A Wrinkle in the Expanse

I finally got to see the movie version of A Wrinkle In Time recently, and it was interesting to have that experience coincide with watching the most recent episode of The Expanse.

Madeleine L’Engle’s novel A Wrinkle in Time was one that I thoroughly enjoyed reading as a young person, and I loved the other books in the series as well. It was very strange watching the movie and feeling as though, on the one hand, it was very clearly not aimed at someone my age and is on so many levels a parable of elementary school angst. And yet I felt a lump in my throat and was profoundly moved as well as I reconnected with this story.

There are two reasons that I felt it natural to connect the Wrinkle in Time movie with The Expanse. One is the contrasting engagements with Christianity. The movie removed the references to Jesus, God, and angels that gave poignant expression to L’Engle’s faith in the novel. The TV show has a sympathetic, human, believable and believing Methodist minister, who lets down a fellow Methodist in a time of need, feels great remorse, and preaches a beautiful sermon. There has been a great deal of discussion of this online, and I would probably have to reread the novel to have any chance of doing justice to it myself.

But the other reason I thought the two connect naturally is because there is a common theme that is at the heart of human religion that also connects both shows, and perhaps all science fiction. That is the theme that humanity will find or be found by some power that will enable us to experience and accomplish things that currently seem magical. Flying into the heavens. Seeing other worlds. Everything else that is part of imaginative storytelling among human beings.

In many versions (including both Corey’s and L’Engle’s) otherworldly intelligences reach out to us to open the door. Typically, they reveal that the key was something we held all along. In other cases, we discover the thing that holds powerful potential in the world around us, whether that be dilithium crystals, vibranium, or zohar.

What seems noteworthy to me is that, in all of this, there is a recognition of our own non-ultimacy as human beings. It is a recognition that is profoundly religious. Whether one articulates it in theistic, pantheistic, panentheistic or other terms, there is a recognition that the universe has bestowed gifts upon us, and faith that it has other gifts yet to give.

In the classic Star Trek episode Arena, the Metron are highly advanced beings who place Captain Kirk and his Gorn counterpart in a setting that provides resources that allow them to fight one another – or find a way to peace. The universe has clearly done the same to us on a much larger scale, whether one inhabits the secular universe envisaged by Gene Roddenberry, the magic-filled one envisaged by Madeleine L’Engle, or the scientific yet spiritual one depicted under the pseudonym of James Corey.

And so whatever one’s thoughts about A Wrinkle in Time or The Expanse, whether in print or on screen, it does seem that they all reflect a view of the universe that is widely shared, and which hopes for magical possibilities in our future. Even when those are thought of in scientific terms, the perspective in question really doesn’t leave room for atheism. A cosmos that gives life and then offers resources for life to spread to the stars may not be the view of God that most atheists are interested in, but failure to acknowledge the divine, the metaphysical, the numinous, the profoundly mysterious in it leaves something huge out of the picture.

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  • John MacDonald

    I’m reminded of “The Chase” episode of Star Trek TNG. In this episode, four competing expeditions—Federation, Klingon, Cardassian, and Romulan—attempt to solve an ancient genetic puzzle. The end of this episode outlines the possibility of there one day being peace between the Romulans and the Federation.

    • I was a bit disappointed by the fake “science” in “The Chase”, the same we see in the movie “Prometheus”. Panspermia, the idea the life could be “seeded” on a planet, is a legitimate scientific theory; but the idea that DNA seeds could “guide” evolution into a distant future resulting in creatures that look just like their ancient progenitors is completely bogus. That’s not how evolution works. You might as well call it alien magic, because it isn’t evolution.

  • As and atheist, I’m one of those failing to “acknowledge the divine”. But isn’t it just semantics to use the label “God” or “divine” for anything which is wonderful, unknown, hopeful, etc?

    I find the universe a beautiful, amazing, stupefying place about which we have much to learn; I have great hope that we will make even more amazing discoveries (and/or technologies) in the future, but I have no guarantee of this. Among the unknown aspects of the universe could be an asteroid that destroys our planet next week. Recognizing the wonder of the universe doesn’t require acknowledging divinity – unless one simply labels the wonder as divine. I don’t, because I’m not interested in the connotations of worship and religion that accompany the word “divine”.

    • I wonder what you would mean by “divine” if not mysterious, transcendent, possibly infinite but at least self-extant and simply existing in a manner that we cannot hope to explain, creative, and life-bestowing…

      • Well, you’re throwing in some words that don’t really resonate with me: transcendent, self-extant, life-bestowing.

        And to me the wonder of the universe is not tied in with the notion that “we cannot hope to explain” it; on the contrary, science is exciting to me precisely because we CAN explain so much that we couldn’t explain a hundred years ago, and we hope to explain even more in the future. Will we, as a species, ever “know it all”? I have no idea, but when I think of the universe, it isn’t the “not knowing” that excites me, it’s the “finding out”!

