Fear and the spiritual realism of Octavia Butler's Earthseed.
A crumbling social order where violence and cruelty spring from fear is the predominant dystopian condition. The emergence of intolerant religious movements in response, movements that promise deliverance but bring new forms of authoritarian rule, is also a staple of the dystopian novel. What is rare is to imagine an alternative religious response to fear and alienation. This is perhaps the most important achievement of Octavia Butler's Parable series and one that is often overlooked. Butler's Earthseed is neither a comforting palliative for pain and uncertainty nor a political tool to manufacture workable consensus. Rather, it is a coherent, nondogmatic belief system that reflects many of the essential assumptions and tenets of alternative understandings of Christianity as outlined by writers and theologians such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Marcus Borg, Elaine Pagels, and Parker Palmer.
The contribution of Octavia Butler's fiction to utopian studies is becoming more widely recognized, particularly in the wake of a special issue of Utopian Studies (vol. 19, no. 3) devoted to her work. The Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents provide an especially effective exploration of perennial issues in political philosophy, cultural studies, and psychology. (1) Civil society and the cultural norms that underlay social and political institutions have crumbled. Crime, violence, and addiction are rampant. Environmental degradation and economic collapse have pushed most to roam about the country searching for food, while others take refuge in walled compounds run by corporations whose power is unchecked. The portrait is an all-too-plausible extrapolation of contemporary pressures and the propensity to violence and aggression that is a constant in human societies, and Butler does not provide a conventional or facile resolution. In telling the tale of a fifteen-year-old girl who leaves her walled compound and the traditional religion of her father behind, Butler constructs a narrative that demonstrates courage, resourcefulness, and an unconventional religious commitment, as well as the power and durability of hatred, cruelty, and dogmatic self-righteousness.
Octavia Butler's political realism is grounded in her recognition that fear is a dominant shaper of human thought and behavior. (2) No wonder, then, that religion is at the center of her concerns. As Parker Palmer observes, the core message of all great spiritual traditions is "Be not afraid." (3) The Parable books present two dramatically different responses to fear: the Christian America movement, which exploits it and marries religious dogmatism to political authority, and Earthseed, an alternative faith that seeks to respond creatively, productively, and humanely to overwhelming fear.
As Octavia Butler noted in an interview:
Religion is everywhere. There are no human societies without it, whether they acknowledge it as a religion or not. So I thought religion might be an answer, as well as, in some cases, a problem. And in, for instance, Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents, it's both. So I have people who are bringing America to a kind of fascism, because their religion is the only one they're willing to tolerate. On the other hand, I have people who are saying, well, here is another religion, and here are some verses that can help us think in a different way, and here is a destination that isn't something that we have to wait for after we die. (4)
It seems that Butler was very much aware that putting Earthseed at the center of her realist utopia would prove difficult for many of her readers. Nonetheless, while most commentators appreciate the way Christian America resonates with dogmatic fundamentalism in contemporary society, Earthseed is sometimes regarded as obscure, indecipherable, incoherent, and implausible; This is in part due to the rise of the Christian Right in America, which has obscured faith traditions that reject dogmatism and intolerance and fueled a cottage industry of poorly informed and simplistic renderings of religion in general and Christianity in particular. (6) These works largely see religion as simply a comforting palliative for pain and uncertainty or a political tool to manufacture workable consensus. But Butler's Earthseed is clearly not this--it offers little in the way of material comfort and says almost nothing about the afterlife. Instead, it is a coherent, nondogmatic belief system that represents an alternative Christianity. Just as the Christian America movement reflects the often intolerant and sometimes authoritarian views of conservative Christian groups today, Earthseed reflects many of the essential assumptions and tenets of alternative understandings of Christianity as outlined by writers and theologians such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Marcus Borg, Elaine Pagels, and Parker Palmer. In the Parables, Butler takes pains to help us see religion differently by contrasting Earthseed with an authoritarian fundamentalist movement that, by the second book, has taken advantage of chaos and disorder and wields political power to imprison and murder nonbelievers and followers of Earthseed and to kidnap children to raise them in what are considered proper Christian homes.
