Science Fiction as Theology
Here’s an interesting bit of philosophical inquiry from philosopher Ed Feser on David Cronenberg’s version of “The Fly”, one of the most disgusting sci fi movies ever made. I am familiar with the original, but (knowing Cronenberg’s reputation for yuck) I’ve opted to avoid the remake. Feser is not dealing with the yuck factor. Rather, he’s dealing with the metaphysical question of what it means to be a human being and how far changes in our bodily structure can go before you stop being human and start being Something Else. It’s a question science fiction raises for us a lot—and a question the sciences will soon be confronting us with as we continue to screw around with life at its most fundamental level, just because we’ve got the funding. We are already champing at the bit to treat fertilized eggs and embryos as a scientific playground for endless experimentation. And, as the headlines blared recently, we are beginning to fiddle about with synthetic genomes, just to see what we can do. It doesn’t take much imagination to see some giant multinational corporation taking it upon itself to create human chimaeras which mix human and animal DNA in all sorts of ways (in fact, it’s already been done a bit, but there’s lots of room for more monstrous things to be done).
Science fiction is the literature of If. It’s best practitioners tend to ask theological questions: What does it mean to be human? What’s it all about? Where do we come from? Where are we going? It’s funny that so much of the genre is so bent on basically theological issues while so many of its authors are atheists. I suspect this has to do with Augustine’s remark that God has made us for himself, and our hearts are restless till they rest in him. Again and again, science fiction takes away Christ with the right hand and gives him back with the left. Film critic Jeffrey Overstreet calls this phenomenon “the inescapability of the gospel” and argues that, because God is the primal storyteller and the gospel is the primal story, it is inevitable that we human makers of tales will imprint the pattern of the universe on our best tales, even if we are not believers and even if we are not conscious of it.
So, for instance, 2001: A Space Odyssey, directed by the atheist Stanley Kubrick and co-written by him with the atheist Arthur C. Clarke, puts us in a godless evolutionary universe and then supplies mysterious godlike aliens who help our race become divinized and, quite literally, born again. Steven Spielberg was quite surprised when somebody pointed out to him that the story of a peaceful being who descends from heaven, befriends children, has the power to heal and give life, dies, rises from the dead, and ascends into heaven was done before E.T. Similarly, in The Matrix we see the central character, Thomas Anderson (“Twin Other Son”) revealed to be Neo, the New Man, as he is heralded by a John the Baptist figure, betrayed by a Judas figure, killed by a Satanic figure and brought to life again by the kiss of a character named “Trinity”. After this, he destroys the powers of Hell from within and then, once again, ascends into heaven.
Some people might be tempted to call these movies “Christian”. I wouldn’t. Rather, as Flannery O’Connor once described the South, I would call them “Christ-haunted”. They retain the shape of the hole where Christ should be. They are, as all great pagan art is, evidence of a search, not evidence of having found the Christ for which we search. They search for Christ because we can’t not search for him, our hearts being made for him. They move us because he is our greatest desire. But they are ultimately only shadows, not the reality.