11 - Theology and Science Fiction with Dr. James McGrath / Transcript

Note: Can I Say This at Church is produced for audio listening. If able, I strongly encourage you to listen to the audio, which has inflection, emotion, sarcasm where applicable, and emphasis for points that may not come across well in written word. This transcript is generated using a combination of my ears and software, and may contain errors. Please check the episode for clarity before quoting in print.

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Hey, everybody. Welcome to the show. Before we get started, I have a pretty good feeling that you, like me, are interested in the eternal consequences of hell. I know this because you all seem to listen to those two episodes the most of any. And there is a conference coming up in Dallas in March. And I thought it would be pertinent to bring on Chris Date from Rethinking Hell to talk a bit about that conference. So Chris, what would you have people know,


It's March 9 and 10th (2018). That's a Friday and Saturday coming up in just under four weeks in the Dallas / Fort Worth area. And basically, this is our Fifth annual conference, we've had four previous ones. And at this conference, you know, we've covered a variety of different topics related to this one. But this year, we're going to be focusing on the atonement. And so the theme of the conference is Crushed For Our Iniquities, Hell and the Atoning Work of Christ, and the plenary speakers, the keynote speakers if you want to use that language instead, they include four people: First: Preston Sprinkle. We've also got Dr. Craig Evans. He is a scholar from Houston Baptist University. We also have Greg Allison, a historical theologian from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. And then last but most certainly least is myself that Our conferences a mere $50 it's really going to be great. It's March 9 and 10th at the Heights Baptist Church in Richardson, Texas, which is part of the greater Dallas / Fort Worth Metroplex. And if people want to learn more want to register contact us with questions, they can just go to rethinking hell conference.com.


Hello there friends welcome back to another episode of the Can I Say This At Church podcast! Happy to have you here today. And today's conversation is a slightly different, it has a theological underpinning, but we got to scratch a sci-fi itch. And I know there's many of you that have these conversations, you watch shows on Netflix and you'll see allegories between Christ and Superman or Neo in the Matrix, and there are a lot of things that religion can learn from science fiction, and science fiction can learn from religion.

So I was able to sit down with Dr. James McGrath, who was the Clarence L. Goodwin Chair in New Testament Language and Literature at Butler University. He got his PhD from Durham, mostly in New Testament and specifically on John's Apologetic Christology, that's been published in the Cambridge University Press. He's written many books and so we discussed one in specific called Theology and Science Fiction, where we we look at the correlations between how we view God and how theology can work in a lens of science fiction and vice-versa, how the two borrow from each other and how we can use those thought experiments to view Christ, or view God, and view religion as a whole; with different viewpoints and learn to lean into uncertainty and open thought in new ways.


Dr. McGrath, thank you so much for joining us today on the Can I Say This At Church podcast? It's a privilege to talk to you. I'm excited for the topic at hand today.


I'm excited to be here. Sounds like you've got a great podcast and I'm certainly looking forward to talking about the topic you've chosen for us today.


Thanks. So yeah, when I was researching out different topics. And I saw that you'd written a book on theology and science fiction, and there were just many things that spoke to my heart, your blog as well, the stuff that you write about Doctor Who; I enjoy, but I don't want to get in the weeds too quickly. So can you can you briefly just introduce yourself to the listeners, just a little bit about how you came to do the work that you do? And just your story a little bit?

James 4:13

Sure. And like most stories, there's a long version short version. And I'll try and keep it short to begin with, and you can always ask for more details, if anything sounds interesting.

I ended up doing what I'm doing after, at age 15, I had a personal experience with coming to faith. And soon after, right, I was in high school was thinking about what I wanted to do after and decided to go off to Bible college and try and learn a bit about, you know, find out about this thing that had happened to me and explore my faith, learn more. And at that point, wasn't thinking about going into teaching but that someone there who persuaded me that they thought I'd be a good teacher ended up marrying that person. So, you know, learn to take her advice early on.




When you study the Bible, right, oftentimes what you learn doesn't just reinforce right? I mean, but also challenges, the things that you think you know about it. And of course, if that didn't happen, then you wouldn't actually be learning which would be a worrying thing. But sometimes we approach faith in a way that leads us to think that learning and changing our minds is actually a bad thing rather than something that we're actually encouraged to do; right. Change, renewal of the mind it's all woven in their repentance even changing our thinking turning around. I'm so learned a lot that challenge so my assumptions but led me on a path that the short version is got me teaching Biblical Studies, mainly. But as a longtime science fiction fan, when I ended up teaching at Butler University, I'm in a fairly small program, small department, which, at the very least allows, and certainly at times encourages us to branch out and teach outside interests outside of our area of expertise, sometimes in the core curriculum, but even in courses for the major and minor.