Christian America, Monarchical Religion, and the Psychology of Fundamentalism
That religion can have its root in existential fear and that one response to fear is prejudice and us/them thinking that turns opponents into mortal enemies are, of course, well known. Empirical research confirms that religious fundamentalism offers a way to assuage existential anxiety and that fundamentalist beliefs are, in turn, linked to prejudice, intolerance, and authoritarianism. Altemeyer and Hunsberger defined fundamentalism as the belief that there is one set of religious teachings that clearly contains the fundamental, basic, intrinsic, essential, inerrant truth about humanity and deity; that this essential truth is fundamentally opposed by forces of evil that must be vigorously fought; that this truth must be followed today according to the fundamental, unchangeable practices of the past; and that those who believe and follow these fundamental teachings have a special relationship with the deity. (7) Such belief systems provide concrete depictions of the afterlife, and empirical studies have found that fundamentalism provides protection against death-related anxiety. (8) Altemeyer finds that religious fundamentalists tend to have prejudicial attitudes, and Altemeyer and Hunsberger conclude that fundamentalism and authoritarianism are closely related, reporting that about two-thirds of those who score high on measures of right-wing authoritarianism also score high on measures of religious fundamentalism. (9)
The Christian America movement depicts the horrific consequences of such a response to existential anxiety. Politicians such as eventual president Andrew Steele Jarret mobilize support by exploiting the fear engendered by economic collapse, environmental catastrophe, and public disorder, by promising a return to a mythical time when all believed in the same God. Mob violence by cross-bearing zealots targets atheists and those of other beliefs (branded as cultists and witches). As always, Butler's political and psychological realism is in evidence. Politically, it is not always clear how much of the violence, the systematic rapes, and the reeducation camps can be attributed to the president or to rogue elements within the church. Psychologically, some perpetrators are no doubt true believers, some are simply drawn to the pleasures of inflicting pain and violence on others, and others systematically avoid acknowledging what is going on around them. Butler takes particular care to illustrate the latter posture in a morally and psychologically complex way through the character of Marc, Lauren's younger brother. Marc sees his family killed when he is fourteen and endures enslavement and prostitution. The idea that God is Change does not provide him with what he needs to keep an overwhelming sense of vulnerability and fear at bay. Marc simply must believe in an unchanging God who will heal all wounds in the next life, and he can only sustain this belief by ignoring or rationalizing the brutal excesses of Christian America. Butler makes it very difficult to judge Marc too harshly or to dismiss him or our need for a known and secure future where love overwhelms disorder and fear. The defining irony of the series is that such a posture enables the brutalization of others in the name of saving their souls and the soul of the nation. Eventually, Acorn, Earthseed's community, is destroyed, its children are taken and placed in Christian America homes, and its members are enslaved and tortured.
No political theorist has more passionately described how existential fear can lead to violence and war than Thomas Hobbes, but he cannot imagine religion (or anything else for that matter) transforming fear in productive and humane ways. The only solution to war and brutality is secular monarchy and distracting ourselves from our mortality by pursuing the things that we desire. As Ahrensdorf observes, Hobbes is generally hostile to philosophical contemplation and religious experience. He
suggests the wakeful, rational, awareness of the truth of our mortality leads to anxiety without pause and eventually to religious longings and hopes that will, in turn, unleash the miseries of war.... In a certain sense, reason, and therefore our very humanity is a curse, an enemy of our peace and contentment (Leviathan xvii; De Cive 5.5). The goal of the modern Hobbesian state, the goal of peace and security, ultimately requires us to suppress not only our religious hopes and longings but also, to some extent, our very reason. That state that is based on our fear of violent death is based on a forgetting, not only of eternity but also of mortality (Leviathan xii, 63-64). (10)
By contrast, Butler's work reflects an understanding that attempts to contain, eradicate, or distract people from spiritual experiences are, fortunately, doomed by stubborn predispositions of humans in all times and places and that the diverse array of religious beliefs and traditions are not simply a consequence of our individual "fancies, judgments, and passions" but can reflect very different responses to fear, responses that can mitigate or transform existential fear in ways good for both individuals and society.
In Christian America, the righteous path is unambiguously outlined by scripture as interpreted by those in authority; and those who turn from the path must be judged and punished. Christian America reflects what Marcus Borg calls "supernatural theism":
* God exists beyond this fallen world.
* God's judgment determines entry into this other world.
* God's written word describes all the requirements and all we need to know to enter God's Kingdom, and these texts are the primary way of experiencing the sacred.
* God is typically seen as a distant, male, omnipotent lawgiver and judge-a king.
* The primary human problem (sin) is disobedience; therefore this theology often reinforces political domination, male subjugation of women, and dominion over and mastery of nature. (11)
This set of theological precepts often invites and inflames conflict and violence among rival religions, and there is considerable evidence that the psychological foundations of fundamentalism constitute a perennial response to fear. Clinical psychologists have long noted the intense anxieties generated by aspects of ourselves (e.g., selfishness, greed, jealously, sexual desire) that we find unacceptable, what Jung called "the shadow." (12) Daniels explains that the most important ego defenses are repression and projection. Repression involves pushing unacceptable tendencies into the unconscious:
Much more dangerous and potentially evil is the defense mechanism of projection.... [H]ere the unacceptable shadow characteristics are cast out from the self and are perceived as being located in something external--usually other people. Thus, for example, our own unacknowledged anger, hatred, jealously, selfishness or lust are falsely experienced as qualities possessed by another person or group.... This unconscious phantasized projection will generally cause conscious moral devaluation of its object, which in turn leads us to behave towards an innocent person or group in harmful ways.... [T]hese people will be defined and experienced as evil and we will thereby feel consciously justified in the harm that we might cause them.... [I]n this way evil (undeserved harm) is mistakenly seen as good (deserving harm). (13)
The cognitive dissonance between our darker feelings or activities and our preferred image of ourselves has been linked to the creation of racial stereotypes to justify one's privilege or the discrimination or exclusion of others. (14) Most philosophical, historical, and psychological accounts of racial hatred and moral evil emphasize the profound importance of in-group identification--and identification that creates an us that can attribute misfortunes and frustrations to them. (15) Unacknowledged fears and resentments therefore harden into psychological boundaries that become barriers to self-reflection or empathy with those outside one's perceived group (race, cult, nation, religion): "Since every boundary line is also a battle line, here is the human predicament: the firmer one's boundaries, the more entrenched are one's battles. The more I hold onto pleasure, the more I necessarily fear pain. The more I pursue goodness, the more I am obsessed with evil. The more I seek success, the more I must dread failure. The harder I cling to life, the more terrifying death becomes. The more I value anything, the more obsessed I become with its loss. "(16)
This dynamic marks a kind of retreat from engagement with one's full self and from engagement with others, except as categories of persons we see as either friend or foe. The implication for promoting psychological health, of course, is to bring these unconscious feelings and attitudes to conscious awareness and to embrace the sort of psychological realism that Hobbes finds it difficult to understand. This kind of awareness will not eliminate the evil that results from those who have developed a conscious identity and personality structure centered on doing harm to others, (17) but it is essential to the far more common pattern of unacknowledged fears and resentments that drive cruelty. Consider Ahrensdorf's comparison of Hobbes and Thucydides:
Hobbes maintains that human contentment requires us to suppress our awareness of the truth that we are mortal, lest we be "gnawed on by fear of death" (Leviathan xii, 169) whereas Thucydides suggests, most clearly through his own example, that the awareness of mortality and other harsh truths about our nature can constitute the core of a noble and happy life. As his book shows, Thucydides contemplated the horrible things to which our mortal nature exposes us, relentlessly but humanely, with true compassion for his fellow mortals. His account of the plague reveals that Thucydides faced death squarely, without flinching but also without bitterness.... [H]e unobtrusively but unmistakably bears witness to the possibility, and therewith a hope, to which Hobbes never clearly refers or for which he never even allows: the possibility of combining a full, unshrinking awareness of the thought of our mortality with a genuine serenity of spirit and hence the possibility of becoming genuinely reconciled to our moral human nature. (18)
As Ahrensdorf's interpretation of Thucydides demonstrates, this alternative response to fear, this alternative account of psychological well-being, need not be religious, but this kind of reconciliation is an essential component of Earthseed. That such a path is difficult, perhaps even a heroic achievement, is dramatized by Lauren's status as a "sharer" who lives with "hyperempathy syndrome." As a result she cannot escape the pain of others, even when it must be inflicted to ensure one's own survival; nor can she retreat from personally experiencing the capacity for evil by externalizing it and attributing it to others. When Lauren is brutally raped she experiences her own pain and humiliation but also "the wild intense pleasure" of her rapist (Talents 255).
Without having empathy physiologically hardwired, can we feel the fear and pain of others in ways that undercut the moral dualisms that trigger hate and violence? Like Earthseed, alternative Christianities that have often been marginalized by what I have called, following Borg, the monarchical model, offer such a path.
Earthseed: An Alternative Psychology and Theology
The walls of Robledo, Lauren Oya Olamina's childhood community, are a material expression of the psychology of dogmatic fundamentalism in times of crisis. In a recurring nightmare about the destruction of Robledo Lauren hears her stepmother cry out: "How can we live now? They'll break in, they'll kill us all! We must build the wall higher!" (Talents 16). The failure to actively engage the world, the retreat into fearful passivity, dooms the community in which Lauren is raised.
The courage of a fifteen-year-old girl to recognize that no wall can produce a safe and secure separation of good from evil is where Earthseed is born. It is born of both practical/political realism (the walls cannot literally hold out the gangs, and if they could, what kind of life would result?) and psychological realism--retreating from fear is the path of death for individual and community well-being. Earthseed is built on this fundamental insight, expressed in a parable:
Beware. Ignorance Protects itself. Ignorance Promotes suspicion. Suspicion Engenders fear. Fear quails, Irrational and blind, Or fear looms, Defiant and closed. Blind, closed, Suspicious, afraid, Ignorance Protects itself, And protected, Ignorance grows. (Talents 225)
Lauren's reply to her mother's cry of "How can we live now?" is to carefully arrange and execute a plan to move beyond the walls, beyond ignorance, and to engage the world as it is, to face the good and evil that lie beyond its boundaries:
Your teachers are all around you. All that you perceive, All that you experience, All that is given to you Or taken from you, All that you love or hate. Need or fear Will teach you-If you will learn. God is your first and your last teacher. God is your harshest teacher: subtle, demanding, Learn or die. (Sower 251; emphasis added)
"God is Change" is an invitation to respond to fear with creativity, productivity, and compassion. This is possible, as Lauren's experiences have taught her, among those willing to learn from all that they love or hate, need or fear, and among those willing to fully acknowledge and accept suffering and struggle as an inevitable companion to love and happiness.
