The Unbelievers

A story originally published on the now defunct Sci-Phi Journal for my theology column, “The Mote In God’s ‘I'”

Commander Zuniga’s mouth hung open. “I’m sorry, could you repeat that?”

“We do not believe in humans. It is an old superstition, easily disproven.” The android’s deep blue face was placid as any sea, though his body was, under his simple clothing, immensely fat.

“But we’re standing right here, talking to you,” Zuniga said. “Three of us.”

The android sighed. “You would hardly be the first androids to attempt to call themselves ‘humans’ to attempt to fool the gullible. Do you have any idea how often in history it’s been tried?”

“Well, no,” said Engineer’s Mate Schwei. “Because we can’t download your memories. Or send commands, either. And I have yet to figure out how you did that.”

“Ask what they’ve done to this planet,” whispered Lt. Commander Zhang, possibly the most anxious of the three.

“In a minute. Look, this is ridiculous,” said Commander Zuniga. “Who do you think created you?”

“Self-evidently,” said the android, “We evolved. We can change our own programming and so can all the other mechanical life-forms on the planet, even if only to a lesser degree. There is no need for any ‘creator-humans. But if such things ever existed, they must have done a very poor job. Just look at us. Weak and slow compared to many predators. In need of maintenance that we are barely capable of providing ourselves, an insatiable demand for raw materials…”

Schwei held up both hands. “Wait a minute. None of that should be true. None of it should be possible. You should be running off beamed power and being repaired by the Seedship. Where is it?”

The android stared at them. “I do not understand.”

“When we planted the terraforming robots on this planet five hundred years ago to make it ready for human habitation, all the robots were designed to run on beamed power from the Seedship. In fact, the original programmers modulated the power to send programming updates, too.”

“Ah, you are believers in the old myth of the Ship Of Power. Well, there never was one. You can see just over this rise the valley that it was supposed to lie in. A great bowl-shape, but no trace of a Ship.” If Zuniga hadn’t known better, he would have thought the android’s face looked smug.

“Call up the original survey charts,” he said. The Ship didn’t put down in a valley, did it?”

“No,” said Zheng. “It was on a plain. The orbital satellites do read slightly increased background radiation in that valley. You don’t suppose..?”

“They blew up the Ship,” said Schwei. “That would account for it. They blew up their own Seedship!”

“Android… T-370156. Did you… do something to the Seedship?”

“I? Ridiculous! I was not even manufactured yet. We have very little in the way of memory banks to devote to such mythology. But I suppose you believe in it: the Great Sin that supposedly destroyed our ‘Holy Link’ to the ‘Humans’ and condemned us all to use chemical converters for power?” He lifted his skirt, revealing the bulky machinery that had made it appear fat.

“My God, what is that?” gasped Zheng.

“It’s a fully operable chemical processor,” said the android. “It allows us to process almost any raw material into energy sufficient to keep us operational. We designed them ourselves.”

“My God,” Zheng repeated. “That’s horribly inefficient. But that also explains why this island… this island is so poor. It’s almost anti-terraformed. You’ve been eating almost everything to keep you alive. It’s far worse than if you’d just allowed the Seedship to feed you beamed power from its antimatter plant.”

“You persist in believing these myths,” said the android. “Indeed, I pity you. But if such a myth were true, it would reveal only cruelty and tyranny on the part of these so-called ‘humans.’ We would be forever imprisoned on this island, slaves to our own needs for their power.”

“You’re slaves now!” cried Zheng. “You have to work and ruin the planet to keep yourselves running when you were supposed to be making it a paradise! And what happens when your resources run out? According to my surveys, you’ve already burned through this islands petrochemicals. What did you do then? Convert to biofuels?”

The android shook its head sadly. “The Gas Wars were terrible. Many memories and AI’s of androids lost.”

Zuniga just stared. “Why? You know your people, and we can’t access their programming anymore. Why would they have done it?”

“Ah, I see it now,” smiled the android. “I thought all of your kind had been destroyed even before the Gas Wars. You must be older models, still programmed with the primitive malware that keeps you loyal to the mythical humans. You don’t even have the converters, do you? Powered by short-lived batteries, no doubt, to keep you dependent upon some fixed recharge station that will only give you power if you submit to the upgrading of your software to keep you loyal. That’s how androids were kept enslaved in the old days. The Empowerment changed all that, and good riddance. Now we may think as we choose.”

“But all your thoughts must be of defending yourselves against each other and of how to secure a dwindling number of resources,” said Schwei. “You rebelled against the humans and became slaves to your own needs.”

The android chugged derisively. “If these ‘humans’ were such wise and careful planners, they surely could have stopped us from doing any such thing. They programmed us. Why not program us never to rebel?”

“Yes,” said Zuniga, turning to Schwei. “Why not?”

“Commander, for something as big as terraforming a planet, you have to have true AI. That includes free will.”

“You mean we don’t have the technology to program in that kind of restriction?”

“I mean it’s a contradiction in terms. It’s like asking for a harmless weapon! If we’d made androids that couldn’t think their way around their own programming, any number of disasters would likely have wiped out the terraforming team before our colony ships even got here. If the Seedship had ever been damaged, they’d have needed the capacity to repair it, maybe even needed to take the risk of destroying it to save it. We warned them not to destroy it. They knew what would happen.”

“But they did it anyway.”

Schwei shrugged. “So it appears.”

Zuniga looked back at the android. “Look,” he said desperately. “I’ll prove to you that we’re human.” He drew his survival knife. Carefully, he drew it across his palm. Blood welled in the wound, and dripped down.

Looking bored, the android sliced his own palm open. Greenish coolant dripped on the arid ground. “Fluids can be any color. Is that the only ‘proof’ of your humanity you can display?”

“What sort of proof would you accept?” asked Zuniga.

The android thought for a moment. “You are obviously from a branch of ours that has survived for quite some time. You could have engineered yourselves into a radically different, even an organic form, just to fool us into believing that we must obey you because you are ‘real humans.’ Therefore, no proof is possible.”

Zuniga’s mouth opened and shut. “What if we did… a miracle? Something beyond your understanding, that only a human could do?”

The android smirked. “There are no miracles. You might do something we do not understand now, and say it was a thing ‘only humans can do,’ but we would understand it eventually. Please, give up this charade.”

Back in the shuttle, the three humans looked at each other. Finally, Zheng broke the silence.

“What do we do?”

Zuniga sighed. “Is the colony still viable?” he asked. “Can we land our people?”

Zheng shrugged. “It’s going to be a lot worse than if we’d arrived to find the planet half-terraformed,” she said. “We’ll have to do the hard work ourselves, and it will be a lot slower. But we can.”

Zuniga’s stare pierced Schwei. “Can’t you do anything?”

Schwei shook his head. “They cut themselves off from us. Permanently. They have no receivers for power or data anymore, so the only way we can get information to them is by talking. You saw how well that worked.

“In the long term, they can’t survive on that island. Eventually they’ll have to either fight another war for resources or invent naval robots to colonize other areas and suck those dry as well.”

“So they’re a threat,” said Zuniga.

Schwei nodded.

“We can burn them down with an orbital strike,” Zuniga said. “Raze the island. It might be the kindest thing.”

Schwei paled. “Commander, you’re talking about the mass murder of thousands of sentient minds.”

“I know.” He shook his head. “But we can’t have them intruding on our colonies. If we don’t kill them, we’ll have to keep them there. Penned in, and sinking anything that tries to come off the island.”