And so science fiction quickly presented itself as as an option. And it's one of several side interests that I've explored through teaching that eventually became areas of research interest. And actually, in this case, I've actually managed to have you know, science fiction short story published, which has been exciting for me branching out into a new genre. Yeah.


Well, that's good. Yeah. And there's one of those Well, there's an extremely storage story at the end of your book that I, the first one specifically touched me but we'll get to that towards the tail end.

So so your background academically is, is predominantly focused on the New Testament. And so why? I'll merge two questions in one. So why science fiction? What drew you to it? And then I guess to expand upon that there seems to be that same affinity with other academics, as well as many pastors, at least the few that I know. And my background a little bit, I went to liberty. So I know quite a few people that are either in lay ministry or have gone into ministry, and they seem to be the people that I had the best science fiction conversations with of anyone. So why why science fiction for you? And then kind of why do you think that that thematically fits for, I guess religion?


Yeah, and it's hard to say exactly why for me, I can talk about why I continue to love it. But I remember, you know, Star Trek toys and Star Wars action figures and things like that.

As far back as I can remember, and so clearly there's something in upbringing that that's part of it as well. Part of it, though, is just an interest, I think in thinking about the future asking big questions of the sort that, of course theology and philosophy also do. But science fiction, bleeds naturally into theology and into philosophy. If you want to ask a question, what is a person? What does an individual what makes you “you”? Then creating a science fictional device that can make a copy of you is a great thought experiment, right? And sometimes philosophers will come up with sci-fi stories essentially, in order to explore these things. And so I think there's a there's a natural connection, and so it didn't happen immediately. What actually happened was for one year when I was teaching part time, two different institutions, I was commuting a lot on the train and so had time to read for pleasure at length in a way that I didn't always have up until that point, but haven't always had after that point either but and so I actually picked up and got caught up on something that I long wanted to read that hadn't read up until that point, which was Frank Herbert's Dune.

And of course, that's one that engages with theology has religious ideas and perspectives woven into the story in interesting ways.

Well, it's especially relevant you see doing reference to a lot today with when you have a Jihad and, and, and an extreme nationalism isn't the word, but I haven't read Dune. So it's hard for me to relate 100% to it, but from what I can get from everyone else's context, it seems to be well it’s on the list. I just haven't done it. So.


Yeah, yeah. And it's, it's interesting how, you know, on the one hand, you know, there are things which reflect very much the time in which was written on the other hand, some of the concerns and some of the things, I think, have remained of interest. And so it's, it's worth getting to.


So in your book, you take, well, you quickly in the beginning say that just to treat the relationship between science fiction, and religion or science fiction in theology, at the level of, well, let's recognize Neo from the matrix as a Jesus figure, or let's recognize X, Y, or Z, is an extremely simple allegory to a Biblical story, or Biblical theme, or religious theme for that matter, is really just a topical application. And so I was hoping you could speak briefly to why that is, and then what a more nuanced approach would be.


Sure. So I think the main thing about the the approach that spots Christ figures or I would say, not so much finds, but often turns things in a science fiction story into a religious allegory.

Not that there's necessarily anything wrong with doing that. Let's say in the sermon or something like that, but I think it's a fairly superficial level of analysis. And it's something that you can do with just about anything. Because there are, you know, the, what we tend to call the Christ figure in our society right there also, even more even broader conceptual ideas of, of hero of Savior. And if all we do is say, hey, look, there's a figure that save somebody or somebody dies sacrificing themselves in order to save others. It's just like Jesus.

Well, it may be a little like Jesus. In most science fiction, it's not exactly like Jesus, and asking those kinds of questions like, did the script writer intend to comparison? Right?

Is this something that's been read into it? Are the points of similarity with Jesus superficial? Is there a deeper level at which the author is maybe actually either offering an alternative to Jesus? Right, as science fiction authors sometimes do, or updating Jesus or actually expressing their own Christian faith by having somebody be willing to sacrifice themselves? And so asking those questions about what's really going on, not just noticing similarities, but also looking at differences, and asking about the meaning of the whole package, and not just those points of similarity that can serve as a kind of a sermon illustration or be part of a, you know, a geek devotional or something like that.

And so I think that that level of looking at things allows one to, you know, be not just encouraged but also challenged by whatever one finds there, and also allows us, I think, to notice other things where sometimes science fiction might not have that obvious Christ figure, or something like that the kind of thing that sometimes in your face, but it may have elements of spirituality, it may have elements of asking big questions may have elements of theology at a more a more implicit level.

And those are the things that we often miss if all we do our look for the obvious, this person dies. And when he does, so he stretches out his arms and it looks just like a cross. Yeah, and if we never get there's nothing wrong with doing that. And sometimes, sometimes that's are those are things we're supposed to notice in the film. My concern is that sometimes we don't get past that, to asking the deep question that sometimes we don't notice when we're so busy reading our own theology into the story to find the illustration that we can use, that we fail to see things where the author might be saying things that not only don't reinforce what we already believe, but could potentially challenge it.