The rejection of the psychological dualism noted above has its theological expression in traditions that reject the view that God is an omnipotent repository of good who vanquishes evil and judges who will be delivered from pain and who will not. Early on, Butler signals that Lauren will seek theological ground that rejects "big-daddy-God or a big-cop-God or a big-King-God" (Sower 13), and the very last Earthseed entry in the Parable books evokes a consistent theme, that moving beyond this conception of God is moving beyond our adolescence. From the Talents:
We've been children fighting for the full breasts, the protective embrace The soft lap. Children do this But Earthseed is adulthood. (432)
Wilber notes that we typically "handle the problem of good vs. evil by trying to exterminate evil. We handle the problem of life vs. death by trying to hide death under symbolic immortalities"; we assume that "if we could vanquish pain, evil, death, suffering, sickness, so that goodness, life, joy, and health would abound--that, indeed, would be the good life, and in fact, that is precisely many people's ideas of Heaven." (19) But engaging in the "war of opposites" is not only psychologically unhealthy but spiritually depleting. "Heaven" is not, as pop religion would have it, a state of all positives and no negatives but the state of realizing "no opposites."(20) In "The Book of Martha," God tells Martha that utopias are impossible since you cannot put an end to war, cruelty, greed, and revenge without putting an end to humanity. More than once Lauren refers to Earthseed as a set of beliefs that reflect the need for humanity to grow up, to put aside the fear and rage of the adolescent and enter into adulthood, recognizing that "adulthood is both sweet and sad. It terrifies. It empowers" (Talents 432). As Dietrich Bonheoffer wrote from his prison cell in Nazi Germany:
Joy is rich in fears; Sorrow has its sweetness. Indistinguishable from each other They approach us from eternity, Equally potent in their power and terror. (21)
The centrality of pain, suffering, and cruelty to the human experience may impugn the God-as-Caretaker model, but to infer that God is a fiction based on the presence of evil is, as Lauren explains repeatedly, a fundamental mistake. It discounts an alternative conception of God that rejects the idea that redemption means escape from our distress, our fears, and our sins in an eternal world. As Bonhoeffer puts it: "The Christian, unlike the devotees of the redemption myths, has no last line of escape available from earthly tasks and difficulties into the eternal, but, like Christ himself ('My God, why hast thou forsaken me?'), he must drink the earthly cup to the dregs, and only in his doing so is the crucified and risen Lord with him, and he crucified and risen with Christ." (22) From the beginning of the Earthseed books, Lauren has, like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, an unshakable confidence that within the often toxic contents of our earthly cup lies all that is required to "seed ourselves farther and farther from this dying place." Earthseed exists both within us and in our world, and so Lauren insists that the truths of Earthseed "existed somewhere before I found them and put them together. They were in the patterns of history, in science, philosophy, religion, or literature" (Talents 138). (23)
It is important to recognize, however, that Butler is not embracing pantheism, a view that Lauren dismisses as another conception of God that she has discarded, one where "God is another word for nature [and] nature turns out to mean just about anything they happen not to understand or feel control of." Instead, God is Change, "and yet, God is Pliable--Trickster, Teacher, Chaos. Clay. God exists to be shaped. God is Change. This is the literal truth. God can't be resisted or stopped, but can be shaped and focused" (Sower 22). Earthseed reflects not pantheism but panentheism, the idea that "God is the encompassing Spirit; we (and everything that is) are in God. For this concept, God is not a supernatural being separate from the universe; rather, God (the sacred, Spirit) is a nonmaterial layer or level or dimension of reality all around us. God is more than the universe, yet the universe is in God. Thus, in a spatial sense, God is not 'somewhere else' but 'right here.'" (24)
This conception of God as located here and now upends the traditional idea of God existing in or at the end of chronological time as measured by human beings. God is present in all times and places, and so each moment is an opportunity to draw closer to God, just as each moment gives us an opportunity to turn away in fear and denial. Lauren lives, feels, and works in the present because what matters most is taking advantage of each moment to experience God now, rather than preparing for such an experience at the end of time. This is reflected in both of the parables chosen by Butler.
In the parable of the sower, the Kingdom of God is portrayed not as a future reward but as a seed that offers the beginning of a connection to God in the present. Establishing that connection requires fertile soil, and the parable acknowledges Lauren's experience of the way that fear and indifference constitute rocky and sun-scorched earth. Under such conditions, mere exhortations to believe are unlikely to trigger a relationship with God. (25) The parable reinforces the idea that God's Kingdom is not something that we gain later, after hoarding our resources and talents in anticipation of final judgment, but a reality available to us now through creative, collaborative, and imaginative work.
In recent decades the discovery of the "lost Gospels" has helped document the importance of this insight to many early Christians and the largely successful political machinations that defended the monarchical orthodoxy against such a view. In her analysis, Elaine Pagels notes that in the Gospel of Thomas Jesus responds this way to the question "When will the Kingdom come?": "It will not come by waiting for it. It will not be a matter of saying 'Here it is, or There it is.' Rather, the kingdom of the Father is spread out upon the earth and people do not see it." (26) When a skeptical member complains that the only way he knows how to pray is to ask for God's help, Lauren counsels him to pray anyway since "you're the one your words reach and strengthen. You can think of it as praying to that part of God that's within you" (Talents 84).
In summary, what Marcus Borg calls the "spirit model" of Christianity locates God as immanent as well as transcendent--in our consciousness and in our world. Whereas traditional religion locates God beyond this world, the spirit model sees God as both beyond and within our world and ourselves; whereas the monarchical model sees God's written word as an unambiguous guide to what is required to enter his Kingdom, the spirit model believes that God can be experienced in a variety of ways but cannot be fully known; whereas traditional views typically see God as distant, male, and omnipotent, the spirit model often imagines God in nonanthropomorphic terms (wind, breath, rock) or as mother, Abba (intimate father), Sophia (wise woman), or a companion on one's journey to understand god and one's self; whereas the monarchical model sees disobedience as the primary human sin, and therefore has often reinforced political domination, the spirit model sees the primary sin as betrayal of one's relationship with God and others, therefore reinforcing compassion and connectivity; whereas the traditional model focuses on the end of time, the spirit model focuses on the present and the new beginnings possible in each moment. (27) Several aspects of Earthseed, and alternative Christianities that reflect Borg's "spirit model," deserve special attention.
