Science Fiction and Racial Justice: Olaf Stapledon's Secular Christology

“By simply ignoring the failures of his prophetic imagination, Clarke reminds me irresistibly of those Christians who have been convinced that the apocalypse was just around the corner (just as the gospels claim that Jesus promised some two millennia ago), despite the fact that this prophecy has been failing over and over again for centuries. The fact that technology has failed time and again to live up to its promises, like so many religious prophecies, that it has failed to bring about greater social and economic equity, something we were promised would happen with the arrival of the printing press, the steam engine, the railroad, electricity, the telegraph, photography, the cinema radio, television, the personal computer, and, most recently, the Internet (or Web 2.0, which was to save us – again – from the inequities of the earlier technologies), is in itself interesting.

What is more interesting, at least in the context of religious prophecy, is how immune this belief in technological salvation is to historical realities and the complexity of human culture.”
from Alan Smithee: The Failure of Scientific Prophecy

Science Fiction And Racial Justice Series so far:

Science Fiction and Racial Justice: An Introduction

Racial Justice and Science Fiction: Joss Whedon As Prison Abolitionist

Racial Justice and Science Fiction: C.S. Lewis As AntiColonial Subversive

C.S. Lewis wrote his science fiction novels in response to Wellstianity, or the religious philosophy of H.G. Wells, which was the deification of humanity through scientific progress; specifically the achievement of space travel would mean that humanity had attained ascendency into the realm of transcendence (Lewis’s interpretation). The author whose works infuriated Lewis so much that he felt like he needed to do science fiction was writer and philosopher Olaf Stapledon and his text, Last and First Men. By trade Stapledon was an ethicist and philosopher, even publishing a textbook on the subject. He was a committed pacifist, and we all know that C.S. Lewis despised pacifism, and even made lengthy (and severely flawed) cases against it [linked here]. So, the Irishman Lewis was already biased against Britishman Stapledon to begin with. Stapledon did serve with Quakers during the first World War, manning military hospitals, but Olaf did not have any religious commitments, really. He considered himself spiritual, and an agnostic.

The text I will be looking at from Stapledon is his profoundly prophetic, Last And First Men, a discourse on race, empire, and technological progress disguised as a science fiction novel. Lewis considered LAFM to be the Devil’s handiwork. If that were only so true, I would be wasting my time here, but Stapledon has a rather interesting Christology, born out of the particularity of his white British experience (which he is very open about). The premise from the first pages is that all of the world’s nations fail when they start to sin against Socrates and Christ (page 17). Socrates is the embodiment of dispassionate intelligence/intellectual integrity while Jesus of Nazareth personfies the integrity of the will, will-power, i.e., self-control. The Jews’ gift of the Decalogue provides humanity with the model of Hebrew worship, one that is self-oblivious and passionate, enabling human beings to “delight in actual human persons,” and living in unselfish love.

Stapledon goes on to satirize the European situation before World War I; replacing the historical German with Italy, and the real Britain with France (the party of peacemakers). The Germans Italians found a new national pride, but things erupted worldwide when a “French African soldier” had sexual relations with an Englishwoman (20). France, out of fear, becomes more and more militarize, with their citizens being unable to love their country dispassionately (sinning against Socrates). Britain responds with its own gathering of weapons, but cannot control itself (sinning against Christ). Stapledon in a not so subtle way is arguing that the racist empire building that lead up to World War One  were violations of Socrates’ aim of unbiased thinking and honesty of mind and speech, as well as Jesus’ aim of self-control (a New Testament theological virtue).

America in LAFM is the cult of the powerful individual, “increasingly hostile to critical intelligence” and whose very identity is shaped by the Civil War (41). The American business titan was a member of the Elect, and the ‘Parable of the Talents’ was made the cornerstone of education.  The Daughter of Man, a New Eve for a mechanized New Creation, consummates her relationship with the American dream, as the cross is refashioned into an aeroplane, a symbol of the new faith. The new American empire’s favorite ritual involves a dance, with a Negro athlete trying to out run a lynch mob. If he wins, he gets to live (66-67). How different is that from black males’ options of choosing either professional sports or prison today?

What Olaf Stapledon recognized was that Europeans’ blind faith in technological and human progress meant them remaining blind to histories of racial and economic oppression, as Smithee put it, an immunity to historical realities and the complexity of human cultures.  Would a contemporary Christology advocate obsessing over everything that Apple Computers showcases? Perhaps an adaptation of Stapledon’s Secular Christology would mean a prophetic criticism of all computer companies that abuse the rights of child-labor in the 2/3rd’s World, or a proposal for a dispassionate appropriation of SmartPhones and E-Readers may seem subversive in confronting neo-colonial economic empire, no?

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