Speculation and revelation

Speculation and revelation

How science fiction and fantasy shaped my spiritual journey.

Book covers of The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman; Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler; and The Giver by Lois Lowry.

The Golden Compass (courtesy Penguin Random House), Parable of the Sower (courtesy Hatchette Book Group), and The Giver (courtesy Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).

From left: courtesy Penguin Random House; courtesy Hatchette Book Group; courtesy Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.


In north-central Florida in the early 1960s, I heard Bible stories from Monday through Friday in public school and on Sunday at church. My only day without Bible stories was Saturday. Then, between chores, I had cartoons in the morning and adventure movies in the afternoon. Samson, Bugs Bunny, and Flash Gordon all satisfied my need for stories of good people doing good deeds, but they were very different. Bugs and Flash were made-up. Samson was real. That's how I learned that there are two kinds of stories. Some entertain, some teach.

I loved most kinds of entertaining stories: westerns like Gunsmoke, army tales like Combat, mysteries like 77 Sunset Strip. But my favorites were about things that weren’t possible in the world I knew: science fiction like Superman and Forbidden Planet, fantasy like Felix the Cat and The Seven Voyages of Sinbad. That’s how I learned that there are two kinds of entertaining stories: Some are believable, some are impossible.

I became an atheist in second grade for two reasons. The first was a clash of faith and reason: If the Bible is true, how can it leave out something as wonderful as dinosaurs? That’s how I learned that there are two kinds of teaching stories. Some tell what’s true, some tell what people want you to believe.

My second reason for atheism was a clash of morality. One day, I told my parents what I was taught in school: Samson tied burning brands to the tails of foxes and set them loose in the fields of the Philistines. Dad asked what the foxes had done to deserve that. And I saw that a god who rewards the burning of innocent foxes is a bad god. That’s how I learned the most important distinction between stories. Some tell what’s right, some don’t.

My parents were trying to build a business in Levy County, but for them, conscience trumped commerce. They served blacks and whites in their restaurant, supported integration, opposed religion in public schools, and protested the Vietnam War. Perhaps it was inevitable that we would find Unitarian Universalism or Unitarian Universalism would find us. At the UU congregation an hour away in Gainesville, Dad had the rare experience of talking with people who agreed with him. For me, it was going from a place where playground bullies called me a “nigger-loving atheist” to a place where I was just another kid, as similar and as different as anyone else. Going to the UU church was like visiting a parallel world.

Science fiction and fantasy taught me about parallel worlds. In Frank Kapra’s famous film, George Bailey learned that it’s a wonderful life after he visited a reality where he had never been born. In one episode of Star Trek, Captain Kirk fell into a universe where the crew of the Enterprise were loyal servants of an evil empire. In the parallel world an hour from Levy County, I found a church where Jesus was part of a team that included Moses, Muhammad, Buddha, and everyone who works for peace, equality, and wisdom—where there were no sacred texts, no stories about the travails of its founders or the wondrous things they experienced. In Unitarian Universalism, meaning is embraced wherever it’s found. Here, revelation didn’t end with one teacher, but continues for everyone.

Then my family moved. For thirty years, I lived without Unitarian Universalism. I was an atheist, but in my teens, I craved some form of enlightenment. I tried drugs and found they only made me happy to sit in the dark. I tried Theravada Buddhism and found that my problem with formal religion encompasses all formal religions. I thought I had outgrown religion, but the truth is that my need for revelation was answered in the literature of speculation, fantasy and science fiction, the genres that test unlikely propositions in stories.

Those stories gave me new myths. While the passion of Jesus, the trials of Job, and the tolerance of the Golden Rule only made me think about the hypocrisy of conservative Christians, I felt the sacrifice of Frodo in The Lord of the Rings, the suffering of Winston Smith in 1984, and the respect for difference in Star Trek’s Prime Directive. I read Isaac Asimov and Zenna Henderson and knew that all people should live as equals, sharing wealth and knowledge. I read J.R.R. Tolkien and Ursula K. Le Guin and knew I should strive to do good, no matter the obstacles.

If I had been a different kind of reader, I might have found meaning on a different shelf of the library. All stories are implicitly spiritual, whether they’re about Philip Marlowe seeking a murderer, Elizabeth Bennet seeking love, or Dorothy seeking Oz. Every genre has its metaphor: Mysteries are about truth. Romances are about love. Fantasy and science fiction are about wonder and purpose. By putting people into impossible circumstances, they ask, “Who are we? Why are we here?”

These implicitly spiritual stories, just as explicitly spiritual ones, can be divided into parables and fables. Mysteries and romances, like Jesus’ stories about servants, are meant to be plausible. Because the stories could be true, we can learn from Sherlock Holmes, Scarlet O’Hara, or the Good Samaritan. But fantasy and science fiction, like the stories about Jesus’ miracles or divine birth, are meant to be implausible. By asking us to consider something outside our experience, like traveling in time, becoming a monster, or turning water into wine, they ask us to throw off our preconceptions and see the world as if we had never seen it before. Because it’s impossible for a story to occur in our world, we know that it’s about something more than its details, and we can learn from Santa Claus, Superman, or the Son of God.