Worshiping God Versus Attending and Acknowledging God
Marcus Borg attributes to John Dominic Crossan the observation that "Heaven is in great shape, Earth is where the problems are," a line one could easily imagine Lauren Olamina using in conversation with her brother Marc, who eventually becomes a minister in Christian America. (28) It is important to note that this is not supplanting religious belief with a simple exhortation to "do unto others"; it is the belief that one actively experiences God through social action and relations with others. As Lauren says: "God is not to be prayed to. Prayers only help the person doing the praying, and then, only if they strengthen and focus that person's resolve. If they are used that way, they can help us in our real relationship with God. They help us to shape God and to accept and work with the shapes God imposes on us. God is power, and in the end, God prevails" (Sower 22). In the Talents Lauren elaborates on this:
Do not worship God Inexorable God Neither needs nor wants Your worship Instead acknowledge and attend God Learn from God. (83)
This idea of partnering with God, rather than simply believing in God, is apparent from the very beginnings of what will eventually become a major religious movement. As Lauren flees the horrors of her home community she encounters much skepticism and many versions of the question "Why would anyone worship your God?" She responds that she hopes no one does: "Earthseed deals with ongoing reality, not with supernatural authority figures. Worship is no good without action" (Sower 197). What comfort Earthseed provides is not that belief will please God and secure favor but that God is "infinitely malleable," and there is "power in knowing that God can be focused, diverted, and shaped by anyone at all" (Sower 197). Individuals participate directly in God through action, and so it is that once Acorn is formed and functioning, those who are drawn to it are not required to profess belief in Earthseed; and then they ask, "What do I need to do to stay?" Lauren replies, "Finish healing first. When you are well enough, work with us. Everyone works here" (Talents 81). As Curtis notes, those willing to share in the benefits and dangers of communal life and assist with the work and the education of the community are invited to become part of the community even if they are deeply skeptical of Earthseed. (29)
It is clear throughout the story of Earthseed, and in other writings, that daily purposeful labor is a spiritual endeavor rather than an obligation to do "good works" to please a distant God who judges our performance. To work is to enter an intimate partnership with God. In a later short story, "The Book of Martha," God's conversation with Martha about social and political change turns to a more personal and emotional initiation of such a partnership. Martha begins the conversations by conceiving of God in ways restricted by her sociocultural experience, as a "twice life-sized bearded man," but she gradually comes to see God not as a remote male authority figure but as a black woman like herself. Indeed she remarks that God looks like her sister--much as the works discovered at Nag Hammadi have Jesus referring to Thomas as "my twin and my true companion." (30) Ultimately, Martha finds that looking at God is like looking in a mirror and that through this relationship she is creating something that is undeniably real--call it the Mystery of the Tuna Salad Sandwich. On impulse she offers God a tuna salad sandwich, and he accepts. Martha "went through the motions of making the best tuna-salad sandwiches she could. Maybe effort counted. She didn't believe for a moment that she was preparing real food or that she and God were going to eat it. And yet, the sandwiches were delicious."" The daily work of Earthseed keeps individuals alive to the divine presence in themselves and in the world, but participating in this spiritual and communal life is also a journey that is not arbitrary but linked to a progressively fuller realization of our purpose and destiny.
Judgment Versus Action
Butler rejects the arrogance and hubris of those who see God as an authority figure whose canonical texts clearly identify the good and the evil, the saved and the damned, and whose requirements must be enforced by judging and punishing others. As Christian theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes, to pose the question of how to live in terms of our standards of good and evil is to separate oneself from God. This separation allows us to attribute to God judgments that we find reasonable and expedient or which are perhaps just emotionally satisfying ways of coping with existential anxiety. In his analysis of Jesus's denunciation of the Pharisees and scribes, Bonhoeffer writes, '[Jesus demands that knowledge of good and evil be overcome; he demands unity with God. Every judgment passed on another human being already presupposes disunion with that person; it becomes an impediment to action." (32)
And so, dogmatic religion encourages hubris, judgment, and separation from others, while what Bonhoeffer called his "nonreligious" interpretation of the Bible invites humility and above all action. Where God is the unity of opposites, encompassing all things, present in our consciousness, in our friends and enemies, and in our world, the "'good" is not a static abstraction; it is revealed though lives that will attend to it and act on it.
The good that Jesus speaks of consists entirely in doing, not in judging. Judging another always entails an impediment to my own activity. Those who are judging never arrive at doing, or rather, whatever they can point to as their action--and there can be plenty of it--is always nothing but verdict, judgment, reproach, and accusation against others. (33)
And so, Earthseed is the fundamental expression of the reality that God is being revealed (God is Change). Earthseed is not a way to market secular determinations of the good life and make it more politically appealing; it is from Earthseed that "political" and "ethical" action springs. And so Lauren Olamina walks through the world much as Christ did ("kindness eases change, love quiets fear" [Talents 380]), blessed or cursed with an unalterable empathy for her fellow human beings. She does not simply profess belief or make judgments about the righteousness of others; she acts not to implement a code of conduct but, rather, to engage the world as it is and act on the truth that she has found for herself:
Are you Earthseed? Do you believe? Belief will not save you. Only actions Guided and shaped By belief and knowledge Will save you. Belief Initiates and guides action-Or it does nothing. (Talents 382., 41)
Moreover, there is no litmus test of belief to join the community that is the tangible manifestation of Earthseed.
