Theologizing about Technology in Science Fiction
by George L. Murphy
Steven Lynn’s article exploring nanotechnology and science fiction in this May issue of Covalence recalled me once again to the conjunction of two longtime interests, science fiction and theology. The fact that there is such a conjunction will seem obvious to some people and Lynn suggests some reasons for this, but the idea of making that connection will surprise others. Science fiction explores possible worlds, and without becoming fantasy (a different genre), allows a writer to think about worlds whose religious parameters, so to speak, differ from ours. On the other hand, a great deal of science fiction either ignores religion or treats it as a relic of humanity’s past. (While some aliens in “Star Trek” had religions, the Native American spirituality of Chakotay in ”Voyager” was the only practice of it among humans.)
There is science fiction that revels in the promises of new technology, some of it verging into what C.S. Lewis called “engineer’s fiction.” And of course there are books and movies that foresee possible dangers of technology – think of “The Matrix” or “Terminator” trilogies for popular examples. Not too many works of either type, however, bring in religious elements. Lynn’s article mentions a few of them.
I want to reflect briefly here on two short stories – one of them very short - that do provide the opportunity for theological reflection on technology. The first of these is by Robert Sheckley, many of whose stories have what I would describe as a whimsically satirical tone. “The Battle”, a bit over five pages long, was first published in If magazine in 1954 and was reprinted in an anthology of Sheckley’s stories, Citizen in Space (Ballantine, 1955). It poses the question, “Who will go to heaven if we use robotic armies to defeat the forces of evil at Armageddon?”
Maybe you can guess the answer, but Sheckley still does a nice job of laying it out in just a few pages. After the last battle, when victory has been won and the shattered metal of the machines who gave their lives (!) lies in the sand, the remote human observers sense “The Presence” moving over the battlefield. And in a scene like Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones, the robots stand upon their feet. They begin to rise into the air, surrounded by the angelic host. Only machines – no humans. After all, it was the machines that defeated the powers of Hell. It is, in a way, terrifyingly moving.
Here theological imagination, not theological pickiness, is called for. (Whether or not Sheckley himself had any interest in theology for its own sake is irrelevant here.) Christians will say quite correctly that we’re saved by grace, without any good works of our own - even winning the Battle of Armageddon. And in the deepest sense Christ has defeated the powers of darkness by his cross and resurrection. But to insist on those orthodox points would deflect us from something that orthodox theology might not tell us: As Esau sold his birthright for a mess of pottage; we could sell ours for a mess of technological convenience. The machines may not need to conquer us to deprive us of eschatological hope because we might just give it to them.
Or put it another way. Putting our trust in our technology ahead of everything else is idolatry. And just as one old line of theological reflection saw the creation of humans as God’s way of replacing the angels who rebelled and were cast out of heaven, perhaps God will replace humans who refuse to abandon their idolatry with their machines.
The second story I want to reflect on is better known, at least to science fiction aficionados. It’s by Fredric Brown, a master of the ultra-short story. “Answer”, a bit over 250 words, was first published in his anthology Angels and Spaceships in 1954 by E.P. Dutton and is now available in several places on the web.
The names of the two computer scientists (as we’d call them today) in the story sound alien but their species doesn’t really matter. They are completing the hookup of a grand cosmic computer network that will contain all knowledge. One of them then asks the first question: “Is there a God?” And the computer’s immediate answer is “Yes, now there is a God.” And when one scientist tries to disconnect the network, lightning blasts him from a clear sky. It is, first of all, just an amusing story. You can pretty much guess what’s going to happen as soon as you hear the question.
But there’s more to it than that. We develop better and better computers in order to give ourselves greater and greater power. If we do something that we think will give us ultimate knowledge and power, we may get an unpleasant surprise. Or connect this again with the theme of idolatry. The fact that idols are false gods doesn’t mean that they’re powerless. Quite the contrary. People becoming enslaved by their idols is quite common. Getting free of enslavement to things like alcohol or gambling can be hard, but liberation from a cosmic computer network would be really tough.
And there’s yet another way of spinning out some theology from Brown’s story. I’ve preached some science fiction story sermons and have thought about doing one as a variation on “Answer”. I haven’t yet done so for a couple of reasons. The text that I envision for it doesn’t occur in the lectionary and is longer than the sermon would be, so things would be out of balance. In addition, most hearers in an average congregation wouldn’t get the connection with Brown’s story and I think that would take some of the punch out of the sermon. But for what it’s worth …
Our text is from the Fourth Chapter of Daniel, verses 28 through 36. King Nebuchadnezzar of the Babylonian Empire, who has previously had a dream warning him about pride, is walking one day on the roof of his palace in Babylon. Looking over the city the king says, “Is this not great Babylon that I have built for the house of the kingdom by the might of my power and for the honor of my majesty?” (v.30 KJV). Immediately a voice from heaven condemns him. Nebuchadnezzar is expelled from his kingdom and reduced to the level of the beasts of the field, eating grass like an ox and bathed with the dew of heaven. When his exile is over and he is restored to a human condition, he acknowledges the sovereignty of the Most High.
And then the sermon. It proceeds very much like Brown’s story, with the question “Is there a God?” and the computer’s answer “Yes, now there is a God.” But then there is a bolt of lightning from a clear sky and the computer is turned into a slide rule.
I told you that it would be out of balance! (That would be even more the case if the first part of Daniel 4, with Nebuchadnezzar’s dream and Daniel’s interpretation, were included in the scripture reading.) Those who think they can do better are encouraged to try.
Science fiction stories about artificial intelligence, as well as nonfictional discussions of it, usually ignore the question of why we want to develop AI to begin with. A helpful theological reflection on that question is Noreen L. Herzfeld’s In Our Image (Fortress, 2002). Those interested in the possibilities of science fiction for preaching might be interested in my collection of story sermons, together with a couple of essays on science fiction and religion, Pulpit Science Fiction (CSS, 2005).
George L. Murphy is Covalence’s theological editor. He is a retired ELCA pastor and physicist living in Tallmadge, Ohio, is an adjunct faculty member at Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Columbus. Murphy's website (http://home.roadrunner.com/~scitheologyglm) is home to much of his work in theology and science.
Covalence, May 2012