My Five-Minute Essay on Hello Horatio

Hello Horatio is a brand-new website featuring a lot of short essays on this or that, with the common thread being an interest in saying something personal about the deeper meanings of life, and generally sharing our stories. The name Horatio comes from the line in Hamlet: “There is more in heaven and earth, Horatio, than is dreamt of in your philosophy.”

The unstated (at least so far) goal of the site is to encourage open conversations among people of faith, of different faiths, of secular faith, or of no faith at all—in short, to quit worrying about how we label ourselves or each other, and to share what we think about things that matter. I chose to share why I find science fiction to be such an important way of thinking about life and my place in it. It’s called “A Fine View of the Universe,” and here’s how it starts…

“A few years ago, a new remake of an old TV show hit the airwaves and created quite a stir. The show was Battlestar Galactica, and its arrival in the form of a four-hour miniseries signaled a creative breakthrough…” [read more]

I was a little startled to see that my daughter also has a piece just up, called “A Car Accident Rescued Me from My Wrong Life.” It starts…

“I’m so glad I got hit by a car…” [read more]

Surely that should get your attention. Take a look at some of the other essays while you’re there. They’re all short, and pretty interesting.

Writing as an Act of Faith

As I said in my last two posts, I’m on a writing retreat to work on The Reefs of Time. There’s an interesting faith component to this retreat. While the act of writing is almost by definition a leap of faith (Will this book I’m spending years writing actually turn into something good?) there’s a little more to it this time. As part of my church’s annual Leap of Faith experiment during Lent, I have been praying for a creative breakthrough, and also in particular that my writing wouldn’t just sell, but would touch readers in meaningful and uplifting ways. I mean, really, if it doesn’t do that, is it worth all the work and mental anguish? (Yes, aspiring writers, sometimes it definitely feels like anguish.)

Well, on my first night I settled into a comfortable chair with my laptop, in front of a crackling fire (I have a really nice room at this B&B), to begin writing new material. Not moving stuff around, not taking notes, but doing the hard thing: new stuff. No sooner was I settled in than an email came in. Really, I should have been ignoring emails at that point, but I caught out of the corner of my eye, in the little notification window, something about The Infinity Link. Now, The Infinity Link was one of my early novels, not much noticed nowadays, but in my writing career it was a breakthrough novel in many ways. (Not the least of the ways was that it started small, grew large, and took me bloody forever to write—not unlike the book I’m writing now.)

So I read the email. It was from a reader new to my work. He’d found The Infinity Link in a used bookstore a while back, and read it. He’d just read it again, this time via the Audible audiobook. And he was writing to tell me how profoundly the story and some of its images had touched him—and he just wanted to let me know, and to thank me for writing the book!

Before answering the email, I sat there for a few moments, dumbfounded. I don’t know how you would take it, but that sure felt like an answer to prayer to me.

The writing came easier for the rest of that night.

Heaven and Science

My friend Rich Bowker posted an interesting examination of a Newsweek cover story entitled… well, let me quote Rich:

So Newsweek has a cover story called Proof of Heaven: A Doctor’s Experience With the Afterlife. It’s a pretty standard near-death experience story, with a couple of twists: it’s told by a neurosurgeon, and it took place during a coma during which his brain supposedly wasn’t functioning:

There is no scientific explanation for the fact that while my body lay in coma, my mind—my conscious, inner self—was alive and well. While the neurons of my cortex were stunned to complete inactivity by the bacteria that had attacked them, my brain-free consciousness journeyed to another, larger dimension of the universe: a dimension I’d never dreamed existed and which the old, pre-coma me would have been more than happy to explain was a simple impossibility.

read Rich’s whole post

Rich goes on to cite a rebuttal in Huffington Post by physicist and vocal atheist Victor Stenger.