The Spiritual Path
As noted earlier, the core message of all the great spiritual traditions is "'Be not afraid." Rather, be confident that life is good and trustworthy. In this light, the great failure is not that of leading a full and vital active life, with all the mistakes and suffering such a life will bring (along with its joys). Instead, the failure is to withdraw fearfully from the place to which one is called, to squander the most precious of all of our birthrights--"the experience of aliveness itself." "'The experience of aliveness must never degenerate into a narcissistic celebration of the self--for it if does, it dies. Aliveness is relational and communal, responsive to the reality and needs of others as well as to our own." (34)
Where so many have succumbed to fear and anger, Lauren is persistently alive to the present and the future, rather than focused on the past. This is expressed in the Destiny, which provides purpose and direction to followers of Earthseed. Perhaps the most succinct description is provided by Lauren's first convert, Travis: "The destiny is important for the lessons that it forces us to learn while we are here on earth, for the people it encourages us to become. It's important for the unity and purpose that it gives us here on earth. And in the future, it offers us a kind of species adulthood and species immortality when we scatter to the stars" (Talents 170-71).
Clearly, this is not an easy path or one that, under the right conditions, becomes a natural or inevitable response. Indeed, it is doubtful that Earthseed would have stirred in Lauren's imagination or moved beyond her imagination were it not for the fact that she is afflicted with hyperempathy syndrome. It is a measure of Butler's psychological and political realism that only a few are "sharers" of others' suffering. She does not offer a political reform agenda intended to engender compassion in all people, but those who can share in the experiences of others in the community are called to a life of action.
Similarly, many of the Christian theologians I have been discussing set aside the idea that a widespread predisposition to compassionate social activism is likely. The claim is, instead, that God can be experienced in this way and that this experience not only produces a social good but allows for an individual adaptation to fear that, for all Earthseed's ambiguities, is undeniably good--that is, life is fuller and richer when we live this way. Thus, while the gospel of Luke concludes with apocalyptic warnings of final judgment, the gospels of Thomas and John "say that, instead of warning his disciples about the end of time, Jesus points them toward the beginning." (35) They identify Jesus with the divine light described in Genesis, the light that existed before the dawn of creation. Thomas makes this explicit: "Jesus said, 'I am the light which is before all things. It is I who am all things. From me all things came forth, and to me all things extend. Split a piece of wood, and I am there; lift up the stone, and you will find me." (36)
Like Lauren Olamina, the Jesus of the Gnostic gospels "'offers only cryptic clues--not answers--to those who seek the way to God." (37) The path is marked not by the Pharisees' rules or by judgments made at the end of time but by recognizing and cultivating the divine light hidden within each person. According to Thomas Jesus says, "There is light within a person of light, and it lights up the whole universe. If it does not shine, there is darkness." (38) The recognition of this light is transformative and therefore deeply unsettling--"a gift of God may sear unready fingers" (Sower 6). One encounters not the reassurance and calm of an omnipotent and benevolent caretaker who has recognized you as one of the chosen. Instead, psychological realism merges with spiritual awe--recognizing the light means recognizing the darkness and seeing oneself as encompassing both good and evil and experiencing both fear and blessed assurance. Jesus says, according to Thomas, "When you see your likeness [in a mirror] you are pleased; but when you see your images, which have come into being before you, how much will you have to bear!" (39)
Butler's fiction creates a world where this fight becomes especially difficult to discern--at least as long as fear overwhelms us and we repress those fears or project them on others, taking refuge in anger and violence. Butler's Earthseed insists that this is not an inevitable response. An assurance of God's presence amid so much pain and suffering stirs resentment when made by those who view God as omnipotent, making daily decisions that sort the saved from the damned, but takes on a very different character in these alternative Christianities. Octavia Butler has illuminated this alternative Christian path through Earthseed by creating a world that seems to have been abandoned by God.
