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Naturalism and the Sublime in Neil deGrasse Tyson’s “Astrophysics for People in a Hurry”

To be sublime is to be “of such excellence, grandeur, or beauty as to inspire great admiration or awe” according to Oxford Dictionaries. As Alan Gregory has argued in Science Fiction Theology, scientific (or sometimes nearly magical) sublime frequently replaces transcendent reality in science fiction. I believe this can just as easily be noted within science writing as well. Neil deGrasse Tyson’s recent book, Astrophysics for People in a Hurry is a prime example of this subversion of the transcendent by explicitly naturalistic sublime.

Tyson fills his book with language of the sublime. Simply looking at the table of contents shows how he has worked to replace religious themes with his own naturalistic paradigm. Chapter titles include “The Greatest Story Ever Told,” a reference to the popular biography of Christ of the same title; “On Earth as in the Heavens,” a play on the line from the Lord’s Prayer; and “Let There Be Light,” the opening line of the creation account in the Bible. These titles intentionally play on the transcendent themes from which they are are derived.

The naturalistic sublime continues in the opening chapter, “The Greatest Story Ever Told,” which echoes Genesis with its opening:

In the beginning, nearly fourteen billion years ago… (17)

These words spur a narrative of the universe from a purely naturalistic perspective. Of course, Tyson is not content to merely echo religious language; he must also make explicit that his naturalistic sublime is intentionally replacing God.

The naturalistic sublime effectively turns the universe–the cosmos–into its god. It glories in the beauty of the universe as the telos in itself. Tyson’s language of the “Greatest Story Ever Told” and echoing of the Genesis account with the replacement of God’s activity with purely naturalistic explanation is one example of this. Ignoring that many, many, many Christians agree that his “Greatest Story” is the way that the universe was created, Tyson creates his own narrative of the naturalistic sublime. It becomes most explicit in the closing chapter, which we quote at some length:

The cosmic perspective flows from fundamental knowledge… its attributes are clear:
The cosmic perspective comes from the frontiers of science, yet it is… for everyone.,,
The cosmic perspective is humble.
The cosmic perspective is spiritual–even redemptive–but not religious…
The cosmic perspective finds beauty in the images of planets, moons, stars, and nebulae, but also celebrates the laws of physics that shape them.
The cosmic perspective [gives an]… indication that perhaps flag-waving and space exploration do not mix.
The cosmic perspective not only embraces our genetic kinship with all life on Earth, but also valeus our chemical kinship with any yet-to-be discovered life in the universe, as well as our atomic kinship with the universe itself. (205-207)

Thus, Tyson makes quite explicit his idea of the naturalistic sublime. It is scientific–by which he means naturalistic–and for all. Eschewing such petty things as definitions or clarity of terms, Tyson allows for spirituality and, generously, an amorphous and undefined notion of rdemption, but not religion in his cosmic sublime. The kinship of all with all is offered as a kind of final, ultimate sublime for all to finally be one (apparently Tyson forgot this idea had already existed in many of those “religions” he rejects, including his clear primary target, Christianity: 1 Corinthians 15:28, for example).

But Tyson is not content to merely offer this vision of cosmic, naturalistic sublime to his readers. He closes with a commandment: to ponder these cosmic truths “At least once a week, if not once a day…” so that we may wonder at the way new discoveries may “transform life on Earth” (207).

When Tyson confronts the Big Questions like how the universe’s beginning may itself have begun, he simply punts the question in typical naturalistic fashion:

…some religious people assert, with a tinge of righteousness, that something must have started it all: a force greater than all others…. that something is, of course, God.
But what if the universe was always there, in a state or condition we have yet to identify…? Or what if the universe just popped into existence from nothing? Or what if everything we know and love were just a computer simulation rendered for entertainment by a superintelligent species?
These philosophically fun ideas usually satisfy nobody. Nonetheless, they remind us that ignorance is the natural state of mind for a research scientist… What we do know, and what we can assert without further hesitation, is that the universe had a beginning. (32-33)

Tyson’s tone is itself an intriguing study in deep irony. Even as he references those silly religious people who assert that God must have created the universe, he throws a dig out there about their self-righteousness. But just as he’s doing that, he turns around to, himself with no small amount of righteous-pride, assert his ignorance of the universe. He throws out a number of answers that he calls “philosophically fun” and then shrugs his shoulders. His own pride–his sublime–is found in the not-knowing. Though we know, according to Tyson, that the universe had a beginning, we should satisfy ourselves with ignorance and just ask “what if?” questions to pass the time.

Tyson’s universe is itself the means, end, and glory. It is the non-transcendent, naturalistic sublime. As we’ve shown above, the universe itself is what replaces the transcendent for Tyson. Devotional rites are proposed. Religious language is wholly appropriate, in Tyson’s world, to use for the universe. It is the Greatest Story; It is the Beginning; It is the Light; Its Will must be done, despite our ignorance of it. It is the naturalistic sublime’s only hope. God help us.

Links

Be sure to check out the page for this site on Facebook and Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies and more!

