The Logic of Reverence

There is something about Christian literature that makes me feel uneasy. It’s not the mention of God, or Jesus, or even the judgmental characterizations of such beings. Something lurks behind the litany of platitudes. You may pick up on a particularly pedantic trope on how less than total devotion can put your soul dangerously close to hellfire, but it is merely like a dull throe coursing through your jaw on the way to agonizing toothache. There is a critical absence in the rhetoric you see around you.

I found out what that absence was in a book that you won’t find among the copies of Chicken Soup for the Christian Soul and Left Behind. Please bear with the spoilers.

A Canticle for Liebowitz, by Walter M. Miller, Jr., is a book from the old guard of science fiction, before novels had to be 500 pages long to be considered marketable. It tells the tale of an abbey in the Southwestern United States after a nuclear holocaust. The monks within took care of the last vestiges of the modern world, even as they were missing the critical reference material to understand it all. The book is split into three parts, the first telling about the beatification of their patron saint Leibowitz, the second about a new renaissance, when society re-discovers electricity and scientific knowledge, and the third chronicles humanities return to a space-age society and the repetition of the nuclear war.

The book surprised me with its reverence to religion. Works such as Star Trek often paint religion as a barrier to knowledge and understanding, rather than a bridge. The society after the nuclear war tried to destroy the modern knowledge that brought them to that point. The first Abbot Leibowitz was martyred trying to rescue some of the old texts of scientific knowledge. This is inspired by historical accounts of Abbeys in Western Europe preserving texts of the classical Greek masters when the Ancient world collapsed after the fall of the Roman Empire. However, the reverence is tempered with a little dark humor towards the misconceptions of the Abbey’s scholars. Fallout is described as some kind of winged demon desecrating the wombs of young mothers to create the mutants that terrorize the Midwest.

Miller is very clear about the role of the Church in human society. In the second Novella, a scholar from the kingdom of Texarkana (A junction of Texas and Arkansas) postulated that the current human race was descended from a genetically altered slave race created before the war. The monks challenged him on this theory, since it only served to flatter the class system of the time. The Church did not concern itself with matters of science, of the material world. When it comes to matters of the spirit, of morality, religion is used to make a case for humanism and against selfishness.

It was in the third novella that I found what was missing in that Christian bookstore. When the human race achieved modernity again, the governments once again failed to keep their citizens safe from nuclear war. The abbey was used as a field hospital for people injured by the radiation. To the horror of the abbot, the doctor in charge of the hospital tells a mother to take her badly burned baby to a euthanasia center down the road. The abbot tried to stop them, but failed. Unlike the heroes in much of Christian fiction, he himself is in a situation where there was no right answer.

The book was ambiguous about whether the abbot was right or not. He believed with all his heart that this woman should not hasten the death of her child. Later, as he lay dying under a ton of rock from a nuclear attack, he prayed that God did not let him die before he had suffered as much as that child. Too often religion is used to provide easy answers to the problems of the world. I believe that religion in its best form, and its most true form creates more questions than answers. When we see a “thou shalt not” in the Bible, it’s not for us to start stoning people or ignore it. When we ask the right questions and make our own decisions, we achieve the greatest good.