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   Saturday, January 10, 2015

Faith On The Final Frontier

The final frontier” --- since the mid 1960’s these words have characterized Star Trek’s perception of the adventure and the discoveries to be found in the distant reaches of outer space. Yet can this vast interstellar ether really be said to be the final frontier in terms of providing an ultimate foundation or purpose? For despite all its wonder, at its core the cosmos is not that much different than ourselves in that its external composition is simply another manifestation or component of the physical universe.

Thus, no matter how far man might one day voyage beyond the confines of the earth, he will still require belief and value systems through which to process and understand the role of the mysteries he is likely to encounter both within the human mind and those external to himself with which he has had little prior experience. Often the fields of science fiction and future studies are used as tools by which to forecast scientific and technological developments. However, in Religion 2101 A.D., Hiley H. Ward shows these speculative methods can be used to gauge the form religion might take in the distant future.

According to Ward, the astounding breakthroughs of the future will force humanity to rethink the most basic of concepts as these will be stretched beyond traditional understandings in light of extraordinary circumstances and conditions. For example, Ward points out that the very concept of what it means to be human might be altered beyond current recognition. With the advent of artificial organs and the possibility of growing replacements in a laboratory, there could come a day when death might be delayed indefinitely.

Many would no doubt embrace existence as a cyborg (an organism half biological and half mechanical in its physiology) if the interchangeability of parts presented the likelihood of staving off the grim reaper as long as possible. Eventually, man might no longer have to endure the inherent limitations of an organic body as range, perception and locomotion could be enhanced by directly interfacing the brain with a computer controlling an array of exploratory robotic sensors (28). In essence, some could live out their lives as a stationary central processing unit while their secondary android bodies simultaneously explored both the depths of the ocean and the peaks of Mars all at the same time.

Ward predicts that these kinds of innovations will spark profound renovations in man’s religious consciousness. Faced with the overwhelming enormity of the universe, man may feel forced to cope with the daunting fruits of this exploration by downplaying his individuality by fully embracing his place as an insignificant cog in a machine. In biological and sociological sciences, this theory is known as “macro life”, the propensity to view the individual in society as analogous to a single cell in an organism (30).

Such a framework places worth and value instead on the overall group as a whole. Ward foresees this prospect taking more concrete expression in the form of a hypothetical spaceship whose command decisions are arrived at by electronically tapping into the thoughts of the crew and melding these divergent consciousnesses into a single imperative authority greater than the sum of the component perspectives. Even though Religion In 2101 AD was published in 1975, this suggestion foreshadowed its fullest development in science fiction in the form of the collective consciousness of the Borg, the cybernetic aliens from Star Trek that perceive themselves as a single entity and who value the individual members of their society as little more than drones. This concept of all taken as a singular mind bears a striking similarity to pantheism in the realm of religious studies.

The diminution of individuality will not necessarily be heralded as a bad thing by those clamoring for its demise if it can be marketed as an elevation in consciousness as an ontological unification with the universal totality. There are few greater ego boosters, after all, than considering oneself God (or at least as some tiny part of the divine intelligence).

Regarding this perception, Ward provides insightful comments from some of science fiction’s most prominent names. Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry says, “Man will come to see himself properly as part of God. God is the sum of everything, all intelligence, all order in the universe...It is not inconceivable that as intelligent beings we are part of and ultimately become God, and ultimately create ourselves (Ward 136).” Harlan Ellison, author of I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream, adds to this perspective: “I guess I worship man. Each has the seed of God in himself (Ward, 136).”

While the religious philosophy of the future will strive to approach the majesty and wonder of outer realities by turning inward, many adherents of the coming cosmic confession will still feel the traditional need of experiencing the divine through a relationship with or by receiving guidance from what they perceive to be an intelligence or symbol objectively transcendent from themselves. Seldom can man pull himself up by his own metaphysical bootstraps.