Eclectic Theist– Check out my other blog for posts on Star Trek, science fiction, fantasy, books, sports, food, and more!

SDG.

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The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from quotations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited; images are often freely available to the public and J.W. Wartick makes no claims of owning rights to the images unless he makes that explicit) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

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Scott Westerfeld’s “Leviathan Trilogy”- Justice, War, and Love

Beautiful insert art from "Goliath," the third book in the Leviathan Trilogy.

Beautiful insert art from “Goliath,” the third book in the Leviathan Trilogy.

Scott Westerfeld is an extremely popular author of young adult literature. I recently dived into his “Leviathan Trilogy,” a series that tells an alternate history of World War I as steampunk. What is steampunk? Well… it’s hard to sum up, but for those not in the know, check out Wikipedia’s description. In this alternate history, the powers that split the world are aligned as either Clanker (using machinery, guns, and the like) or Darwinist (using genetically modified creatures to do battle). There will be SPOILERS for the series in what follows.

 Honor and Nationalism

The series begins with Prince Aleksander of Hohenberg, the son of the Archduke in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, being spirited away at night because people who do not want him to have any chance of becoming the Emperor are after him. Count Volger is one of those who have conspired to whisk him away. Volger’s character is interesting because although he is portrayed as largely unlikable from the perspective of Alek [Prince Aleksander], he is one of the most honorable characters in the series.

Volger acts as a kind of moral voice, but one which is strongly tied to nationalism. Volger’s honor provides a framework for Alek to learn from, and he does so spectacularly when he acts rightfully to stop a potential mass destruction later in the series (see below regarding Tesla). However, Volger is not infallible, and his moral compass appears to be inherently tied to what is good for the Austro-Hungarian Empire and what he perceives is good for Alek. This is in contrast to a wider, broader vision of moral action which would allow for self-critique on a national level as well. Volger at points seems to see how his moral/nationalist vision puts him at odds with what he thinks is right and wrong, but his commitment to that system makes it difficult for him to get beyond it.

Even if the reader thinks Volger is wrong, however, the honor he shows throughout the novels is something to be admired. The way that he acts selflessly at multiple points throughout the trilogy is noteworthy, and sets a strong moral example throughout the books. Again, this is interesting because from the narrator’s (Alek’s) perspective, Volger sometimes seems an insufferable grouch. However, Alek ultimately realizes the goodness of Volger, much to his own benefit.

These reflections lead naturally to a kind of self-examination for those who tend to think of their own nation in exceptionalist terms. Although exceptionalism is not, in and of itself, a moral wrong, it can very easily lead to the pervasive, systematic injustice. Volger’s character allows readers to examine this kind of thinking in a fictional setting, which makes it safer to think about while still engaging the reader on a deep level.

War and Justice

A central aspect of the trilogy as it plays out over an alternate World War I is the unity and disunity between the concepts of war and justice. In Leviathan, Great Britain seems to enter the war purely due to some perceived obligation–it doesn’t want to see the “Clankers” win. By the time we get to the third book, however, the depth of the discussion is much greater. Tesla has apparently developed a weapon capable of wiping out entire cities. Is it just to use such a weapon to bring an immediate end to the war, if that means sacrificing millions of lives to save tens of millions?

Thus, there are numerous questions about war and justice raised throughout the series. Some of these remain open questions–such as whether Great Britain in this example was right to wage war–while others are explored more thoroughly. One of these is Tesla’s attempt to use a weapon that allegedly can destroy entire cities. When he attempts to do so, Alek rushes to stop him, resulting in Tesla’s death. Here we see an act that might normally be considered a wrong–causing the death of another (though the moral status of its intent is something worth contemplating as well)–ends up being, ostensibly, a good. Ironically, Tesla’s weapon did not actually have the power he thought it did.

Male Privilege

Deryn Sharp has to pretend to be a boy in order to pursue a dream of serving in the air force of Great Britain. The subtle criticisms of male privilege found throughout the series is worth commenting on. One wonders whether we have actually overcome some of the clear biases against the capabilities of women that are mentioned throughout the Leviathan Trilogy. For example, resistance to women as firefighters, police officers, and the like persists in our time.

Conclusion

Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan Trilogy is a thought-provoking set of novels. It is also a beautiful story of love and adventure, with wonderful illustrations found throughout. It’s the best kind of story: one that makes you think.

Links

Be sure to check out the page for this site on Facebook and Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies and more!

Popular Books– Read through my other posts on popular books–science fiction, fantasy, and more! (Scroll down for more.)

Eclectic Theist– My other interests site is full of science fiction, fantasy, food, sports, and more random thoughts. Come on by and check it out!

SDG.

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The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from quotations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited; images are often freely available to the public and J.W. Wartick makes no claims of owning rights to the images unless he makes that explicit) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

Dean Koontz’s “Odd Thomas” series- Faithful Goodness in the Face of Evil

saint-odd

Dean Koontz is an insanely popular author, having sold over 450 million copies of his books. His Odd Thomas series has also been a stunning success. Here, I will take a worldview level look at the whole series. There will be SPOILERS for the whole series in what follows. I will not be summarizing the plots of these works, but brief summaries can be found on Wikipedia (follow internal links).

