If you could hie to Kobol: how science fiction adds to my faith

I don’t especially want to hie to Joseph Smith’s Kolob. The vision of Kolob in the Book of Abraham with its firm hierarchy of planets and intelligences does not appeal to my ego as fully as the other Mormon view that emphasizes how we can progress to become like God in power and knowledge. But, Joseph Smith’s vision of Kolob, along with its song and its latest off-shoot, Battlestar Galactica’s Kobol, thrill me nevertheless, because each of these works played or plays the crucial role of helping people bridge the gap between the world they see and their understanding of God, a role that contemporary Mormonism often largely cedes.

Contemporary Mormonism rarely inquires into the nature of God, choosing instead (and I think generally rightly) to focus on the more practical issues of organizing a community on earth that follows Christ’s teachings. For the most part, we understand Christ and God through our canonical pictures that represent them as looking like us and through the familial relationships of father, son, and brother. Although I don’t know precisely how to label the Book of Abraham and its grand narrative of the cosmos—is it an inspired translation? speculation?—I am sure that I would be surprised to hear a modern prophet theorize about the nature of God, eternal life, and Heaven. Although the Proclamation of the Family recently spoke about eternal nature in a limited way as it applies to humans, it did so more in a response to contemporary social mores than to any desire to know about how heaven works.

But at the same time that my testimony that God exists has grown stronger, the images and stories we use to visualize God and crucial concepts like the Resurrection have become less and less adequate in my mind. Typically, I am content to remain in mystery on these issues, but recently I have discovered that while Mormonism has essentially stopped creating narratives to help us better understand God, science fiction has created an outpouring of stories that while obviously fictional, explore in the context of our current technologies and scientific understandings how concepts like God and the Resurrection might exist.

I find these science fiction stories surprisingly faith-inducing. They offer ways of understanding how God and a resurrection might plausibly exist that make sense to people living today, and they consider what kind of societies we need to sustain (eternal) life. By offering compelling ways to visualize God that are frequently compatible with basic Mormon beliefs, they fill an intellectual gap for me that Mormonism and its current canon of scripture doesn’t always satisfy. Now, I don’t want our prophet to tell us more about the nature of God and Kolob until he is entirely sure that what he is saying is right.  But, I can’t help thinking that science fiction is currently the most exciting source of religious thought that we have—a place where we can channel our desires to understand God without risking canonizing as doctrine what we don’t really know.  It’s a refreshing companion to the scriptures that compliments and revitalizes my faith.

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  1. Emily U says:

    Natalie – what science fiction do you like to read?

    I recently read The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell, which is about Catholic priests who visit another planet, but it wasn’t the exploration of God’s nature I thought it might be.

    I find most sci fi to be pretty Godless. Dr. Who has been to the end of the universe and has never encountered God, and the Starship Enterprise has been pretty much everywhere and never acknowledges God.

    I’d like to read some science fiction that deals with God, but I haven’t found much in that genre. I don’t watch Battlestar Galactica, but maybe I should start.

  2. My favorite Mormon themed sci-fi novel is The Time Traveler’s Wives.

  3. Mark A. Clifford says:

    “Mormonism has essentially stopped creating narratives to help us better understand God…”

    As wonderful as Latter-day Saintism is as a religion, it is by far more awesome as an enactment. Joseph Smith, instead of merely being “the Prophet”, is also the “way to be a prophet.” His revelations can be understood to describe, and thereby limit, what is true. But for me they do not function best in that role. Rather, they are meant to show the way to know. And they invite us to become “prophetic knowers” ourselves. They activate the imagination, which is an essentially religious faculty.
    I find Mormon theology-making to be enlivening, exciting, and daring. I do not really need Thomas Monson to do it for me, though I welcome him to help out when he wants to. We have established some ground rules between ourselves in establishing our prophetic community (the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, that is), touch points that we have agreed to agree are set. But from there, it is “go time.” All I have to do is go to High Priest’s Quorum to know that there is some religion making going on among the Mormons. And it makes me glad.
    Our central story is the story of the praying farm boy who gets answered. We send out scores of missionaries to invite others (anyone) to re-enact this framing Mormon story. What if the “inspired version” of the Bible is not just the correct version of scripture, but a signal of how scripture is meant to be read? What if I really could be a prophet, with prophetic gifts? Then, we can be in the business of putting the pieces together for ourselves. Heck, I do, and they ain’t kicked me out yet.
    I have never been more proud of my boys than the other day when the home teacher came. We like him, but he had the temerity to ask: “in the Church, how many prophets are there?” Connor, my eight year old, piped right up: “we are all supposed to be prophets.” His brothers agreed that he was right. But then, he was corrected by the home teacher: “no, there are 15.”
    Nope. Connor gave the more Mormon answer.
    Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets.

