Science Fiction Theology: Beauty and the Transformation of the Sublime
Reviewed by Kevin John Frank Pinkham, English, Nyack College
James Gunn’s introduction to Harry Harrison’s short story “The Streets of Ashkelon” includes the claim:
Science fiction cannot be written from an attitude of religious belief. Science fiction questions everything. It accepts nothing on faith. … Science fiction’s religion is skepticism about faith, although there is science fiction about religion. … The reasons for this are clear: religion answers all the questions that science fiction wishes to raise, and science fiction written within a religious framework … turns into parable. (288)
That naïve dismissal of religious certitude that seems unaware of the blessed place doubt holds in Christianity lies at the heart of Alan P. R. Gregory’s excellent book Science Fiction Theology: Beauty and the Transformation of the Sublime, a rigorously researched text that takes numerous steps toward encouraging a more egalitarian dialogue between science fiction and Christian faith. Gregory’s text explores how science fiction and Christian theology have dealt with the aesthetic and philosophical idea of the sublime, how science fiction has perhaps indirectly contributed to a change in popular Christian theology as a result of science fiction’s valorization of the sublime, and how Christian theology can answer the problems raised by science fiction and the sublime by transcending them through realignment with beauty and love rather than the sublime.
Gregory’s introduction offers readers an exquisite overview of the contributions of various eighteenth- and nineteenth-century writers to the idea of the sublime. Although scholars have long bickered over the term “sublime” and its objects—as well as the terms and objects of both science fiction and theology—Gregory explicitly categorizes the sublime as “a certain range of imaginative and affective responses to vastness and extreme power” (12). Gregory offers a brief but effective history of the influence of the sublime on popular theology, an influence that privileged Nature over Scripture, offering vast vistas found throughout the world as a sort of theophany: for example, a believer standing on the rim of the Grand Canyon would be witness to the awful power of God. In this iteration of a sublime spirituality, the sense of sight is given pride of place over all other senses, which leads to a problem: “Perhaps most seriously,” Gregory argues, “the priority given to sight by the sublime imports the idea of distance, even spatial distance, into the relationship between the soul and God” (19). This implied distance, while a necessary aspect of Divine transcendence, denies the possibility of the essential Divine immanence Christianity has long espoused. Gregory will later clarify, arguing that a number of texts, Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker prime among them, “[reveal] that separation of divine love and power that marks the modern sublime in its explicitly theological register. Imagined as sublime, God’s deity was identified more closely with power than love, constituting a severe deformation of the Christian God” (116).
There is no need to summarize all of Gregory’s excellent discussion of the sublime. Suffice it to say that Gregory neatly delineates how various writers—among them Joseph Addison, Edward Young, and James Ussher—created a public understanding of the sublime as a key component of interaction with the Divine. Gregory explains that Ussher’s work Clio: Or a Discourse in Taste, for example, discusses humanity’s “innate capacity” for the sublime, a capacity that does not necessarily need vast landscapes to be activated, but that can be experienced through mere contemplation of the Divine. Sin, which gets in the way of the human experience of the sublime, can be removed by Christianity, although Ussher never clearly explains this process (24).
Equating sublimity and Divinity cannot help but reduce the Creator to the level of the created, leading to a less personal and more Deistic God:
No matter upon what qualifications theologians insist, if public religious language sustains an imagining of God as a reality within the entire realm of beings or in continuity with that realm, then the crucial distance between Creator and creature is lost. God may be a unique reality, creator, the most powerful, Lord among them all from galaxies to gerbils, but he is rendered nonetheless a reality, a supreme being among other beings. (36)
In other words, when Enlightenment proponents of the sublime began to view vast vistas as a doorway to Divine experience, they made a direct connection between Nature and the Divine that reduced the Divine to the apex of the Great Chain of Being, refusing the Divine a position as an entity outside that Chain.
