Using Science Fiction to Convey Theology: Robert J. Sawyer’s “Calculating God” as a Test Case

The post below is a revised version of a post from a now defunct blog I once had. In this post I discuss Robert J. Sawyer’s “Calculating God” and briefly explore how science fiction can be used as a vehicle to explore philosophical and theological ideas. This post coincides with my recent post regarding the value of historical fiction. More and more I am convinced on fiction’s value as a vehicle for philosophical and theological exploration and teaching.

What I’m purporting here is nothing new; rather, I’m discovering something that has been utilized with great skill by the likes of Dostoyevsky, Hugo, Twain, Lewis, and Tolkien, and more recently Umberto Eco. Other authors of less renown include Kenneth L. Roberts and Leon Uris. The genre of fiction is immensely popular in Christian literature, but (at least in my opinion) has little value in teaching and exploring; rather, Christian fiction seems to go little beyond mere storytelling. Storytelling is not bad in itself, but it seems that Christian authors have a phenomenal opportunity to use fiction to its fullest extent in teaching Christian truth in way that captures not only one’s mind, but one’s imagination and heart. We have a rich heritage from which to draw in the likes of Lewis and Tolkien, but it is one that is seems to wield little influence in contemporary authors (for the most part).

Despite the flood of fiction-for-fiction’s-sake book flooding Christian bookstores, there are Christian authors who seek to use fiction to build up the Christian worldview. One such author, who is fairly new on the scene, is Dan DeWitt (see recent post on The Owlings: A Worldview Novella here and here. See also his site for other books he’s published.) DeWitt has a new book coming out soon that is in the same vein as The Owlings. Another author is singer-song writer Andrew Petersons The Wingfeather Saga. I am sure there are more out there, but to this point, this is what I know. As I continue my discovery, I hope to find more!

And now, without delaying the inevitable, here is my discussion of Calculating God and the use of sci-fi to convey philosophical and theological ideas.

In 2009 I read Robert J. Sawyer’s Calculating God and found it to be an interesting work of sci-fi.  To be honest, my impression of sci-fi at that time was not that high.  I’ve tended to see the genre of sci-fi as nothing short of a playground for the imagination.  However, Sawyer’s book has dismantled my ill-informed view.  Science-fiction, at least those that are written well, can serve as a vehicle in integrating current scientific thought into the everyday world.  In other words, sci-fi can serve as a vehicle to play out the implications of certain scientific theories and experiments, utilizing the possible-world line of thinking as employed by philosophers.  More so, some sci-fi can even attempt to deal with the centuries-old problem of science and religion – what is their relationship, if any?  Sawyer’s Calculating God is not necessarily a book about extraterrestrials and their attempt to over take earth, thus resulting in a galactic world war; rather, Sawyer’s book is an attempt to meld together evolution and naturalism with Intelligent Design with the purpose of coming to grips on the existence and nature of God.

The Story

Without going into too much detail, I’ll need to go into the setting of the book in order for what I’m about to say to make sense.  Tom Jericho, a paleontologist (and, important to the story, an atheist) at Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum, is visited by an alien (Hollus) who is in the process of studying the evolution of the universe.  Hollus, along with several other aliens, visits Earth with no intention to overtake it; rather, they are on a voyage to several different universes to gather data for their research.  The book, then, is largely Tom’s interactions and conversations with Hollus (and at times another alien, T’kna) in which they collaborate with each other on their own findings and attempt to understand the nature of this world and its relationship to “God”, if there’s one at all (at least according to Jericho).  Of course, there must be action, so sprinkled throughout the storyline is a side plot of two religious fanatics (young-Earth creationists who hold to Scripture and the “traditional” God) who seek to destroy the fossils located in the ROM because of the “lies” they teach.  These characters quickly fade out of the picture, but play an important role in supporting Jericho’s (and ultimately the author’s?) view that anyone holding to the belief in the biblical God and the biblical teaching of creation (specifically of the young earth) is basically barbaric, an un-evolved person.

The Problem of Evil

A significant subplot of the story is Tom’s cancer.  The alien’s visit coincides with Tom’s final stages of lung cancer.  As Tom struggles with Hollus’ argument for “God”, Tom is unable to see why an Intelligent Designer would allow for the “mistake” of cancer, and ultimately, suffering.

Not a Bad Start!

In its teaching regarding the nature of God and this world, the novel starts off rather tame from a Christian perspective.  In the initial stages of Hollus’ visit with Jericho, the alien breaks the news to Jericho that there indeed exists an Intelligent Designer – God.  Hollus explains that the universe itself gives evidence of this Intelligent Designer and uses the same illustrations as current ID proponents to support their thesis (i.e. how the world consists of the right combinations of certain elements, the distances between planets and their sun are set at the precise measurement to avoid destruction, etc.).  Hollus finds it surprising that Jericho and fellow scientists on Earth do not believe in God as, according to Hollus, the evidence clearly points to an Intelligent Designer.  We see throughout the book Jericho’s struggle with this argument and his eventual acceptance of an Intelligent Designer.  Upon further reading, however, Sawyer’s concept of an Intelligent Designer begins to diverge significantly from the Christian concept of an Intelligent Designer (as such, when referring to God as defined by Sawyer, I’ll place the word “God” in quotes, along with any pronouns referring to Him in order to distinguish between the biblical God).