  4. The Book of Abraham is a part of the Pearl of Great Price, the 4th standard work in our scriptures. Yes, it IS a standard work–and because of some confusion in the early church in this matter, it was actually voted on twice as such. Therefore, it’s safe to say that its contents are not “speculation,” but truth. If anything, it’s probably more true than we realize, seeing as Joseph Smith never published the rest of it because its subjects were simply too sacred to put into print.

    Now to this statement:

    The vision of Kolob in the Book of Abraham with its firm hierarchy of planets and intelligences does not appeal to my ego as fully as the other Mormon view that emphasizes how we can progress to become like God in power and knowledge.

    If you’re thinking that the Book of Abraham presents a set-in-stone model where we all have a pre-assigned place, you would be mistaken. It DOES assert that we can progress and become like God in power and knowledge. That’s exactly what Abraham was showing us in His knowledge of the cosmos. He gained that knowledge from the Urim and Thummim, thereby bringing himself to a greater understanding of our Father’s world, and by extension our Father Himself.

    I have a deep love the for the Pearl of Great Price, and for the Book of Abraham specifically. I would suggest that we all spend a little more time with it–especially and perhaps before we start passing judgment on it.

  5. StillConfused says:

    what does hie mean?

  6. In scifi terms, “hie” is to beam me up. It is basically to travel.

  7. Natalie B. says:

    Mark – I love your idea that Joseph Smith was showing us how to enact our religion and how to read scripture on our own. You are expressing better than I did part of why I find Sci Fi interesting – the idea that we can contribute to creating stories that shape our religion and help us imagine God.

    Emily – The last sci fi series I read was Ender’s Game (lots about God there). Battlestar is definitely good on its own, but especially good if you want sci fi that speaks to religion. Although I am somewhat new to the genre, I find that even books that do not explicitly mention God have strong discussions about will, agency, what is human, etc., that touch on religious and philosophical ideas and are interesting to meditate on.

  8. Natalie B. says:

    Just to clarify:

    When I say

    “Contemporary Mormonism rarely inquires into the nature of God, choosing instead (and I think generally rightly) to focus on the more practical issues of organizing a community on earth that follows Christ’s teachings.”

    I mean to imply that we don’t get much official inquiry anymore. As Mark points out, obviously unofficially we are always storytelling, and it might be a good thing that we don’t get as many official stories, since that frees us to unofficially keep trying to figure it out — as happens in both Sunday School and sci fi!

  9. Natalie B. says:

    Paradox – I love how the Book of Abraham is an attempt to understand God, and my post wants to celebrate such attempts and to encourage us to write more Books of Abraham even if they aren’t ever going to be canonized as scripture. At this point in my life, I am not entirely sure that I believe that this book represents an accurate depiction of heaven or a story that I find ultimately compelling, and I am not sure that it is a good thing for us to rely too much on canonical stories. But I love the fact that Joseph Smith was involved in the process of inquiring. And, it is this possibility of using genres like sci fi to inquire as JS did that excites me. So, even though I am not currently committed to the view that the Book of Abraham is literal truth, I deeply respect the book on other levels.

  10. Thomas Parkin says:

    Mark, #3: Great stuff. I couldn’t agree more.

    I think there is less need to be creating narratives – at the level of church leadership – since they are already in place. (And have been in place, basically, since the early 1830s.) I wonder, based almost entirely on my experience in the ‘naccle, if they are entrenched as well as they might be. But we are told constantly to study the scriptures and attend the Temple, where an exhaustive collection of narratives are always present.

    To know God is still Eternal Life; to seek his face, to “see” Him, meaning at least in part to understand Him, is still the point. ~

  11. Natalie, this is right on the mark. Scifi for me has been a great source of truth and insight. I highly agree with Emily (#1) about “The Sparrow” in fact I’ve just started its sequel. One of the best books I’ve ever read. It really looks at the question what does our faith mean?

    Another religiously themed book I love is “Hyperion.”

    Battlestar Galactica had some great explorations of religion, and with the rise of Baltar as prophet there were some intriguing relevancies for us. But none of the great science fiction series did religion as well as Babylon 5. It was central to the story and they did some interesting things with it.

    Great post!