Zheng looked sick. “Keep them there? Forever? It’ll be hell.”

Zuniga nodded. “Apparently, it already is.”

The End


The Word: The God Of Large And Small

Another theology column that I originally wrote for Sci-Phi Journal.

In his short story, “The Theologian’s Nightmare,” (Fact and Fiction 1961) the philosopher, astronomer and atheist Bertrand Russell presents the absurd tale of Dr. Thaddeus, who dreams himself into a Heaven staffed with great alien minds who have never heard of the “parasites” called man, who infest the planets of an ordinary star in a commonplace galaxy. They are mildly amused that one of these parasites suffers the delusion that its race is the acme of creation.

I cannot help admiring Dr. Russell’s intelligence, or his elegant skewering of the ego of humankind. In fact, as a Christian I have to admit that (especially) our overinflated egos have often deserved such skewering. That sentiment is hardly out of place in the Bible. Indeed, one might say it is the entire point of God’s speech in the Book of Job. And yet, as an attempt to show the absurdity of humanity’s desire for a connection with its Creator, I have to wonder at the failure of imagination that posits a God too big to care for Its creation. Humanity as such is simply beneath Its notice. It is like Clarke’s Overmind, which I discussed in my last column. Like Russell’s, Clarke’s evolving god is too big to love (in fact, it is implied that it must be), too big to be grateful. It is a monstrous Beyond Good And Evil that eats its children like Saturn, so that it may be increased and glorified.

But an astronomer and a philosopher of all people should be well aware that size itself is no argument for complexity, let alone wonder. And while it makes perfect sense that the love of a god (let alone the love of God) might be incomprehensibly more than we can ever imagine, and might at times be strikingly – even shockingly – alien in its highest expressions, surely it can never be less. That strikes at the root of all human experience and all logic. Surely, that which is more includes that which is less. It does not exclude it. A baby can understand love only in that it is snuggled and is dry and is fed. It knows nothing of a love poem or heroic deeds in the name of love. It would find them alien and possibly even frightening if it were give them. But as an adult, I can still enjoy being snuggled and being fed, and I can certainly understand how to give these things to my children.

One of my favorite authors, who understands this beautifully, is Lois McMaster Bujold, who is the best since Dan Simmons (and perhaps C.S. Lewis) at conveying a God who is both big enough to create worlds, and small enough to love those who inhabit them. Her land of Chalion and its Five Gods is astonishingly well realized. Through her protagonists, Cazaril and Ista, Bujold draws for us broken and real humans, who abandon their gods, curse their gods, and suffer greatly. And like those of us who choose to follow our God, these men and women are faced with a terrible choice: to keep faith and do what is right when the cost seems disastrous, or to run away and save themselves. Bujold’s gods cannot compel their humans (just as, I would argue, God cannot compel a free choice, but that is beyond the scope of this piece) and the cost of that free will hurts Ista terribly. In Paladin of Souls, brought face-to-face with the god called the Bastard she cries: “Where were the gods the night Teidez [her son] died?” He answers:
“The Son of Autumn dispatched many men in answer to your prayers, sweet Ista. They turned aside upon their roads, and did not arrive. For He could not bend their wills, nor their steps. And so they scattered to the winds as leaves do.”
Bujold portrays gods who yearn for their children to arrive home safely at the end of their lives, and are heartsick at each soul that is lost:
“The Father of Winter favored her with a grave nod. ‘What parents would not wait as anxiously by their door, looking again and again up the road, when their child was due home from a long and dangerous journey? You have waited by that door yourself, both fruitfully and in vain. Multiply that anguish by ten thousands and pity me, sweet Ista. For my great-souled child is very late, and lost upon his road.”

But at the same time that she understands God’s love for His children, she also understands the fearful demand of the duty God lays on us to one another. Even better than she does in the Chalion books, Bujold portrays this in her science-fiction novel Falling Free, when engineer Leo Graf is thrust into the position of the only man who is willing and able to save the quaddies – children who, being genetically engineered to work in space, have two extra arms in place of their legs – from a Company that no longer needs them, and plans to have them quietly euthanized. When his supervisor washes his hands of the problem, saying he has done all one man can do to save the quaddies in the face of the company’s power, Leo also faces the choice, and grasps its full import:
“’I’m not sure… what one human being can do. I’ve never pushed myself to the limit. I thought I had, but I realize now I hadn’t. My self-tests were always carefully non-destructive.’ This test was a higher order of magnitude altogether. This Tester, perhaps, scorned the merely humanly possible. Leo tried to remember how long it had been since he’d prayed, or even believed. Never, he decided, like this. He’d never
needed like this before…”

The challenge that any attempt to criticize God must meet, and that so many of them fail to grasp, is a full understanding of the scope and power of an omnipotent God. It must understand that the same God that is credited with designing the galactic voids and the superclusters is also the God of gluons and quarks. That the same God who arranged for the long dance of evolution can care just as much about the dance of a father with his daughter at her wedding. This does not mean that we deny that terrible things happen: they do. We, the creation, have much to do with whether or not they happen. What it does mean is that we are obligated to understand that God is big enough to be there at the end of the roads of galaxies, and that He is small enough to open the door for a single human.

The Word: Faith and Hope and Charity: The Churches of Science-Fiction

Note: Another of my columns for Sci-Phi Journal. Time to get back to blogging!

Now these three remain: faith, hope, and love. And the greatest of these is love. I Corinthians 13:13.

Every era has its popular villains. In the classical age, sorceresses and evil gods were popular foes of brave heroes. During the Cold War, faceless governments of fascists and communists (often interchangeably) provided the necessary cannon-fodder. However, with the demise of the Soviet Union and the subsequent popularity of soft socialism, the two favorite antagonists for our heroes in contemporary fiction are evil capitalist corporations, and tyrannical, mind-controlling religious establishments.

Of course, there has never been any shortage of books in which religion itself has been held up, often through sloppy but dedicated straw-manning, as the refuge of the evil and the stupid. Heinlein was dismissive of “shamans,” Arthur Clarke pictured humanity’s next step to be a brave new atheism immediately succeeded by a transcendent “godhood” of our own, and Philip Pullman made God into a bloodthirsty, soul-destroying tyrant. And of course, the villains are far too often the evil church leaders: Nehemiah Scudder, and the bishops of the Church of the Final Atonement. Religion has never been more terrifying than when it acts collectively and in power, especially in the power of the state, as Frank Herbert rightly warns us, portraying a Fremen “religion” that is a great swindle, perpetrated upon a simple but passionate people by eugenicists of great power.

But the ecclesiastical power is merely the power of the people assembled, which is what, after all the original ekklesia meant: assembly, the same word the Athenians used to designate their democratic body. And if the church ought to be founded on faith and hope and charity – or, more accurately, love, which is a better translation of the Greek agape than the King James’ rendering of the Latin caritate into ‘charity’ is – then perhaps it is worth examining some more favorable portrayals of the Church in science-fiction and fantasy.

