”The kingdom of truth is consequently not the kingdom of some other world. It is the picture of what this world ought to be . . . It is not some realm of eternal perfection which has nothing to do with historical existence. It constantly impinges upon man’s every decision and is involved in every action.”1
For a good stretch of my younger reading life I was immersed in science fiction. It offered worlds that could only be imagined, thankfully, since most of them were ramped-up versions of this one, but several orders of magnitude more hideous. They were warning messages and the message was, if you think this is bad you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.
They featured intergalactic battles, plagues scourging entire civilizations, aliens traveling thousands of light years to obliterate our planet out of sheer, arbitrary cussedness (“Of all the planets in all the solar systems in all the universe, TZoth, you had to pick this one”), and the occasional beneficent link between worlds.
The best of the hard science fiction built plausibility on a platform of physics; it was exhilarating to see where science could go when imagination pushed the status quo. For a layperson in science, these revelations came as a surprise and a preview of what might come to fruition.
There was heroism too, when the future of civilization and of the world itself belonged to the one whose grip forced the hand holding the death-ray down, down, and then, snap. Order restored; don’t screw it up again. Please.
I liked the stories best that played with questions about ultimate meaning, like whether humans really had anything to offer the universe or what it was that distinguished us from androids. After all, androids were faster, smarter, more efficient, impervious to physical maladies, and couldn’t lie. Humans, well, we are a mixed bag, to put it generously.
Often, the bright line of value between humans and androids was in the freedom we possessed that allowed us to color outside the lines. From that freedom arises beauty, creativity, and truth. But where there is freedom there is the potential for giddy mischief, sullen imperfection, and tragedy. The alternative, however, a sterile perfection of monochrome conformity, kills everything in its path. The grim truth that almost every utopian community has had to face is that coercion in the name of preserving freedom turns a eutopia (a ‘good place’) into a dystopia (a ‘place too awful to work’).
But what we lose in the process, we gain in the effects. Remember how Data on Star Trek achieved technical perfection on the violin, but lacked the feelings to wash the notes with pathos and hope? He knew what he was missing, but that wasn’t enough to grant him the emotional muscles that would move his fingers to draw out the beauty in a Hayden violin concerto.
The humans in some of these tales were clearly louts on the lam, who found their mettle in the midst of battle and survived to rise above their “fleshly nature,” as Paul might have put it. While most of them were wedded to a form of individualism more reflective of Gordon Gekko than Ralph Waldo Emerson, occasionally there would be a spiritual breakthrough, and one of them would admit to feeling in the presence of a vast and lonely Force, while gazing moodily out a porthole en route to another military assignment. Their virtues were often exercised in the face of a tragic decision to die fighting for the lives of the innocent victims of the corrupt corporations that had hired them to preserve their power.
In one of the book series, intrepid human explorers journeyed light years away to an uninhabited world to establish an outpost, a way-station for further exploration. They had hijacked a small fleet of interstellar transport vehicles and had escaped Earth because of mounting anarchy around the globe, climate change run amok, and an America ruled by right-wing authoritarians. The chance to start from scratch, to build a world that had learned from history and would not repeat its mistakes, was the lure that drew this diverse band of artists, engineers, mathematicians, policy wonks, historians, and community organizers.
This was Sim-World on a grand scale, with all the complexity and diversity that one could imagine, now put to good use with attention and intention. This is Creation, Day One, with a chance to reverse-engineer all our present social conundrums back to their original lines of code and rewrite them. It is tempting to think that we could do better this time around because we’re starting out with knowledge of past mistakes and the technology and will to invent the future.
In such a society, historians would be venerated for their interpretive abilities, while scientists would be honored for their adherence to the facts. The poets and artists would portray the acts of the imagination that would cast light on the darkness of unknown futures. Prophets and priests need not apply, since we were intimately acquainted with the neural transmitters that boosted our endorphins or inhibited our guilt.
Yet, one theme that was often present, even at a faint decibel level, was the love for this Earth, this ‘dear, old, warm Earth, as comforting as a grandmother.’ I remember one novel, the title and author of which is lost to me now, that was the story of the literal breakup of the Earth as the result of electro-magnetic forces deep within the core that had gone haywire.
The central figure was a young scientist who had first stumbled upon the clues to this disaster and worked together with an international team to alert the world. The last third of the book follows those who are preparing for the end. Our young man drives from San Francisco to Yosemite and climbs Half Dome to witness the dawn of the last day on Earth. He knows the hour the cataclysm will arrive; he wants to be in a place where he can face the wave that is coming with stoic courage. But as he waits in the semi-darkness, feeling the first tremors around him, he hears the wafting of wings overhead as a flock of birds rushes up from the valley. He takes in the fragrance of the pines, feels the coolness of the stone beneath him, and he begins to weep, not from fear—he’s beyond that—but for the love of the body of the Earth which will be no more.
Ask anyone to describe Heaven and they might facetiously give you the clouds, the harps, and the pearly gates. But if they reflect for a moment—and set aside their skepticism—they’ll probably imagine something infinitely better than the most beautiful place they already know. Our heavens are linear extensions of this Earth. Once you trim off the silliness of caricature you realize that there are as many versions of Heaven as there are people to imagine them. And that alone should preclude any obstinate certainty about its dimensions.
We do get a glimpse at the most famous scenario of them all in the Book of Revelation. There John describes a city with streets of gold, gates of pearl, and walls of jasper and other precious stones—a vision, if taken literally, that would nicely fit the garish tastes of a Las Vegas casino magnate. My own desires run to a kind of Hobbiton, each of us with our own cosy burrow built into the side of a hill, overlooking a verdant valley, with a backdrop of mountains from the Canadian Rockies.
No matter. What John gave us was what he saw through the lens of his experience, married to his greatest hopes. For him, it was the most beautiful city he could imagine, clean, sparkling, bathed in light, with no dark, dank corners and no terrors. There would be no night there for God is there and the darkness will never overcome the light that has come into the world.
The story, which we are free to believe, is that God will come to live among the people. However it appears to those whose eyes are opened, what everyone will see is “Immanuel,” God with us. Where Jesus is, there is God, and where God is there is love. And the measure of that love is that God moves into our house with us, this sweet old Earth made new. And how fitting, somehow, that ecology, the study of the relationships between all organisms, is derived from the Greek word oikos, which simply means “house.”
- Niebuhr, Beyond Tragedy, 277. ↩