  12. Your second sentence misreads Smith. It was in fact the Progressive Chain of Being that appears to be the intellectual infrastructure of both of those models. And if you want some wild, cool scifi for Mormons, try out Paracletes.

  13. Proud Daughter of Eve says:

    Fantasy is also a good place to find some interesting and even stirring religious themes. I highly recommend “Paladin of Souls” and “The Curse of Chalion.” The setting isn’t Christian – the religion centers around five gods, not one – but the intersections of faith and action are deeply explored and depend more on the relationship between a character and a god than on the specific theology.

  14. Hm, this makes me think I should work on a post of my own, entitled, “If you could hie to COBOL: how computer programming adds to my faith.”

  15. Steve Evans says:

    If you could hie to cobble: how shoemaking adds to my faith.

  16. If you could pie to cobbler: How one dessert becomes another.

  17. Natalie, I’m disappointed that you seem to think the Book of Abraham to be science fiction written by Joseph Smith. Too bad. I love science fiction, but I really don’t think the Book of Abraham is fiction.

    I was impressed recently when I read a recent biography of Isaac Newton at how very difficult it is to talk about complex subjects without an agreed upon vocabulary and basic knowledge base to work from. We find it easy now to talk about the phenomena of gravity, but that is because almost everyone now has a basic understanding of it. That wasn’t the case before Newton.

    I believe that Abraham was limited enough in his vocabulary and basic understanding of physics that he could not describe what he was shown very well. I rather doubt that he even intended his writings as a text on “how” things work.

    I wonder how much of what the Lord would like to teach us is similarly limited. Is this perhaps a reason why the Lord asks us to continually study the scriptures and go to the temple? So that we have the vocabulary and basic knowledge necessary to build from?

  18. Many of the books of Arthur C. Clark such as Childhood’s End and 2001 seem to have very religious themes. They felt to me to be perversely determined to speculate about the need and place for God in the universe without admitting it.

    I get a special kick out of reading Orson Scott Card’s Homecoming series (Memory of Earth, etc.) They are fun books *and* they are serious commentary on the Book of Mormon. I just a bit sad that he couldn’t write more of them, but then he could only take it just so far before the analogies break down.

  19. Steve Evans says:

    Tom D, your #17 is a very poor reading of Natalie’s post. At no point did she indicate that the Book of Abraham was science fiction written by Joseph Smith. Do her a favor and read what she says before leading off with an insulting and completely wrong interpretation of the post author’s words.

  20. I get a special kick out of reading Orson Scott Card’s Homecoming series

    Yo SB2–I win!

  21. “Contemporary Mormonism rarely inquires into the nature of God, choosing instead (and I think generally rightly) to focus on the more practical issues of organizing a community on earth that follows Christ’s teachings.”

    I do find if you try to delve into the nature of God a lot of people in church get uncomfortable and generally brand you a troublemaker – at least on a local level. For example, theorizing that God and our future in that will be a friendlier, well lit and better dressed version of the Borg, well that can kill any Sunday School class participation.

  22. Continuing on thoughts from Tom D where he states:
    “I wonder how much of what the Lord would like to teach us is similarly limited. Is this perhaps a reason why the Lord asks us to continually study the scriptures and go to the temple? So that we have the vocabulary and basic knowledge necessary to build from?”

    One issue I have been wrestling with is how NEW insights into science and religion can come into our understanding of the gospel and our relationship to everything. It’s based on 2 assumptions, which I admit may be wrong:

    1) I would assume that any correlations between science and religion would generally come from someone with a background in science. As per the comments on Abraham, this person should have at least the basic understanding to conceptualize and define what is revealed to them.

    2) In a hierarchal model such as that in our church, revelation (for the church) only flows from the top down. This seems to necessarily imply that any new insight into science and religion could only come as a proclamation from above.

    Thus the impasse. It seems that things now are in contrast to the first century of our faith, when church leaders used gospel insights to help answer fundamental questions in the scientific world as well (ie. Smith, Pratts, Talmage, Widsoe, etc.) Talks for the past decades have been much more bland and less definitive.

    Even books purporting to correlate science and the LDS religion tend to fall in one of 2 camps: science conflicts with revealed truth, so the religion must be wrong (ie. Return to Eden, etc.), or else science conflicts with revealed truth, so scientists are deceived by the devil (numerous other ones, either subtly or overtly).

    Perhaps this whole point is moot. Perhaps the point is not to answer these questions, but instead focus on how we should act. But I would still really like some of these questions addressed.

    Does anyone ever think that this will happen in our more modern version of the LDS faith, and if so, by what mechanism that might have any chance of being accepted by the church in general?