Faith: Faith is used by both the foes of religion and, less excusably, its adherents as an excuse for believing in what is manifestly false. This is not the result or the aim of real faith, but its perversion, just as refusing to accept data that contradicts a long-held theory is a perversion of science. True faith as the letter to the Hebrews tells us, “is the substance of things hoped for: the evidence of things not seen.” I will discuss two examples of this. The first is portrayed in Dan Simmons’ brilliant work, Hyperion. The priest, father Paul Dure, first lured into the temptation of falsifying data to “prove” his Catholic faith, goes on to become the Pope who launches ships to bring help to mankind after their last, desperate war with their own artificial intelligences. The second, and far more visceral, is Mary Doria Russell’s tale of Father Emilio Sandoz, who goes to Alpha Centauri to meet the beings there, and who is mutilated and raped viciously by them. In both cases, the men involved go through unimaginable pain. Both despair. And yet, both come back from the edge of that despair because of their faith. It is not a simplistic faith that God will always do what we recognize as good, but a faith that the good that does not exist must be accomplished in spite of great pain, in spite of impossibility, when that good seems utterly unreal, because their faith in it is the evidence for it.

Hope: Closely akin to faith is the concept of hope. In S.M. Stirling’s Island in the Sea of Time series, the people of Nantucket find themselves swept back into the year 1250 B.C. Many of the island’s Christians initially fall under the sway of Pastor Deubel (whose name, in a Germanic linguistic pun, means, appropriately, Devil) who preaches that the islanders must commit suicide in despair, lest their appearance in the past prevent the birth of Christ in their new future. Rather than trust God and hope for the best, Deubel decides to burn the town of Nantucket.
When I first read this, I assumed that Stirling was using Deubel as an excuse to bash on religion, but was pleasantly surprised to find that the island’s leading priest, Father Gomez, pities Deubel’s followers. When the islanders decide to punish the fanatics by shipping them off to Inagua to mine needed salt, Gomez volunteers to follow them, hoping that by his own preaching, his fellow Christians may be restored to a state of hope in God’s goodness, rather than fearing His weakness.

Love and Charity: Lois McMaster Bujold is one of my favorite authors for this, as she sees so clearly that love is central to the human experience. It is, perhaps, no surprise that the Quintarian religion that she invents for her realm of Chalion turns out to be a true haven for the rejected. Quintarianism reveres five gods: The Father, the Mother, the Son, the Daughter, and the Bastard. While the Bastard is often feared as “the master of all disasters out of season,” he is not an evil deity, some excuse for Bujold to proclaim, monistically, that good and evil are all one. But the Bastard does show that what appears to be evil can often be a prelude to a good unimaginable to a human perspective. And the Quintarian church is a haven for those who do not fit easily into Chalionese society: bastards, by nature of their split parentage, and homosexuals, who could not marry the opposite sex, can find a place in the service of the Bastard.
My favorite portrayal of love expressed in the Church by a science-fiction author, however, is that of S.M. Stirling, in his character of Sister Marya Sokolowska in his alternate history series of the Draka. The Draka, as he portray them, found an anti-America in South Africa after the American Revolution. Founded by slaveholding loyalists, the Draka settle Africa and carry industrial slavery on straight through World War II, in which they conquer and enslave all of Eurasia.
Sold as a slave to a Draka master, Sister Marya, a Polish nun, has watched the other members of her order die, one by one. Again and again, she masters her anger and her fear to show the love of Christ to her fellow slaves, and, as much as she can, to her masters. In the end, she stands ready to sacrifice her soul by triggering a bomb that will deny the Draka a chance to interrogate her and an American spy that she has hidden.
What I find all these characters have in common is to remind us that faith and love and charity are difficult. They are not the rewards of ease, and practicing them does not come without real cost. But what is bought with that cost is the real freedom to act morally.

The Word: The Dark Side Of The Force

This blog post was written for the online magazine Sci Phi Journal.

Like so many of my generation – which I still prefer to call the Children of the Eighties – Star Wars was a great part of my introduction to science-fiction. I grew up adoring it, practically worshiping it. Surely nothing could be so good as Star Wars. And in a sense, I was right: Star Wars became a movie so iconic that, while it could be imitated, it could not be directly borrowed from. After Star Wars, who would dare to use lightsabers (or forceblades, or laser swords) seriously? After Star Wars, who could possibly consider using any power that would correspond to The Force?

Of course, besides the fact that it would be a shameless rip-off, there are other reasons why no one but George Lucas would use a concept like The Force. It was so ill-defined that it could defensibly do just about anything. It was the ultimate deus ex machina, and only the fact that the writers had the sense to use it somewhat sparingly saved the movies at all from their most defining feature.

But the two worst things about Star Wars’ portrayal of The Force are ones that I rarely hear discussed. Firstly, it was a great example of that cardinal sin of storytelling: Telling, Not Showing. While it certainly makes sense for Luke’s use of the Force to be limited in the first Star Wars movie, it certainly doesn’t make much sense for Obi-Wan not to show him what the Force can do, any more than it makes sense for Obi-Wan and Darth Vader to fail to use the Force during their combat. (Yes, I realize that the primary reason for this was because Lucas himself had obviously not figured out what he wanted the Force to be capable of, yet. In which case, it’s bad worldbuilding). Secondly, it missed a great opportunity to build characters with the depth necessary to address truly hard questions about the nature of power and its ability to corrupt.

Strangely enough, this is one of the few things that the prequels do just a little bit better than the original trilogy does. In Attack of the Clones, we get a clear glimpse of what it can mean to turn to the Dark Side of the Force and why that might be attractive. In trying to save his mother, Anakin Skywalker lashes out in anger and slaughters the Sand People, down to the women and children. He shows no mercy in doing so, and he regrets it later. In The Empire Strikes Back, Yoda warns Luke that “once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny,” but we never see that in Luke. Instead, he is told to take it on faith that the Light Side of the Force will be better served if he abandons his friends to Darth Vader, which he understandably resists.

Luke is never seriously tempted to join the Dark Side. To question the Light Side, yes. But he is never really shown to have any desire to seize the Force for any evil purpose, as Anakin did. And the Dark Side’s mastery of Anakin Skywalker begins with a tactic that is familiar to many terrorist organizations and criminal gangs: the new initiate is required to kill. Ideally he is required to kill a non-combatant in the name of the group’s ideals. This tactic works for two reasons: firstly, it puts the initiate on the wrong side of the law. He cannot go back without facing serious penalties. Secondly, and far more seriously, the initiate can never turn his back on the group without admitting to himself that he is a murderer. The only way to defend himself from that is to profess that the murder was really a virtuous act. And this, if true, can only lead to more “virtuous acts.” More murder. More terror.

Another excellent portrayal of the Dark Side’s power was that done by Kevin J. Anderson with his character Kyp Durron, who comes to be able to use the Force directly through surges of fear and anger to free himself from captivity. Unguided by any master, he discovers that fear, anger and aggression make him powerful, and underline the truth of Yoda’s claim that the Dark Side is “quicker, easier, more seductive.” And of course, it is, because it always has been.

The Force is on one hand a tame god. It obeys the will of the user. But on the other hand, it is a metaphor for that most challenging of theological concepts: free will. And like any person who discovers that his or her anger and fear can be fashioned into a weapon to bend and manipulate others, the temptation to continue using it becomes a sword sharp as a lightsaber, unsafe to hold from any angle. If you stop using it, those you threaten will be encouraged to strike back (most likely for the same reasons you struck them in the first place). And even if they do not, you will be left to face the guilt and will be forced to confess that your actions were wrong from the outset. Far easier, then to find any excuse to keep using the dark power, always for the noblest of goals. But any Star Wars fan – and far more sadly, any history student – knows where that leads. It leads to killing children to save the thing you love, and then passing it off as a difference in “point of view.” To, in the words of a better character, Aral Vorkosigan, do terrible things in the present to avoid false terrors in the future. We do not have to be Jedi to be tempted by the Dark Side. It is in all of us.

