Men rarely (if ever) manage to dream up a god superior to themselves. Most gods have the manners and morals of a spoiled child.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- In fairness to Heinlein, he claims that this is a poor translation from the Martian.
- 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.