Theology and science fiction

If you want to make a little money, write a book. If you want to make a lot of money, create a religion

L. Ron Hubbard (creator of Scientology)

I like science fiction. I wrote a science fiction novel (it has not yet been published).  But nonetheless, I know a little bit about the creative process that goes on in creating a story.  One has a world in mind, and that world has rules, social realities, etc that provide constraints for the writer.  And within those constraints one finds that they are able to create provocative and interesting stories that make the characters believable, problems understandable, and plots engaging.  The world becomes coherent.

More generally, we are able to construct stories and explanations about worlds–worldviews even–that are meaningful to us.  In an attempt to understand the real world outside of fantasy, were people that found themselves within a worldview that included deities, prophets, daemons, and even sons and daughters of gods doing something much different?

For thousands of years of human history, the model of how the world worked was not what it is today.  Pre-scientific models of the rules of the world we live in had ideas such as nature spirits, daemons, dragons, and so forth that sought to paint a picture of the world that contained magic, divine intervention, and even divine presence.  It was a dualistic worldview that dominated most of the world.  I have forgotten; that world has not disappeared for many people even still. The world as it is today does differ based upon ones understanding of the rules one accepts.

Science is not just another narrative among narratives to explain the world.  It is a shift in methodologies in how we explain the world that demands evidence.  And yet, still, there are multitudes of people that maintain older worldviews as still being relevant to us.  They still contain truths, even if the world it paints is itself not true.

That is the bottom of theology.  It is the attempt to make sense of the worldview one accepts in order to tell a meaningful story about the world we live in.  But in doing so the constraints don’t have to be what is true.  If one accepts that Mohammad was taken up to heaven in Jerusalem, that Jesus resurrected, or that Osiris was reassembled and thus resurrected by his wife/sister Isis after being dismembered by Set, then these are part of the basis for the rules for the story you will tell about the world.

Thus, a theology can be internally consistent.  It an proclaim meaningful ideas about the world within it’s constraints.  But this is because we are pattern-recognizing and meaning-creating beings.  We are able to find the raw materials for meaning in all sorts of places.  The fact that the things people find important seem coherent and important to them is certainly not to say that they are true.  Truth, at least not by itself, is not required to find meaning.

If we accept the basis of the Abrahamic God, the concept of sin, atonement, etc then the story of Jesus and his “sacrifice” makes sense within that world.  If someone had written a set of science fiction novels that told the essence of the story within the Old Testament, the New Testament story (assuming we could actually boil it down to a single coherent narrative) would be a sequel that would make sense within that universe.

This is not to say that the universe that it makes sense in is this real universe.  This is what the discussion about religion and society comes down to when we are dealing with the truth.  Religious ideologies are meaningful, important to the adherents, and interesting to many, but they are not true in the same sense that it is true that when a particle and an anti-particle meet, they annihilate each-other and a photon is emitted.

Nice costume! Is that from Babylon 5?
Nice costume! Is that from Babylon 5?

Good science fiction does not need to be strictly scientifically true to be good.  The reason is that we can tell meaningful stories within imaginary worlds that tell us things about ourselves.  Good science fiction is an expression of our humanity on a different canvass.  Theology is no different, except that those that read science fiction realize (at least I hope they do) that they are reading about imaginary worlds.  Imagination and creativity are great, and without them culture would be poorer.  But it is time for people to realize that fantasy and theology are akin in ways that seek to provide a space for people to guide their real lives by imagination.

A future female Pope's costume?
A future female Pope's costume?

Both George Lucas and the Pope are very wealthy people who live very comfortably.  But we all admit that George Lucas tells stories.  From my point of view, the Pope simply became the new leader of an old story that people keep paying money to see and live within.  The Catholic church is one example of a never-ending convention of people pretending that the story of Jesus is true.  At least with science fiction, most of the convention people go home and put away the costume after a fun weekend.  And if they don’t, we think they are a little weird.

I think that people that think Osiris, Jesus, and Thor are all real are a little weird.

4 thoughts on “Theology and science fiction

  1. “If someone had written a set of science fiction novels that told the essence of the story within the Old Testament,”

    And if 14 authors, most of whom had no contact with each other, over a 2,000 year period, wrote a coherent story of atonement?

  2. If you are surprised that people could read older works and write new stuff that cohered with it you are missing something crucial. It is no different than me writing a new book in the Star Wars universe that cohered with the other books.

  3. I’m not surprised by that. I’m surprsed by over a dozen authors, unknown to each other and whose works or by and large unknown to each other writing a cohesive text that tells one story.

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