Gregory posits that the conflation of the sublime with the Divine becomes further compounded by the nineteenth- and twentieth-century confluence of the sublime and technology. Man’s accomplishments, such as vast continent-spanning railroads, massive structures like the Brooklyn Bridge and skyscrapers, and ultimately the atom bomb, provide the final element of the sublime that science fiction needed. The connection, often explicit, of Man’s works to God’s works served to elevate the sublimity of humankind and reduce God. Throughout all the intersections of the sublime and Christian theology, Gregory’s thesis argues that science fiction and sublime theology have conspired to make a simulacrum of Christianity, a straw man to be knocked down when a convenient target is needed. Thus, the stage for Gregory’s argument is set, and he uses the majority of his book to perform a series of elegant close readings that analyze how science fiction utilizes the sublime to its own ends and occasionally engages with Christian theology, albeit, as already stated, a misrepresented theology.
Gregory’s selection of a wide swath of texts ranges from early pulp science fiction—such as Hugo Gernsback’s Ralph 124C41+ and John W. Campbell’s short stories “Twilight” and “Forgetfulness”—to Alphonso Cuaron’s recent film Gravity. Along the way, he focuses almost exclusively on British and American texts, scrutinizing science fiction’s obsession with the sublime capacity of humankind’s willpower and intellect to overcome the contingencies of an uncaring universe. Gregory surveys texts that consider a variety of humankind’s sublime interactions with the universe, technology, apocalyptic endings of the world, and more. His readings of a number of authors, especially H. P. Lovecraft and Philip K. Dick, are especially insightful and interesting, particularly because finding Christian critics who engage with these authors is a near impossibility.
Where Gregory’s book shines is his final chapter, in which he offers an alternative to sublimity as an aspect of the divine. Gregory finds his alternative in the writings of Jonathan Edwards, the American theologian who, until now, had remained firmly sequestered away from science fiction. At the risk of vastly oversimplifying Gregory’s reading of Edwards here, Gregory argues that Edwards, in contrast to his continental contemporaries, remained unimpressed with Kantian trends pontificating about the sublime. Instead, Edwards concentrated on sussing out the importance of God’s beauty, creativity, and love, the Divine abundance of which spills over into creative acts founded in the very interrelationship of the Trinity itself. Gregory’s analysis of Edwards’s theology is remarkable and conveniently answers the problems that arise from elevating sublimity in discussions of the Divine. In Edwards’s schema, the Trinity’s Divine creativity and relational Being simultaneously keep the necessary distance required by a transcendent God, while maintaining the immanence so clearly indicated by Christ. For Gregory, Edwards’s theology presents us with a God whose abundant creativity and love lie more in line with Biblical and traditional Christianity than does the entity imagined by those who see God as sublime. Edwards’s understanding of God’s creativity and God’s relational aspect recalibrates our relationship with God away from the anthropocentric concentration on humanity’s willpower and intellect to a recognition of the overwhelming love God has for God’s creation—human, animal, alien, plant, mineral, Other—thus enabling humanity to recognize the importance of all creation, not simply our little primate corner on the market.
Thus Gregory is not content simply to plug a finger in a theological dike, for he suggests that Edwards’s insights into God’s overflowing creativity and love, combined with the spectrum of creation imagined by science fiction authors, allows readers to encounter the Other more compassionately, whether the Other be a betentacled alien, a pangolin, or a Syrian refugee. By reading science fiction through the lens of Edwards’s writings, readers can learn to stop seeing themselves as the center of their existence, better recognizing their place in relationship to God and to creation.
One question that does arise in reading the book is simply this: Why Edwards? Surely, there must be other theologians also skeptical of the sublime? However, Gregory’s positioning of Edwards in contemporary opposition to the early proponents of connecting the sublime and the Divine does make a sort of chronological sense, and Gregory’s discussion of Edwards creates in the reader a deeper appreciation of a writer more popularly known for his discussion of God’s anger than God’s love and creativity.
For scholars working in theology and/or science fiction criticism, Gregory’s book offers a treasure trove of insights. It is rare to find a book that treats both topics as worthy of study; critics tend to make one of the two topics subordinate to the other, simply a critical tool to be applied in service of whichever topic the critic favors. Gregory has achieved a text both beautiful and sublime that melds the two fields skillfully and respectfully. Scholars and fans have much to be thankful for in Gregory’s work.