Because I cannot leave well enough alone, I decided to chime in. And here’s the comment I left on Rich’s blog:

After reading both the Newsweek article and the Stenger “rebuttal” of it, I’d have to say I find both pieces of writing wanting for rigor. Dr. Alexander’s piece is interesting and provocative, but, to be sure, not “proof” of anything except that he had an extraordinary personal experience. Was his experience a glimpse of an objectively real extra-dimensional existence? It seemed so to him. You call it “pretty standard-issue stuff for near-death experience (NDE) stories,” which it is. But you can’t discount the possibility that the reason it’s standard issue is because many people have glimpsed the same otherworldly view, and it’s actually real. (It could also be because that’s the sort of image that the brain circuitry produces under certain stressful conditions.)

Bottom line, I don’t know any way the rest of us can know if it was real or not, nor is it clear to me how–even theoretically–one could scientifically study his particular case, unless there turned out to be EEG recordings or something that could shed light, perhaps by recording a burst of brain activity at some crucial point. Even that wouldn’t really prove anything. So we’re left with the evidence of his subjective experience, which I would say is not without value, but also not a smoking gun. One wishes he had asked those questions about alternative explanations. Maybe he does, in his book.

So Stenger asked the questions for him. And if you wonder if Stenger has a dog in this race*, it’s instructive to look at the titles of some of his books: God: The Failed Hypothesis. How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist and God and the Folly of Faith: The Incompatibility of Science and Religion — neither of which fills me with confidence about his objectivity on the question. He dismisses Alexander’s account as “the classic argument from ignorance,” and goes on about the “God of the gaps” view, but I don’t think that’s a fair characterization of Alexander’s account at all. In fact, I don’t find Stenger’s argument at all more objective than Alexander’s. Stenger has a clear axe to grind, and Newsweek and Alexander give him an easy target by claiming “proof of Heaven” when what Alexander has is powerful experiential evidence (powerful to him) that cannot easily be tested.

You’re right; it’s not proof of Heaven–any more than science shows that God does not exist. Both claims go way beyond the bounds of science.

What to do? Maybe SF has something interesting to say on the subject. Oh wait–it does. Connie Willis’s novel Passage.

*I seem to recall that Stenger was one of the authors I complained about in my own critique of the New Scientist’s “God Issue” last Spring. I complained because he presented very little science, but did so in a most authoritative voice. And I have to say, the more I read and think on the subject, the more convinced I become that the scientists who speak most authoritatively on questions of philosophy and theology seem to be the ones who fail to recognize when they’ve stepped out of bounds of science.

Will It All End in Gloom and Doom? (or) What Kind of Writer Am I, Anyway?

Every once in a while, if you’re any kind of artist, I think it’s good to reflect on the question of what you’re trying to bring to the world.

I got an email the other day from a reader of The Chaos Chronicles. This fellow—let’s call him Q—had read and enjoyed the first four books (bless him), and was wondering about the next one, which I’m currently writing. Q wanted to know if I was intending to follow the path of other once-favorite writers who had let him down, saying:

“One class of authors have determined that you are not a professional writer unless you rip your heroes to shreds in the end.  [My once favorite] author subscribed to that theory and turned [his] protagonists into really rotten people ready to kill each other.” Was I planning, he wondered, to do something like that with my characters—and if so, could I let him know now, so he could save himself the trouble of reading my next book? 

Although I might not put it in such stark terms, I’ve noticed a similar trend in current entertainment. I can’t count the number of times I’ve read about the upcoming season of a TV show, or a sequel in a movie series, promising: “This next one will be darker. You’ll lose some people you love.” Examples include even comic book fare such as the Batman movies, and Superman (both in film and in TV’s Smallville). And I just recently read that we can count on the next Avengers movie being “darker.” Darker is better, so often goes the thinking. Frankly, I’m not a big fan of the trend. I don’t find it all that entertaining, or a particularly wonderful world view; and when it’s done just for the sake of being dark and not for sound storytelling reasons, I don’t see it as necessarily contributing much to the human endeavor.