But whereas the so-called God of old is seen as standing distinct from His creation but actively sustaining it by His loving hand and revealing His message through angels and prophets and later revealing Himself in the form of His Son Jesus Christ, the God of Tomorrowland will employ different couriers and manifest Himself in ways actually less personable. Erich Von Daniken in Chariots Of The Gods hypothesizes that UFO’s and extraterrestrials may serve as an explanation for the supernatural phenomena occurring in ancient times when these harbingers of universal wisdom appeared bearing enlightenment. Von Daniken does not believe in the traditional conception of a transcendent God. Rather he believes in a God composed of the sum of all knowledge in the universe, of which each individual is an autonomous piece of information akin to a bit within a computer to be reunified into the singular totality once the evolution to a state of pure energy has taken place (Ward, 129).

And speaking of computers, eschatologists might take note of the role of these devices in future religious thought as considered in dramatic speculative literature. One cannot dismiss such claims on the part of the likes of Hal Lindsay or Jack Van Impe as outright exaggeration. In David Gerrold’s When Harlie Was One, the Graphic Omniscient Device (G.O.D.) is a supercomputer capable of solving all problems and answering all questions. In the novel The Fall Of Colossus, Colossus is a computer designed to administer functions on earth and is ultimately deified as part of a new religion. Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling observed, “...with increased dependence of technology, we will find ourselves worshipping at the altar of machines (Ward, 133).”

Ward does an impressive job culling through the religious insights found across an impressive array of objective analytical forecasts and fictional literary accounts. Yet it is in the final chapter where Ward synthesizes the observations found in the preceding study into his own narrative vignette that the reader gets the best feel for where these cultural trends might take humanity in the year 2101 AD. It is at this point the reader becomes most engrossed in the issues under consideration.

In the year 2101, humanity’s major religion is the Church of the Celebration of the Holy World Cosmos whose members are called “Celebrators”. Celebrators strive to embrace all the latest fads in religious thought and philosophy such as panantheism, extraterrestrial wisdom, theories of multiple Christs and avatars, and claim to value harmony and expansive tolerance above all else (Ward, 217).

The Celebrators are opposed by religious traditionalists derisively referred to as “Pewsitters” because of their insistence upon utilizing pews and other ancient religious traditions such as monotheism. The reader would initially suspect the Celebrators to be the heroes of the story since they are depicted as the vanguards of progressivism and enlightenment. However, the church to which they belong is as conniving as the most reactionary of ecclesiastical authorities.

Through an agreement worked out with the government, Celebrators are forbidden from traveling, must be free of political ambitions, and have their minds telepathically scanned to prevent disharmonious thoughts. Pewsitters forced to attend Celebrator services face possible disintegration by a laser beam if they disrupt the proceedings.

Despite the facade of technology and innovation surrounding the philosophy of religion underlying much of the science fiction addressing these kinds of questions, man cannot seem to escape his most basic requirements and desires --- no matter how much he might try to suppress them --- regarding his need for a personal God. In Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy, God or the “First Speaker” is depicted as a kindly, elderly gentleman who travels the universe helping where he is needed (Ward, 115).

Ward puts his own spin on this concept in his fictional vignette postulating a God dwelling anonymously among humanity as an inconspicuous New York cabbie. Fortunately, the Bible teaches that not only did a loving God come to dwell with men upon the earth in the form of His Son Jesus Christ but that He also provided for the forgiveness of sins and eternal life while He was here through His sacrificial death upon the cross and His resurrection from the dead. If that is not good enough for either the literati of speculative narrative or the mundane realist alike, that is their choice and they must live with the consequences.

When contemplating literary undertakings addressing the philosophy of religion, science fiction with its accompanying connotations of laser guns, rocketships, and creepy aliens does not initially come to mind. However, as Hiley Ward points out in Religion 2101 AD, this particular genre known for stretching the limits of perception can serve as an excellent conceptual mechanism through which to explore intimidating themes of belief we might otherwise be reluctant to approach.
 

By Frederick Meekins
 

 

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