Christianity makes a lot of radical claims about reality, not just the human person, or the efficacy of the sacraments, or grace, or even the greater significance of the certain historical events of the first century A.D. in Palestine. If Christianity is true, it changes the fundamental structure of the entire universe. Granted “change” is a strange word to use since, if Christianity is true, nothing is changed at all, save our coming to a right perception of the world in the same way that Renaissance scientists believed people grew from homunculi, but that we now know that people grow from a single zygote.
Heaven is for Real and it is for Us
Just so you might understand what I mean by a “changing of the fundamental structure of the universe,” let’s turn our attention to Heaven, which is often thought of, in this modern Cartesian era, to consist of a kind of aetherial kingdom made of clouds. Indeed, the mental image which we associate with Heaven, that of it being in the clouds, with clouds as a carpet so to speak, communicates our view of the place as wholly insubstantial. Some may even conceive of Heaven as not a place at all but a mental experience, like staring into the sun forever and never going blind. That is to say, some people think of Heaven wholly as the Beatific Vision.
And Heaven may be these things, but it cannot be them alone, because Heaven is a place where bodies exist. At the Ascension of Our Lord he rose, fully enfleshed, into the sky, and whither we do not know. But we do know that wherever he went it had to have been, at least in part, a place with the three spatial dimensions with which we are well acquainted. Furthermore, for Catholics and Orthodox Christians, we even believe that a woman, Mary the Mother of God, is in Heaven as well, a bodily being just like the Christ-child she bore. This is a profound understanding because it means that, even if we could never hope to reach it in a rocket-ship or measure its span, Heaven is, at least in part, a place like the room I am now sitting in or the footpath I often stroll on. It is such a radical proposition that Heaven, in all its glorified perfection, could still, in some sense, be a circumscribed place such that our feet can walk on it, our noses can smell it, our eyes can see it, and our hands can touch it.
I think also of human history. If Christianity is true, there are, in truth, three events central to the human story. The first is, obviously, the Creation of Man, of whatever character that may be. Personally, I favor Tolkien’s turn of phrase that Man “woke up” in Eden, but prophets and scholars are bound to disagree about these things. Second is the Incarnation, that moment when God Himself, the agent of not just human existence but of the existence of incalculable worlds, suns, and galaxies, dove into the petty squabbling of our life on Earth like the circus performer who plunges headfirst from the high-board into only a cup full of water, drenches the crowd, but is Himself not injured but glorified. Third, there is the Resurrection, an event which for us has not yet come but which we may call the point of all human history, the singularity to which all our actions are crashing together. On that day, we will stand shoulder to shoulder with every human being who has ever lived, and give account. Where shall God find a plain so large to host the assembly of all the dead? I cannot say, but he surely will. He has, no doubt, been planning for this for ages as He said to Abraham “your descendants will be greater than the stars in the sky.”
Science Fiction as Speculative Eschatology
What I am talking about and turning over is commonly called Eschatology, that is, the study of ends. Some confuse this with simply musing about the End of Time, but it is more than that. As any physicist will tell you, the way the history of all reality is reckoned is that we, knowing the parameters of the current configuration of matter and energy in the Universe, and knowing the constants by which such things are arranged, may extrapolate back to the very beginning of all things. And likewise, knowing all that has occurred heretofore, they may speculate all the way up to the ultimate consummation of the Universe.
If physicists can do this with atoms, we too can do this with human things and with higher realities besides. In fact, we do speculate in this way, and we have nowadays taken to calling it science fiction. Science fiction requires, in a loose sense, the writer to make decisions about the ultimate fabric of the universe. Can machines think? Can mankind traverse the vast seas of black between the stars? In some cases, how will our species end? Will we ever reach the hoped-for Resurrection, or will we be crushed by the better-fit aliens that haunt a cruel, Darwinian universe, a Dark Forest universe, to use a turn of phrase from a brilliant Chinese science fiction writer named Liu Cixin.
More often than not, we allow our conception of the future to come from these writers of science fiction. We have an almost tautological belief that “science fiction” represents all those things which will one day become “science fact.”
And here a problem emerges for the Christian. Our best scientists hypothesize the last days of Man will take place in a cold universe, huddled around the cool, red, iron stars that will be the last light in the Universe. Eventually, they will run out of fusion matter and be snuffed out. Though men may molder at the end of days in a cold universe slowly ripping itself apart, it will be dark and hopeless. That is the inexorable conclusion that modern physics leads us to posit, and it is hard to deny: Entropy wins. This worldview without telos, without a true direction but destined to be scattered down to the quark, is the de facto eschatology subscribed to by thinking people in these times. And they have captured that future in science fiction, not just the end but in all the pointless morass of human futurity up until that point.
Would people who spend their days orbiting the last dying star bother to wait for the Resurrection? It is perhaps unreasonable to hope that, if the memory of Christ remains with them billions of years hence, they would still count His coming a possibility. After all, if he had not come to rescue their fathers in the apex of the human race, why would he come to reap them at the end of time?
The Universe is "Good" but Man's Imagination is "Very Good"
St. John Henry Cardinal Newman once said of the seeming incongruity between faith and the world at large, ten thousand difficulties do not arise to the level of a single doubt. Thus there is no reason, we might think, God would not wait nearly for the end of the Universe, for the tapestry he wove to unwind itself, before gathering it back up. Why create something to stop it halfway through? What greater sign can Man have of the utter inadequacy of a This-Worldly occupation than a sullen existence in a metal world orbiting the last, red, swollen iron star?
Alternatively, what is to stop God from stepping in at the most radically unexpected time, in the middle of the Universe’s inexorable flow, to put an end to the Inequities of Man? In short, why should we expect to see an inkling of the Resurrection in the physical world even though we did not see the Ensoulment of Man and the Incarnation? How can we account-for, by observing a clock tick, all the times the watchmaker has opened it up and changed a cog or resized a gear?
As Christians, we believe that the Universe is a radically strange place—compared to the monotonous regularity of the scientific-philosophy-qua-totalizing-metaphysic of reductionist materialism at least. The cultural battleground for articulating metaphysics in the 20th Century became science fiction, and Christians must fight to capture that ground. It cannot be said that the Christian worldview is so limiting, that it truncates and subordinates considerations of futurity by adherence to St. John’s obscurantist, apocalyptic prophesies. Rather, it is reductionist materialism that is truly limiting, truly impinges upon the imagination. Yet, the Church does not compel us to believe anything so onerous about the End of the Universe that we cannot manifest any number of different worldspaces through many different novums.
In short, we may look at the apparent difficulties in Christianity and decide, rather than thinking of them as mental puzzles to unlock, we may instead hold them as fertilizer for our own speculative fiction—the kind that captures imaginations and becomes the dreams of nations.
This essay was originally published at the Hidebound Press, which is the publishing arm of the Hidebound Convivium YouTube channel, and has been republished with the permission of the site's owner. Please help support independent content creators and "Like" and subscribe to these sites.
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