And so we missed an opportunity for conversation with someone that might be saying something different than what we already think.


Yeah, you make your correlation in your book between a Doctor Who fan and I count myself among them, and I also would be guilty of this for being a Marcionite. And so you may have to define that a bit. I'm sure many are not familiar with it, because they've never watched anything prior to Christopher Eccleston, which is the reboot that you can find on I think Amazon or Netflix or wherever it is anymore. As opposed to watching everything, I guess being a completion is for lack of a better word. So can you explain that analogy between someone just beginning in the last century or decade, as opposed to someone, knowing the whole thing, how that relates to Marcionism, and then kind of that how it correlates to our faith and then just religion in general? And I know that's a big question, so I apologize.


Oh, not at all. So mostly, I was making a joke, a joke that was aimed at basically people like you and me who are sort of geek out theology and geek out about Doctor Who,

On the theology and on the church history end there was a figure in the early church named Marcion, who bears a striking resemblance at least in some aspects to the kinds of things that you'll hear a lot today. But who basically said that the, the God of the Jewish scriptures, the God of what Christians called the Old Testament is a different God from the loving God and Father of Jesus Christ.

And so whenever somebody today says, that's just the Old Testament, right, or that's the Old Testament God. They’re, at least moving in the direction of this individual.

And there's a lot that would be worth exploring there, I think in its own right. But the analogy I was making is to people who basically say, well, that's the old thing, right? And you can do the same thing with Doctor Who you can say, well, the stuff that's in black and white, I'm obviously not going to go back and read that.




And, you know, being in Black and White is a bit like, you know, being in Leviticus and having all these, you know, purity rules and all these kinds of things that seem seem so obscure to someone today, right? There's this disconnect. There's this distance. And I think that's one of the reasons why, if we ask, Why do people who do Biblical Studies in fact, I think you asked this earlier, but I'm not sure I ever got around to answering it. But why do people who do Biblical Studies often take an interest in sci-fi?

Studying, particularly Hebrew Bible Old Testament, you become aware of this huge gap of culture of history of time conceptuality, between yourself and these ancient people.

They're thinking about purity. They're thinking about oaths. They're thinking about marriage. They're thinking about so many things. It's just so different from our own if we read the text, you know, honestly, and it's easy to just set those things aside and say, “well…You know, I'll read that if and when somebody makes me but otherwise I'm gonna stick with this stuff that's a little clearer and you know, seems more relevant”.

But that stuff in the New Testament presupposes and engages with that stuff in the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible. And so if you leave that out, then you're going to miss a lot. And if you watch Dr. Who if you watch the last episode of Dr. Who, I won't give any spoilers, but I'm not sure how you feel about that in this podcast.


I watched it so I can put a spoiler alert in there and if they want to fast forward 10 seconds then by all means,


Okay, but there are things in that episode which you will not get unless you have watched really, really old doctor. And it's the same with reading the New Testament right there things which if you don't know Jewish scriptures, if you don't know traditions of interpretation of the Jewish scriptures right after they were written, there are things that you'll miss. And so really what I was doing was mostly making making a humorous aside and calling some Doctor Who fans movie and Marcionites'; but I think there is a important point, which is that we miss something, even about those texts that we do think are important than value and read or watch.

If we leave out those things that we think are old and aren't as relevant and aren't as interesting, because we miss at the very least those points of intersection, those points of continuity, those points where then the newer references the older.


Yeah, well speaking to the the text or referencing older scriptures, you touch on canon in your in your book and specifically you can anybody can just google Star Wars Canon and you'll go to a Reddit thread that will Disney owns it or they don't own it. It just quickly goes crazy. And the same thing could be said about Doctor Who and then obviously the same thing could be said about our Scriptures, considering there's many different versions of the Bible. You seem to ride the line between, not dictating, but saying that there's there's a case that the original creator of the Bible, in this case or in a sci-fi series, is the Canon person. So George Lucas is the person that decides what is gospel quote unquote, or the current owner, which would be Disney, and or the end user, which would be you or I.

And so relating that to not necessarily sci-fi, but to the Bible, if canon be in a state of flux? Is this healthy? And how can I then impose or deduce or interpret what is actually true? About the text at hand?


Yeah. Well, the question of can anonymity, you know, arguably is is different from the question of truth, but it depends what you mean by true, right? I mean, I think most Christians would accept that Jesus told stories that are not factual stories, but which are true in a different sort of way. Right? The Good Samaritan…


I think what I would say for true would be, what I'm what I'm implying, is that it's the 2 Timothy God breathed…useful for instruction, you can take hope in this and and use it.


Yeah. And lots of people debate whether or Star Wars Episode One is useful or not.


