that God and physics set are quite literally as big as the universe, and as small as a lifetime: there is always, as Heinlein said, time enough for love. What more can we ask of any philosophy, or any religion?

About the Author

G. Scott Huggins makes his money by teaching history at a private school, proving that he knows more about history than making money. He loves writing fiction, both serious and humorous. If you want serious, Writers of the Future XV features “Bearing the Pattern.” If you like to laugh, “Phoenix For The Amateur Chef” is coming out in Sword and Sorceress 30. When he is not teaching or writing, he devotes himself to his wife, their three children, and his cat. He loves good bourbon, bacon, and pie. If you have any recipes featuring one or more of these things, Mr. Huggins will be pleased to review them, if accompanied by a sample.

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The God of the Large and Small

In his short story, “The Theologian’s Nightmare,” (Fact and Fiction 1961) the philosopher, astronomer and atheist Bertrand Russell presents the absurd tale of Dr. Thaddeus, who dreams himself into a Heaven staffed with great alien minds who have never heard of the “parasites” called man, who infest the planets of an ordinary star in a commonplace galaxy. They are mildly amused that one of these parasites suffers the delusion that its race is the acme of creation.

I cannot help admiring Dr. Russell’s intelligence, or his elegant skewering of the ego of humankind. In fact, as a Christian I have to admit that (especially) our overinflated egos have often deserved such skewering. That sentiment is hardly out of place in the Bible. Indeed, one might say it is the entire point of God’s speech in the Book of Job. And yet, as an attempt to show the absurdity of humanity’s desire for a connection with its Creator, I have to wonder at the failure of imagination that posits a God too big to care for Its creation. Humanity as such is simply beneath Its notice. It is like Clarke’s Overmind, which I discussed in my last column. Like Russell’s, Clarke’s evolving god is too big to love (in fact, it is implied that it must be), too big to be grateful. It is a monstrous Beyond Good And Evil that eats its children like Saturn, so that it may be increased and glorified.

But an astronomer and a philosopher of all people should be well aware that size itself is no argument for complexity, let alone wonder. And while it makes perfect sense that the love of a god (let alone the love of God) might be incomprehensibly more than we can ever imagine, and might at times be strikingly – even shockingly – alien in its highest expressions, surely it can never be less. That strikes at the root of all human experience and all logic. Surely, that which is more includes that which is less. It does not exclude it. A baby can understand love only in that it is snuggled and is dry and is fed. It knows nothing of a love poem or heroic deeds in the name of love. It would find them alien and possibly even frightening if it were give them. But as an adult, I can still enjoy being snuggled and being fed, and I can certainly understand how to give these things to my children.

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One of my favorite authors, who understands this beautifully, is Lois McMaster Bujold, who is the best since Dan Simmons (and perhaps C.S. Lewis) at conveying a God who is both big enough to create worlds, and small enough to love those who inhabit them. Her land of Chalion and its Five Gods is astonishingly well realized. Through her protagonists, Cazaril and Ista, Bujold draws for us broken and real humans, who abandon their gods, curse their gods, and suffer greatly. And like those of us who choose to follow our God, these men and women are faced with a terrible choice: to keep faith and do what is right when the cost seems disastrous, or to run away and save themselves. Bujold’s gods cannot compel their humans (just as, I would argue, God cannot compel a free choice, but that is beyond the scope of this piece) and the cost of that free will hurts Ista terribly. In Paladin of Souls,brought face-to-face with the god called the Bastard she cries: “Where were the gods the night Teidez [her son] died?” He answers: “The Son of Autumn dispatched many men in answer to your prayers, sweet Ista. They turned aside upon their roads, and did not arrive. For He could not bend their wills, nor their steps. And so they scattered to the winds as leaves do.” Bujold portrays gods who yearn for their children to arrive home safely at the end of their lives, and are heartsick at each soul that is lost: “The Father of Winter favored her with a grave nod. ‘What parents would not wait as anxiously by their door, looking again and again up the road, when their child was due home from a long and dangerous journey? You have waited by that door yourself, both fruitfully and in vain. Multiply that anguish by ten thousands and pity me, sweet Ista. For my great-souled child is very late, and lost upon his road.”