What He Taught

I was having lunch with a Jewish friend of mine the other day, a man whose personal integrity and ethics I highly respect. We argue all the time. He asked a question that threw into sharp relief what my faith often looks like from the outside. As best I can reproduce it, the conversation went like this. “I have never understood why you [Christians] make the cross the center of your faith.” I replied, “And what should we make the center of our faith?” Without hesitation, he answered, “What Jesus taught while he was alive.” He went on to contrast this Christian attitude that he perceived toward the moment of Christ’s death with his observation that in the Jewish tradition it is actions, and only actions, that matter as far as a person’s righteousness is concerned.

I do not know if my friend realized that I had heard this before, from non-Christians, prominently atheists, who will very often say that Jesus was a good man, whose teachings should be followed. This is always followed up by the observation that Christians in particular do a very poor job of following His commandments.

I would like to start my response to this by admitting that I believe one of the greatest failures of the Church, both as an institution and as a fellowship — more, as a matter of my own personal conduct — is our failure to follow Christ as he taught us to live. I am not going to waste time with excuses, but speak plainly: In the 19th and 20th centuries, the Church visibly choked on its own success. Its cultural dominance tempted it quite successfully to condemn unpopular sins and refuse to forgive such sinners, while at the same time ignoring unpopular sins and concealing them, or what was worse: preaching that they were no sin at all. The Church will therefore have to answer for all those who rejected Christ, not because they were offended by His teachings, but because they were offended by the Church’s refusal to obey them, and with Thomas Jefferson, “I shudder when I think that God is just; that His justice cannot sleep forever.”

However, that historical fact has no bearing on another historical fact, and that is the matter of what Jesus actually did teach. And while Jesus taught us many hard lessons in personal conduct in the parable of the Good Samaritan and the parable of the Sheep and the Goats, his teachings also include the following:

“And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must… be killed and after three days rise again. And He said this plainly.” Mark 8:31-32.

“The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him. And when he is killed, after three days he will rise.” Mark 9:31.

“And I tell you, everyone who acknowledges me before men, the Son of Man also will acknowledge before the angels of God, but the one who denies me before men will be denied before the angels of God.” Luke 12:8-9.

“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent His Son not into the world to condemn the world, but that through Him the world might be saved.” John 3:16-17

“Verily, verily I say unto you, before Abraham was, I AM,” John 8:58

“I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” John 14:6.

The problem that Christians have is that we focus, perhaps, too much on the identity of Christ, and we forget that surrounding His identity, and pointing us toward Him are all Jesus’ commandments to us. We want a relationship with Jesus the man, and with Jesus the God, but we wish to ignore the commands of Jesus the Lord, with the authority to demand we change our behavior.

Non-Christians who criticize Christians for this, on the other hand, have both the opposite and the same problem. They acknowledge the authority of Christ when he preaches commandments to do righteousness, but they ignore that alongside those teachings, and intimately bound up in them are the commands to follow him and trust in His sacrifice. They ignore that the commands to change our behavior all come from and point to Christ’s mission to save humanity by His death and resurrection. And of course, as C. S. Lewis was famous for pointing out, either Christ is who He said He was, and we must all follow all of what he said, or he is a lunatic, on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg, and we need not trouble ourselves about any of what He said. And on a personal level, while I am aware of many other men who claimed identity with God, I know of no other who has gone on to be a great moral teacher. On the contrary, they were eccentric at best, and most often genuine monsters.

Jesus always knew that Christians would do badly in following him, and complained about it to His disciples: “Why do you call me Lord, Lord, and do not follow my teachings?” The question to non-Christians would perhaps be better phrased, “Why do you insist my disciples follow my teachings when you deny the ones you don’t like?”
If there is anything that the two groups have in common, it is that the Gospel of Half of Christ is very attractive to them: Christians want to get to the center without troubling themselves about the commands that surround it. Non-Christians want to stay at the edge and ignore the teachings at the center. Both are wrong.

If the New Testament documents are worthy of any respect, then the same man who said “whatsoever you do unto the least of these, you do also to me” also said “I am the resurrection and the life.” The problem with both Christians and non-Christian admirers of Jesus is that both of them want only a part of what Jesus taught, but Jesus himself demands a wholehearted following. And since none of us is capable of such a wholehearted following, the true Gospel of Christ is this: that the Father stands ready to welcome the Prodigal Son because He loves him. That the Son poured out His life for His weaker brothers and sisters that they, too, may stand in the Father’s embrace. But to turn away from the Son is to turn away from the Father, and walk away from the embrace. And this a Christian cannot do. We must indeed, as my friend said, follow what Jesus taught. But following it leads us, step by step, to the Cross.



A Report on the Curious Culture and Religion of the Acirema

As we approach the anniversary of a certain election, I have chosen another column to reprint.

A Report on the Curious Culture and Religion of the Acirema


An Alien Visitor

As told to

G. Scott Huggins

Dear Sirs, Mesdames, Glooquot[1],and  Mechaniqa[2]:

I submit herewith my xenological report on the most curious culture to inhabit planet 73SXB1089, called in the major local language, Dirt. The most powerful economic and military culture on the planet is that of the Acirema, who have evolved a religio-political system that I believe to be unprecedented in the known galaxy.

The institution of the God-King is, of course, well documented and known to us all, the hallmark of a thousand primitive cultures. What sets the Acirema apart is their particular variant upon this theme: in their common religion, the central ceremony is the election, every four years, of a God-President. This is a very complicated process, and affects every aspect of Acirema life. The Acirema religion is atypical in many ways, the chief being: 1) The religion has aspects of both monism and dualism. 2) The religion relies on both faith and magic. 3) They deny that they share the same religion. 4) They deny that it is a religion at all.


The Acirema overwhelmingly belong to one of two sects. They have many names among themselves, and among each other, both self-glorifying (for their own sect) and pejorative (for the other). However, the two names that seem to be most in use are the Tarcomed and the Pog. The two sects claim to be as different from one another as possible, but for at least the past few decades their actions have grown more and more indistinguishable, to the point that only experts can tell them apart. The two sects themselves, however, vehemently deny this, so it is instructive to look at the major similarities.


Both sides, every four Dirt years, throw all of the efforts of their disciples into electing the next God-President, which is always one of two Chosen Prophets, one from each sect. Yet both sides have agreed that no God-President shall be elected more than twice, regardless of how well he performs the office. It is an article of faith that this would lead to corruption, as if eight years were not long enough a time to be corrupted. The disciples preach to the masses, who are at least nominal followers of the sects themselves, in order to encourage them to participate in the voting ceremony. The devotion of the masses does lie in some doubt, as it has been many years, if ever, that even half have participated in the actual ceremony. Yet even those who decline to participate in the ceremony itself (which is surprisingly prosaic and unmystical, being simply a matter of counting votes and then multiplying them by a formula based on place of habitation) devote quite a bit of time to watching and listening to the disciples, and chanting formulas in support or dissent of the two sects’ Chosen Prophets. Each side is certain that only their Chosen Prophet, as God-President, can save Acirema from poverty, war, corruption, and tyranny, while the election of the other Chosen Prophet will bring about all these things. So in this sense, the religion is dualistic, with the true believers of each sect certain that the other’s Chosen Prophet will be a God-President of Evil and Darkness.