It’s not


Yeah, it's the level of usefulness nevermind getting into debates about authority like that.

I think that cannon is really one of the points of intersection between science fiction and Biblical Studies, where you can look at it superficially. You can notice that Yeah, they use the term cannon and both Hey, isn't that interesting? But if you actually start looking at the details, I think it can actually be informative for sci-fi fans and for readers of the Bible.

And I'm so convinced this that actually invented a card game called Canon the card game and so I'll leave you to Google that later,


I will


essentially I design something to use in class to get it this quick these questions are canon because one of the important things to talk about in a course on the Bible is how does how do these writings end up together? Right? They're not all written by one human individual, who then provide the table of contents and publishes it between two covers. And so that part of the story needs to be included, of course on the Bible. But it's a long history, it's a long process. And you may be surprised to hear being interested in the same kind of things I am but some students are not fascinated if you spend the first day of class doing this history introduction, you know, spanning, you know, thousands of years; go figure.


To be fair when I was doing my “survey classes” at Liberty, I also wasn't all that interested. It wasn't until I got far removed from class. I'm like, man, I really should have paid attention, I should have done a better job.


And so I developed a game to try to teach the subject inductively. But one of the things that is always true about canon is that, you know, one person ultimately can decide the candidate. I mean, George Lucas is the closest star wars has to a Pope. But there is no way that he can make people in their heart of hearts, except Jar Jar are as authoritative, right? To go to the example that usually is brought up.

And there's no way that you know, the fact that JJ Abrams is making Star Wars and Star Trek and, you know, means that now the some people won't love one of the more than the other or things like that.

Ultimately, you know, even when we accept the authority of another, ultimately there is a sense in which the authority lies with us, to you know, we are the one who is giving that authority to another recognizing the authority of another. So, ultimately canon is something that I there, there's an individual level to it, but ultimately, really it is a community thing. Right? And so there are people who have their personal Canon or Canon within the Canon we sometimes say where they focus on these texts more than others, or they basically leave Leviticus, out of it. Just by a New Testament, and you don't even bother getting one that has those earlier books. The pre Christopher Eccleston part of the Bible. And there are different cannons, you know, between Catholics and Protestants. The Ethiopian Church has some works in there that Protestants, Catholics, other Orthodox Christians don't have. And so canons in the plural are simply part of the reality of things. And this is something that I think that a lot of Protestants don't always wrestle with, right, the early Protestant reformers were aware that the church has played a role in defining scripture up until that point.

And so Martin Luther, for instance, you know, asked you is James canonical? And is it as canonical? Does it have the same value to have the same weight as Romans does as Galations does?

The early reformers were aware that these are things which if you're going to challenge church authority, then you're going to need to engage with the Bible that the church helped to negotiate and achieve. On the other hand, one of the reasons why I like to talk about canon early in the course is that some students come with the different sort of wrong assumptions, right?

So there's the one that thinks it just dropped down from the sky or never asked where the Table of Contents comes from. There are others who are sure that it came from Constantine, right, who said, you have to make gospels pick four, preferably four that really emphasized the divinity of Jesus or something like that. The Da Vinci Code version and that's not true either.

Canon emerges through consensus. And so one of the reasons why we have the Gospels that we do as part of the New Testament canon, all across, you know, Christianity and not others, is that the network of churches that became Orthodox Christianity shared these works in common. And when they didn't, they debated until they actually all agreed on some things. So you get these sort of elements of unity and diversity, which are inevitable, right. And one of the things that I think this can help us to think about is the fact that for many Christians in our time, we have this post enlightenment approach to faith that actually thinks faith should be certainty.

When in fact, I would argue that faith implies trust, you know, particularly the word that is translated with faith in the New Testament and in the Hebrew Bible - Old Testament, of trusting God, a trust that recognizes that As humans, we don't understand everything. We don't know it all. And therefore we have to trust and we have to be humble and open to correction. And I think that recognizing that even something like canon doesn't provide us with answers where we can just open the text, we read it, that settles it, and there's no room for interpretation.

There's no doubt, there's nobody who's genuinely a Christian, but who has a different collection of texts, or who has the same collection but interprets them differently. When we recognize that it forces us to be open to learning from God and from others, and to engage with community. And so doing some comparison between sci fi Canon and biblical canon, I think, can lead us to reflect on some of those things in interesting ways because some of the dynamics are at the very least similar between the two.

Seth 27:00

You talk about and I agree that sci-fi is narrative story as a whole, but sci-fi specifically isn't is a way to easily carry out thought experiments. And some of those ones that come to mind are, you know, universal basic income like you have on Star Trek or colonizing another planet, or what life would look like shoot just in the bottom of the ocean on our planet, as opposed to not just a different planet.

