Making Space for the Spiritual in Secular Storytelling

Making Space for the Spiritual in Secular Storytelling February 5, 2019

NASA, Unsplash.com, CC0 Licensing

Let’s begin with a poem. Specifically, a poem of mine published today for Rattle‘s Poets Respond series. I had a good week as a writer: I sold a near-future sci-fi novelette set in Colombia to Analog Science Fiction & Fact, my fifth piece to this most long-standing of science-fiction magazines, and I sold this poem, “Intervention”, which is about Venezuela. Specifically, I used the story of my robbery, along with a few other encounters with Venezuelans in Colombia, to shift the dominant news narrative about Venezuela’s leadership crisis to the average citizens caught up in the struggle.

(I also donated my payment to the UNHCR, and if you have the means to support their refugee programs the world over, please do!)

But there was one moment, in the writing of this poem, that gave me pause. It was the moment when I translated Cerro de las tres cruces into “the Hill of Three Crosses” for my predominantly English-speaking target audience, and I realized the layered cultural significance that this added to the image of me sitting with my thieves on either side.

Oh gross. No. “Christ-like” is not something I was trying to make myself out to be.

But such is the problem for secular-humanist writers: if we want to write the world, if we know we need to write the world, then the inclusion of spiritual beliefs and believers in our work is necessary. How do we do this, though, without pandering, without being dishonest in our own understanding of the source of religious beliefs, and without patronizing? Whether we like it or not, Judeo-Christian mythopoetics are an integral part of Western canon, and they inform our symbolic relationships with the surrounding world. Even time spent mocking Abrahamic storytelling, which a great many atheists do, is nevertheless centring it in our discourse. So how do we do it well?

Caveat: I Haven’t Always

With the speculative-history novel finished, my next project is going to be a reclamation of my PhD work, the dissertation on the history of stellar evolution that I had to walk away from two drafts into the process. I can’t tell you how much heartbreak went into that severance from so consuming a personal identity, but I can tell you that one of the deepest wounds was a committee member telling me that they felt I was just writing this story of 19th-century fiction, non-fiction, and homiletic text to “make fun of Christians”. You want to wound a secular-humanist sincerely committed to the full spectrum of humanist thought? That’s a pretty easy way to do it.

Two problems underpinned that statement. One was my refusal to use the capital-G god in my own third-person commentary. If a writer I was discussing used the capital-G god, absolutely, it stayed in. But… the use of a capital-G god in my own narrative presumed a nonexistent understanding of the actual character of said god of Christianity, the same way that each of my Christian theologians, scientists, philosophers, and writers strongly felt that they knew the character of said god… and yet, each had a very different character of god in practice. Some of their gods of Christianity were jealous. Others were all love. Others were a frustrating, agonizing absence. In order to explore the differences in their approaches, especially when they were arguing with one another about the nature of their gods, how on Earth could I as an atheist presume to use a baseline character of the god of Christianity, a de facto “God” in my analysis, against which to compare their own?

This was arrogance, apparently. And I mean that. I was called arrogant for this choice. And it broke my heart at the time.

The other problem is related, but something that has given me pause in the two years since I had to walk away. I wrote about Christian philosophers and scientists who were, like all human beings, moved by passion and fear in the formation of their various approaches to cosmology and Christianity. But these were Christian figures, by and large, who had emphatically declared that reason alone was guiding their beliefs–and by pointing out clear cases where emotional argumentation guided their approach to the interpretation of empirical evidence and even Biblical doctrine… especially when the empirical evidence so plainly refuted their “logic” over time… I was seen to be making a mockery of them as intellectuals.

Now, at the time I was in a very vulnerable position–a doctoral candidate being torn into on a personal level by three committee members, a veritable fountain of tears and snot in a terrifically awful two-hour lecture with no Kleenex-breaks about the unconscionability of my arrogance (NB: I do not recommend grad school, if you’re wondering)–so I couldn’t fully process the causal chain that had led them to this assumption of my character.