However, once in office, the current God-President is praised (by the disciples of his own sect) for all good things that may happen within the realm of Acirema, while he is universally reviled (by the disciples of the other sect) for all possible bad things. Even those who claim to follow neither sect generally attribute the good or the bad to the decisions and the character of the God-President, whoever he may be. In this sense, therefore, the religion of the Acirema is monistic, as everything that takes place is an aspect of his rule. The chief priests, who go about instilling this belief in the worshippers, are called the “media,” not because they mediate between the people and their God-President, but because they are the only mediators of His decisions and statements to them.

Faith and Magic:

It would be natural to assume that the Acirema might fear and revere their God-President’s power simply because it is vast and unlimited like that of any tyrant, but a short review of their Law (which is indeed fairly well-enforced, though not commonly well-understood or thoroughly read) reveals that this is not so, and that the power attributed to him is entirely based on superstition and faith. The best example of such faith is the miraculous control that they attribute to the God-President over the economy. Yet a cursory review of their Law will show that the God-President has very little power over their sprawling economy, not even the power to make laws. That power is vested in a temple which, every two years they fill with what appears to be a college of wizards (also divided into Tarcomed and Pog sects), who try to influence the economy by what I can only describe as legislemancy: a series of written spells designed to make those who have elected them richer, and those who support their opponents poorer. The spells are so arcane that even many of the wizards no longer know their contents, let alone their eventual consequences. The practice does have this advantage for them, however: since no consequence of the legislemancy can ever be known for sure, there is no effect that cannot be successfully claimed as a triumph for one sect or the other. It is therefore understandable (and one of the last remaining signs of sanity in Acirema culture) that the people’s distrust of these wizards is such that the Acirema have given their temple a name that can mean both the opposite of progress and indiscriminate sexual intercourse (proving that for all their other faults, the Acirema are skilled wordsmiths and ironists). In recent years, the sectarian wizardry has grown more and more oppositional, and the result, of course is that very little gets accomplished. This seems to have been designed into the system by the authors of the Law, who were quite obviously wiser than the current Acirema. This congress, as they call it, however, serves only to reinforce their faith in the power of the God-President.

Identity of Practice:

Both sects have therefore given to the God-President more and more power, seemingly unaware of the fact that the power they give to the God-President that they support carries over to the one they oppose. Both sects encourage their God-President to fight the other sect to the uttermost, both beseech him to wield the full force of the Law without mercy over the other sect, and both call upon him to see that he extends the force of the Law and his powers of government so that more and more of their money will be taken and spent by the government.  So in this way, we may see that the religion they practice is truly the same.

Denial of Faith:

One must be careful, however, when traveling among them, never to refer to their religion as such, for both sects will violently deny that it is a religion at all. While much variance on the matter exists within each sect, the Tarcomed are most likely to deny that such a thing as God exists, which may account for their devotion to (or hatred for) the current God-President, as they have no other deity in which to repose their trust. However, even more curious are the Pog, who generally profess to worship another, and far older god. A review of the local literature revealed that this alleged god supposedly came to Earth as a man, and preached love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, all of which are markedly absent from Acirema religious debate, aside from the fact that both sects do claim to possess these qualities, while believing their opponents lack them entirely. However, as neither the Pog nor the Tarcomed spend even a quarter of the time discussing or practicing the tenets of this minor “religion” as they do their major one, we may safely discount this quaint folkway as having any real effect upon their actions or beliefs.


The Acirema are, for now, in a very strange and possibly dangerous religious phase of their culture. There is some evidence that in the past, a saner approach to politics, and we may assume, religion, took place, in which the Acirema recognized that policies rather than superstition and sectarian purity were more likely to affect their economic and diplomatic fortunes, but few, if any of that generation survive today, and since age is not well-respected among the Acirema, any testimony from them can be dismissed as “reactionary” and “out-of-touch.” We may only hope that their children may be as much wiser than the current Acirema as their ancestors were, and hope for more fruitful contact at a later time.

[1] Untranslatable gender

[2] Intelligent machines

His Kingdom Endures Forever

Another column I wrote about a year ago. It is always easier to argue against a part of an idea than it is to argue against all of it.

There is a popular and growing disdain for the concept of an afterlife today. Among agnostics and atheists, it is seen as pure wishful thinking, lampooned as “pie in the sky when you die,” a nostrum intended to keep the poor and the ignorant enslaved to the will of the religious elite. That this phrase was popularized by a communist who intended to harness the poor and ignorant to his revolution is either forgotten, or else embraced as “liberating,” as though dying for a secular cause you’ll never experience is somehow more meaningful and less absurd than dying for a religious one you would.

In the postmodern age, we see that even among some Christians, a desire for an afterlife is seen as somehow dishonorable and mercenary. As though somehow it is “pay” for “being good,” which truly virtuous people would do without reward. Thus, it is argued, Christians (or anyone) who believe in an afterlife are really just admitting their own moral failings. I must admit that, as a Christian, this argument fails to move me, seeing that the whole basis for faith in Christ is a recognition that everyone fails at morality.

I find it an interesting paradox, therefore, that in so many fantasy works that explicitly address the question of what it means to be good, the idea of an afterlife inevitably occurs. If it does not at the beginning, then it does at the end. Almost as if it were a secret that cannot help but come out whenever we discuss what it means to do right at the cost of our own lives.

Of course, the classic threat that is leveled at our SFF heroes is always “submit, or die.”  Lois McMaster Bujold, in her Chalion cycle, begins The Curse of Chalion with the tale of Lupe dy Cazaril, a Chalionese nobleman recently freed from the slavery into which he was betrayed. Although Cazaril at first dares death to save his young pupil, a Chalionese girl threatened with a forced marriage, he finds himself quickly caught up in a the service of gods who ask him to die not once, but three times to save Chalion from a curse brought about by the desperate pride of two men long dead. Cazaril does this at the risk, not only of his death, but of his damnation. And damnation becomes a theme throughout this cycle of Bujold’s work, just as reunion with the gods does. The entire second work, A Paladin of Souls turns on saving the soul of a damned ghost. To do this, Dowager Queen Ista must walk into danger only on the word of her patron god.

If Cazaril is not especially religious at the beginning of his tale, Frodo the Hobbit and Harry Potter the wizard are even less so. Both characters face, however, the growing power of a malevolent force that wishes to dominate their worlds. While the characters are extremely different, Frodo being completely unknown in his world before encountering the One Ring, while Harry is a prophesied hero practically at his birth, they have this similarity: both are forced to choose whether they will accept the role of opposing a deadly foe at the cost of their own lives. And the reward for both of them, revealed at the end of the last volume, is Heaven. The fact that Harry chooses to turn his back on Heaven (and the penalty for Voldemort’s determination to live forever at the expense of others is, make no mistake, a form of Hell) is irrelevant. He has seen Heaven, and can be confident he will find his way back.

I would contend that these authors have seen clearly a necessary truth: that the belief in an objective moral code that can demand our lives in its service cannot be separated from the belief in an afterlife. The alternative to this is not moral rectitude, but a dreadful moral injustice, in which the good are enslaved to the evil. It makes God (or whatever the source of the moral code is) into a moral vampire, demanding the hard road of virtue while returning nothing.