So the question would arise though, is as you see all these videos and news reportings from everyone saying, you know that artificial intelligence is going to be one of the most dangerous things it's going to happen in your children's lifetimes. Pray to whoever you pray to the Terminator doesn't come kill us. So thinking along that thought, I'm curious your thoughts about what happens if we could, for some reason, create a consciousness; and by consciousness, I mean something more dynamic than the thermostat that's up in my house? Because that also knows its surroundings and can regulate things on a preset course. But if if we could somehow create consciousness, or a being that knows that it's a being, what would that implications be for, I guess the way we view theology or the way we view Christ or the the soul; or there's a lot of questions there?


Yeah, there are a lot of questions there. And I'm not sure if we can get to all of them. But I'll start with some of the some of the ones that I think are the, you know, maybe the most pressing and the most important to mention, one of which is the question of how will know whether we can know that we've created an artificial intelligence that is conscious. That has the same sense of self, the ability to reflect, to feel, to think independently that we have.

Philosophers have asked the question, how do we know that other human beings are conscious, right? And we know that they're not all zombies, and you're the only one right? Or say I'm the only one right talking to you, I have the feeling that you probably are too. But there's an analogy that's taking place there, right? I'm saying you are human like me. And I have this experience. And so I'm going to assume that the outward signs that I see coming from you indicate a similar internal reality to what I experience.

When we encounter aliens when we encounter artificial intelligences that we have created, unless we've programmed them specifically, and so have a fairly good reason to think this is programmed to behave like a human being, but it's not right, we can see the code and we know if it's functioning in a way that is more mind like and as mysterious to us as some AI is have already begun to.

Then the question is, how will we know? And I think the answer is we won't, with any kind of certainty, unless we're willing to listen to this thing that we created or listen to this entity that we've encountered from another world, and do unto others as we would want done unto us. Right?

And so I think that really the inability to get inside the mind if it is a mind of an AI or an alien raises some crucial ethical questions because as human beings, when we've encountered other human beings who were rather different from us, for instance, you know, the the Europeans moving to the Americas.

It raises the logical questions, right? Are these, you know, are these people included in God's plan? Why didn't God send evangelists before now, those kinds of things?




And how should we treat them? One response was to essentially dehumanize them, to treat them as lacking a soul or as not as fully human or as whatever. And so our encounters with others who are different from us, challenges our ethics, right? They put our ethical systems to the test. And really I think that's one of the big questions about AI is and as fans of the Matrix, for instance, or several other franchises that are similar, oftentimes one of the reasons why things go horribly wrong, and you get this AI dystopia is precisely because human beings, treated machines as slaves.

And then when we saw signs of consciousness, we weren't willing to recognize them and accept them. We weren't willing to free them. Even if we recognize that there's consciousness there, we think it's generally there. It's too dangerous, right? They're different from us. They're stronger than us, they could replace us. And that's always the fear that accompanies those who demonize the other.

And we see what happens in sci-fi is that then we’re surprised when they rise up to overthrow their oppressors. Maybe we should be we should try to approach in a way that reflects some some Jesus ethical teachings a bit better.


Yeah, well, it makes me…it always finds me at a loss as to why we would be surprised in this movie or this book, that they rise up. Because that's what we do. I mean, our country is founded on that ;every oppressed people always rise up. So if we made them and obviously we would program them…it wouldn't surprise me for that.

So you have things like CRISPR and things like that where we are able to genetically engineer things. And so what implication does that have on and I'm going to take this in a slightly different approach on us usurping whatever authority or sovereignty we have as a creator if we're “redirecting evolution” or “redirecting the path that was laid out” or that is currently on.


Yeah, and genetic engineering is you know, is interesting.

We can connect the directly and you know, sort of segue naturally from what we're just talking about, because of course, the Blade Runner franchise is one in which it's less about artificial intelligence, although there are some of those in there. And it's more about genetic engineering and you know, sort of manufacturing, through, you know, chemical and biological processes, these beings, essentially to be slaves.

And so, there are all kinds of pitfalls ranging from our ability to create beings where we might say, we're going to make them mindless automaton, but otherwise like us so that they can, you know, be smart enough to do what we we need them to do, but we're basically in a rob them of sentience, and then they'll be disposable, right? And there too, how will we know that we've effectively robbed them of said, right from the outside, when we're probably starting with our own, you know, genome is a pattern and then tinkering with it.

But then there's also the potential for us to tinker with our own genome. I worry about that somewhat less just because I think that there are ways in which by changing our lifestyles, or by maybe going out into space and exploring other worlds with different gravity's and different suns and different situations. The evolutionary future of humankind is bound to take us in different directions if we get off Earth. But even if we stay here and impact the environment, or just keep eating all these, you know, this high fructose corn syrup or something like that, right?

We see in our lives at the present, the way that things that were, you know, evolutionary instincts designed to or evolve to serve us well, in one circumstance are actually causing us trouble in the present, right? When sugars are scarce, you know, and all you find fruit, it's good to stock up on it, right?