}But after the fact it occurred to me that atheism is often seen as having a “lock” on rationality… something I vehemently disagree with. As a humanist, I strongly believe that all humans are motivated by their emotions, their passions and their fears and their cultural touchstones. So when dealing with Christian writers in my dissertation… people I ached for, when seeing their sincere struggle to make sense of stellar evolution in light of their Biblical beliefs… I was treating them precisely as I would treat anyone. Precisely as I would treat atheist thinkers, too.

But being openly atheist, when the spectrum is best known for its derisive and moralistically superior frontpersons, clearly gave the impression of one-sided attack.

And people wonder why I think we need more prominent humanist voices!

Is All Religious Sci-Fi Rigid?

This post will be, for now, the last in a longer series on speculative fiction, and what it can teach us about the needs and successes of secular storytelling. I’ve focussed a lot on the needs to date–the problems with ahistoricism, the way we deal with antagonists, the way we approach agency and heroism, and the scale of our storytelling. Today, I’d like to focus on some good examples of spiritual inclusion. I’d like to talk about The Expanse (2015-present), The Leftovers (2014-2017), Firefly (2002-2003), Babylon 5 (1994-1998), Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1993-1999), Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow (1997), and William Tenn’s “On Venus, Have We Got a Rabbi” (1974). Oof. That sounds like a lot, doesn’t it? But I’m not interested in being comprehensive: there are, rather, some general lessons that this group of stories amply illustrates.

A sharp eye will notice, though, that only two of these speculative stories were written by spiritual persons–Damon Lindelof, writer for The Leftovers, who is a vague Deist fascinated by serendipity, and Tenn, who was Jewish. (Russell was raised Catholic but left the church at 15, and grappled with her cultural Catholicism in her work thereafter.) Why not more spiritual writers, though?Wouldn’t it make sense to look to how the religious represent themselves, to see how humanists should do the same?

Easier said than done, though, because a great deal of prominent religious writers perform a narrative rigidity that I find antithetical to the exploratory drive of science-fiction and fantasy. I’ve talked before about Orson Scott Card in this respect, but he’s joined by quite a few others, including Vox Day, John C. Wright, and even authors of YA Christian sci-fi series, in letting didactic conclusions get in the way of presenting nuanced secular worlds.

Card, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, has an extreme homophobia that mapped for years into wanting the state to persecute gay persons… and it did inform his writing, as he went back into his Ender’s Game universe to stump emphatically for heterosexual marriage. Vox Day, a man who has defended honour killings and acid attacks as a deterrent for female promiscuity and referred to three-time-Hugo-winner N. K. Jemisin as “an educated, but ignorant half-savage”, strongly believed that SJWs were ruining the Hugos, by writing polemics in lieu of real stories. But… I read his “Opera Vita Aeterna” (the subject of a concerted Sad Puppies effort to flood the Hugos with works to counter the perceived invasion). It’s the story of an immortal elf, curious about the faith of a missionary he killed, who chooses to spend time in a monastery, reproducing the Bible between theological conversations with the abbot, and in the process comes to defer to the superiority of Christian thought. Pot, kettle, black, much?

I also read John C. Wright’s Transhuman and Subhuman: Essays on Science Fiction and Awful Truth (2014), another nomination from the Sad Puppies ballot. (If it’s not apparent to you yet, I do take the time to read works from “across the aisle” so I can better understand the rhetoric underlying other points of view, even if they drive me nuts sometimes.) Wright’s essays include such charming claims as the idea that romance should always be the primary aim of a female character’s story, and any show of strength on her part needs to be subordinated to a greater show of strength on the male character’s part, or else said necessary romance cannot unfold. Again–an unfortunate show of rigidity.

Contemporary YA dystopia tends to be reductive across the board, though, so works like Corinna Turner’s I Am Margaret series, which imagines a world in which 18-year-olds are dismantled for parts if they’re not good enough, isn’t much more didactic in its Catholic main characters than secular dystopia tends to be with its equally rigid ideas about systemic oppression. But prominent Christian SF that writes the world without oversimplifying other perspectives? That’s a bit trickier to find.

