A daylong conference at the Lincoln Center campus on April 9 brought together writers and theologians to discuss humankind’s unique desire and ability to leave Earth and explore.
“Touching the Face of the Cosmos: On the Intersection of Space Travel and Religion,” was inspired by the 2015 anthology of the same name, that was edited by Paul Levinson, Ph.D., professor of communications.
In one of the day’s panels, Levinson, fellow Fordham communications professor Lance Strate, Ph.D.,and novelists Alex Shvartsman and David Walton sat for a wide-ranging discussion, “Science Fiction Looks at Space Travel and Religion.”
“As far as we can tell, we alone not only adapt our environment, we change our environment,” said Levinson. “There’s one form of literature that addresses those quintessentially human activities. That is science fiction.”
Panelists discussed works they felt most profoundly melded issues of faith and science fiction. For Walton, C.S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy (Scribner, 1996) —is the most provocative illustration of the intersection of faith and science. Shvartsman cited Stranger in a Strange Land, (Ace, 1987) by Robert A. Heinlein. The main character comes back from to Earth, having been raised by Martians.
“He’s been completely removed from human culture, so the book is seeing humanity through his eyes, and how he essentially starts a brand-new religion. It’s about what a religion is, and how one might be started, which I feel is both fresh and radical.”
Strate made a case for H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, in part because Wells was a student of Thomas Henry Huxley, who was known as “Darwin’s bulldog.” In the end of the story, when aliens are felled by disease, Wells speaks of “the humblest things that God, in his wisdom put upon this earth.” Strate said this was originally a reference to natural selection. In the 1953 film adaptation of the story, however a priest who is acting as a peace envoy is vaporized; an act that is treated as the aliens’ first—or original—sin. The same line of dialogue thus takes on a much more religious tone when they perish at the end.
“Religion is trying to find answers to core questions like ‘Who I am?’, ‘Where did I come from?’, ‘What is my purpose in life?’, and ‘Where are we going?” said Walton.
“These are the stories that science fiction writers grapple with whether they explicitly deal with religion or not.”
As for the genre’s effects on religion, when Star Wars: The Last Jedi came out, Strate noted that an op ed appeared in the magazine Tablet that criticized it as “Reformed Jedi-ism,” a none-too-subtle jab at Reform Judaism.
“There was something very positive that anyone could be a Jedi and be in touch with the Force. It was missing from all of Lucas’ work, but at the end of the last Jedi, they suddenly introduced this idea,” he said.
In many ways, Shvartsman said, science fiction writers are advance scouts for philosophers and religious leaders.
“If we develop interstellar flight, and humanity does spread to the stars, what will happen if the Messiah comes? Will he go around collecting people off those planets, or are people who leave Earth screwed? If we meet aliens and they’re intelligent, do they have souls?
“These are all really complicated questions, and the good thing for us science fiction writers is we don’t have to answer them. That’s not our job. Our job is to ask the question. But asking the question will give everyone else time to consider them and come up with eventual answers before the science catches up with the fiction.”
The conference also featured panels discussions “Triangulating Creed: Identifying Memories that Form Values (A Creed), which Portray a Future” and “What Little Children See in Space,” and a keynote speech, “Would You Baptize an Extraterrestrial?” by Guy Consolmagno, S.J., director of the Vatican Observatory.