Science Fiction and Spiritual Imagination

Science Fiction and Spiritual Imagination October 14, 2018

I recently had the delightful experience of visiting McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago, to speak to a class on “Science Fiction and Spiritual Imagination.” The class had been assigned my book Theology and Science Fiction as one of their textbooks. They also read Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower and Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow. The students (as well as faculty teaching the course) sent me questions ahead of time, and they were truly exciting and thrilling, because they showed that my book was not merely being read, but explored, pondered, wrestled with, and engaged at a level that I think every academic author hopes for, but not all of us get to witness happening the way I had the privilege to.

One of the things that I said by way of introduction is that I have found science fiction to be like the famous analogy for the Gospel of John: it is like a magic pool in which small children can splash and get their feet wet, and yet at the same time in which elephants can swim. In other words, it can be enjoyed superficially and yet has great depths for those who choose to dive deeply beneath its surface.

I will say more about a couple of details in upcoming blog posts. For now, though, I’d like to offer a word of thanks to Stephen Garner for his recent post highlighting the importance of this topic – and for highlighting what I’ve written on the topic in the process! Here’s a quote from his post:

Science fiction is…a rich source for theological reflection, not only from writers who weave religious characters and ideas through their work, but also as a space to think theologically about God, humanity and the world around us.

Stephen also drew attention to the Black Panther Theology Syllabus shared on the blog East of Midnight, and shared his own recommended starting points for exploring theology in and through sci-fi. When he then continued with further recommendations, he included The Sparrow and Children of God, as well as Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End.

There’s also an interview with Ahmed Ragab about his class at Harvard Divinity School, which is called “The Empire Strikes Back: Science Fiction, Religion, and Society.” In it he says:

Science fiction is, in the modern and contemporary world, a key rhetoric of science. The production of scientific knowledge has worked hand-in-hand with science fiction.

For instance, in the course “The Empire Strikes Back,” which I co-teach with Prof. Sophia Roosth, we start with Johannes Kepler and how he tried to explain his astronomical theories in what some consider one of the earliest science fiction short stories: Somnium. Science fiction, in that sense, is a rhetoric of the future. And as both science and religion are connected to a particular understanding of the human future, science fiction becomes a key part of these discussions.

There is a lot more detail about the class in the interview, from substantive questions about genre to specific details such as what readings are assigned.

I also learned that my panel from the 2018 Religion News Association conference, “Close Encounters of the God Kind,” is available on iTunes.

It’s a good time to be working on the intersection of science fiction and theology!

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  • John MacDonald

    When I think of science fiction and spirituality, I think of all I’ve learned about “Progressive/Critical (κριτικός, able to discern, judge) Christianity” from the internet (the internet being science fiction when I was growing up), broken up into the Double Feature of Noble Lies and Post Modernism. What else could I think of than my favorite Science Fiction movie: The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which I am going to see live at the end of this month with my mom! Here’s a science fiction double feature for anyone who hasn’t seen it:

  • John MacDonald

    The Q saw the potential of humanity, but also the danger. In TNG, Q and Riker discussed that humanity would not tolerate stagnation – that change was fundamental to what humanity was. This flame would propel humanity indefinitely, even perhaps to a greater height then the Q themselves. But the Q saw the danger of humanity. At the end of the line, as we learned from the Q Philosopher Quinn in Star Trek Voyage, there was the potential for profound tedium where an omnipotent entity will eventually see everything and be everything countless times. The result? The Q Philosopher Quinn wanted the right to commit suicide. If humanity evolved as far as the Q or past the Q, how would humanity reconcile this boredom with their desire for change and novelty. Would humanity rather not exist in such a state, like Quinn? Or, out of anger, would humanity rage and decide to annihilate reality and themselves?

    • John MacDonald

      One last thought:

      In Star Trek TNG, Picard delineates the essence of Being-Human quite well in this quote from Shakespeare:

      Q: Perhaps maybe a little, uh, Hamlet?
      Captain Jean-Luc Picard: Oh, I know Hamlet. And what he might say with irony, I say with conviction: “What a piece of work is man! How noble in reason! How infinite in faculty! In form, in moving, how express and admirable! In action, how like an angel! In apprehension, how like a god!”
      Q: Surely, you don’t see your species like that, do you?
      Captain Jean-Luc Picard: I see us one day becoming that, Q. Is it that which concerns you?

      But what lies behind this vision? Is there perhaps a flight from the boredom and tedium of the everyday? Consider when Q transforms Picard’s life into that of an ordinary person of no notable station:

      Lt. J.G. Jean-Luc Picard: You having a good laugh now, Q? Does it amuse you to think of me living out the rest of my life as a dreary man in a tedious job?
      Q: I gave you something most mortals never experience: a second chance at life. And now all you can do is complain?
      Lt. J.G. Jean-Luc Picard: I can’t live out my days as that person. That man is bereft of passion… and imagination! That is not who *I* am!

      • John MacDonald

        Q says in Star Trek TNG regarding the essence of humanity:

        “You see, of all species, yours cannot abide stagnation. Change is at the heart of what you are.”