Lessons from “Good” Spirituality in Sci-Fi Storytelling

What’s frustrating about these reductive examples, though, is that spirituality is a wonderful gateway to inventiveness and exploration of the human condition, so it should be a useful and prominent part of speculative fiction. Who can forget the delights of Arthur C. Clarke’s “The Nine Billion Names of God” (1953) or Isaac Asimov’s “The Last Question” (1956) or even Andy Weir’s more recent “The Egg” (2009), all of which play with the idea of something greater than ourselves to help make sense of our microcosmic presumptions about the nature of reality?

But to arrive at these narrative delights, we need to shed a few reductive ideas of our own–and that’s where some of the best recent examples of spirituality in speculative fiction come into play. Most crucially:

1. Religion Is Not Static–and Neither Are Believers

Babylon 5 and Star Trek: DS9 were especially good vehicles for cosmic wonder, because they both took place on space stations where meetings between species were naturalized–and with them, the struggle for peaceful coexistence between often thoroughly distinct approaches to life. In Babylon 5, these distinct approaches tended to be species-specific (e.g. one species had a clerical class within a Platonic social order), but the character of G’Kar also illustrated individual rises within religiosity, as he became a holy man for his people on the back of writings produced in the midst of a perceived martyrdom, and then had to navigate the fallout of others putting their own spiritual expectations upon him as he continued to grow.

In DS9, the intersection between alien spiritualities takes the added complexity of having Captain Sisko chosen, at the series outset, as the Emissary after communion with the wormhole aliens who are the Bajorans’ gods. DS9 does a particularly standout job illustrating the full range of believers and purposes of belief through its Bajoran people, a blatant cipher for Jewish persons in their recovery after the brutal “Occupation” by the Cardassian (German) Union. Average Bajorans are trusting and passionate followers of their peoples’ traditions due to this history, and the community it creates; others are politically embroiled leaders who use religion to protect/control their people; and among those there are some who exploit orthodoxy to perpetuate racialized/species-ist harm, justified by histories of harm first done unto the Bajoran people.

What Babylon 5 and DS9 shared in this regard, then, was a commitment to showing religion as a non-static enterprise. Rather, spiritual belief in these shows is dynamic, changing individuals and their communities in response to external pressures over time.

The Take-Away

Why does this matter? Because when atheists adamantly argue against fixed positions that many spiritual people don’t hold anymore, we end up reifying the worst of religion–and sometimes even make defenders of those awful variants out of people otherwise naturally drifting towards different formations of spirituality. When we in the secular world instead make narrative room for spiritual individuals and communities to grow, we allow the species on whole to mature. Don’t stay Draconian in your spiritual storytelling just because the most Draconian forms of faith are the easiest to depict. Caricature limits our opportunities to create pathways to change.

2. Singular Representations Are Tough to Pull Off Well

But not every sci-fi story can take place on a space-station, and then we have to deal with the dangers of tokenism, which both Firefly and The Expanse manage with varying degrees of success. In Firefly, Shepherd Derrial Book couldn’t get more “token” if he tried, as the lone spiritual advisor whose gentleness aboard ship is a far cry from his life before he joined the erratic crew. As such, direct sermons from him are not much welcome, but a striking moment occurs when River, a socially disconnected supergenius, dismantles his Bible because it needs to be fixed.

River in this scene is Every Atheist On The Internet, but… the structure of the scene also highlights a bit of our encroachment, because she is literally marking and tearing up Shepherd’s property. And as much as she might be on the side of reason, 100% correct about the Bible’s myriad of flaws… it’s still not hers to destroy. It means something, it conveys some deeper truth, to the book’s owner: Shepherd himself. And there are certain rules of respect for each other’s stories/belongings that become critical to peace and harmony onboard the ship as a whole.