        • Indeed, the finding out, the exploration, the growth and discovery is what is exciting – I hope I didn’t say something that sounded like it runs counter to that. Would you say that the cosmos or perhaps some broader context that we find ourselves in is infinite such that our species can continue to grow and explore without ever exhausting what it has to offer?

          • The only thing that particularly ran counter to this was your description of something “existing in a manner that we cannot hope to explain”. I think we absolutely DO hope to explain the manner in which the cosmos and ourselves exist.

            Most current models of the universe predict that the universe will continue the accelerated expansion that we observe happening right now, until the galaxies become too distant to be seen, stars die out, and even black holes eventually evaporate. So – not infinite, but still billions of years away.

            At least those are the current models.

          • Moving backwards in time, one thing that seems certain is that we eventually reach something that simply is – a universe, a multiverse, a singularity, laws of physics, a quantum field. Whatever has always existed seems inherently mysterious and inexplicable.

          • So, trying to parse out our differences, in these descriptions of what you call the “divine”: I recognize and share descriptors such as awe, wonder, excitement, hope, etc.; I resonate with the idea of mystery, if by mystery we mean “something to solve or discover”; but I find descriptors such as unknowable and inexplicable uninteresting and not useful, because

            a) I don’t know if there are things that we cannot, inherently, know,
            b) if there are inherently unknowable things, I don’t know what they are (science keeps pushing back the boundaries of what is knowable), and
            c) the idea of something being unknowable is not even interesting to me. Discovery is exciting; labeling something as unknowable strikes me as boring and possibly closing the door on investigation (how do we know what we can’t know).

            I’m also not sure what other meaning is added to something by calling it “divine”. If calling something “divine” means it is awesome, wonderful, exciting, then I’ve already got words for that. If calling something divine means defining it as unknowable, then I would find the label boring and quite possibly incorrect. You mention infinity, the idea of something always existing, as something that is inherently inexplicable. I don’t know that to be true. The idea of infinity is tied to the idea of time and dimension, which are theoretical constructs physicists study as part of our universe. If there are things that are “infinite”, then there are things about the nature of the infinite that we should want to study, unravel, figure out.

            The word divine already carries connotations that are commonly associated with religion: something to worship, something that creates with agency, something to which we grant sovereignty. You might say that divinity doesn’t have to mean these things, but to many people it already does – so I prefer not to use the word. The word adds nothing of value to the way I view our existence and the cosmos.

          • The view of God as personal agent reflects one subset of religious views both today and historically, although admittedly the one that has most influenced popular religion in the English speaking world.

            I think that the question “Why is there something rather than nothing?” is inherently mysterious and unanswerable. Whether one seeks to respond by saying “a personal God simply exists” or “a universe simply exists,” the answer is unsatisfying, and evokes from me not only awe but a feeling of reverence.

          • That first paragraph is exactly why I eschew words like “divine” and “reverence” – the popular connotations of these words, a God with personal agency, carries no value in my view of the cosmos.

            I certainly feel awe.

            If the question “why is there something rather than nothing” leads to the framing of interesting work on the nature of matter or space, or the nature of the laws of physics themselves, then it is an interesting and useful question. If the question is simply something to label as “unanswerable”, then it is completely uninteresting to me.

            Again, the idea of something being “inexplicable” or “unknowable” or “unanswerable” does not evoke awe or wonder in me. It evokes boredom.

          • It would be really interesting to investigate whether a response of wonder or boredom to the inexplicable correlated with subjects’ religiosity or lack thereof!

          • I would call my response one of boredom to the NOTION of the inexplicable. I don’t find it useful or necessarily correct to label anything as inherently unknowable.

            Sounds like giving up to me.

          • What would you suggest is a more appropriate response to the question of why anything at all exists?

          • How about, “we don’t know yet”?

          • Do you think the question is inherently answerable?

          • I don’t know. I’m not even sure what it would mean to be inherently answerable or unanswerable.

            What I do know is that finding answers is interesting.

          • Nick G

            It can be shown that there are some mathematical facts that are unknowable – for example, the value of some real numbers which can be precisely defined, but not calculated.

          • Nick G

            I think that the question “Why is there something rather than nothing?” is inherently mysterious and unanswerable.

            There’s only one way of there being nothing, but an infinite number of ways of there being something, so it’s infinitely more likely there would be something rather than nothing!

      • Nick G

        I’d mean by it what the vast majority of those using the word mean and have meant, which includes agency as a key aspect. The universe, as far as we know, does not have agency. If this is the case, it can’t “bestow” anything, since this implies an intention to bestow.