Faithful Goodness

I think the concept of “faithful goodness” best summarizes the main character, Odd Thomas. I call it faithful goodness because time and again, Odd has every reason to flee from doing right, yet he persists in doing the right thing. He believes in a higher order to the universe to which all–including himself–are held accountable, but this is not the motivation for his continuing to do what is right. Rather, he acts as a kind of sacrificial/Christ figure.  He does what is right because that is his nature. Ultimately, that leads him to giving up his life to save others. “Saint,” indeed.

Evil and Violence

The Odd Thomas series is filled with murderers, torturers, and worse. What kind of redemptive themes might be found amidst the chaos of all this evil? Dean Koontz stated in an interview:

I don’t shy away from having violent things happen, but I don’t dwell on it. I feel, as a Christian, writing books that have a moral purpose to them, it’s actually incumbent upon me to write about evil, because this kingdom is Satan’s and he is the prince of the world. It’s here and it’s among us… My villains are pathetic. I never glorify a villain. I couldn’t write something like Hannibal because there’s something there that makes the villain the most glamorous person in the piece. I can’t write that. I don’t find evil glamorous. You’ll never find it that way in my books. (Cited by Anthony Weber)

Ultimate glory does not belong to evil. It will be extinguished. Although evil and violence persist in the world in which we now live, that is a temporary state of affairs. Christ our King will come to create anew, bringing life and vanquishing death.

Yet this does not mean that we can ignore evil now, or that we should be apathetic toward it. Like Odd, we must persist in fighting it, faithfully clinging to the reality that God–the ultimate Good–will triumph in the end.

Hope

Hope is a defining and central feature of the Odd Thomas series. Whether it is Odd’s hope to be reunited to his lost life, Stormy, or the eschatological hope for the final consummation of the Kingdom, it is this reality that drives Odd and gives him comfort even amid the most vile circumstances.

It is worth noting that Odd’s hope is ultimately focused towards the hereafter, rather than the present world. Christians should also remember that our current reality is not what we should try to ground all our hopes in. We can gain the whole world, yet lose our soul. Our final hope must be grounded in the coming of God’s kingdom and the New Creation.

Conclusion

Dean Koontz’s works continually show the workings of Christian faith and a worldview that allows for mystery in the universe. I highly recommend picking up some of his books to explore the integration of the Christian worldview into fiction, and the way they can be woven together. I will give a warning: they are for mature audiences only.

Links

Be sure to check out the page for this site on Facebook and Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies and more!

Popular Books– Read through my other posts on popular books–science fiction, fantasy, and more! (Scroll down for more.)

Saint Odd– Anthony Weber reflects on the final book in the series, Saint Odd, from a Christian perspective. I highly recommend this post and also following his excellent site.

SDG.

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The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from quotations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited; images are often freely available to the public and J.W. Wartick makes no claims of owning rights to the images unless he makes that explicit) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

Robotech: The Macross Saga- Pacifism, Loyalty, and Honor

robotech-macross

Robotech was one of the first anime programs to be released in the United States, in 1985. So I’m a little late to the party to finally be watching it, but I always wanted to when I was little, and my wife got me the series for Christmas a year ago. I was surprised by the depth of some of the worldview-level issues that were addressed in the show alongside a story of aliens vs. humans. Here, I will examine some of these worldview issues from the show from a Christian perspective. There will be SPOILERS in what follows.

Pacifism in the Face of Annihilation

One of the characters who shows up later on in the show is Lynn Kyle, is a pacifist. He believes that the army is repugnant, at best, and harbors a deep detestation for military personnel. Yet the story Robotech tells is one in which an alien race is bent on wiping out humanity. Is pacifism a moral choice in the face of annihilation?

I can’t help but think of Dietrich Bonhoeffer when I think of situations like this. Staying silent in the face of injustice is itself an act. To stand aside and let others defend oneself while there is a whole people bent on xenocide is itself an ethical decision which seems to have moral implications. I would argue those implications show that such inaction is injustice, and this is a theme found throughout Christian theology from around the time of Augustine.

Loyalty and Honor

Rick Hunter and Lisa Hayes demonstrate the attributes of loyalty and honor. Rick is constantly loyal in his friendship to Minmei, as well as his loyalty to the other members of his squadron. Lisa’s honorable commitment to Rick and to her crew on board the starship is also worthy of mentioning. Together, they demonstrate virtue.

Christians have long debated what kind of ethical theory best matches up with reality. Virtue ethics is the kind in which one’s character guides behavior. Here, we can see that Rick and Lisa embody a kind of virtue ethic which can serve as a model for remaining loyal and honorable even amidst temptations.