Not that darkness is never warranted, or is always wrong. There are great tragedies, obviously. (Though on balance, I’m way more drawn to humor than to tragedy.) But in SF terms, take BSG, with which I was peripherally involved as a novelist. That certainly went dark and gritty, plumbing the depths of its primary characters’ pain. It was so well done, and for the most part justified psychologically, that I kept with it (though my daughter dropped out of watching it, saying enough is enough). Certainly there was realism in it: If your race has been nearly exterminated, and you with the final remnant are being pursued across space by an implacable enemy, things will probably get pretty dark. At the same time, there’s a fine line that divides dramatic exploration from wallowing, and at times I felt BSG sheared pretty close to that line.

So how did I answer Q?  Here’s what I said, more or less:

“I do not subscribe to the school of thinking that all roads lead to misery, or that all good characterization leads to corruption and degradation. Quite the opposite, in fact. I have viewed the journey of my characters as being one of growth and maturity. Obviously there’s sacrifice.  But if there isn’t a sense of hope and redemption at the end of the story, you have my permission to shoot every one of my characters and put them out of their misery. I don’t promise no pain, loss, or grief. But if something good doesn’t come out of the pain and loss, then I’m not doing my job as a writer, as I see it—which is to bring a ray of light into the world.  I do not want the reader to feel depressed at the end of one of my books.  Sad maybe, grieving at a loss maybe, but never dark or depressed. Uplifted, preferably.”

Think the end of The Lord of the Rings. There’s a kind of ending I aspire to.

Why do I feel this way? If I said it was because I think uplifting is better than down-dragging, healthier for life and better for us as an audience and as a planet, that would be true. If I said it was because I think God gave me some talent as a writer so that I could bring a little more light and life into the world, hope rather than despair, that would be true. If I said it was because those are the kinds of stories I want to read, that would be true.

So take your pick, whichever works best for you. They’re all me.

The Last Day

For the last day of my writing retreat, I opted to spend the afternoon at the Cape Cod National Seashore. Communing with the ocean where the waves meet the shore has always been, for me, a great way to center my thoughts and find perspective. A great way to remember that I am something small (not unimportant, but small) in a reality much greater. A great place to listen for the whispers of God.

When I’m away from the ocean, I forget how beautiful it is! And today I found possibly the greatest beauty in a place I’d seen before—stopped and looked at briefly before—but never taken the time to walk around and absorb. That’s the salt marsh estuary behind the National Seashore Visitors Center.

There’s something about the peacefulness of a salt marsh that’s almost spiritual. It’s God-breathed, teeming with life, a biologist’s dream, and a remarkable buffer between land and sea that has elements of both. Grass, fish, birds, amphibians, fresh water and salt, the open ocean just beyond the protective spit of sand. You can almost close your eyes and see the millions of years of geologic change and biological evolution that brought you this place of quiet ferment, this thing of beauty that helps clean the sea and protect its young, and at the same time shields the land from the sea’s fury. On this occasion I didn’t see any charismatic birds or other animals, but in quiet contemplation I did feel the hint of divinity, and of the deep works of time.

Interestingly, I also perceived more clearly some things that have been eluding me, details that might well be important to The Chaos Chronicles, and to the story behind The Reefs of Time. In the salt marsh I saw some things I needed to know about the translator (this will make sense only if you’ve read at least one of the books), and even about the enemy that makes life in the galaxy so fraught with danger in this new book. I also realized I probably need to add a couple of new chapters in the next draft, chapters set way back in deep, deep time. So you see, sometimes the quiet, personal times like standing and contemplating the ocean’s edge are exactly what the writer of far-flung futures in space needs. I’m grateful to have had the chance.

Here are a few more pictures. The open ocean over the dunes was pretty wonderful, too.

(And considering that I was holding my cellphone camera at arm’s length and aiming blind, I thought the “self portrait of the artist” came out pretty well.)

Blue Ocean Summit

This week I attended my first Blue Ocean Summit. This is a conference sponsored by, a group that got its start at my own church, and now brings together faith leaders and interested individuals from all over the country (and I think at least one person from Ireland). The focus of the group is to explore new ways of approaching faith within the secular world, in a way that leads to conversation and listening, rather than preaching and selling. What drew me in particular was a focus on the arts, and how the arts might help to catalyze thoughtful conversations about faith, spirituality, and secular culture. The conference was held at our church.