Likewise, as much as I extolled the multiplicity of perspectives in The Expanse in another post, its religious representation is a bit sticky in its tokenism, too. Staying with the TV series for now (there’s another religion in the books, which is a whole other story), Season One depicts an optimistic Mormon civilization with a whole generation ship dedicated to advancing their beliefs in the stars at large. And… then the show appropriates this generation ship for more important species-saving matters. Thanks, LDS! It’s not until Anna Volovodov shows up in Season Three, a gay, happily married Reverend Doctor from a small Methodist community, that spirituality again comes to the fore. Even then, though, Anna has to confront a curiosity within her that supercedes what might be considered her normal responsibilities to family and community through faith. This makes her a decidedly irreverent spiritual witness to extraterrestrial events–though we’ll have to wait for Season 4 to see how that arc ultimately fares on-screen.

The Take-Away

For now, the point with both examples is to illustrate what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie perhaps summed up best in her TED Talk, “The Danger of a Single Story“: to avoid oversimplification, and the erasure of human complexity that arises in its wake, we need to ensure that none of the characters in our storytelling (fictional and nonfictional) are carrying the representative load for their communities alone. And after all, what’s more dangerous to the most restrictive forms of belief than exposure to the fact that many people live their spiritual truths in less oppressive and socially destructive ways? When we write the world in all its fullness and complexity, we give license to people across the spectrum to embrace nuance in their stories, too.

3. What Matters Most Is The Questions Our Storytelling Poses

Thus we come to The Sparrow, “On Venus, Have We Got a Rabbi!” and The Leftovers: a book, a short story, and a book-turned-TV-show. The first tells the tale of a Jesuit space-mission to make first contact with nearby aliens, through the sensationally confusing aftermath of the crew’s massive losses and failure. The second is a playful story of a helpful Jewish man on Venus outlining questions of Jewish heredity in relation to aliens. The third is a story that transforms, season from season, in order to explore all the different stories humanity has created to explain the sudden disappearance of 2% of its population.

And for all their surface differences, all three are deeply humanistic. In the first, the Jesuits have made a catastrophic mistake based on their desire to help before they understood… and the book makes no secret of their sincerity and subsequent sense of devastation. In the second, the helpful Jewish man doesn’t offer prescriptive answers, but instead illustrates the richness of the struggle to understand the shape and limits of human community. And in the third… Without spoiling the series, which offers quite a few portraits of new religions rising in the wake of supernatural happenstance, I want to be clear that when it offers its ultimate answer to “what happened” it does so in a way that suggests that this answer, too, might “just” be another story. But in its time and place, in relation to the person telling that story, that answer is everything. It is the answer that allows life to go on.

The Take-Away

For some, a lack of absolute certainty is infuriating. Religious and non-religious persons alike tend to favour being on the side of reason in the formation of our beliefs–as I amply came to understand when wounded by my committee’s aspersions–and it can become easy to dismiss or misread stories that don’t take a “side”.

But even if we can’t always manage greater nuance in other realms–even if our political discourse requires some decisive answers and explanations, so as to develop coherent policy papers for immediate, real-world response–speculative fiction has to be the domain of possibility, of exploration, and of holding competing ideas in balance.

Because while we’re busy, in the “real world”, reacting as best we can with the information we have at hand, it can be incredibly hard to remember the waters in which we’re swimming. The assumptions about the nature of the world that are underpinning our most critical daily responses.

When we have time for fiction, then, we can choose to follow stories that reassure us; that reinforce our knee-jerk sense of righteousness about our most cherished and longheld beliefs: about the nature of society, about the value of fellow human beings, about the morality of our current course of action.

Or.

Or.

We can lean into the stories that make us just a touch more uncomfortable. The ones that challenge us to take stock of our automatic choices and beliefs. We can choose to pay attention to the stories that allow for a multitude of humans, with often diametrically different ways of thinking about the makings of a good life, to be part of the same “crew”.

Because we are, aren’t we?

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