Note: This was originally posted December 24, 2012.
By Dave Dentel
When a good friend agreed to introduce me to classic science fiction I had long ignored, I didn’t realize how quickly his generosity would deliver a brilliant pay-off.
Robert A. Heinlein’s 1941 tale delves into the nature of both religious and materialistic inquiry.Also worth reading:
“How Star Wars Ruined Sci Fi”
Already I’ve encountered a Heinlein story with surprising insight into one of my favorite nonfiction topics—the intersection of science and faith.
While it’s no fable of intelligent design, Robert A. Heinlein’s 1941 tale “Universe” certainly delves into the nature of both religious and materialistic inquiry. In fact, the adventure aspect of the story serves as a backdrop for exploring how human beings comprehend reality and their purpose in it.
Indeed, the point of “Universe”—which employs a now-familiar narrative about multiple generations of space colonists inhabiting a massive and drifting ship—is that these travelers are lost not only in physical space but also in how they perceive their cosmos.
Here’s the background: Eons in the past a mutiny killed the engineers who knew the ship’s ultimate function—to colonize an actual planet in a distant star system. With them died knowledge of the ship’s origin on Earth as well as its intended destination.
As a result, to subsequent generations these specific notions of origin and destiny became mere symbols. This loss of meaning occurred even though ancient documents and the religion eventually practiced by the colonists attest to these truths.
In another interesting bit of symbolism, Heinlein has the keepers of knowledge aboard ship—who also function as religious leaders—called “scientists.”
They can still run the ship’s basic life support systems, and they have access to technical manuals, textbooks, histories and even literature. But there’s so much the “scientists” don’t understand. Consequently, they treat ideas dealing with creation and purpose in one of two ways: They either turn them into vague metaphors or dismiss them out of hand.
I find Heinlein’s depiction a poignant parallel to many scientists and religious leaders in our own world. Materialists such as Richard Dawkins simply declare God doesn’t exist. Liberals akin to Episcopal Bishop Shelby Spong take fundamentals of Christian theology such as creation, original sin and the need for Christ’s atonement and reduce them to fuzzy spiritual motifs—interesting ideas individuals are free to apply (or not) to life situations as they best see fit.
Thus the power and the glory are stripped away and truth denied—despite divine revelation apparent in nature and in the holy documents of scripture.
In Heinlein’s story this blindness to higher purpose results in stasis. Colonists eke out what living they can, each doomed at last to die and be cast into the oblivion of the molecular “converter”—their bodies providing raw material for the next aimless generation.
It’s left to a mutant outcast to finally break the cycle of blindness. He does this by training a young colonist to recognize the myths as real, to see beyond the metal enclosure of the so-called universe to the deep and wondrous reality beyond.
In the words of the mutant:
“The trouble with you youngsters,” Joe said, “is if you can’t understand a thing right off, you think it can’t be true. The trouble with your elders is, anything they didn’t understand they reinterpreted to mean something else and then thought they understood it. None of you has tried believing clear words the way they were written and then tried to understand them on that basis.”
It reminds me of another outcast, St. Paul, who wrote:
“In the wisdom of God the world did not know God through its own wisdom. So God chose to use the message that sounds foolish to save those who believe. The Jews ask for miracles, and the Greeks want wisdom. But we preach a crucified Christ” (I Corinthians 21-23 NCV).
That’s a lot to pack into a single sci fi story. Thank you, Mr. Heinlein!