As they do for many adolescents and adults, fantasy and science fiction gave me fables that were spiritual and fables that explored the desire to be spiritual. I appreciated the personal and public difficulty of promoting a faith by reading about Paul Muad’Dib in Dune and Michael Valentine Smith in Stranger in a Strange Land. Roger Zelazny’s Lord of Light made me think about the nature of pantheons. As an atheist who yearned for meaning, I saw my struggle in Michael Moorcock’s Behold the Man, the story of a time traveler who goes back to meet Jesus. I found answers to questions that traditional religions are reluctant to pose: James Morrow examined the literal death of the conservative Christian God in Towing Jehovah and Jesus’ second coming as a woman in Only Begotten Daughter.

When I returned after thirty years to Unitarian Universalism, I felt as if I had never left. Fantasy and science fiction had simply been a parallel world’s Church of the Larger Fellowship. For some conservative religions, fantasy and science fiction are forms of heresy. For religions that value questions, however, they’re resources. They are genres that can be spiritually inventive, creating new religions and societies in order to probe moral questions. I like to think the makers of the myths of the great religions were doing the same thing.

Reading fantasy and science fiction led me to write it, which left me with less time to read it. I decided to play catch-up and look at some books that might interest Unitarian Universalists:

In Parable of the Sower (1993) and Parable of the Talents (1998) Octavia Butler writes about the birth of a humanist religion. Lauren Olamina lives in our near future, a time of economic and ecological collapse. She struggles to survive and to teach a religion that she calls Earthseed, a faith that declares God is Change and Change is God. There’s no afterlife for individuals, but there’s a destiny for humanity: to populate the universe.

That should be an impossible dream in Olamina’s desperate time. A Christian fundamentalist is president, and religious tolerance is no longer a principle of government. Gated communities have armed patrols to protect themselves from being looted by the starving poor. But despite the odds, Olamina’s resolve never wavers.

For Olamina, community and shared purpose are the most important aspects of religion. She has the faith of the atheist who knows that the perceived world is the only reality, so Humanists may be most sympathetic to her lack of doubt. But UUs who understand the world in spiritual ways will admire her perseverance and find that some of Earthseed’s expressions of truth fit well with Unitarian Universalism. (Butler’s novel Kindred has been reissued by the UUA’s Beacon Press in a twenty-fifth anniversary edition; a UU discussion guide is available online.)

Lois Lowry’s The Giver, winner of the 1994 Newbery Medal for children’s literature, is set sometime after a disaster called the Ruin. Jonas lives in what seems to be a well-planned utopian village. Its citizens don’t think about the past or the future, except to ensure that the people will be cared for. Their way of life can perpetuate itself indefinitely, and they believe it’s good.

At the age of 12, Jonas is chosen to become the successor-in-training to the Receiver of Memory, the only person who knows about the things that have been forgotten, including weather, pain, anger, and love. In theory, the Receiver’s purpose is to advise the village elders when an unusual situation arises. In practice, the Receiver protects the villagers from knowing the price they paid when their ancestors sacrificed freedom for security. Lowry’s story asks what you owe your society, and its answer is not an easy one. Comparisons to 1984 and Brave New World are inevitable, and deserved.

Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” trilogy—The Golden Compass (1996), The Subtle Knife (1997), and The Amber Spyglass (2000)—is built on the tropes of Christianity. Lyra is a girl whose quest takes her far in her world, then into several parallel worlds, including ours. Her opponents include her nation’s Church, a repressive institution that resembles the Catholic Church, and the Authority, the “Ancient of Days” who has taken the place of God the Creator. The Authority is decrepit and senile, but his institutions of power remain.

Lyra’s constant companion is her daemon, an externalized form of her soul that can talk to her and take many shapes. Daemons are not to be confused with angels, which take two forms in this story: The bad ones are loyal to the Authority; the good ones have rebelled against him.

Lyra’s allies are gypsies, witches, academics, and scientists—people who value knowledge and freedom over convention and power. Pullman resolves his story in a way that has enraged conservative Christians, but its message is profoundly Unitarian Universalist: Overthrow the kingdom of heaven and establish a republic.

I lost my faith in God when I was young because conservative Christians did not offer stories that seemed literally and morally true. Their insistence that I believe made it impossible for me to believe. But my love of fantasy and science fiction helped me see that ants do not need to talk for Aesop’s fables to be true, and Jesus’ message of sharing and peace does not require him to rise from the dead. My love of these genres took me further: Jesus rising from the dead is no longer an obstacle to my belief in his teaching. That rising is not a supernatural being’s show of power; it’s a writer’s call for me to trust that, when all hope appears to be lost, hope remains.

Conservative Christians would say that fantasy and science fiction led me astray. I say those stories led me home. They made it possible to read the Bible as if it were a new text, without two thousand years of accreted interpretation by people who wanted me to see what they saw or wanted me to see. Those stories made me a Unitarian who believes that God is in everything. They made me a Universalist who believes that love is available for every living creature. They made me a Christian who believes that heaven is in us all, if we only know how to look. Many writers and readers of science fiction and fantasy will tell you there’s nothing religious or spiritual in these books. As a Unitarian Universalist, I respect their interpretation. But I still take revelation where I find it.