That same instinct to do that when there's candy in unlimited abundance and your society can lead you down a different path that's not in the interest of your own survival. The fact that we can correct for vision, you know, issues means that people with vision that's as poor as mine aren't being weeded out by evolution. Right? And so there's the potential for us to tinker. I mean, as far back as their sci-fi, there are warnings about scientists playing God. And those warnings are not inappropriate in the sense that we ought to ask what we're doing, what are the implications of what we're doing? Why are we doing it?

But every single kind of progress that humanity has made in terms of, you know, building machines; machines that make our lives so much easier, but are polluting the environment and potentially transforming the world in ways that it may never recover from.

We can't simply not do those things and we lose a lot if we don't do them. Right? And so I think there to the key is not to simply avoid going in those directions. But to dare to ask the ethical questions, the hard moral questions, before we have the technology,. And sci-fi is a great way of doing that, precisely. So that when suddenly you can have a designer baby. The question of, should you and if so, how should you is something that people really thought about?

Because we do a much poor job of engaging with these ethical issues when we just say, well, that will never happen, or we shouldn't do that and then it's it's part of society as part of life. And now we're trying frantically to come up with a response, and oftentimes in those circumstances, I think we we we engage in a much poorer way with he ethical issues and the nuances.


Yeah, well, yeah, you make a gut check response to a big problem just to band-aid it. You talk about the relationship between how religion is borrowed from science fiction and science fiction borrows from religion. And we spoken a little bit about how, you know, pastors or professors, or just normal people will borrow allegories from science fiction. And so you turn that on head and you talk about God and theology, and you talk about God as an alien, divine goddess, cosmos and many others, but there's one that you touched on, that I was hoping you could explain something I'm not familiar with. And so I would assume others aren't. And it's called Radically Emergent Theism. So can you kind of go into that a bit?

James 37:40

Yeah, so radically emergent theism is a term that came across which, I'm trying to remember who coined it and even if I remember it, I might…I'm not sure that person was the person who first came up with the term. But it's the idea that we get hints of in you know, figures like, you know, Pierre Desjardins.

Where God is sort of the end point of the Cosmos, rather than the starting point, although for Pierre it was sort of a both end that he was trying to say there. But the idea that, you know, just as human beings, we seem to emerge, you know, the things that we traditionally called the soul / consciousness, seem to emerge from the collector, a complex arrangement of the matter that makes up.

What kind of complex reality, what kind of transcendent reality might emerge from the universe as a whole or a multiverse or things like that? And so, one possibility is that something that might deserve to be called God in the traditional sense, could be, you know, the the emergent aspects, the transcendent aspects, the integrative aspect of all that is. And one of the things I think is interesting about that, right? I mean, I'm not sure that that's a theological idea that one could, you know, sort of verify empirically.

But one of the things I think is interesting about it is that if putting together atoms, molecules, cells, at this level, produces a transcendent aspect, right? Personhood, creativity, things like that. Do we have reason to think that that doesn't happen at higher levels of organization of the cosmos?

And if it does, then one of the things that it actually takes out of the picture in a way that I think is really fascinating, is the whole question of the existence of God. Because, if God means that which is ultimate, that which is transcendent, that which is the highest level of existence. That which, you know, continues to exist that which ultimately leads to our existence, then one thing you could say is that, you know, okay it wouldn't make sense to be anything less than a pantheist, right?

To say that there's this the universe has some of these aspects. But it may be that the universe is not just this, this mindless force this you know, kind of Pantheistic kind of thing, but actually has creativity and things that emerged from it at the highest level. And in some types of theology, the universe is thought of is essentially relating to God as the body does to the human consciousness, the soul. And so some sort of universe always exists as in, you know, process thoughts, things like that. And so within that framework, that emergent aspect might always be there. And within that framework, right, if you're saying, you know, God is what is ultimate, and most transcendent; can anyone really deny that that exists?

We can debate what that's like, we can debate the attributes of the Divine, but the existence thereof seems to be something that…that makes sense to posit given what we know the universe.

And so one reason why I think that idea is worth exploring is because it provides an interesting come back to those who say, you know, well an atheist is just like a Christian except we just deny the existence of one more God than you do. There have been some interesting books, you know, by scientists, by theologians that have suggested you know, there are there are ways of thinking about the divine, that actually not only makes sense, but might might be logical and implicit in the way we conceptualize the universe.

And Science Fiction again, although it tends to focus more on powerful entities that are closer to us than to one integrative, transcendent reality that encompasses everything. But nonetheless, it provides opportunity to explore some of these things. And there have actually been some interesting science fiction stories where human beings connect with one another, you know, we connect our minds, we connect an interesting way. And then we encounter aliens and do the same. And this collective consciousness emerges that seems to be growing into, or in the direction of, something that least is closer to what people have traditionally meant by divinity. And so it's that kind of emergent theism where a divine reality results from evolutionary processes both in the natural sense the evolution of the cosmos, and in the biological sense.


