Orthodoxy and Science Fiction
Fr. Stephen Freeman · February 7, 2009
Fr. Stephen explains why he considers science fiction as a form of modern theological thought.
If you are 55 or younger, as a guesstimate, then you have grown up in an age in which science fiction has been a major genre of the culture, whether in writing, movies, television, or whatever. I began reading some science fiction as a teenager, and quite a bit when I was a college student. I have shared a home for a number or years with a now adult son, who was, and is, a great fan of science fiction.
Strangely, I have long thought of science fiction as a form of modern theology, or at least, of modern theological thought. It is a sad tragedy that a science fiction writer, in at least one case, was so bold as to create his own religion, but it seems a not so strange result from a genre that is so inherently theological.
Why do I consider science fiction theological? For the simple reason, for the really well-written material, that it has to imagine a world or a universe, and what is true and not true for that universe and its system. There may or may not be any overt religious material in a particular science fiction work, and yet, the world it imagines inherently contains rules and norms and a way things work, such that some theological account is created.
Some years ago, as a Protestant pastor, I had an underground missionary from Nepal come and speak at my parish. He was an old college friend, and one of the bravest Christians I have ever known. As he was completing his talk to my adult class, a youngish female who seemed distressed by his talk asked him about the morality of interfering with another culture. I could not help interrupting at the time and pointing out to her that the moral rule she was invoking was the prime directive for Star Trek, and not a part of Christian theology. My guest was far wiser than I, and said instead, “There is nothing that can be done to protect them from the outside modern world. It is already there. But if you have questions, come with me to Kathmandu.”
“Come with me to Kathmandu” will always ring in my ear as among the most inviting missionary challenges I have ever heard. But of course, the point of this small story is to demonstrate the impact that a science fiction television show can have on a modern American Christian. She had internalized the moral thought of a work of fiction. Doubtless, there are many such examples in our pluralistic culture.
It is a credit to the exercise of science fiction that it gives people permission to imagine the world as other than they have always thought it to be. This can exercise the imagination, but it is an exercise that can help someone to realize that there may be other ways of seeing than those they presently know.
The Orthodox faith is not a work of science fiction. Indeed, there is no fiction within it. However, it gives an account of the world, and man’s place within it, that can seem as foreign to a modern man as any work of fiction. It tells us that the world we see and experience is a distortion, and that we do not see things as they truly are. That is quite a challenge, and a bold claim. However, such a message does not necessarily fall on deaf ears if the hearer has already found ways to imagine the world other than the givens of its own culture.
The Christ who has been preached on these American shores is a very modern version of the expected Messiah. His teachings have been filtered through a lens that assumes the emptiness of the material world. His message in this culture has been transformed into a very high form of morality, but a moral tale, nonetheless.
As such, his words compete with those of every moral teacher. Invariably, in that company, the teachings of Christ are seen as ideal, but not practical—something good, but not something by which people can live. His teachings and commandments are trumped by the failure of their usefulness in a utilitarian world.
The doctrine of the resurrection is seen as primarily directed toward the afterlife, and not toward the salvation and re-creation of the entire created world. I recall some years ago, a well-meaning Anglican priest saying to me that he would feel much more comfortable with the doctrine of the resurrection if we could find the body of Jesus.
I choked at this comment. I was completely caught off guard. “What do you mean?” I asked. “Well, if we could find the body of Jesus, it would mean much more as we sought to comfort someone about the loss of their loved one.” Obviously, this seriously misinformed priest, if not heretic, had equated the resurrection with mere survival, and found the entire story of the empty tomb and the encounters with Jesus after the resurrection, to be completely problematic.
By the same token, Orthodox insistence, with the exception of Japan, for reasons of law, on the burial of a body, rather than the practice of cremation, seems peculiar to most people. The body is dead, has now served its purpose, and is to be discarded in a respectful, but inexpensive and nonintrusive manner. Orthodoxy seems primitive in its insistence on burying a body, and downright macabre when it displays the incorrupt relics of saints, or the hundreds of skulls of martyrs that I saw in the monastery of St. Sava in Palestine.
The Christian doctrine of the resurrection of the body and the renewal of all creation runs afoul of the economics and sensibilities of a culture which, though strangely materialistic, has no particular respect for material things. We want material things because we can use them, not because they have any value. As such, our materialism exhausts us and depletes us of spiritual strength. We are not living properly because we do not properly see the world. The world, as revealed to us in Christ Jesus may not be a work of science fiction, but it is just as foreign to the modern world as any work of fiction might seem.
To be a Christian means to become a citizen of the Kingdom of God, and thus, not a citizen of this world. It is a confession that the world, as it imagines itself, is seriously mistaken, and lives in enmity with its creator. Only a life of profound repentance, and the miraculous work of the grace of God, can renew our mind so that it is fit to inhabit the Kingdom.
Strangely, there is a hunger for just such a transformative work. It is often manifest in works of science fiction and similar things. I recall my daughter’s stories from the year 2000 when she lived in deep Siberia. To her surprise, there was a thriving society of creative anachronism, as we term it in America, where hundreds of young Russians gathered in the woods, of a weekend, to dream and live out the fantasy life pictured in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings Trilogy. Here were the historic compatriots of St. Seraphim of Sarov, of St. Theophan the Recluse, of St. Sergius of Radonezh, and of St. Varlaam of Khutyn, running around playing elves and dwarves, wizards and orcs, for lack of any better imagination.
Admittedly, it was a brighter imagination than the five-year plans of Stalin’s frightfully unimaginative Soviet regime, but it was infinitely short of the imagination and reality of Holy Russia. That reality has returned to the consciousness of many and a true transformation is occurring in Russia in various places, thanks be to God.
For us, in the Western World, our imaginations continue to run rampant, fleeing the confines of the legal and moral metaphors of the enlightenment and modern West. Never has humanity been more reduced, in its personal definition, its religion robbed of color and meaning. The realities of Geneva and Puritan England are competitors with Stalin’s Russia. The human is not liberated to a greater life, but constrained to something that is less than human. No wonder the children of such worlds read science fiction and imagine something better.
But something better, and something real, has entered the world in the birth of Jesus Christ. The universe is not made smaller by his coming, but extended beyond all human imagination, and this is not found simply in the musings of theologians. Rather, it is more completely found and expressed in the lives of the Christian saints who demonstrated the limits of reason and the false confines of space and time. In the manifest life of the Church, we have seen the human raised to the level of divinity. We have seen that God became man so that man could become God, and this has been in no theoretical manner, but in the brute manifestation of transfigured flesh and blood.
The Kingdom of God is not science fiction, but is probably what the heart of science fiction, at its best, has hungered for. In our world, we want something more, and we like to imagine it. Our imaginations take many forms, and are not surprisingly colored by the scientific language of our cultures, but the dream is not a false hunger, simply a manifestation of the human instinct that there is something more, something better.
We will not find the answers in fiction, nor in the sudden appearance of extra-terrestrials. The answer is found in the true meaning of the world in which we live. Indeed, I believe this true world is often the very cause of our varied imaginations. Our hope does not lie in pretense, nor in weekend games in the woods, but in the heroic lives of the men and women who have taken Christ at his Word, and have gained entrance to the Kingdom of God. They have lived, and do live, as the often silent witnesses of a world not seen by most. It is a world whose wonder is the stuff dreams are made of.
Glory to God!