But at the same time that she understands God’s love for His children, she also understands the fearful demand of the duty God lays on us to one another. Even better than she does in the Chalion books, Bujold portrays this in her science-fiction novel Falling Free, when engineer Leo Graf is thrust into the position of the only man who is willing and able to save the quaddies – children who, being genetically engineered to work in space, have two extra arms in place of their legs – from a Company that no longer needs them, and plans to have them quietly euthanized. When his supervisor washes his hands of the problem, saying he has done all one man can do to save the quaddies in the face of the company’s power, Leo also faces the choice, and grasps its full import: “’I’m not sure… what one human being can do. I’ve never pushed myself to the limit. I thought I had, but I realize now I hadn’t. My self –tests were always carefully non-destructive.’ This test was a higher order of magnitude altogether. This Tester, perhaps, scorned the merely humanly possible. Leo tried to remember how long it had been since he’d prayed, or even believed. Never, he decided, like this. He’d never needed like this before…”

The challenge that any attempt to criticize God must meet, and that so many of them fail to grasp, is a full understanding of the scope and power of an omnipotent God. It must understand that the same God that is credited with designing the galactic voids and the superclusters is also the God of gluons and quarks. That the same God who arranged for the long dance of evolution can care just as much about the dance of a father with his daughter at her wedding. This does not mean that we deny that terrible things do not happen: they do. We, the creation, have much to do with whether or not they happen. What it does mean is that we are obligated to understand that God is big enough to be there at the end of the roads of galaxies, and that He is small enough to open the door for a single human.

About the Author

G. Scott Huggins makes his money by teaching history at a private school, proving that he knows more about history than making money. He loves writing fiction, both serious and humorous. If you want serious, Writers of the Future XV features “Bearing the Pattern.” If you like to laugh, “Phoenix For The Amateur Chef” is coming out in Sword and Sorceress 30. When he is not teaching or writing, he devotes himself to his wife, their three children, and his cat. He loves good bourbon, bacon, and pie. If you have any recipes featuring one or more of these things, Mr. Huggins will be pleased to review them, if accompanied by a sample.

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Childishness's End

We’ve all had that moment of vindication and excitement when the news comes through that finally – finally! – one of our favorite novels (or series) are going to be translated to the screen. Big screen, small screen, it makes little difference. You’re going to see it on the screen!

That wasn’t at all the sensation I had upon learning that the SyFy channel was going to create a television series based on Arthur C. Clarke’s classic novel, Childhood’s End. Instead, my initial reaction was, to paraphrase Douglas Adams, that this series is going to fly in precisely the same way that bricks don’t. Obviously it’s too early to know whether I’m going to be right about that. I have not watched it. And the main reason for that is because I remember Childhood’s End as one of the most depressing books I’ve ever read. It’s the atheist equivalent of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe , where the great triumph at the end of the work is not the defeat of death, but its celebration. Clarke’s atheism and disdain for religion was legendary during his life, and it is never more on display than here. So I find it very curious that such a great author and thinker seems to have been so trapped by religion. Clarke’s contemporary, the great Robert Heinlein, said in his novel Time Enough For Love, “Men rarely (if ever) manage to dream up a god superior to themselves. Most gods have the manners and morals of a spoiled child.” Obviously, I disagree. But it strikes me that if Clarke is any example of the improvement an atheist has to offer, then the atheists still have a ways to go before they equal, let alone surpass, their theistic brothers.

The novel truly begins about five years after the Overlords have begun their “benevolent” rule over Earth. It opens with a protest against that rule, led by an ex-clergyman named Wainwright, who presents a petition to Stormgren, the Secretary-General of the UN. Wainwright’s stated objection to the Overlords’ forced Federation of Earth is that humans have lost the “freedom to control our own lives, under God’s guidance.”

This is the only mention of God during the entire exchange, except for Stormgren’s contention that many religious leaders support the Overlords. Yet Stormgren takes this statement of Wainwright’s as proof that “Basically, the conflict is a religious one, however much it may be disguised.” Later, the Overlord administrator Karellen agrees. “You know why Wainwright and his kind fear me, don’t you? You will find men like him in all the world’s religions. They know we represent reason and science, and, however confident they may be in their beliefs, they fear that we will overthrow their gods.”

The whole conflict as presented by Clarke is delicious in its irony: atheists, of all people, ought to believe in the importance of free will in the face of overwhelming authority and force (unless they are determinists who insist free will is an illusion). Conversely, it is people of faith who ought to know better than to demand freedom to live their own lives. Human freedom is sharply limited by God. Clarke is doing a bit of pop psychology here which is very popular at the moment: “It doesn’t matter what you say, you Opponent Of My Goals. Your real motivation is Horribleness, because you are one of Them!

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