“Men rarely (if ever) manage to dream up a god superior to themselves. Most gods have the manners and morals of a spoiled child.”
“Intermission: Excerpts from the Notebooks of Lazarus Long”, pp. 243-24
I’ve always found it funny that Heinlein wrote this twelve years after his most famous work, Stranger In A Strange Land, in which Heinlein’s attempt seemed very much to be to dream up a God (or at least an Archangel) superior to human religions. I will, of course, admit to seeing some truth in the statement. Pagan gods are famous for their sexual exploits and selfish behavior. When it comes to the God of the Bible, I am going to disagree with him, though I know that many readers will just as vociferously agree. However, the discussion of whether the God of the Bible is open to such charges and the refutation of them would be material for an entire column in and of itself, and as that is not the purpose, I will simply note my disagreement for what it unarguably is: mine.
The problem I have with Stranger In A Strange Land is not that it plays around with the idea of religion, especially organized religion. That’s fair enough. But what I find interesting, and a bit hypocritical about SF writers is this: when they try to create their own gods that are superior to the gods we already have, they inevitably do so by creating a fairly standard god and then subtracting the characteristics they happen to find irrelevant. I have already pointed out in an earlier column that Arthur C. Clarke does this in Childhood’s End with the Overmind. Like the God of the Bible, it is an immense, near-omnipotent force. Unlike the God of the Bible it simply can’t be bothered to notice anything more insignificant than a new species to be incorporated into itself and is quite happy to maintain a slave species in perpetuity to assure itself of growth. It kills without remorse or compassion, and exists without love. But surely, growth means that you become more, not that you become less. As an adult, I have learned to appreciate whiskey. I have not stopped appreciating ice cream. And while it is true, there are games that my children love which now bore me to tears, my inability to enter fully into those modes of play is a fault in me, not something laudable.
Heinlein’s case is more complex. Heinlein as a writer was far superior to Clarke in engaging the human condition. In my last Heinlein post, I acknowledged that Heinlein was one of my favorite agnostics/atheists, and this is one of the reasons why. As an aside, Heinlein’s inner monologue in which Jubal Harshaw considers the problem of perceiving the divine is one of the most perceptive and honest engagements with the issue that I have ever seen from the agnostic point of view, and his wry look at those who believe in random chance as a primary cause is just as cutting as his engagement with religion. Valentine Michael Smith’s Church Of All Worlds in philosophy is pantheistic: Thou Art God (and so is everyone else). In the novel, the simple act of learning the Martian language (although it is not simple, of course) is sufficient to imbue the learner with a mode of understanding that makes people morally perfect and grants them godlike powers. And I have to admit that in this, I actually see a mirror of what Paul and Christ did teach. This is in fact what “being transformed by the renewing of your minds” would look like if the Church ever actually accomplished it (though the miraculous powers might or might not follow). Obviously, such accomplishments have been exceedingly rare and transitory if they ever existed.
So what, one might ask, is my problem with it? What is missing? I would argue that what is missing is any concept of justice. Now, to be honest, I am not sure whether Heinlein would ridicule the notion that justice is something that humans “need.” However, in Time Enough For Love, one of Lazarus Long’s quotes was: “The more you love, the more you can love–and the more intensely you love. Nor is there any limit on how many you can love. If a person had Time Enough, he could Love all of the majority who are decent and just.” He also said “The only sin is hurting others unnecessarily.” This seems to imply that sin and justice are things Heinlein recognized. Then what is to be done with the sinners? Heinlein has no answer for this, it seems. The Church of the New Revelation that ends up lynching Valentine Michael Smith causes great hurt to others unnecessarily. And yet, it’s almost as though it doesn’t matter, because everyone is immortal anyway. Even Foster himself is an archangel in the end, just like Michael. And Digby, who poisoned Foster. And if someone like Foster can end up as an archangel, then one might reasonably ask what the point is of anything? If it does not matter, then why does it matter? What is the point of cherishing loyalty and duty, as Heinlein called them, the two finest inventions of the Human mind, if they produce nothing superior than that which would be produced without them? In fact, what seems to be produced by the Church of Many Worlds is not better, more just people, but only people who have more fun, overseen by what C.S. Lewis called, Our Grandfather In Heaven: “a senile benevolence who, as they say, liked to see young people enjoying themselves, and whose plan for the universe was simply that it might be truly said at the end of each day, ‘a good time was had by all.’” All well and good but we have ended up exactly where Heinlein started his objection: with a god no better than its maker.
It’s possible I’m judging Heinlein too harshly. He himself said of the book “I was not giving answers. I was trying to shake the reader loose from some preconceptions and induce him to think for himself, along new and fresh lines. In consequence, each reader gets something different out of that book because he himself supplies the answers … It is an invitation to think – not to believe” (Vonnegut). Well, fair enough. There’s a lot in the book to think about. But surely it would be disingenuous to think that Heinlein was, if not giving a social blueprint, at least proposing what a “real” religion might look like, and if so, he has hardly met his own criteria for what a truly inspiring god might be like.
I think the author who has in recent years most closely approached the idea of what a god might look like is Lois McMaster Bujold and her Holy Family as portrayed in The Curse of Chalion. They are anthropomorphic, yes, but they are good, and while their expectations of humanity are not high, they are awe-inspiring for the lengths they will go to, in spite of their limitations, to care even for individual humans.
Vonnegut, Kurt, “Heinlein Gets The Last Word” New York Times On The Web. Dec. 9, 1990.