Several program items were of special interest to me. One of the invited speakers was the writer Andre Dubus III (House of Sand and Fog and Townie: A Memoir), a riveting speaker who makes no bones about the fact that he regards religion as bullshit and the Catholic Church he grew up in as irredeemably corrupt. At the same time, in describing some of the events of his life, he remarked on a nudge from “the Divine” that got him started writing one night. He also retold an event (described in Townie) that occurred on a blacker night, when a terrible dream seemed to presage his coming death as a result of his own violent nature. His desperate attempt to find something to read in the lightless room to take his mind off the dream led to his being able to make out just three words in the darkness, as though lit by a splinter of light: “Love one another.” He had picked up his wife’s pocket New Testament in the dark. That stayed with him, along with the dream, and marked a turning point in how he dealt with potentially violent situations soon after. (It didn’t alter his views about religion, but he noted the seeming contradiction with charming humor.)

A second point of interest was a talk by a Vineyard pastor from Minnesota about churches’ relationships with the GLBT community. His thesis in a nutshell: Do people of faith really want to be in the business of judging people instead of welcoming them? How does gay marriage conceivably threaten hetero marriage—especially when among Evangelicals, the divorce rate is over 50%? And does the Bible even address the question of monogamous gay relationships? (Arguably not. Close examination of the generally quoted passages suggests that they quite possibly were condemning temple prostitution and abusive sex, rather than loving relationships.) Perhaps more to the point, reasonable people can disagree on these questions without making them a litmus test on whether one is “in” or “out.” Indeed, the whole notion of “in” or “out” is antithetical to the building of a healthy and supportive community.

The third, and most entertaining, event was a stage reading by a team of local actors of the play Revolutionary, written by our own pastor Dave Schmelzer. To my surprise it was a science fiction play, involving baseball players, time travel, and Visigoths and Huns. It was funny, engaging, thought-provoking, and a delight to watch. On some levels, it did exactly what I try to do on some levels: It talked about faith without being even remotely religious, in the form of an entertaining story with engaging characters. Dave asked afterward how people thought it might speak to the question of faith intersecting with popular culture. My wife Allysen offered what I thought was the best comment: “It made us friends. It made us laugh together so we could start the conversation as friends.”

That in itself was a fine summary note to the conference, I thought.

New Scientist and God

New Scientist is my favorite magazine, where science is concerned. They cover lots of cool science, and even have a science fictional streak I admire. But when they venture into questions of God, faith, and religion, they invariably leave me frustrated and disillusioned. The editors approach such questions with such programmatic atheism that any hope for fruitful and open discussion quickly dies. So it was with a certain reluctance that I opened the latest issue: The God Issue: The Surprising New Science of Religion.

Was I greeted by surprising new science? Not really. Did it live up to the promises on the cover? (The idea that launched a thousand civilizations / God’s existence put to the test) Not even close.

The bias was pretty upfront, starting with the headline on the opening editorial:

Know your enemy
The new science of religion tells us where secularists are going wrong

They don’t mean where secularists are going wrong in their evaluation of religious belief, but where they’re going wrong in their efforts to eradicate it. “Religious claims still wither under rational scrutiny and deserve no special place in public life. But it is a call for those who aspire to a secular society to approach it rationally — which means making more effort to understand what they are dealing with.” In other words, know your enemy. And in the opening page to the features section: “Only by understanding what religion is and is not can we ever hope to move on.” By move on, they seem to mean, discard religion for a more enlightened way of thinking.

So we know where they stand.

But what about the articles? They’re a mixed bag. The first, by Justin L. Barrett, is a pretty interesting discussion of how babies and young children learn and develop mental models of “agents” that influence things in the world. There seems to be a built-in predilection for attributing events they see to an “agency,” or a higher power. The thesis here is well summarized by the closing lines: “[Children] have strong natural tendencies toward religion, but these tendencies do not inevitably propel them towards any one religious belief. Instead, the way our minds solve problems generates a god-shaped conceptual space waiting to be filled by the details of the culture into which they are born.” Not a bad article.

