Celestial Lands The Religious Crossroads of Politics, Power, and Theology

Theology in Science Fiction

Since I was 9 years old, Science Fiction has played an amazingly important role in my life. I am secure enough in my identity that I do not mind admitting my personal geekdom. In truth, I credit a decent amount of who I have become to my encounter with science fiction over the years. The reason? In my early life, nothing inspired me to think deeply more than my science fiction novels… not just about pulsars, lasers, and spaceships, but about (pun intended for my fellow scifi geeks) “Life, the Universe, and Everything”.

Science fiction, or at least the best of it, is a study in theology, in humanity, in sociology, and in philosophy. Science fiction that becomes classic almost always has within it deep questions about the nature of existence, about the purpose of life, about the nature of what is viewed as sacred. It asks political questions that are dangerous to ask, it challenges institutions and structures that are dangerous to challenge… all while seeming to some (not me) a frivolous adventure of the imagination.

For me as a young boy, science fiction was dangerously subversive.

When I was 12, I was the sound-board operator in my family’s Baptist church. I sat up in the balcony during the service, running the tape machine and setting all the levels on the microphones, and playing the occasional song over the speakers. I took the volunteer job at first so I did not have to sit with my family anymore… but I soon realized that, in the balcony, no one could see me.

So, during the sermon, I read my science fiction novels.

I know, I know… and now I’m a preacher! During my internship I was reminded of this when, during a sermon of mine, I realized that one of the teens on the balcony landing was reading a book instead of listening to me drone on… no one knew what the smile was about but me.

I had heard my pastor many times before… I could basically predict what his conclusions would be, no matter what scripture he started with. But in my books, there was no predicting the depth of thought, no telling where that thought might lead, and deep questions as to the ethical challenges that path might create for the characters. As I thought through what I might do in those situations, I learned theological and ethical thinking, I began to see my own role in society, and I questioned some of the rather clear-cut answers of my childhood faith in light of an obviously murky universe.

I remember the novel “Dune” challenging my assumptions about there being “good guys” and “bad guys”. I remember it also challenging me to think about Jesus as a man, instead of just being God (a struggle the character Paul-Maudib is faced with). I remember the book “Ender’s Game” teaching me that our reality is defined by what we think we “know”, and that if that information is wrong (because for Ender, the game he was playing was not a game at all, but real war) your perceived reality is wrong. I remember Isaac Asimov’s book “Nightfall” teaching me about fear and panic, and how Frank Herbert’s “Dune” gave me the “litany against fear”.

“I must not fear, for fear is the mind killer….”

Asimov’s “The Positronic Man” and Dick’s “When Androids Sleep, Do They Dream of Electric Sheep” (Blade Runner) taught me about civil rights and about how we define otherness. Douglas Adam’s entire body of work (especially Hitchiker’s Guide) showed me the value of holding a little irreverence for your beliefs. Niven and Pournelle’s “Mote in God’s Eye” and “The Gripping Hand” taught me about compassion, about injustice, and about defending one’s self. Asimov’s “The Robots of Dawn” taught me about love and loss. All of these and so many more became, not real to me, but informers of my reality.

Science fiction, at its best, is one of the few places in literature where we humans are able to be fully creative. Able to craft whole universes, the stories can be designed as the ultimate in “midrash”… as the ultimate in conveying deep meaning, theology, and creative ideas about ourselves and the realities we create through story and narrative. Though often fantastic, the best science fiction stories are deeply human, and they provide just enough fantastical space for us to look back at ourselves with enough detachment to discover who we deeply are as a species.

Each night, it is not theology, scripture, or books on ministry that I read before bed… those are for the light of day. At night, it is to my science fiction that I return, and I dream of creative “Playgrounds of the Mind”.

Larry Niven, Frank Herbert, Ursula LeGuin, Orson Scott Card, Jerry Pournelle, Isaac Asimov, David Webber, Robert Heinlein, Phillip Dick, Douglas Adams, Fred Saberhagen, George Orwell, Ray Bradbury, HG Wells, Arthur Clark, Anne McCaffrey, and so many others… I thank you.