Interestingly, Cormac McCarthy's The Road presents an even more horrific dystopian portrait and is even more explicit in evoking the biblical imagery of a divine light. In The Road the earth is a virtual wasteland, and the most primitive adaptations, including cannibalism, prevail. As the father lies dying, his son, who will be left to fend for himself, says:
You're going to be okay, Papa. You have to. No I'm not. Keep the gun with you at all times. You need to find the good guys but you can't take any chances. No chances, do you hear? I want to be with you. You can't. Please. You can't. You have to carry the fire. I don't know how to. Yes you do. Is it real? The fire? Yes it is. Where is it? I don't know where it is. Yes you do. It's inside you. It was always there. I can see it.(40)
Conclusion: Faith, Hope, and Immortality
Earthseed is the dawning adulthood of the human species. It offers the only true immortality. It enables the seeds of the Earth to become the seeds of new life, new communities on new earths. The Destiny of Earthseed is to take root among the stars, and there, again, to grow, to learn, and to fly. (Talents 357)
For some readers and Parable characters, Earthseed's "destiny in the stars" represents a moment of pure realpolitik--people need to stave off fear and depression and must have some assurance of something that might look a lot like the traditional notion of heaven. If my argument to this point has been at all convincing, such an interpretation is implausible since Butler's approach to the politics of fear has consistently rejected the easy reassurance of God making a place for us. Indeed, this rejection is underscored by the irreconcilable differences between Lauren and Marc, who insists on a known and certain future. A more compelling and consistent interpretation, however, is that Earthseed promises a very different form of immortality. As Curtis points out, Lauren's daughter Larkin writes that Earthseed "promises its people immortality only through their children, their work, and their memories. For the human species, immortality is something to be won by sowing Earthseed on other worlds. Its promise is not of mansions to live in, milk and honey to drink, or eternal oblivion in some vast whole of nirvana. Its promise is of hard work and brand-new possibilities, problems, challenges, and changes. Apparently, that can be surprisingly seductive to some people" (Talents 52). (41)
The seductiveness of Earthseed, "a sweet and powerful positive obsession," stems partly from the often bleak and frightening conditions in which we find ourselves: "When we have no difficult, long-term purpose to strive toward, we fight each other. We destroy ourselves. We have these chaotic, apocalyptic periods of murderous craziness" (Talents 196). Ever the political realist, Butler asserts that "Earthseed is true--is a collection of truths, but there's no law that says it has to succeed" (Talents 197). And so the articulation of the Destiny is accompanied by practical steps of community building, financing scientific inquiry, and promoting equal access to education (Talents 415-16). What Larkin calls the promise of "hard work and brand-new possibilities, problems, challenges, and changes" is more than seductive; it is essential to our survival and our individual and collective flourishing as a species. Faith is often used to denote belief that God exists and will ensure eternal life, even if reason and empirical evidence are lacking, but the faith of Earthseed and many alternative Christianities is closer to hope. It denotes the persistent willingness to be a fully engaged human being even when conditions around you are cruel and frightening and despite the fact that the path forward is unclear.
As Glenn Tinder observes,
Hope is as necessary to life as light and air. Fear weakens and paralyzes us. These are matters of common experience. Hopelessness is a kind of death; one is immobilized by the dark and threatening visage of the future. But hope enlivens us. When viewed with hope, the way ahead is open and inviting. Hope draws us into the future, and in this way, it engages us in life. Hope is no less essential in our lives together than in our lives individually. Politically, it is indispensable that our common future, the future of our city or country, be inviting. If it is not, each one will be tempted to seek refuge from the grimness of common life in a private life hermetically sealed against the outside world. And withdrawing into the private realm is not the only possible consequence of hopelessness. Another is a fanatical and despairing effort to break down whatever seems to block the road into the future. (42)
If, as Tinder argues, it is politically indispensable that the future be "inviting," there are large differences in what individuals regard as sufficiently inviting. Marc requires more certainty and greater assurance than his sister to keep from withdrawing into despair, but he does in fact secure this level of assurance for himself and engages with the world and tries to make it a better place. A key component of Darren Webb's analysis of Christian hope is precisely the degree to which a vision of a more inviting future is known and specified in advance or an emergent and unknowable gift from God. (43) In either case, the result can be a commitment to social activism rather than passive belief, but Butler's theological stance, as expressed by Lauren, requires hope without the certainties and reassurances of more traditional religious belief. Butler's view of faith, therefore, requires what Jonathan Lear has called "radical hope," the hallmark of which is imagining a better future when the concepts and practices that have heretofore defined "the good life" have been destroyed. (44) This kind of hope is not born of an intellectual assessment of probabilities. It requires the ability to dream and the willingness to work:
BANKHOLE: You know, as bad as things are, ... we haven't hit bottom yet.
LAUREN OLAMINA: Well, the group of us here doesn't have to sink any lower.
BANKHOLE: I wish I believed that. I don't think we have a hope in hell of succeeding here.
LAUREN OLAMINA: Let's go back. We've got work to do. (Sower 295)
An earlier version of this article was presented at the 2009 Meeting of the Society for Utopian Studies in Wrightsville Beach, N.C., October 29-November 1, 2009. My thanks go to Claire Curtis for her comments on an earlier draft of this article and to Albert H. Keller Jr. for reinvigorating my appreciation for what it means to be a Christian.
(1.) Octavia Butler, Parable of the Sower (New York: Warner Books, 1993); Octavia Butler, Parable of the Talents (New York: Warner Books, 1998). Hereafter cited as Sower or Talents parenthetically in the text by page number.
(2.) Claire 12. Curtis calls Butler "the theorist of tear for the twentieth century," one who has captured the extremely personal nature of our concern with security, the "potentially immobilizing fear of living in a world where you know not only that you will die, but you also might die painfully, violently, and alone" ("Theorizing Fear: Octavia Butler and the Realist Utopia," Utopian Studies 19, no. 3 : 411-32, at 412).
(3.) Parker J. Palmer, The Active Life: A Spirituality of Work, Creativity, and Caring (San
(4.) Octavia Butler, interview by DemocracyNow.Org, November 11, 2005, accessed August 1, 2009, www.democracynow.org/2005/11/11/science_fiction_writer_octavia_ butler_on.
