Theology and Science Fiction by James McGrath (Cascade Books, 2016)
Reviewed by Suzannah Rowntree
What, if anything, do faith and science have to say to each other? The question goes back at least as far as the medieval struggle to harmonise Aristotelian natural philosophy with the teaching of Scripture, but Theology and Science Fiction by James McGrath (Cascade Books, 2016) seeks to explore the question in the arena of storytelling.
McGrath argues that “to treat theology and science fiction as having nothing to say to one another is to suggest that either science or religion has nothing useful to contribute to humanity’s future.” So far so good, and to those who believe that God is sovereign not only of our religious beliefs but also of scientific progress and fictional speculation, McGrath’s understanding of science fiction as a way for believers to explore theological ramifications of scientific progress comes as a breath of fresh air.
McGrath is at his best when demonstrating the myriad ways in which science fiction might bring us to grips with theological questions, beyond a simplistic approach which looks for obvious Christ figures or death-and-resurrection motifs. However, despite this declared thesis, it is not the book’s main focus, and the argument is overwhelmed throughout by the author’s problematic understanding of theology as a discipline.
“Some,” McGrath declares in his third chapter, “mistakenly believe that theology offers timeless and unchanging truths.” Throughout the book, his main concern is to refute any idea of theology as an approach to absolute truth. Even the most conservative Christian with a cursory knowledge of church history knows that what a given person or institution believes will inevitably change and develop over the course of his or its lifetime. But for most believers, the point of this journey is to arrive at the truth: Christ himself encouraged us to seek, and we will find.
McGrath, however, insists that absolute truth cannot be found and should not be sought. Theology is an evolutionary, dialectic process meant not to discover truth but to foster broad-mindedness. In any relation of science fiction to theology, “the ideal…is for theology and sci-fi to engage in conversation as equal partners, working towards integration.” McGrath’s aim, even in the most dire and pertinent questions of ethics and personhood, is not “pat answers”, but “raising questions”. But while anyone can agree that some ethical dilemmas are not easily answered, a principled Christian facing end-of-life decisions or an ectopic pregnancy cannot afford to spend indefinite time in genteel questioning. An answer, pat or not, is required.
“Theological science fiction challenges the overconfidence of some sci-fi and some theology that scientism or religious dogma has all the answers, or at least the ultimate and most important ones,” McGrath concludes. It might seem strange to make such a claim without taking time to consider the dogmatism of Christian sci-fi authors such as CS Lewis, Madeleine L’Engle, or Walter M Miller, Jr – but in the end, although it contains some insights that may be valuable to those who have never thoughtfully consumed science fiction media, this book is not foundationally about science fiction at all. Like many previous attempts to resolve the tension between faith and science, it is really about epistemology.
Suzannah Rowntree is a novelist, book reviewer and blogger in rural Victoria, Australia.