Yours in Faith,


7 Thoughts on “Theology in Science Fiction

  1. Excellent post David.

    I agree almost 100% with it and, like you, science fiction had a strong influence in shaping my personal “theology” during my teen years and into my 20s if not 30s. The ‘Dune’ series by Frank Herbert was certainly a major influence in forming my personal “theology” but so were works by most of the other science fiction authors that you mentioned, as well as a few that you did not mention such as Olaf Stapleton, Poul Anderson and of course that famous U*U Kurt Vonnegut Jr. 🙂

    For the record I was about two-thirds of the way through reading Robert Heinlein’s ‘Stranger In A Strange Land’ when I had my profound revelatory experience of God in early 1992. I do not draw a connection between the two events however. The revelatory experience had a lot more to do with very unusual “coincidences” when randomly opening the Bible, along with other synchronicity and a bona fide mystical experience of feeling the presence of God that is comparable to reports of prophets about being “filled” with the Spirit of God. . . I never completed reading it. Maybe I should do so.

    For the time being I am busy resurrecting my eclipsology “web sights” in blog form. AFAIAC they are science fact with a strong bearing on religion.

    One quibble with your post I would not describe the science fiction writing that helped to form my personal theology as a “frivolous adventure of the imagination” . While some second rate science fiction can be properly described as frivolous there is nothing *frivolous* about the best examples of the genre and, as you rightly pointed out, science fiction asks “political questions that are dangerous to ask” and “challenges institutions and structures that are dangerous to challenge” indeed some of the best science science fiction, and even second rate science fiction, asks existential and *religious* questions that are dangerous to ask and even indirectly challenges religious institutions and structures that are dangerous to challenge. Clearly my science fiction reading had a strong influence on me. 😉

    Best Regards,

    Robin Edgar

  2. I enjoyed your posting on the linkage between science fiction, philosophy and theology. Given your interests, you might enjoy my novel published earlier this year, called Requiem of the Human Soul.

    The novel’s set in the 22nd century when the majority of the world are genetically enhanced d-humans and there’s a proposal at the UN for the gradual extinction of the unenhanced humans, or Primals.

    It’s a novel with a one foot in science fiction and the other in philosophy. One of the characters in the novel is a double Nobel Prize winner of the mid-21st century called Dr. Julius Schumacher, inventor of neurography (visualization of thought) and discoverer of the dynamic neural correlates of consciousness. In his research, Dr. Schumacher realizes that he can visualize the human soul in the smudges of his neurographic images and, to his horror, begins to believe that human genetic engineering might destroy the soul.

    If you’re interested, you might want to check out the novel’s website at http://www.humansoul.com Please let me know what you think.

  3. Captain Beall could I possibly offer you a commission in my fictional, but otherwise quite scientific, U*U Jihad Navy? We’ve done some pretty interesting modifications on Iowa Class battleship that allow them to sail from Amsterdam to New York and back to the United Kingdom in a matter of hours. I know it may be hard to believe but I have the web stats to prove it. 🙂

  4. Well written, David.

    I wonder if you noticed that Zelazny’s Amber novels and other works were pantheons? There was a time when Del published all his “God” books in the same style to prove their point: Amber Series, Creatures of light and Darknes, Lord of Light…

    Also, Stephen Brust has a pretty radical take on heaven, hell and Paradise Lost in To Reign In Hell, it kinda argues that Lucifer is a UU and that hell might not be that bad a place for a free thinker.

    Read Brust’s To Reign In Hell some time and let us know what you think.

  5. Pingback: Celestial Lands » Blog Archive » Books for a UU RE Class on Theology in Science Fiction?

  6. Not just books, but tv and movies as well. It’s like seeing old friends again as I Netflixs all the DS9 episodes, and now enjoy Heroes. MST3K al the way baby!

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