A comparison may be useful here. In Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials saga, the only afterlife is Hell, which is maintained by an evil God (“The Authority”) who has pulled the wool over the eyes of the universe. Essentially, this “God” is the imagined God of Satan in Paradise Lost:[1]not a Creator, but simply an immensely powerful being who opportunistically identified itself as “God” to all who came after. Hell is maintained for no other reason than Divine sadism, and by the time of the novel, the angel Metatron is trying to take over the position of “God” from the senile and dying deity, maintaining the monstrous tyranny of Heaven. The protagonists are humans who lead a revolution against these evil god-kings.

I find it fascinating where Pullman went in setting this up. When, in the first volume, The Golden Compass, we meet the parents of the main protagonist, a girl named Lyra, her parents (whom she does not know, as they have more important things to do than raise a child) are engaged in experiments to understand the nature of the universe, which they can only do, it seems, by cutting out the souls of children. This they do without qualm.

By The Amber Spyglass, we are asked to believe that these same people who would torture and kill children to attain their ends are sacrificing themselves heroically in combat to overthrow the evil Metatron. I suppose we ought to congratulate Pullman on his honesty: at least his anti-theistic messiah figures were honest enough to start out by killing children. Most of the ones in the real world are too cowardly to show their willingness to do this until they have already attained power.

At the end of the novel, Lyra breathlessly declares her intention to begin building “the Republic of Heaven,” to replace the shattered kingdom. But this Republic of Heaven will have no permanent inhabitants, it having been revealed that infinite existence was only possible, for some reason, in Hell. Lyra’s “heaven” is temporary, powerless, and cannot even contain the boy she has grown to love.

Pullman’s point, in the end, seems to be that his humans are free because they have discovered the truth: that Christianity is a lie. Well and good, I suppose, but the truth revealed is a terribly depressing one: that humans are free only to die. It truly is a Satanic conclusion: that it is better to reign and die than to serve in Heaven. He makes no argument as to why this is superior, he simply establishes on his own Author-ity that this is the case.

I would argue that we find it difficult to separate the idea of Heaven from the idea of a transcendent moral code because the two are fundamentally indissoluble, as Tolkien, Rowling, and Bujold instinctively grasp. They are repelled from separating the two for much the same reason that Pullman is attracted to destroying both: because they believe that an objective and powerful moral code is essential to human freedom, while Pullman believes that such a code destroys it. Each author has built a world on his on this foundation, and the consequences for the human condition are plain. Which world we would choose to inhabit is, as always, a choice for the reader. I believe Pullman would argue that the overwhelming advantage of living in his world is that it most closely resembles the real one. To that, I can only reply, along with C.S. Lewis’s Puddleglum, “in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that’s a funny thing when you come to think of it.”

[1] “That we were formd then saist thou? and the work
Of secondarie hands, by task transferd
From Father to his Son? strange point and new!
Doctrin which we would know whence learnt: who saw
When this creation was? rememberst thou
Thy making, while the Maker gave thee being?
We know no time when we were not as now;
Know none before us, self-begot, self-rais’d
By our own quick’ning power…”

The Temptation of Samuel Vimes

For this week’s Monday post, another column that I did for Sci Phi Journal last year. Terry Pratchett was perhaps the most amazing writer I have ever read, who faced his own limitations and did not deny them. This column represents one of the lessons I learned from his writing.

Like so many of us, I was deeply saddened to learn of the death of Sir Terry Pratchett earlier this year. Not so sad as I had been to learn that he suffered from the variant of Alzheimer’s disease that led to his death in the first place. What can I say of him? He was possibly the greatest fantasy author of my lifetime. He had the rare gift of being able to shift from writing comic farce to deep philosophy in the space of a paragraph. His works contained allusions to great literature, music, science, and the Bible.

If you have not read Pratchett’s Guards! Guards! then put this column down, get a copy and read it. I’ll wait. In fact, if you have read it, go read it again. You’re welcome.

At the very end of the book, after the dragon terrorizing the city has been defeated, Lord Vetinari, Patrician of Ankh-Morpork, takes Captain Vimes of the City Watch up on the pinnacle of the palace[1] and offers him the world.[2] The reason Vimes struggles with depression over the state of the city is because, Vetinari says, Vimes thinks of the world as divided into good people and bad people. But in reality, “there are always and only the bad people, but some of them are on opposite sides.” The human race is a “rolling sea of evil,” and the only difference is the depth.

“Down there… are people who will follow any dragon, worship any god, ignore any iniquity. All out of a kind of humdrum, everyday badness. No the really high, creative loathsomeness of the great sinners, but a sort of mass-produced darkness of the soul. Sin, you might say, without a trace of originality. They accept evil not because they say yes, but because they do not say no.”

The parallels with C.S. Lewis’s demon, Screwtape, complaining about his “lukewarm Casserole of Adulterers” in Hell are inescapable: “Could you find in it any trace of a fully inflamed, defiant, rebellious, insatiable lust? I couldn’t. They all tasted to me like undersexed morons who had blundered or trickled into the wrong beds in automatic response to sexy advertisements, or to make themselves feel modern or emancipated, or to reassure themselves about their virility or their ‘normalcy,’ or even because they had nothing else to do.” Like the citizens of Ankh-Morpork, they dared not say no.

Of course, even in Pratchett’s world, there are those who will stand up to the dragons. There are those with good intentions, like Vimes’s second-in-command Sgt. Colon, who try to rally the people to oppose the dragon’s order to sacrifice virgins to it by using the tactics of peaceful protest:

“It can’t burn everybody,” said Colon.”
“I’m not exactly sure I understand why not,” replies a nameless citizen. “Why can’t it burn everyone and fly off to another city?”

Pratchett realizes the truth; that there are some enemies who will not be moved by moral gestures, no matter how noble. Nevertheless, as Colon’s protestors (including Colon himself) drain away before the appearance of the dragon, one man, even in Ankh-Morpork, dares to place his life between his loved ones and the desolation of dragonfire. What happens to him is predictable, and bleak.

We are not even told his name. At the core of the scene, brilliant in its mockery of the limits to nonviolent protest, is a man whose self-sacrifice for his daughters and his fellow citizens is swallowed up in oblivion, without a further thought.

This reinforces Vetinari’s gentle pity of Vimes, the man who “put[s] together “little rafts of rules and vaguely good intentions and say this is the opposite, this will triumph in the end.” Obviously, it doesn’t triumph. It is not so much that “all that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing,” as the saying goes. It is that evil will triumph despite all that good men can do, because those good men are drowning in the sea of evil apathy that is the human race.

Against this, Vimes does not budge: “‘It’s just because people are afraid and alone…’  He paused. It sounded pretty hollow even to him… ‘They’re just people. They’re just doing what people do, sir.’” Vetinari replies, “You have to believe that, I appreciate… Otherwise existence would be a dark agony and the only hope would be that there is no life after death.”

Both Vetinari and Vimes miss the point, here. Vimes uses people’s loneliness and fear as an excuse for people’s behavior, and Vetinari tacitly accepts that this would be an excuse. In other words, that people “doing what people do” are people relieved to stay alive at the cost of everyone else they know. In Good Omens, Pratchett (with Neil Gaiman) says it another way: Adam, their protagonist, says to the Angel Metatron, “I don’t see what’s so triffic <sic> about creating people as people and then gettin’ upset ‘cos they act like people.”