Domestic Abuse and Leaving the Relationship

Minmei’s relationship with Kyle is clearly verbally abusive. Too often, people are counseled to stay in such abusive relationships whether with the hope of “fixing” the abusive partner or due to some sense of necessity to maintain a relationship. Thankfully, Minmei leaves the abusive relationship, though it ultimately does not end with the happiest outcome, she does get herself out of a poor situation.

Theologically, it should be impermissible to counsel someone to stay in an abusive relationship. I recommend this post on the difficulties with a theology that argues for staying in an abusive relationship.

Cultural Conversion

A powerful theme in Robotech is that of cultural conversion. Minmei’s singing ultimately brings some of the Zentraedi onto the side of the humans (whom they call “micronians”). Although at times simplistic, this portrayal resonates with some pretty deep themes. What is it about music which can resonate with us? How might we engage with culture in ways that are impactful? What can we do through music to present a winsome case for Christ?

Christians have debated how conversion relates to culture and whether conversion means an abandonment of one’s own culture. Richard Twiss, for example, writes about this from the perspective of Native Americans who are followers of Christ. The power of culture to persuade is something that I think we must not lose sight of. Whether it is song, dress, or something else, cultural expressions can often be integrated into Christianity and even made sense of by Christianity. If all truth is from God, as seems to be right to affirm, then Christian engagement with the culture is a powerful tool for conversion and discussion.

Conclusion

What? Did I just write a worldview-level post on an anime? You better believe it. I always say that every story has a worldview (a phrase that I got from Brian Godawa, though I don’t know who coined it). Robotech was no different. I recommend watching the series and seeing what kind of worldview questions you find in it. Or, if nothing else, at least you can enjoy the giant robots.

Links

Be sure to check out the page for this site on Facebook and Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies and more!

Also see my other looks into television (scroll down for more).

SDG.

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The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from quotations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited; images are often freely available to the public and J.W. Wartick makes no claims of owning rights to the images unless he makes that explicit) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

The (Un)Just City- Jo Walton’s “The Just City,” Gender, Gods, and Morality

tjc-waltonJo Walton’s The Just City is unlike anything I’ve read before. She seamlessly combined philosophy, theology, and fantasy into an epic tale that was difficult to put down. The plot is centered around the notion that Apollo and Athene, the Greek gods, decide to go through time and collect people who desired to attempt to build Plato’s Republic. Here, we’ll examine the book from a worldview perspective. There will be SPOILERS in what follows.

Christian Morality Opposed to Justice?

One scene features Maia speaking with Ikaros, a man who had embraced various aspects of the Republic with fervor. Maia believes that Ikaros was a Dominican monk in his former life, but she finds that he is quick to exclude Christianity from the bounds of possibility in the City. The reason is because he doesn’t believe Christianity to be true, or at least any aspect of truth capable of matching their new perspective:

[Ikaros reasons:] “I reconciled Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Platonism, and Zoroastrianism… But don’t you see, we were doing it starting from a belief that Christianity was true. If instead it’s the Greek Gods who are true… then what price salvation? They can mix from the other side, we could say that Plato was really talking about God. But from this side [believing the Greek Gods], well, we can’t see that when Jesus said he’d be in his father’s house that he was really talking about Zeus, now can we?” (88)

Ironically and horribly, after having this conversation about how Christian morality is not Truth and also needlessly complex, Ikaros rapes Maia. He reasons that they are allowed to have eros love without obligations required by Christian morality, and he mocks her adherence to Christianity.

Concentric Circles of Gods

In the world of The Just City, the Greek gods are very real and active. What might this suggest about Christianity and other faiths? We’ve already seen how one character argues that introducing Christian morality would have been unnecessary. But what of Christianity itself?

Apollo is incarnate within the City and only a few know who he actually is. He has a discussion with Sokrates (Socrates) and Simmea regarding souls and gods. We’ll pick up his commentary at “the good part”:

Many circles [of divinities] is right; all human cultures have their own appropriate gods. But the only thing on top is Father. It isn’t a set of concentric rings… [the one Apollo is correcting] thought of it as a hierarchy with divinities subordinated to others. It isn’t like that at all. It’s a set of circles of gods pretty much equal to each other but with different responsibilities, and linked by Father.” (285)

When he is specifically asked about Jesus and Mary, etc., Apollo states:

Christianity is one of those circles… Jesus is just as real and just as much Father’s son as I am… (285-286)

Such a view of course is just as fantastical as the book itself is. The attempt to mash all religions together into one amalgam centered around a divine being not only does injustice to those faiths which have no divine being, but also to those that do. The latter would have to effectively shed all pretext of having truth claims about reality, as I’ve argued elsewhere.

It will be interesting to see in the next two books of this trilogy who the “Father” turns out to be and how the attempt to reconcile different faiths plays out, but at this point it is fairly obvious that it will play out in a way that Christians and believers of other faith traditions could not endorse.

Gender

Maia, a woman from the 19th century, finds that the options she has ahead of her in her own time are quite bleak. She loves scholarship, but has no way to pursue it. In the introduction to her character we find that she longs for a God that is not limited by masculine concepts of divinity. We can take this as a challenge to ourselves to not make God into a gendered being (apart from the gender of the man Jesus Christ).