(5.) A recent and notable exception is Clarence W Tweedy; who views Earthseed as an extension of black liberation theology ("The Anointed: Countering Dystopia with Faith in Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower," paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Society for Utopian Studies, October 29-November 1, 2009, Wrightsville Beach, N.C.).
(6.) Sam Harris, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason (New York: W. W. Norton, 2005); Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2005); Christopher Hitchens, God Is Not Great (New York: Hachette Book Group, 2007).
(7.) Bob Altemeyer and B. Hunsberger, "Authoritarianism, Religious Fundamentalism, Quest, and Prejudice," International Journal for the Psychology of Religion 2 (1992): 113-31, cited in Mike Friedman and W Steven Rholes, "Religious Fundamentalism and Terror Management," International Journal for the Psychology of Religion 18 (2008): 36-52, at 38.
(8.) Tom Pyszczynski, Sheldon Solomon, and Jeff Greenberg, In the Wake of 9/11: The Psychology of Terror (Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association, 2003); M. T. Dechesne, J. Pyszczynski, J. Arndt, S. Ransom, K. M. Sheldon, and A. van Knippenberg, "Literal and Symbolic Immortality: The Effect of Evidence of Literal Immortality on Self Esteem Striving in Response to Mortality Salience," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 84 (2003): 722-37; Friedman and Rholes, "Religious Fundamentalism and Terror Management."
(9.) Bob Altemeyer, "Why Do Religious Fundamentalists Tend to Be Prejudiced?" International Journal for the Psychology of Religion 13, no. 1 (2003): 17-28; Altemeyer and Hunsberger, "Authoritarianism, Religious Fundamentalism, Quest, and Prejudice."
(10.) Peter J. Ahrensdoff, "'The Fear of Death and the Longing for Immortality: Hobbes and Thucydides on Human Nature and the Problem of Anarchy," American Political Science Review 94, no. 3 (2000): 579-93, at 586; Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, ed. Edwin Curley (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1994).
(11.) Marcus J. Borg, The God We Never Knew: Beyond Dogmatic Religion to a More Authentic Contemporary Faith (San Francisco: Harper, 1997).
(12.) Carl G. Jung, The Undiscovered Self (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1958).
(13.) Michael Daniels, Shadow, Self, Spirit: Essays in Transpersonal Psychology (Charlottesville: Imprint Academia, 2005), 100.
(14.) Paul Bain Haslam, Lauren Douge, Max Lee, and Brock Bastain, "More Human Than You: Attributing Humanness to Self and Others," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 89 (2005): 937-50.
(15.) Gordon Allport, The Nature of Prejudice (Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1979).
(16.) Ken Wilber, No Boundary: Eastern and Western Approaches to Personal Growth (Boston: Shambhala, 1985), 19.
(17.) Daniels, Shadow, Self, Spirit, 101.
(18.) Ahrensdorf, "Fear of Death and the Longing for Immortality" 592.
(19.) Wilber, No Boundary, 20.
(20.) Ibid., 28.
(21.) Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison (New York: Touchstone, 1997), 334.
(22.) Ibid., 337.
(23.) There is considerable resonance here with Ken Wilbur's integral philosophy; see, for example, Ken Wilbur, A Theory of Everything: An Integral Vision for Business, Politics, Science, and Spirituality (London: Shambhala, 2001).
(24.) Borg, The God We Never Knew, 12.
(25.) The very choice of speaking in parables rather than in more direct instruction reflects the difficulty of breaking through fear and timidity to experience God in the present. When asked, Jesus says, "The reason I speak in parables is that 'seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand'" (Matthew 13:13).
(26.) This view is also expressed, though not consistently, in those New Testament books deemed canonical by the established church ("the kingdom of God is not coming with signs that say 'Look, here it is, or There it is' for the kingdom of God is within you" [Luke, cited in Elaine Pagels, Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas [New York: Vintage Books, 2003], 50).
(27.) Marcus J. Borg, The Heart of Christianity (New York: Harper One, 2004), especially 71-79.
(28.) Ibid., 133.
(29.) Claire P. Curtis, "Rehabilitating Utopia: Feminist Science Fiction and Finding the Ideal," Contemporary Justice Review 8, no. 2 (2005): 147-62.
(30.) Pagels, Beyond Belief, 57.
(31.) Octavia Butler, "The Book of Martha," in Bloodchild and Other Stories (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2005), 187-213, at 209.
(32.) Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics: Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Vol. 6 (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996), 314.
(34.) Palmer, Active Life, 8.
(35.) Pagels, Beyond Belief, 52.
(36.) Ibid., 52-53.
(37.) Ibid., 53.
(38.) Ibid., 56.
(40.) Cormac McCarthy, The Road (New York: Vintage International, 2006), 283.
(41.) Curtis, "Rehabilitating Utopia."
(42.) Glenn Tinder, The Fabric of Hope (Atlanta: Scholars Press, Emory University, 1999), 13.
(43.) Darren Webb, "Christian Hope and the Politics of Utopia," Utopian Studies 19, no. 1 (2008): 113-44.
(44.) Jonathan Lear, Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Devastation (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006).
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|Date:||Jul 1, 2012|
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