Theology and Science Fiction — Conclusion

A reader named Stephen J added a conclusion to my essay on Theology and Science Fiction sufficiently insightful and lucid that I thought it deserved its own spotlight as a short guest column


Science fiction is about the shock experienced when a certitude is shattered, followed by the realization of new certainties or new possibilities based on the information gained in that shattering; about, in other words, both the loss and the wonder requisite to the growth of knowledge and understanding. The great temptation of this spirit is the desire to turn that shattering upon the certitudes that make acquiring knowledge at all possible or worthwhile in the first place:

– The certitude that there is a valid moral distinction between means and ends is shattered and replaced by the conviction that power to accomplish an end is its own justification (social Darwinism);
– The certitude that love and mutual benefit is the highest and most natural form of human relationship is shattered, and replaced by the conviction that all relationships, both personal and political, are to be truly understood only in terms of their power dynamics (Marxism);
– The certitude that reason and logic are the most reliable tools for deducing and perceiving truth is shattered, and replaced by the conviction that all conscious human thought and perception is inexorably biased by subconscious emotional urges, biological instincts and reflexes, or even causally determined events of physics, all of which reduce in the end to a hunger for power (Freudianism) and which mean that only intuitive assertions, poetic imagery, emotional reactions unfiltered by reason, passions untrammelled by craft or technique, and declarations of hatred against one’s own or one’s group’s self-interest can be considered “sincere” or “honest” (mysticism);
– The certitude that human existence has an objectively perceptible and comprehensible universal meaning and purpose is shattered, and replaced by the conviction that the closest one can achieve, given all the foregoing convictions, is a personally satisfactory self-delusion of such (nihilism).

This is why all SF stories that make this error are ultimately examples of the same tragic trope, which may be called the Magician’s Bargain, as seen in Dr. Faustus or O. Henry’s “Gift of the Magi”: a person pays a terrible price to accomplish some greatly desired good only to discover that paying that price has cost them the very thing that made that good desirable or worthwhile.

In science fiction, the terrible price of giving up our moral certainties is meant to endow us Gnostically with the power to be gods, but that very loss of moral certainty ultimately robs our godhood of any meaning and, as Lewis wrote in The Abolition of Man, reduces us to victims of the very Nature we gave up our morals to overcome.

Thus, if the spirit of science fiction is the wonder of shattering certainties through new discovery, the theology of science fiction involves knowing which certainties to leave unshattered.

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