There are several explicit scenes in the book, and these tie into the themes it is exploring with gender. The scenes largely center around the issues of power that come into sex. Thus, the aforementioned rape of Maia by Ikaros. Apollo himself is trying to figure out why Daphne preferred to turn into a tree rather than “mate” with him (aka be raped by him). Apart from the obvious (this book is not for children or even young adults), we find that preconceptions about gender and power are challenged throughout. Women say no, and mean it (shocking, right? [sarcasm]); men begin to discover that the actions they take are often sexist; beliefs that women are incapable of philosophizing are challenged.

Conclusion

The Just City turns out to be as much about injustice as it is about justice. In a way, we may think of this as what would inevitably happen whenever imperfect beings attempt to create true justice on their own: they fail, often miserably. It will be interesting to see what happens with the “circles” of deity that Walton has come up with to try to integrate divergent and differing worldviews into one. Including such discussions of course makes the book stand firmly against Christian orthodoxy; but the context these challenges are set in makes it worthwhile to offer counter-arguments to the sections that are objectionable. It can, in a way, be practice for critically examining one’s own beliefs.

Whatever the case, for now we find that the “Just City” is not.

Links

Be sure to check out the page for this site on Facebook and Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies and more!

Read through my other posts on popular books here (scroll down for more).

Source

Jo Walton, The Just City (New York: Tor, 2014).

SDG.

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The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

Against the Idolatry of the State – Dietrich Bonhoeffer

dietrich_bonhoefferThere is virtually nothing so nefarious as putting our trust in the state or in patriotic hope that our nation will be our savior. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a man executed by the Nazis for his religious opposition to their totalitarian regime, spoke frequently on the great danger of putting our hope in nations or organizations. One of the nefarious ways that patriotism or statism can become idolatry is when people put their hope in individual leaders:

If the leader tries to become the idol the led are looking for–something the led always hope from their leader–then the image of the leader shifts to one of a mis-leader, then the leader is acting improperly toward the led as well as toward himself. The true leader must always be able to disappoint. This, especially, is part of the leader’s responsibility and objectivity. (DBW 12, II/9 cited in Schlingensiepen, 117)

We have a way of rushing to put our hopes or trust in individuals. Bonhoeffer recognized this and even acknowledged that the leader-as-idol is not necessarily something the leader does unilaterally; often it is something that we people want ourselves. We want to be led–we want our leaders to be perfect. Such devotion can lead to our leaders mis-leading by taking up the praise we offer and becoming our idols. Woe to a church that is afraid to call out leaders for wrongdoing.

Individuals are not the only way we make idols of our nations. We can put our hope in nations rather than just in individual leaders. We may begin to speak of the righteousness of the nation, the honor of a people, or the holiness of the state. We may not use these words, but when we dismiss wrongdoing of our own nation, or when we argue that one nation is to be put above all others, we have effectively done just these things. Responding to the question asked in 1932 of why the church is afraid, Bonhoeffer said these convicting words:

Because it [the church] knows there is a commandment to peace, and yet with the clear vision that is given to the church, sees the reality that is full of hate, enmity, violence. It is as if all the powers on earth had conspired together against peace, as if money, the economy, the drive to power, even the love of one’s fatherland have been dragged into the service of hate…

How could it be anything but blasphemous mindlessness, if we were to declare ‘No more war!’ and think with that, and a new organization–even a Christian one–we could exorcise the devil? Such organizations are nothing…

Christ must be present among us in preaching and sacrament, the Crucified One who made peace between God and humankind. The Crucified One is our peace. (DBW 11, 354-355, cited in Schlingensiepen, cited below)

The message is clear: putting hope in any institution is itself idolatry and blasphemous. That institution may be a para-church group, a church, or even a nation-state. The only true hope–the only possibility of hope–is found in Christ alone. Whenever we cease to acknowledge that–whenever we put our hope in anything else–we have committed blasphemy and are called to repent.

Source

Ferdinand Schlingensiepen, Dietrich Bonhoeffer 1906-1945: Martyr, Thinker, Man of Resistance (New York: Continuum, 2010).

Links

Be sure to check out the page for this site on Facebook and Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies and more!

Eclectic Theist– Check out my other blog for my writings on science fiction, history, fantasy movies, and more!

SDG.

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The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from quotations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited; images are often freely available to the public and J.W. Wartick makes no claims of owning rights to the images unless he makes that explicit) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

“We the Underpeople” – Cordwainer Smith and Humanity in the Future

wtu-smith

Cordwainer Smith (actual name: Paul Myron Anthony Linebarger) was an expert in psychological warfare, a scholar of Eastern Asia, an Anglican, and a science fiction author, among other things. He wrote a number of short stories and one novel all set in the same universe–our own. These stories go from the past into the far future and put forward a vision of the future that is at once hopeful and bleak. Here, I’d like to discuss a few themes in the works of his I’ve read, collected in a volume called We the Underpeople by Baen. There will be some minor Spoilers in what follows.

