Saturday, September 8, 2007

Theophany

In Stranger in a Strange Land, Valentine Michael Smith compares himself to a spy satellite, one that collects data for a period of time, and then is “triggered” to transmit its data back to home base. Smith had been “programmed” by the Martians that had adopted him, and at a certain point, all he’d learned on Earth was made available to them.

Later in the book, after Smith’s “discorporation” we learn that the Heavenly Bureaucracy works more or less the same way, and Smith is actually Archangel Michael, sent to Earth as an “angel unaware,” and who now, as a result of his time on Earth, has some ideas about how to make some changes to the system.

In “One for the Books” by Richard Matheson, (a short story in Shock, later made into a teleplay for the “Amazing Stories” show), the protagonist is made into a human knowledge sponge, who is completely drained of his accumulated knowledge by the aliens who set him up. His last words are “I been squeezed.”

In Arthur C. Clarke’s The City and the Stars, the citizens of the future live for a thousand years, then have their memories uploaded into a central database. They are later “re-incarnated” with a set of edited memories.

In “The Seminar from Hell” David Gerrold gives a brief description of the afterlife as a “merging with the godhead,” bringing the life experiences back into the great cosmic all.

I’ll leave it to the reader to decide the extent to which God and aliens are interchangeable. Certainly there are UFO cults that look religious, and religions that try to justify their faith with appeals to science (or science-y sounding rationalizations). In any case, the thrust of these stories is to attempt to discern some purpose to human existance.

There are many examples of the mystical “spy from above” narrative to be found in science fiction and fantasy, to say nothing of the musings of Joseph Campbell. Indeed, the “merging with the light” that comes from the pop cultural “near death experience” narrative can be viewed as something like this. It can be viewed as a form of pantheism, and it fits into a reincarnation mythology pretty easily.

From a theological perspective, it has a major advantage: it gives a plausible motive for the behavior of a deity. An omniscient, omnipotent being does have paradoxical limitations, such as not knowing what ignorance or weakness feels like. Only by abandoning godhood (albeit temporarily) can these limitations be addressed. Campbell has suggested that this might be the real import of Christ and the Crucifixion, though his is obviously a minority view.

However, such a theology fails to serve the purposes for which most people look to theology: the providing of a base for morals and ethics. A quick swing to the Wikipedia finds the germane quote from Schopenhauer:

If the world is a theophany, then everything done by man, and even by animal, is equally divine and excellent; nothing can be more censurable and nothing more praiseworthy than anything else; hence there is no ethics.


That’s a little harsh (though how can one not like a word like theophany?) In fact, it merely means that such a theology can provide no ethics. Nothing prevents us from determining ethics by other means.

In any case, my own two cents comes in the form of my story, “Flower in the Void,” which may be found here.

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