  23. Velikiye Kniaz says:

    RE: Paradox # 4
    I am intrigued by your comment that Joseph Smith never published the rest of the Pearl of Great Price because it was too sacred. Where did you hear/read that? If that is indeed the case what happened to the ‘too sacred’ portion? Was it burned? Is it in the Church Archives or the Vault of the First Presidency? Or was it part of the Church records that Emma Smith refused to give to Brigham Young when the Saints headed west? Please specify and document your source(s) for this information so that I can pursue that further. It is of great interest to me if it is so.
    It is true that Paul stated, “Would to God that ye were all prophets” and that may be how the Church survives through the tumult of the last days. Every father becomes a priest and prophet for his own family when persecution will no longer allow the Saints to assemble in larger numbers. Joseph Smith also encouraged the Saints to seek after answers to the mysteries, encouraging us to receive our own Divine answers to matters that perplex and trouble us.
    However, when those personal revelations are received they are for our edification alone because the recipient is not called to teach or preach them to the world. They are meant for our own personal enlightenment and as a further witness of our Faith. So the home teachers were correct as well, there are 15 men who are specifically called to receive revelation for the whole Church. They too, individually, might receive revelation to answer specific concerns and issues that concern them, but they are also bound to keep the Lord’s counsel to themselves until these matters become the concern of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve. It could be that we haven’t, as a Church and people, received more light and knowledge because we haven’t learned to live up to what we now have. That seems to have been the problem with the early Church, especially during the Missouri period, and it could well be the same now.

  24. I have generally come away with an uplifting or broadened view of humanity in most science fiction I enjoy, and I must admit especially in TV and movie sci-fi. That is why I feel enhanced in my faith by sci-fi. I guess you’d sum up my experience with sci-fi as being escapist; I escape this pitifully human world with it’s heart of darkness and hie to places unknown where good triumphs and diverse groups of species are accepted and needed and understood. Now that I think about it, I am real depressed over the narrow mindedness in my religion, a religion full of basketball courts and tied down to an antique view of the world.

  25. Natalie B. says:

    #4 and #23 – It is my understanding that the Book of Abraham was published serially and that, in contrast to how he handled the golden plates, JS showed many of the scrolls to visitors. I think that that it became a standard work after it had cirulated in the mission field for a while.

    To be very open about why I have a hard time knowing what to call the Book of Abraham, since there is a lot of consensus that the fragments that survive do not match JS’s translation, it currently makes the most sense for me to think about the scrolls that lead to the Book of Abraham as an opportunity for JS to creatively think about his relationship to God, perhaps in an inspired context. But the history of these scrolls is sufficiently confusing that I am not quite sure what to make of them and I don’t pretend to know to what extent these were revelations. I’m just refraining from taking any definitive stance on them. I’d love for people with more knowledge to share.

  26. I think the key to good LDS science fiction is to hit one of the key points that Joseph Smith taught regarding the creation, etc.
    It is God’s work/progression to create order out of chaos. The battle between these two, whether it is in Card’s outer space battle field run by video game enthusiasts, or the current battle between Christ and Satan, the battle between chaos and order goes on. Perhaps the biggest struggle is found within us.
    We see this in many sci-fi/fantasy stories, as well. The struggle in Twilight between romantics from different worlds is one example. Perhaps one of the best examples of internal turmoil would be from the Lord of the Rings movies, where Gollum/Smeagol struggles with himself to determine whether chaos or order will win the day.

  27. Best LDS-themed Sci-Fi I have seen in the past 24 hours is from Dune:

    Give as few orders as possible…Once you’ve given orders on a subject, you must always give orders on that subject.

    Compare to D&C 58:26:

    For behold, it is not meet that I should command in all things; for he that is compelled in all things, the same is a slothful and not a wise servant; wherefore he receiveth no reward.

  28. I love science fiction for it’s ability to transcend our current lives and explore “what if” on a much grander and more expansive stage. I too have found much about religion in the science fiction I have read, and find it to be an interesting vehicle for examining character, morals, and our perceptions of reality. When you think about it, religion deals with the same kinds of issues as much science fiction. What is our relationship to the universe? What is the nature of faith?

    A couple of common themes that I enjoy in speculative fiction are the end of the world scenarios that are often played out in fiction (rarely in Hollywood movie versions, though). How do people react when threatened with the end of existence as we know it? What is honor and morality, and what exists beyond the finite we can experience with our five senses? Dave Wolverton, writing as David Farland, has a fascinating look at morality, stewardship, and economy in his Runelords series, where individuals take “endowments” of strength, beauty, health, and other things from others, but then are duty bound to protect them in their weakened states.

