Apocalyptic Visions: Faith, Reason and Science Fiction

The greatest science fiction points us not merely to the stars but to the One who made the stars.

Sawrey Gilpin, “Gulliver Taking His Final Leave of the Land of the Houyhnhnms,” 1769
Sawrey Gilpin, “Gulliver Taking His Final Leave of the Land of the Houyhnhnms,” 1769 (photo: Public Domain)

The popular understanding of science has changed considerably over the past few hundred years. Properly understood, in the broadest etymological sense, science is merely knowing. Thus the omni-science of God means that he is all-knowing. He knows everything. As such, God is the absolute and perfect scientist. He sees all that there is to see, and knows all that there is to know. It is, therefore, no surprise that theology, the study of the Word of God, is a true science. Indeed it is the truest science. It enables us to see through the eyes of the One who sees perfectly, even if our limited perception necessarily dims our perspective. We cannot know as he knows but at least we are knowing what he wants us to know, albeit imperfectly. That which God reveals is meant to be known. It is, therefore, the most meaningful science.

Similarly philosophy is truly a science because it sees with the eyes of reason. It does not, however, see reason as an end in itself, which is the reductive error of the rationalists, but as a means by which the lover of wisdom may see the splendor of truth (veritatis splendor). Reason is the eye with which we see; truth is the object seen.

The fact that the true science of theology and philosophy has been marginalized in the modern world is a sure indication that the modern world has lost its way. Quite literally, it has ceased being truly scientific. It cannot know reality and, in consequence, it cannot know where it is or where it is going.

So what went wrong? How did modernity lose its way? What caused its blindness?

The root of the problem resides in modernity’s acceptance of a narrower vision of reality. Instead of seeing the fullness of truth, which is natural and supernatural, physical and metaphysical, material and spiritual, it sees only a part of the picture; its surface and not its depth. It refuses to see that which is revealed by God (theology) and insists on seeing only a small part of the truth that philosophy sees. It sees only natural philosophy, that part of philosophy that excludes the supernatural and the metaphysical from its field of vision. Thus a mere fragment of the true science of philosophy, a small part of the picture, has eclipsed the whole, enabling modernity to mistake the fragment for the totality.

It can be seen, therefore, that modernity is narrow-minded and blinded by its own tunnel vision. This blindness is clear from the fact that modernity sees natural philosophy and science as synonymous. Hence the modern definition of “science” excludes all modes of knowing or seeing except the purely physical. It recognizes nothing except three dimensions (or four if we wish to consider time as an additional dimension) perceived by five senses. This is all that there is to know or see.

At this juncture the increasingly impatient reader is no doubt wondering what any of this has to do with “apocalyptic visions” or “faith and science fiction.” The answer lies in the fact that science fiction, for all its use of science in the modern sense, is informed by science in the older, traditional sense. It is theology and philosophy that inform and inspire the best science fiction, regardless of how many spaceships, time machines and five-legged aliens are employed in the plot.

Gulliver’s Travels, perhaps the progenitor of the sci-fi genre, has weird alien creatures, such as the platonic equine houyhnhnms and the bestial humanoid yahoos, and presents us with the “scientific” wonders of floating islands and the “scientific” blunders of mad scientists. Yet it was not written merely to exercise a scientific imagination but to exorcise the nonsense of modernism and scientism, the latter of which might be defined as the idolizing of the physical sciences as the arbiter of all truth. Swift, a profoundly tradition-oriented Christian, uses science in his fiction to expose the follies of the emergent scientism of his day.

In the same fashion, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World exposes the pernicious nature of scientism in the novel’s depiction of a culture neutered by “progress.” Its characters are corrupted by the comforts of technology and rendered comfortably numb to the realities of life. Long before society’s lurch into cyber-space, Huxley was warning of the dangers inherent in the substitution of reality for virtual reality. 

If Huxley offers a timely reminder of the dangers of self-absorbed consumerism, facilitated by technology, George Orwell, in Nineteen Eighty-Four warns of the dangers of totalitarianism. His futuristic masterpiece embodies the wisdom of Lord Acton’s maxim that power tends to corrupt and absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely. Although the clear and present danger of communism and fascism has faded, Orwell’s futuristic nightmare still serves as a powerful witness against the evils of secular fundamentalism. 

C. S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy uses the genre of science fiction to engage with the follies and fallacies of scientism and to convey timeless philosophical and theological truth as an antidote to the poison of materialism. In Out of the Silent Planet he exposes the facile shallowness of the scientism of H. G. Wells; in Perelandra he re-presents the primal apocalypse of Man’s initial Fall, employing it as a vehicle for theological exploration; and in That Hideous Strength he exposes the scientism of the modern academy as ultimately demonic in its pride and its willful hatred of the truth. 

There is of course an ironic paradox at the heart of this so-called “science fiction.” It is not simply that the modern science in such novels is put at the service of ancient wisdom, the true science that has been forgotten, or that the futuristic points to the past, it is that the science in the fiction points to the God of science who is the truth in fiction. 

The apocalyptic vision in science fiction is akin to the memento mori in mediaeval art. It reminds us of the Four Last Things: Death, Judgment, Heaven and Hell. And these last things remind us of the first things, most importantly the primary reality that we are made in the image of God to love and serve him in this life that we may be with Him forever in the next.

The last things lead us to the first things. The first shall be the last and the last shall be first. And so it is that the greatest science fiction points us not merely to the stars but to the One who made the stars. It takes us beyond Alpha Centauri to the Alpha and Omega.  

This essay was first published in the St. Austin Review and is republished with permission.