Thursday, February 24, 2011

What I've Been Learning From Science Fiction

Someone who has challenged me greatly in both my thought and practice was my Clinical Pastoral Education (C.P.E.) supervisor, Sarah.  Sarah opened my eyes to so much "blindness" that I had been walking around with, but at the same time helped me to realize that I will never be "with 100% sight."  This realization is not defeating, but it does shape how we interact with those who are different from us and those who disagree with us: our posture can be none other than humble-receptivity to "the other."  Even though I rarely have the opportunity to interact with her, I consider her a dear friend.

Sarah commented on my previous post (about MacIntyre) and asked "what is the theology of science fiction."  Now, I don't normally write entire blog posts as responses, but I have been thinking something similar to her question (I think) for quite some time: Why has this genre - which I previously suspected of lunacy and considered "below me" - made such an impact on my life over the past months?  I have a few thoughts.

The science fiction that I’ve read over the past months is that of C.S. Lewis* and Mary Doria Russell**.  Both of these authors tell stories of humans who encounter life on other planets; earth is not invaded, but rather the earth-dwellers are the invaders on the other planets.  With this understood, the following has stood out to me: (1) the protagonists are linguists, (2) “fear of the unknown and different” is usually quenched after the thing that was feared was understood in context, and (3) the humans have a terribly difficult time understanding “the others” connection with nature.  So even though I cannot answer the question “what is the theology of science fiction,” I can answer that all three of these things have influenced my theology.

The first insight is that the protagonists in all four of these books are linguists.  They are characters who’ve spent their professional careers studying the art and function of language in societies and cultures.  So why are they the heroes?  Because they (linguists) are able to communicate with beings who speak another language – a feat that the power hungry and those who resort to force care nothing about.  The power that science fiction has to illuminate this necessary part of societies interacting with one another is that it can overtly display the difference.  We somehow know that people/beings from different planets and millions of miles away would speak different languages, and further, that language would play different roles within those societies.  What is more difficult to realize (the part that I am learning) is that we all need to become linguists as we live amongst people who - even though it appears to be the same language - mean different things, even when we use the same words.  

The second, which is similar to the first, is that most of the fears developed in the humans were developed because they misunderstood someone or misunderstood some practice of the other.  The protagonists were heroes not in that they were able to suppress or eliminate their fear, but work through it into a place of understanding.  Now, these books are fairytell-ish (not completely though, Catherine) so it usually ended up that their fears were unnecessary.  It would have been possible that they had had every reason to fear.  I think about some of the things that we fear in this world: immigration, religious-extremists, maybe even our own neighbors?  Our emotion of fear is not the issue: the issue is how we then respond to the fear.  Do we have courage to pursue whether or not the fears are grounded in things that we should really be fearful of, or do we shy away and retreat?  

Finally, the humans are constantly bewildered by the other’s connection and relationship with nature.  We are nurtured from the earliest of days to consume our surroundings.  We are nurtured to believe that we are the center, and that the world is at our disposable.  That is why the antagonists in these books look to squander the resources of the land for their own benefit (financially) or for a grasp at power or position.  But the other creatures reveal a way of life that – even if I can express it in no better way – feels more harmonious and peaceful.  I remember news headlines after Avatar came out that said something like, “People feeling depressed; longing for relationship with nature on Pandora.”  Even if I can’t say much more, I can say that I have been impacted to be in nature more as a result of these books.

So why has science fiction (at least these four books) had this impact on me?  The genre allows the reader to dream and imagine an alternative way of life.  The genre also has the ability to over-state (in a positive way) things like differences of cultures, languages, and care for or relationship to the natural.  There is obviously much more that could be said, but I will leave it here for now.  Thanks for pushing me to think further about these things Sarah!

*Out of the Silent Planet, and Perelandra
** The Sparrow, and Children of God

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Help Me Read and Understand Alasdair MacIntyre

I've gained a new appreciation for fiction (specifically, science-fiction) since graduating from seminary. These books have impacted my thought and intellect far beyond what I ever considered to be possible. But I've sensed a longing over the past few months to tackle some of the texts that I was never able to tackle while studying in seminary. One of those books is Alasdair MacIntyre's After Virtue. It's difficult to think of a professor that did not mention this book during a lecture, or a syllabus that did not have it included under the recommended readings section, or a required text that did not reference it as foundational to their own argument. Nevertheless, I was somehow able to make it through the entire program without ever having read it.

I picked the book up and began reading shortly after Christmas, but today find myself only on page 32 of 278. It's frustrating. I can't tell if the issue is that it really is a very challenging book, or if I am just un-practiced in following logical argument or the niche language of moral philosophy (also contributing is the little eight month old who takes up most of the "reading time"). Either way, I need something to assist me in understanding MacIntyre's work and have decided that I once again need to utilize writing on this blog as a method for processing. Also, I hope that this does not turn out to be a stale outline or summary of MacIntrye (or at least what I take MacIntyre to be saying), but instead has some type of practical insight for what we are trying to do in Westmont.

MacIntyre begins by setting up a fictious scenario in which the natural sciences are blamed for devastating natural disasters. The general public therefore riots and destroys all traces of the natural sciences (laboratories burnt down, physicists lynched, books and instruments destroyed). Years later, a group of people attempt to revive the sciences, but all they are left with are fragments:
a knowledge of experiments detached from any knowledge of the theoretical context which gave them signifiance; parts of theories unrelated either to the other bits and pieces of theory which they possess or to experiement; instruments whose use has been forgotten; half-chapters from books, single pages from articles, not always fully legible because torn and charred (1).
MacIntyre's hypothesis is that "the actual world which we inhabit the language of morality is in the same state of grave disorder as the language of natural science in the imaginary world which I described" (2). The moral arguments that we find ourselves obsessed over (i.e. - just war, abortion, equality) are incommesurable. These arguments are largely circular, for they attempt to grasp rationality, even though the dominant emotivist culture allows no space for the rational (only feelings or attitudes). This is the situation we find ourselves in today: a time filled with mere remnants of moral language/argument, without the narrative that makes moral discourse actually possible.

Is Marriage (today) a sign that MacIntyre is correct?

The first 30 pages are packed, and I am sure that I have misunderstood much. It is exciting material though. While watching the news the other day, I saw a segment in which an interviewer was asking people on the street whether or not they thought marriage should be abandoned in our culture, given the shockingly high divorce rates. The responses varied, but the majority of people wanted to hold onto marriage as a cultural practice.

From the little I understand of the book so far, marriage seems to be a clear sign that MacIntyre is correct. The vows spoken to one another in a marriage bind two together in a commitment: specifically, a type of commitment that is for all of life. Yet, marriage as a cultural practice cannot account for why two people should stay together through "good times and bad, in sickness and in health."

Anyway, I had to spend a few moments writing down some thoughts about the book so far and what I understand MacIntyre to be getting at. For those of you who have read it, feel free to correct me where I have misunderstood, clarify MacIntyre's assertions, or offer advice on how to grasp the remainder of the book.