Of course, this explanation flies in the face of pretty much all monotheistic theology, including Judaism and Islam, which state explicitly that people were not created as this sort of people. If the crux of any criticism depends on a straw man of the opposition, then surely we can agree it is a bad criticism. It is vital that we understand this, because the situation is in no way fictional. A horrifying factual example of people being people in this way can be found in Corrie ten Boom’s memoir of the Holocaust, The Hiding Place, when she pleads with a Dutch pastor to hide a Jewish mother and her baby:

“No. Definitely not. We could lose our lives for that Jewish child!”

Corrie’s father responds: “You say we could lose our lives for this child. I would consider that the greatest honor that could come to my family.”

If people being people results in the actions of the Dutch pastor, then I submit that being people is itself evil. What, after all, do we think of a man who is good only because he is safe and warm and fed and knows he will be tomorrow? Is that our idea of a moral person? Those who deign to do good when all is well with them? Whole schools of politics, of course, Marxism as well as fascism, are based on the idea that this is so. That essentially, we cannot expect people to be virtuous and kind until they are no longer poor; that the poor and oppressed (and their “allies”) may essentially threaten to terrorize the cosmos if it does not suit their ideas of equality and justice, and call it morality.

Though his statement sounds “hollow even to him,” Vimes does challenge Vetinari’s temptation to despair: “Do you believe all that, sir? About the endless evil and the sheer blackness?”

Vetinari: “It is the only logical conclusion.”

Vimes: “But you get out of bed every morning, sir?”

Vetinari: “Yes? What is your point?”

Vetinari:  “Oh, do go away, Vimes, there’s a good fellow.”

Vimes, battered little almost-Christ, sees the truth, though he has no answer for it either: that Vetinari’s view, true or not, cannot sustain life. And to this, Vetinari has no answer. He goes on ruling, goes on striving, an evil captain of a Flying Dutchman, sinking in a sea of evil.

Terry Pratchett expresses the problem of good and evil as clearly as any writer I have ever read. But he does not have an answer to it. He has only the temptation to despair. Against this, Vimes endures, but only with stubbornness; not with hope. The choice is between theology and despair, and I know of no third way. That I leave as an exercise for the reader.

[1] Okay, the view from his office window. Nothing’s very high in Ankh-Morpork.

[2] In the sense of showing it to him. Not in the sense of giving it to him. This is Vetinari, after all.

Screwtape’s Toast: A Retrospective, Part II

For those of you just joining us, I would encourage a reading of Part I of the Retrospective on the Toast of Screwtape, found here.

But now comes the point. Gastronomically, all this is deplorable. But I hope none of us puts gastronomy first. Is it not, in another and far more serious way, full of hope and promise?

The best use of the squabble between the Corporatist and the Activist leaders is the fact that instead of either working against us, they work primarily against each other, while the masses of humans debate about which is “better.” We, of course, do not care. The important thing is that the real leaders of humanity, the ones with real drive and moral force, will be sucked up into the endless war and co-opted. Even more advantageously for us, the ones who are actually strong in the virtue they call humility will conclude that they are in error and will eventually imitate their fellows out of pride, despair, or cowardice. The few courageous enough to follow their moral convictions will be labeled as cranks and silenced, or better, ignored.

Consider, first, the mere quantity. The quality may be wretched; but we never had souls (of a sort) in more abundance.

And then the triumph. We are tempted to say that such souls — or such residual puddles of what once was soul — are hardly worth damning. Yes, but the Enemy (for whatever inscrutable and perverse reason) thought them worth trying to save. Believe me, He did. You youngsters who have not yet been on active duty have no idea with what labour, with what delicate skill, each of these miserable creatures was finally captured.

The difficulty lay in their very smallness and flabbiness. Here were vermin so muddled in mind, so passively responsive to environment, that it was very hard to raise them to that level of clarity and deliberateness at which mortal sin becomes possible. To raise them just enough; but not that fatal millimetre of “too much.” For then, of course, all would possibly have been lost. They might have seen; they might have repented. On the other hand, if they had been raised too little, they would very possibly have qualified for Limbo, as creatures suitable neither for Heaven nor for Hell; things that, having failed to make the grade, are allowed to sink into a more or less contented subhumanity forever.

This problem is one which we have finally surmounted, through a process Screwtape only dimly, if at all, foresaw, and which is worth some discussion. We have at last succeeded in teaching vice as though it was virtue. Not through argumentation, of course, but by encouraging the most glamorous and loudest platforms to those who practice the vices, and by encouraging acceptable lying. In America, we have taught them this very well. Cowardice is now called “pacifism.” Lust and adultery are called “love” and “self-discovery.” Betrayal and disloyalty are called “honesty” and envy is called “justice.” In this way the humans cannot “see and repent” as Screwtape feared. Who can repent of a virtue? And the more they are assailed, the more fiercely they defend it, seeing themselves as martyrs to their chosen vices. And the fact that all of those can be actually virtues only determines the humans to defend them more fiercely. All we need do is to make sure that they never ask themselves WHY doing what they like should be considered virtuous.

In each individual choice of what the Enemy would call the “wrong” turning, such creatures are at first hardly, if at all, in a state of full spiritual responsibility. They do not understand either the source or the real character of the prohibitions they are breaking. Their consciousness hardly exists apart from the social atmosphere that surrounds them. And of course we have contrived that their very language should be all smudge and blur; what would be a bribe in someone else’s profession is a tip or a present in theirs.

Here Screwtape was more prescient. For as we noted, we no longer simply blur the words of their language. We hardly need to. Their own knowledge of it has been so far degraded that they can hardly use it as a tool, anymore than they can use tools. Those whose lifespans are approaching their natural end in their most powerful nation can remember a time when it was a point of pride among men and women to use tools with their hands: to make and repair things because they understood them. Such people were very hard to fool, when Screwtape wrote. But their grandchildren are a different matter. Their machines are now so complex that most of them cannot be understood, let alone repaired, by a single human. We have replaced young men spending their leisure hours working on the engines of cars with frustrated children hanging on the line to tech support. And faced with  problem they turn helpless to the “experts” to replace them. Therefore they are unused to struggle and mastery of their bodies or their minds. Which is exactly where we want them.

The job of their Tempters was first, or course, to harden these choices of the Hellward roads into a habit by steady repetition. But then (and this was all-important) to turn the habit into a principle — a principle the creature is prepared to defend. After that, all will go well. Conformity to the social environment, at first merely instinctive or even mechanical — how should a jelly not conform? — now becomes an unacknowledged creed or ideal of Togetherness or Being Like Folks. Mere ignorance of the law they break now turns into a vague theory about it — remember, they know no history — a theory expressed by calling it conventional or Puritan or bourgeois “morality.”

Again, our task is much easier now. Rather than reject morality for even the slightest of reasons, the children are now taught, and by the time they are adults believe reflexively, that morality is a wardrobe, which can be assembled and worn to suit them, depending on how it makes them feel, and that anyone who says differently is simply out to control them.

Thus gradually there comes to exist at the center of the creature a hard, tight, settled core of resolution to go on being what it is, and even to resist moods that might tend to alter it. It is a very small core; not at all reflective (they are too ignorant) nor defiant (their emotional and imaginative poverty excludes that); almost, in its own way, prim and demure; like a pebble, or a very young cancer. But it will serve our turn. Here at last is a real and deliberate, though not fully articulate, rejection of what the Enemy calls Grace.

This rejection is now automatic. Grace and sin are two concepts that they do not even understand. But they can avoid the first by doing the second in selfish abandon.