Yeah, I read that part of your book a few times, and I still didn't quite get it. So I appreciate that. You ask a question in your book and it's and it's related to the afterlife or the soul or what happens after we die. And so I'm gonna put you on the spot a bit, you say that you pose a question as such that if there's no afterlife, but there is a possibility that when you die, “a version” of yourself exists in a different parallel universe, would that be comforting to you? And so I guess my question is, is it?

James 43:30



Because you don't answer it.


Right. And part of that is because I'm trying to help help people think about things and not just give them my answers. I would say no, simply because, in an infinite multiverse, presently, they're not just an infinite number of versions of me, but some of them are probably having a really terrible time of it. And things are really going poorly, at least as often as for you know, as you know, things are going well. And so it's not clear that that is a hopeful prospect in that sense.

But what I think that science fiction lets us think about both in terms of, you know, the transporter on Star Trek making copies of oneself, downloading one's thoughts into a machine and living forever in that way. Is what is it that we're hoping will survive? And I think a lot of the contemporary, you know, popular thought about that is focused on, you know, the survival of my ego, right, my individual self. Consciously my experience, and the question is, what will that look like? Right? Because, you know, we have I mean, there's, there's a Doctor Who episode where somebody is brought back to life and they keep on living and living, but they still have a limited, you know, brain capacity. And so, you know, they write down stuff to remember it, but basically, they forget their past. If we're going to live forever and something like the present form that we have, then that becomes an issue. And if we're going to actually remember absolutely everything, then that's a very different kind of existence than what I have now. And so, in what sense is that self that's been transformed that everything is remembered always, is still me. Right? And so, whatever one thinks of afterlife in terms of you know, God will remember everything or God will recreate right and bring back into existence that which is cease to exist, or thinks in terms of an immortal soul that survives death and so provides that continuity.

In all of those scenarios, there are aspects of ongoing existence or a shift to a timeless existence, which is yet another way that things are sometimes thought about. Timeless existence is not what we have now, right. And so all of these actually envisage someone or something continuing to exist that in some way is not me, as I know myself now. And so I think it's important to ask, you know, why are we emphasizing this? Why are we thinking about in the ways that we do? And why aren't we thinking about some of the the philosophical and theological aspects of these things, which ultimately, you know, are really about our human limitations and what we think the role of those are in terms of our creative existence and any future afterlife or existence that might be in store for us.


You make the the case that another way that religion can borrow from sci-fi is, or is has done it in the past, is that Paul was doing that in Athens in Acts 17 at the I don't know how to say this word Areopagus…is that how you say that word? It's probably not right. And how he was borrowing the sci-fi of the day to make his point, can you can you talk to that a bit?


Yeah. Well, certainly there are some ancient thinkers, you know, some ancient philosophers who asked about, you know, what if there are multiple worlds? What if there are entities up there? In fact, the whole idea that there are, you know, angels and cherubs and seraphs, some things that, you know, inhabit some place up there. These are the precursors to science fiction, in a way, right.

I mean, people in a scientific era asking the same sorts of questions about what other kinds of beings inhabit our cosmos, you know, are some of them up in that direction? Do any of them ever come down here? What do we learn if we encounter those kinds of things? But some ancient thinkers, including some philosophers, asked about other types of life as these kinds of things. And what we see in Acts 17 what we see throughout, I'd say throughout the Biblical literature is that the Biblical authors and the people whose stories are told in the Bible, regularly engage with the thinking of their time.

And so to the extent that we see the use of terminology right…things like logos in the Gospel of John. The terminology that's used for sacrifice in Leviticus is actually, you know, cognate to words are found at Ugarit and ancient places in the ancient Near East. So clearly some of these ideas, you know, some of the terminology is, is shared. And so, to the extent that science fiction is engaging with philosophical and theological questions, we don't necessarily need to accept what this or that sci-fi author or sci-fi franchise presents, but there's no less reason to engage with it than there is to engage with, you know, a Plato or Socrates or an Aristotle, as Christian faith historically is done. And that's really that's I think, the key point.


I want to end with one final, it's not really a question more of just an open ended conversation. So you have three short stories at the end of your book. And the first one I read at least, maybe four or five times. I don't want to give this story away unless you're willing to do that it's not very long, but it is well worth the read for anyone go out buy the book just for that short story. It made me feel like four different emotions. I somehow if I was that lady that went back in time, Doctor Who style, and I saw a lot of correlations there of being able to know the language and whatnot.
It seemed like a way of inserting my own possible divinity or affecting ultimate divinity, or having nothing to do with anything, or breaking everything. And so it I don't know, I got something needs a different time I read it. So I'm kind of curious as to, if that's what you were intending?