    Eternal lives also get played out in science fiction, such as Ender’s several thousand year life extended because of interstellar travel in Card’s Ender’s Game/Speaker for the Dead series, or some of the characters in Alistair Reynolds space operas (Revelation Space, Chasm City).

    I think it is interesting that so many science fiction or fantasy writers are LDS. I think it is an indication of the infinite nature our view of life and eternity allows us to imagine new narratives and ideas.

    Great post, Natalie. Sorry I am late to it, but work has been more important than blogging the last few days.

  29. Orson Scott Card’s work deals with Mormon themes a great deal. Two books in particular are very Mormon.

    The Worthing Saga (or Worthing Chronicles depending on the edition you find) is a speculative examination of many Mormon concepts in a sci-fi setting. It looks at the origin of God and Gods, the purpose of suffering, the origin of ceremonies such as the endowment, and more. Of course this is done in a way that is non-obvious to those not of our faith. I found this an interesting way to publish ideas about things that we often don’t discuss at all.

    Another early work of his Treason (sometimes A Planet Called Treason) also is very Mormon and has a memorable baptismal scene which is unlike any baptism you’ve ever attended.

    Both of these books were originally written early in his career. He’s since revised them. In my mind the Worthing stories are his master-work. Many of his later works echo themes that he originally introduced in Worthing. Oddly, I find that book to be much more deeply “mormon” than his series dealing directly with Book of Mormon characters (in space!) or with Joseph Smith (as a frontier wizard) though on the surface the mormoness isn’t as obvious.

    Though the Ender and Bean books seem to be his most popular, in my mind Worthing is his best, followed by Pastwatch.

  30. StillConfused says:

    #6 -thanks. I always thought it was a typo for hike

  31. Eric Swedin says:

    I strongly recommend reading John Gee, William J. Hamblin, and Daniel C. Peterson, “‘And I Saw the Stars’: The Book of Abraham and Ancient Geocentric Astronomy,” in John Gee and Brian M. Hauglind, editors, Astronomy, Papyrus, and Covenant (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University, 2006). They advocate the notion that chapter 3 of the Book of Abraham is geocentric, from Abraham’s historical perspective, not some heliocentric or current-day cosmological universal perspective.

    As for SF and religion: the science fiction field is filled with speculation about religion, what it means to advance in knowledge, and what it means to be human. A SF work does not have to explicitly address religion in order to give us deep religious insights.

  32. I agree that science fiction in totality is full of religious themes. Card’s work, specifically Folk of the Fringe, was important in giving me a view of Mormonism that made me want to partake. I think Mormonism is the most science-friendly religion there is, and so it makes sense that it is the most science-fiction-friendly as well.

    Science fiction is not a narrow genre, for those of you who don’t read it. It’s actually a whole lot more wide open than mainstream literature, because it allows for the story to take place in times and places and societies that aren’t limited to only earth now or in history. Science fiction is much broader than that. It can take place in any history that can be imagined. The science part just means that the rules, as opposed those of fantasy, require that everything in the story must make sense, obey reasonable laws, and hang together as being realistic.

    In the very same way that travel gives us a better more complete view of our own home society and customs, science fiction can give us a whole view of our species, planet, and time in history. I find it to be heartier brain food than mainstream fiction.

    My view of Mormon theology is basically scientific. If I wrote how it see things in our religious worldview, I would publish it as science fiction. And hopefully, like the best science fiction, it would also contain much of the truth.

  33. One thing I want to recommend to anyone who loves science fiction and contemplating the ultimate nature of reality is the work of Jorge Luis Borges. He has this amazing way of telling a story that’s set in some timeless age either in deep history or else just a culture we’ve never heard of, and as the story goes on, our minds follow into weirder and weirder places until at the end we suddenly realize he’s talking about us here now, and we see the place as if for the first time. It’s not a cheap parlor trick, as it sounds from my description, he just sees farther into the nature of reality than most of us can see. And his writing is able to take us there too. I kept hearing references to his stories (which are all quite short) from physicists, philosophers, etc. so I finally decided I had to read him. He writes some amazing deep stuff. Please check him out! And please email me if you do, and let me know what you think of him. I’m at thetatiana AT gmail DOT com. I’d love to discuss him with someone.

  34. Tatiana, here’s a second for Jorge Luis Borges! Yes, yes, yes!