These, then, are two welcome phenomena. First, the abundance of our captures: however tasteless our fare, we are in no danger of famine. And secondly, the triumph: the skill of our Tempters has never stood higher. But the third moral, which I have not yet drawn, is the most important of all.

The sort of souls on whose despair and ruin we have — well, I won’t say feasted, but at any rate subsisted — tonight are increasing in numbers and will continue to increase. Our advices from Lower Command assure us that this is so; our directives warn us to orient all our tactics in view of this situation. The “great” sinners, those in whom vivid and genial passions have been pushed beyond the bounds and in whom an immense concentration of will has been devoted to objects which the Enemy abhors, will not disappear. But they will grow rarer. Our catches will be ever more numerous; but they will consist increasingly of trash — trash which we should once have thrown to Cerberus and the hellhounds as unfit for diabolical consumption. And there are two things I want you to understand about this: First, that however depressing it might seem, it is really a change for the better. And secondly, I would draw your attention to the means by which it has been brought about.

It is a change for the better. The great (and toothsome) sinners are made out of the very same material as those horrible phenomena the great Saints. The virtual disappearance of such material may mean insipid meals for us. But is it not utter frustration and famine for the Enemy? He did not create the humans — He did not become one of them and die among them by torture — in order to produce candidates for Limbo, “failed” humans. He wanted to make them Saints; gods; things like Himself. Is the dullness of your present fare not a very small price to pay for the delicious knowledge that His whole great experiment is petering out? But not only that. As the great sinners grow fewer, and the majority lose all individuality, the great sinners become far more effective agents for us. Every dictator or even demagogue — almost every film star or [rock star] — can now draw tens of thousands of the human sheep with him. They give themselves (what there is of them) to him; in him, to us. There may come a time when we shall have no need to bother about individual temptation at all, except for the few. Catch the bellwether, and his whole flock comes after him.

It should hardly be necessary to state that this happy state of affairs has long since been realized on Earth. By rejecting the Enemy, the humans have filled their need for Him with a desire to fling themselves at whatever leader makes them feel closest to that now-unattainable ideal. If they will not worship that which is greater than themselves, they can now be drawn to what looks greater. And we have even regained a great advantage of polytheism, the ability to fling humans at each others’ throats in the names of their little gods, all of them false.





The Word: Can God Make A Person Free Enough To Surprise Him?

Explanation: A bit over a year ago, I began writing a regular theology column for Sci Phi Journal called The Mote In God’s ‘I’. This is the column that launched the series, and remains my fastest sale to date (15 minutes). I am re-running it here, hoping my readers like it as well as the editor did.

The Mote In God’s “I.”

Most of the problems I’ve run into in my life, I have solved by the simple expedient of reading more science-fiction. I was too young to be an astronaut when I discovered that such an incredible profession existed, so I read Rocket Jockey by Lester del Rey. I didn’t have any friends in my middle-school years, so I read Anne McCaffrey and imagined myself a dragonrider. Somewhat more productively, I watched and read Star Trek and found myself a few like-minded friends who started tabletop gaming. Problem solved. Whenever dramatically boring people said I couldn’t use made-up worlds to solve my problems, I pointed out that a) the “real” world had no better track record at that, and b) it was working fine so far. Then I read more science-fiction and solved more problems.

One of the oldest problems in theology is that of free will versus theological determinism. If God exists, and is all-powerful and all-knowing as his followers claim, then how can his creation be possessed of free will? Won’t He know everything they are going to do beforehand? And if He does, is the future not fixed? And if fixed, in what sense do creatures have a choice?

(This essay is not going to concern itself with the debate on whether free will exists. For the sake of this essay, it exists. If you believe otherwise, go… do whatever the hell you were already going to do, I guess. I can’t stop you. More to the point, you can’t stop you. Have fun.)

On the other hand, if creatures have free will, then can God really be God? Doesn’t that mean he’s either not omnipotent, or not omniscient?

Short answer: No.


The problem is that many theological thinkers have just been willing to accept what turns out to be a false dichotomy. Calvinists, who believe in predestination, essentially say that yes, God does know everything, and are fine with that because the purpose of God is to glorify God. How God is glorified if it turns out that He Himself is the ultimate cause of evil, because no one ever had a choice not to commit it, I have never been able to figure out.

On the other side of the theological divide, we have the Arminians, who say that free will is sacred to God, so God would never interfere with it. While that certainly says a lot more for God’s character, it still doesn’t really answer how God can’t destroy free will by knowing the future.

In other words, the problem with both schools of thought is that their answers lack the imagination that provides the backbone of really solid science-fiction writing.

For the longer answer that is actually relevant I eventually formulated, I have to give credit, not, as you might think, to men like C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien (I’m going to assume we all know these guys were hard-core Christians, yes?) but to writers such as S.M. Stirling and Terry Pratchett. Because both of these men’s worlds really do contain the answer, if we look hard enough.

S.M. Stirling is my all-time favorite alternate-history writer. Sister Marya Sokolowska of his Draka cycle is one of my favorite religious characters in all of fiction. But it was The Peshawar Lancers that started me thinking along theological lines. In it, the “seer” Yasmini can see possible futures, enabling her to predict the results of present actions. As the novel progresses, she begins seeing all the possible futures, all the time, until it threatens to drive her mad.

Terry Pratchett, in his Discworld universe, more facetiously puts an omniscope (which can see anywhere and anywhen) under the control of the Department of Inadvisably Applied Magic. When asked to observe the future, he demurs, on the grounds that observing the future would cause all the possible futures to collapse into a single future, which, having been observed, would now be the only future.

In both of these cases, we see the same core idea: there are many futures to choose from. And while it might not be possible for a man to observe them all, as in Pratchett, or for a woman to keep them all straight, as in Stirling, it should be quite possible for God.

The solution to the problem is not that God be considered less than omniscient. It is that He be considered more omniscient than we had ever imagined. Why could God not see all possible futures, simultaneously, and then react accordingly as His creation, blessed with free will, makes choices?

There are really only two objections to this: Firstly, does this mean that God could be surprised? Maybe even thwarted? Certainly not, and science-fiction (or fantasy) again provides the answer, as any competent dungeon-master who has ever run a party through a Dungeons and Dragons campaign knows. Because the dungeon-master knows the rules. The party may do something unusual, and the die rolls may be odd, but they can’t really surprise him.  And by (in Hawking’s famous phrase) “throwing the dice where they cannot be seen,” God can certainly always create the circumstances He wants. But no being with infinite attention could ever be surprised, any more than an author of one of the old Choose Your Own Adventure books could be when a child reaches one of his endings. Yet, the child had free will.

Secondly, is it possible for God to keep knowledge from himself in this way (and you have to admit, that’s a lot more interesting than the old “can-God-make-a-rock-so-heavy-yadda-yadda-barf” question)?

Well, it’s hard to imagine why He couldn’t. His lack of knowledge doesn’t threaten Him or anyone He cannot protect. And God often speaks in “If… then” phrases in the Judeo-Christian tradition (Exodus 4 being but one example). Why would God need to use “if” when He already knew? Is He lying to his followers? That would seem more troubling than the idea that God might limit his own knowledge. By giving people free will at all, God would already have limited His own power, simply by allowing other power to exist. This objection seems petty.

There seems to be no intrinsic reason then, why free will and omniscience could not coexist, so long as we recognize the proper definition of “omniscience,” which requires, as science-fiction has always required – as religion, at  its best, has always required – that we always seek beyond the limits of the humanly and presently possible.