Yeah. So the story essentially emerged out of a science fictional kind of thought experiment that someone presented to me and so essentially was turning my instinctive answer to the question, the challenge that had been posed to me by an atheist that I talked with on my blog into a story. The question was, you know, what would it take to make you lose your faith? One of the things that I think the one reason why I think that's an important question to ask is that if we say nothing, then essentially we have a sort of a dogmatic system where we think we know everything. We've got all wrapped up, nothing should make us change our mind. And we've essentially deified ourselves and we've deified, you know, our object of worship, potentially is our system of beliefs rather than God.

As human beings, we need to be open to being wrong, right? And philosophers often say that things that are un-falsifiable, right, nothing can challenge them are essentially meaningless, so worthless, right? Anyone can happen, right? In any religious standpoint, you can hold a view and say, nothing will change my mind. And whatever your religious view, you would probably hope that people in other view who have other viewpoints than your own and who are that's wrong, would be open to changing so they can be right like you are right. But if we're not open to being challenged, then how would we know that we're not the ones who are wrong, right? And so it seems that part and parcel of recognizing our human limitations is being open to being challenged.

And so I thought that this was an important question, right? What would it take to make you lose your faith?

And so one of the first things that came to mind was, okay, so one of the things I want to do is go back to the first century, hang out outside of a particular tube and see if anything interesting happens. And that got me thinking about, you know, questions like, you know, what is resurrection? When ancient Christians, you know, ancient followers of Jesus, held to the hope that God would raise him from the dead, and the Romans, tortured them and fed them to the dogs or, you know, burn their bodies are things like that. Did that prevent, you know, does that prevent God from raising them from the dead? I think the classic theological answer would be no. But so, if Jesus's body was stolen from the tomb, or it was devoured by dogs, or you know, simply became there, does that disprove that God may have justified Jesus beyond that? Not necessarily.

Right, it might disprove one particular way of envisaging that. But it doesn't necessarily mean that. On the other hand, one of the things I realized is that, you know, there are some things that might lead to the point where I would have to change my views so much that I would no longer say I'm a Christian. But that doesn't necessarily mean, maybe shouldn't necessarily mean that, I'm no longer a person who believes in God. Because they're oftentimes, you know, we have these options where, either, you know, if, if this didn't happen, then I become an atheist. Well, why why not convert to Judaism? Why not Hinduism or Buddhism? Why not some other viewpoint that's, you know, religious? And I realized as well that you know, if I have the resurrection of Jesus, the bodily physical resurrection as a tangible visible that matter less to me, if I went back to Galilee, you know, a few years earlier and saw Jesus kicking a puppy that might actually be more troubling to me, right. Cause if that’s who Jesus is…




And so, you know, really the story was an attempt to explore that. But I think, you know, one of the interesting questions is, you know, we want certainty, right? We desire it, we crave it, we want to know, we're right, about, you know, certain things. And really what I'm trying to do that story, which I think I can say without giving away the ending, because I do think it is better experience; is to give the characters in the story, the chance to go back and be there and yet recognize that ultimately, sometimes finding a definite answer to one particular question can simply raise new questions. And maybe that's okay. And maybe that's the way things should be.




And so really, I was trying to explore that desire we have for certainty and use time travel as a way to, to get at the relationship between seeing and believing, ultimately.


Well, I'll end it with that. Dr. McGrath, thank you for your time this morning. I know we were working on this for a while, scheduling it out. I've enjoyed it greatly. It's fun to talk to someone else that enjoys science fiction and religion as much as I do. I know you referenced in your book, your wife does not share that trait with you and mine doesn't either. She is more than comfortable with me just watching that somewhere else. So thank you for your time today. And I enjoyed it quite a bit. I'd love to do it again sometime.


Yeah. Well, I know we had more stuff to talk about than we managed to get to today. And so we can have another conversation sometime.




In the meantime, let me know when this is available online and I'll even try and persuade my wife to listen.


Yes, sounds good. What would you direct people to to engage with you? Definitely everyone listening please go out and buy the book. It is not a long read nor a hard read, but it is a good read. And you can find that on Amazon. That is called Theology and Science Fiction.

Nice big bright blue cover. How else would you have other people engaged with you?


Well, they can get find my blog which, tellingly, used to be called Exploring our Matrix, and I changed its name to Religion Prof, which was my longtime Twitter nickname, precisely because I found that I increasingly had students who hadn't seen the Matrix movies, so dated. So you know, the religion Prof. blog on Patheos is another place where you can find me; and I'm also on Twitter and I have a Facebook page as well as you know, always happy to connect with people anywhere and engage these kinds of conversations.


Fantastic. I'll give you back the rest of your morning and hope you have a good day.


Yeah, thanks! You too, great talking to you as well.


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