It’s followed by several others, including one that discusses how religions may have helped create social structures that brought us out of the Stone Age. I’m not sure I learned much from it, but it wasn’t a bad article, either. The collection hits its low point, however, with “The God Hypothesis,” by Victor J. Stenger, which proposes to discuss the existence or nonexistence of God by reference to empirical evidence. No empirical evidence is offered, however.  What we get instead is a warmed-over collection of statements that this or that aspect of theology has been tested and found wanting. A feel-good piece for atheists: no actual information, no details about what studies have been done or how they were designed. Finally, there’s a discussion of the position of Alain de Botton that atheists ought to seek out and adopt the “useful bits” of religion, such as ritual gatherings for the purpose of community building. Fine by me, but not exactly news. Haven’t the Unitarians been doing this for quite a while now?

Personally, I’m agnostic on the question of whether God’s existence can be proven or disproven by science, or by logic. Most people I know who believe in God do so because of personal experience, personal encounters that have little to do with abstract logical constructions. (Or in my own case, the logical questioning had to bring me to the point of saying, “Okay, this is possible.” And then the experiential part began.) When you’ve had that kind of experience, the question of “proof” starts to seem tedious and irrelevant. But that doesn’t mean I think science should stop looking. 

I think the real problem with this particular publication is that the editors, who so excel in other areas of science journalism, are blind to their own biases about the relationship between science and religion. They keep writing as though they’ve got the whole thing covered, yet seem clueless about what the actual religious experience is. If they could let go—just for once—of the notion that religion is their enemy, perhaps they could genuinely explore questions such as the role faith plays (or does not play) in mental health, or healing, or personal development, or community building, or intellectual inquiry. I’d even be happy if they could, without demonizing, examine why some religious movements (such as certain conservative Christian streams in the U.S.) so resolutely obstruct the input of science in public policy. I agree this is happening, and it’s bad; I disagree with the assumption that religious belief per se is the problem. They might even spend some time talking to scientists who are also people of faith, and see what we can learn about how some pretty rational people integrate those two modes of thought.

Maybe these questions don’t belong primarily in a science magazine, though I don’t see why not. But I do wish the editors of New Scientist would recognize that what they’re putting in the mag now isn’t so much science as dogma pretending at science.

Maybe the true enemy isn’t religion, but intellectual prejudice.


The Gay Community and the Church

I haven’t stirred anyone up about questions of religion and faith lately. Maybe it’s time. The occasion is a sermon I just listened to online, called “Homosexuality and Churchgoing,” (direct mp3 link here, found on this page) by Dave Schmelzer of the Boston Vineyard. Normally I would have heard it in person, but I was away that Sunday. Dave says that as a pastor at a large, urban church, the most common question he is asked is, What’s your church’s position on gay and lesbian issues?  His standard answer is, “We don’t take a position, but we’d love to have a conversation.” And he means it.

In this talk, he takes the unusual approach (for a pastor who I think would characterize himself as evangelical) of saying, Maybe the most important question here isn’t what we think the Bible says specifically about homosexuality (interpretations vary widely), but rather how can we talk to each other about these things, and listen to each others’ stories in a helpful and respectful way. He talks a lot about a “centered set” perspective on faith generally: not the you’re in or you’re out view of what we could call “bounded set” thinking, but rather, What is the common center toward which we are all striving to move? If you’re looking for a church position on GLBT issues, you won’t find him taking one here. But if you’d like to hear a pastor thinking outside the customary evangelical box, you might find it interesting. He also writes on the subject, and here’s one of his posts on centered set thinking.

Dave has an earlier talk online in which, addressing a large group of church leaders, he more specifically looks at what the Bible’s take is on the question of homosexuality. Again, he’s not there to try to lay down prescriptions or doctrines, even among leadership types. Instead, I think he does a creditable job of putting the various views on the subject into perspective, with a bottom line of: Talk to each other. And listen. (Here’s a direct link to the talk, but it’s found on this page under “Are You [meaning, your church] Gay Friendly?”)

Provocative stuff, in a good way.