Sawyer’s Assumptions

A major assumption of Sawyer and his characters is the truth of Darwinian evolution and naturalism.  The universe is closed with no being existing outside of the material universe (as opposed to the traditional Christian view that God, as creator, is outside the universe though able to intervene in His creation at His pleasure).  As such, the material world is all that exists and has existed over time.  Further, implied in the novel, I believe, is an empirical view of epistemology – one comes to know something only through observation.  As such, there is no special revelation, no a priori knowledge, etc.  The aliens’ knowledge of “God”, then, came about only through their study of the universe.

A “Scientific” God

Because of Sawyer’s empiricism, naturalism, and Darwinism, his view of an Intelligent Designer takes on a non-theistic understanding of God.  For instance, in one of Hollus’ conversations with Jericho, the alien states, “I suspect God exists in the universe because of science” (92).  The alien further explains:

“As I said earlier, our universe is closed – it will eventually collapse back down in a big crunch.  A similar event happened after billions of years in the universe that preceded this one – and with billions of years, who knows what phenomenal things science might make possible?  Why, it might even make it possible for an intelligence, or data patterns representing it, to survive a big crunch, and exist again in the next cycle of creation.  Such an entity might even have science sufficient to allow it to influence the parameters for the next cycle, creating a designer universe into which that entity itself will be reborn already armed with billions of years worth of knowledge and wisdom” (93, emphasis mine).

In other words, with the creation of a new universe (after the previous universe collapses in a “big crunch”), a new “God” is reborn and “God” gains scientific knowledge based on what was learned (?) from the previous creation(s) and as evolution progresses.  Further, according to Hollus:

“I believe that the being which is now the God of this universe was a noncorporeal intelligence that arose through chance fluctuations in a previous  universe devoid of biology” (93).

As such, “God” is not omnipotent or omniscient, for these are just “adjectives” assigned to “God” by humans (170).  Instead, “He” just seems to be a higher evolved being than humans (and whatever else exists out there).

A question I have based upon this reading is: what has priority, science or “God”?  If I’ve read Sawyer’s work correctly, it seems that science has priority, setting the parameters from which “He” is to work.  Nonetheless, one sees the preeminence of science in understanding the world and God according to Sawyer’s view.

Implications

With a “God” limited by the world (being contained in a closed universe) and possibly even being created “Himself”, how, then, does “He” relate to creation, and specifically, to mankind?

Real = Imperfect

According to another alien (of a different species) named T’kna, because “God” is real, “He” is imperfect, as only “an abstraction can be free of flaws.”   In fact, the idea of a perfect God is a “fallacy.”

Referring back to Tom’s cancer, because “God” is real (and thus imperfect), it ‘follows’ that suffering exists since an imperfect “God” cannot prevent it.

Metaphysics

Borrowing from quantum physics, only that which is observed is real.  Whatever “God” chooses to observe (having chosen from any number of possibilities) is what is real.

An Impersonal Being

“God” does indeed have a purpose for creating the universe (a purpose not mentioned, at least explicitly); however, “God” takes no interest in individuals and their lives.  As such, one is “delusional” in thinking that God listens to his prayers.

This idea is illustrated towards the end of the novel when Tom was able to travel with the aliens to the site of  a dead star (a star that had gone supernova that “God” shielded the aliens’ universe and Earth from) in order to meet “God.”  Upon arrival, Tom expects to receive no acknowledgment from “God” (though he does have some slight hope for a small acknowledgment at the least), and his expectations come to be true.  “God” is portrayed as some deep-black, spherical being with six appendages that shows no inclination of acknowledging the presence of the aliens and guests other than giving “life” to the concoction of DNA made by one of the alien groups.

Morals/Ethics

With “God” having no part in an individual’s life, the role of morals and ethics takes an expected turn – they are merely man-made.  Specifically, morals are just a means to an end.  For instance, Hollus’ species determined their morals in order to instill peace in their society (which had been war-wracked for so long and almost faced complete destruction of their race).

Death

Staying true to the naturalistic view, there is no life after death.  Any belief of life after death is based upon a fear of death

Science, then, can lead one to belief in the existence of God, but this “God” is nothing like the God revealed in Scripture.  In fact, Scripture is never referenced as support for “God”.

Scripture, etc.

Though not explicitly stated (if I recall correctly), Scripture is nothing but a book developed by ignorant (not as highly evolved) mankind.  Scripture, according to this book, does not reveal a true or real God.

If you recall the side plot with the two religious nuts, those who believe in Scripture as literal truth (the world is created, God is revealed to us in the Word, etc.) are presented as fanatics, those who seek to impede the progress of mankind.  In fact, when Tom finds out the purpose of the religious fanatics and their plot, he mutters, “Creationists!”  Quite humorous, but a sad fallacy of generalizing all who believe in creation to be backwards, ignorant people.

Sawyer’s book by no means conveys a traditional view of God, but it does illustrate what I spoke about earlier in this post. Fiction is one area that Christians can redeem and use to its fullest extent. Fiction need not be for the sake of merely telling a story; rather, employed with telos, it can help shape and guide the worldviews of generations of Christians to come.

I hope to write more on this topic in the near future, so stay tuned!

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