Transcendent Outsiders, Alien Gods, and Aspiring Humans: Literary Fantasy and Science Fiction as Contemporary Theological Speculation

Thumbnail Image
Issue Date
Calvey, Ryan
The Graduate School, Stony Brook University: Stony Brook, NY.
This dissertation argues that mainstream discourse on theology and morality often fails to explore the value and credibility of different theological approaches and the possibility of moral evolution and that, as a result, we need to pay more attention to arenas which allow for deeper speculation about theology and morality. Following an observation by Margaret Atwood, I argue that one such space within literature is literary science fiction and fantasy. In my first chapter, I argue that, while some science fiction merely echoes the limitations of mainstream debate, the genres can creatively explore theological questions because, like myth and theology, they contextualize known existence and voice what I call transcendent outsiders, beings who are superior to humans and provide critical and comforting outside perspectives. In the second and third chapters, I draw on the work of writers such as Carl Jung, Brenda Denzler, and Linda DǸgh on alien beings as spiritual/theological figures to argue that a range of narratives and films, such as The Day the Earth Stood Still and Carl Sagan's Contact, present aliens as godlike transcendent outsider figures in ways that explore, endorse, or critique various theological conceptualizations: in chapter two, the judgmental, punishing god figures of much ancient myth and traditional religion; in chapter three, more loving, peaceful god figures echoing Eastern and New Age theological concepts and progressive spirituality. In chapter four, I argue that science fiction and fantasy also contextualize by depicting what I call aspiring human figures, a kind of flipside of transcendent outsiders which allows us to explore human identity and morality and, by positioning us as gods, theology. I assert that in his Wizard Knight and Short Sun series, Gene Wolfe uses an array of aspiring humans to raise deep questions about human identity, morality, and theology and to present hierarchical Christian solutions. I conclude by suggesting both a fresh approach to theology that emphasizes the need for imaginative, open-minded speculation about transcendence that goes beyond the limitations of the mainstream debate and an increased recognition of the value of science fiction and fantasy as literary arenas in which important, creative theological speculation is occurring.