Free Will and Determinism

A prominent theme found throughout Smith’s work is the discussion of free will and determinism. The “Rediscovery of Man” is a time period in which members of the Instrumentality decide that they need to change the world such that people aren’t always happy any more. You see, they made it so that accidents wouldn’t happen (or if they did, prompt healing was available), people wouldn’t say bad things, and the like. If someone did get unhappy, they were brain wiped and reconditioned. Everyone’s happy, see?

Yet the members of the Instrumentality argued and finally allowed for some unhappiness to be allowed back into people’s lives: the Rediscovery of Man.

Smith here notes that human freedom is something that is at the core of our being. Without it, “happiness” falls away into determinism. We may be “happy,” but it is a happiness that is not truly experienced or real. The feelings might be there, but the reality is not. The human capacity for wrongdoing and suffering is there, but it must be in order to have the capacity for truly experiencing and enjoying happiness and delight.

A challenge might arise here: what of heaven? I think this is a tough question, and one that I admit I have no answer I feel firmly about. It’s possible that the choices we make are, over time, enough to solidify us into a sinless existence (a position of Greg Boyd). Perhaps instead, the renewal of our minds that takes place in the New Creation helps us to avoid doing those things that we would not like to do but find ourselves doing in our fallen state.

Humanity and Inhumanity

Humans in Smith’s world have created “underpeople”–animals that have been bred to serve humans in various capacities. Yet these animals are self-aware and brutally oppressed. They experience free will and life, but are trampled by human wants and desires. They are not “people.”

The poignancy of this theme hits close to home when we consider those people who are often set aside in our own world. Things like the Rwandan Genocide are allowed to happen by those we have put in power because there aren’t resources there deemed worth protecting; people are allowed to starve to death because we don’t want to give “handouts,” and the like. How might we as Christians work to correct the wrongs in our own world done to those we have deemed “underpeople”?

Forgiveness

Forgiveness is a major theme in Smith’s novel, Norstrilia. The main character, Rod McBan, is attacked by a bitter man, the Honorable Secretary, who is upset that he cannot also have his life extended for a very long time. At a pivotal scene in the book, McBan forgives the Honorable Secretary for the attacks. However, he also forgives himself, for he had–even in thought–mocked the man and his inability to get the same treatment as everybody else to extend his life. McBan realized that his own behavior towards the Honorable Secretary had, in part, lead to the man’s wrongs.

It is a stunning change in the tenor of the plot thread, for the reader had been prone to sympathizing with the main character and forgiving his own “innocent” jabs at the man who tried to kill him. Yet here, Smith elegantly points towards the need for mutual reconciliation and the need to confess one’s own sins. It is masterfully done and speaks very highly of the power of forgiveness.

Conclusion

Cordwainer Smith masterfully wove his Anglican worldview into his science fiction, but he did so very subtly. I haven’t even touched on some of the other messages conveyed in his body of work, such as the allegorical story of Joan of Arc. There is much to contemplate in the works, including human freedom and the need to forgive. I highly recommend his science fiction to my readers.

Links

Be sure to check out the page for this site on Facebook and Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies and more!

Popular Books– Check out my other posts on popular books, including several other science fiction works. (Scroll down for more.)

Cordwainer Smith– Another blogger writes on the themes found throughout Cordwainer Smith’s science fiction.

 

SDG.

——

The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

On “Mary Did You Know?”

virgin mary juan manuel blanesMary did you know that your baby boy will…
Someday walk on water?
Save our sons and daughters?
Give sight to the blind man?
Calm a storm with his hand? [selected lyrics by Mark Lowry]

I’ve seen a surprising amount of comments on this song each Christmas, but it seems like many of the comments have sever tensions built in from specific theological perspectives. One of the comments I saw recently, for example, complained about the backlash against the song and attributed it a bit conspiratorially to Catholicism allegedly making its way into evangelicalism.

Well, I’m a Lutheran, so I’ve found myself on the outside looking in when it comes to many allegedly evangelical discussions (see my posts on Bonhoeffer, for example), but I think that this kind of commentary is, frankly, silly. I decided to write a few quick comments about the song, without any allegations of conspiracy or heterodoxy included.

As you can see from the lyrics, the song is basically a list of rhetorical questions asked of Mary which basically imply that she could not have known just how great and marvelous and powerful Jesus was going to be. Strictly speaking, such an implication is not definitively false. After all, it doesn’t seem to be the case that Mary knew with certainty that Jesus was God, or that some specific miracles would be performed. On the other hand, the song also names some specific things that Mary may very well have known. How? Well, if she was familiar with the Old Testament, there are some passages that would inform her that, yes, she could know the answer to some of these questions. Let’s look at one example:

Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. – Isaiah 35:5

Contextually, this verse occurs within an eschatological promise of the blessings that will be brought to God’s chosen people. Now, if Mary was familiar with this, and we can’t definitively say one way or another, and if she interpreted the verses to refer to her own time with the coming Messiah, then it would seem she could say “Yeah, I did know that my baby boy would be curing the blind.” Of course, those are some big ifs. Can we get more specific?

