Death, Heaven, God, and Sci-Fi

In the last couple of weeks I’ve experienced two descriptions of powerful mystical visions of death, heaven, and God: one from the Catholic church, and one from Robert Heinlein.

I attended a funeral mass at a church run by Carmelite brothers, the same week I finished reading Heinlein’s Job: A Comedy of Justice. While they are wildly different visions in many ways, I hope I won’t insult any believers by writing about what they share. Being immersed in both at overlapping moments helped me to understand again how science fiction provides a perspective, a viewing point, from which we can explore the deepest questions and most profound experiences related to being human.

In the funeral mass, many hymns, prayers, readings, and rituals are intended to provide words to describe the sense of being connected to something much larger than ourselves; in fact, much larger than life or death as we think about it. These words invite us to consider how our daily concerns, stresses, challenges, and obstacles can be washed away when we focus on this larger “something” that connects us all at the level of heart and soul. The metaphor of a savior, of a pathway to this connection that is paved with trials and tribulations and sacrifices, echoes our own experience. The notion of a “heaven,” a place where all trials and tribulations and sacrifices fall away and we simply enjoy being, echoes our deeper desires.

Sun shining through clouds
Heaven?

In Job, Heinlein inverts many of these metaphors, and ultimately suggests that human understanding is too narrow to grasp anything at the “God level.” He takes his main character, a fundamentalist Christian minister who gave up preaching for a successful career as a fundraiser, through trials and tribulations and sacrifices that are science fiction-y in nature but Biblical in spirit. It is the End Time, and worlds change on a dime, sometimes via great catastrophe (earthquakes, shipwrecks) and sometimes via a blink of a flashing stoplight. Each time, the minister and his true love, a beautiful Dane who isn’t even Christian, must completely re-orient themselves to the world in which they find themselves. Different morals, histories, monies, climates, and expectations. The profound and most dreaded question of their journey is whether they will go to Heaven together, whether it will be the same Heaven for both of them, given their different beliefs.

The beautiful thing about Heinlein’s book is that it raises all the same questions, emotions, wonderings, fears, anxieties, reassurances, as the Catholic mass; it does so via humor (why wouldn’t there be bureaucratic, slightly snotty angels managing the Risen in Heaven, anyway?) and imagery and a ripping great story, rather than prayer and song and ritual. But it’s the same journey we are invited to take in both cases.

The journey into our own beliefs and faith, or lack thereof, the journey into wondering what becomes of us after death, whether our spirits or souls can live on. Whether there is an all-powerful force guiding (or interfering with) us, and whether that force is ultimately benign, loving, or punitive and discriminating. Whether our love will survive all the trials and tribulations and sacrifices God or Lucifer or Loki or the universe or our fellow humans can throw at us, or whether we will end up alone.

It is, in many ways, the same journey all great stories take us on. Maybe, the one journey that matters most.

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