More explicitly, there is the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55), the song which Mary sang in praise to God. Here are a few selections:

My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior… He has performed mighty deeds with his arm… He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants forever, just as he promised our ancestors.

Here are some much clearer statements made by Mary herself about what she did know. Specifically, she calls God her savior and says mighty deeds have been performed by God and that God has fulfilled the promise to her ancestors. So it seems that Mary at least did know that God was fulfilling the promise of the Messiah and that that would mean, well, salvation, mighty deeds, and mercy.

So Mary, did you know? Well, it seems that in some sense we could pretty easily say yes. She herself says of her unborn child that he is the fulfillment of God’s promises to the people of Israel. Such a fulfillment necessarily included mighty deeds (healing the blind, walking on water, etc.) and the salvation of the people. So you could argue she could answer yes to all of the questions. On the other hand, you could argue that the very specific nature of some of the lyrics (walking on water is one example) would undermine that; after all, she never says that her son will walk on water. So really, the answer to the question “Mary, did you know?” is “Through a mirror, dimly.”

“Zeroboxer” by Fonda Lee- Bioethics in the Future, oh, and boxing

zeroboxerFonda Lee’s Zeroboxer is a science fiction work about the sport of zero-gravity boxing. See my review for more details on the work. Here, I’ll be highlighting aspects of the book that deal with bioethics, and offering some philosophical and theological comments on them.

The basics of the book are that Carr “The Raptor” Luka has been rising in the ranks as a great zeroboxer (one who boxes in zero-gravity). As his star rises, so does his fame, and possibly his infamy. There will be SPOILERS in what follows.

Genetic Therapy vs. Enhancement

The first question is simple: What is the difference between genetic therapy or genetic enhancement? I wrote about this distinction elsewhere:

Gene therapy is the use of genetic research and information to cure illness. Speaking very hypothetically, suppose that we were able to discover the exact genetic code for illnesses like sickle cell anemia, isolate it, and replace it with a non-anemic code before a person was even born; that would be gene therapy. Genetic enhancement takes this a step further. It allows for modifying people genetically to enhance certain features such as physical strength, endurance, mental aptitude, and the like. It would, in a sense, create “super humans.”

In the world of Zeroboxer, genetic therapy is standard, and enhancement is regulated, but normalized.

The main character, Luka Carr, unbeknownst to himself, has “illegal” levels of enhancement. His mother allowed a criminal to modify him and make him some kind of superhuman. But it is hard to see why he should be faulted for it–after all, as he says, he’s still himself. It isn’t his fault that others made such choices around his life.

Enhancement is more common on Mars than on Earth. The latter, so-called “Terrans,” stage protests on Mars and about Martians as they seek to go against their “freakish” ways of enhancing. It’s not hard to imagine just this would happen. Who are we to play God, after all? But that kind of argument leads to questions about what it means to play God. Is it playing God to prevent illnesses through modern medicine? How far a step is it from surgery to correct vision to enhancing vision genetically? These questions defy easy answers.

Poverty and Enhancement/Therapy

Lee also raised the issue of poverty and the enormous inequalities that could be created by furthering genetic enhancement. Luka remarks on the state of a friend, Enzo, who’s just shown up wearing glasses:

“Why don’t you get your eyes fixed, then?”
[Luka] guessed the answer before Enzo lowered his face in embarassment. “My mom doesn’t have the money right now. She said maybe in a few months…”
A surge of anger brought heat to Carr[ Luka]’s scalp. It was bad enough that the kid had an asthmatic wheeze and carried around an inhaler. Now he was half-blind too? What next, a peg leg? Didn’t Enzo’s mother care that her son walked around with genetic poverty written all over him? (117)

The phrase “genetic poverty” is forward-thinking and possibly prophetic on the part of Lee. What happens if and when genetic therapy and enhancement become norms? It seems to me that therapy is potentially very valuable and a great good. But what kind of greater inequalities would come to be from it? We must try to anticipate these and work to prevent further inequalities. As Christians, we need to care for the impoverished, and that includes what might be considered “genetic poverty.”

Supposing diseases begin to be cured on a broader scale through genetic therapy, it seems that Christians ought to support these changes with every effort. After all, curing illness and helping those in need is what we are called to do. But what does this mean for enhancement?

That question is much more complex. Enhancement, it seems to me, would necessarily increase the inequity between the haves and have-nots. After all, those who have the money to get super-sight or super-strength or predispositions to being great musicians could simply cash in to do so. Those who don’t, cannot. But does this mean it is wrong? It’s a very difficult question, and one that I don’t have a firm answer on. I lean towards saying that such things are permissible, but regulation seems a wise choice given we have little idea what impact modifying genes might have on the broader person. Again, I’ve written more on these questions here. What are your thoughts on answers to these questions?

Conclusion

Zeroboxer is an unexpectedly thoughtful book. Though it has some flaws, it is a worthy read. Just be aware of the violent and explicit content. See my review for more details on that. Exploring these issues related to genetics is very important. I see this as a field that will be expanding rapidly over the next decades. Christians need to engage with it and think about it ahead of time.

Links

Genetics and Bioethics: Enhancement or Therapy?– I delve into deeper questions about genetic enhancement vs. therapy. I also provide some further reading on the topic.

Be sure to check out the page for this site on Facebook and Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies and more!

Popular Books– Read through my other posts on popular books–science fiction, fantasy, and more! (Scroll down for more.)

SDG.

——

The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from quotations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited; images are often freely available to the public and J.W. Wartick makes no claims of owning rights to the images unless he makes that explicit) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

“Man of Steel” – A Christian look at themes in the film

man-of-steelEvery movie has a worldview. “Man of Steel,” the latest iteration of Superman, is no different. In fact, many explicit questions of worldview come up. Here, we’ll take a look at some major themes found in the movie. There will, of course, be SPOILERS below.

Morality

The question of morality looms large throughout the film. What does it mean to seek to do good in our world? At one point, Faora Ul, a commander in General Zod’s army, discusses how the fact that they have moved beyond morality has become an “evolutionary advantage” and that “evolution” always wins. I was struck by this brief aside for a few reasons. First, would moving apart from morality really be an advantage? Surely, it may lead to no self-sacrifice, but that self-sacrifice itself is something which preserves a race. In fact, the whole thrust of the film centered around the notion of self-sacrifice by Superman giving up those things which he liked or wanted in order to save others. The fact that Superman overcomes the moral nihilist is significant.

Second, does evolution always win? This is a question to consider for a different time and place, but surely I think one must wonder whether it is the case that having an advantage would guarantee victory in the race to survive. Any kind of random fluke could happen to eliminate a better-suited creature. Again, these are questions for another time, but in context of the movie, the whole notion was again overthrown, because Superman, with a stringent morality, overcame.

But at what cost? The climactic scene in which Superman confronts General Zod ends with Superman snapping Zod’s neck to prevent him from killing even more people. Superman’s self-made (but unmentioned in the movie) ethos of avoiding killing is thus itself overthrown. What does this say about objective morality? Is such a killing ever justified? Or, might it mean that Superman abandoned morality in order to confront the moral nihilist? Perhaps, instead, there are shades of virtue ethics found throughout, which confront Superman with a choice and allow him to carve out his own moral sphere?

These are questions suitable for reflection, and I think the movie does a great job asking the questions without spoon-feeding any answers.

Shades of a Savior?

Superman is, of course, readily seen as a savior-stand in. Superman is 33 years old, which is also the generally accepted age of Jesus at death. One scene depicts Superman in a church, and his face is set against a backdrop of a stained-glass depiction of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. The scenery is surely intentional–Superman is seeking to give himself up for the sake of humanity, just as Jesus did. But the way in which they go about this self-giving are radically different. Superman’s ultimate sacrifice is compromising his moral code in order to save people, while Jesus’ was the ultimate sacrifice–taking on death and becoming sin for our sake.

The question which all of this begs, then, is whether Superman might be envisioned as an interesting Jesus-parallel, a kind of allegory to be utilized to discuss the real Savior, or whether Superman is instead a kind of rival savior figure intentionally subverting the narrative of an incarnate deity. Support for the latter might be drawn from the notion that Superman would be “viewed as a god” simply because he came from a different world and the atmosphere/sun of Earth strengthened him to superhuman (groaner, I know) levels. Is this a subversive way to describe Christ? Well, really only if one wants to accept that Jesus of Nazareth was some sort of alien and that a radical deception has gone on for two millenia. Of course, some people would like to suggest just that, but how grounded in truth might it be?

Conclusion

It seems to me that the film, then, is a useful way to juxtapose saviors. What does it mean to be a savior? How does one bring that about? There are parallels between Jesus and the story of Superman, but the most important things are perhaps the contradictions in their stories and lives. Many interesting questions about morality are raised in the film as well, and it would be hard to argue that the story of the movie is not compelling. “Man of Steel,” it seems, is another way to integrate the Christian worldview into every aspect of life. What are your thoughts on the movie? What other themes might be discussed (like this post on Platonic thought)? Let me know in the comments below.

Links

Be sure to check out the page for this site on Facebook and Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies and more.

Book Review: “Hollywood Worldviews” by Brian Godawa– Speaking of worldviews in the movies, why not check out my review of this book which seeks to provide a method for analyzing film from a worldview perspective? Let me know what you think.

Engaging Culture: A brief guide for movies– I outline my approach to evaluating movies from a worldview perspective.

I have a number of ways in which I have critically engaged with culture in movies, books, and other arts in my posts on current events (scroll down for more posts).

Virtue Ethics and the Man of Steel– Check out this interesting post on the Platonic thought found throughout the movie.

SDG.

——

The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from quotations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited; images are often freely available to the public and J.W. Wartick makes no claims of owning rights to the images unless he makes that explicit) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

 

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