If any of you have followed my posts in this Sunday column for a while, you’ve probably noticed that one of my favorite subjects to harp on is that by and large, science fiction does an absolutely atrocious job of authentically representing religion. Most of us have come to expect that if religion even shows up at all in a story, it’s likely an evil strawman of some kind of Christianity: really a parody of 1950s Roman Catholicism. If we’re lucky enough to deviate from that, we get a generic “Eastern Religion”. It’s even less common to read science fiction that takes faith-based issues and conflicts seriously. Take theodicy, for example. It’s a tricky topic but in short, it’s the theological discipline that attempts to grapple with the problem of evil. In many ways theodicy attempts to address some of the most serious objections to faith in a loving, powerful God. So when a priest recommended I read Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow, I was happy to not only find an authentic representation of religious belief, but a deeply moving treatment of the problem of evil and divine providence in a faith-based context.
Spoilers for The Sparrow and triggers for rape, cannibalism, sexual slavery, body horror, and disturbing content below.
The Sparrow tells the story of a Jesuit-led mission to an alien world that ends in total tragedy. The mission begins when scientists pick up an alien radio signal broadcasting beautiful music from a world a few lightyears away. A Roman Catholic religious order, the Jesuits, privately funds a mission to the alien world. Fr. Emilio Sandoz, our chief protagonist, feels that God wants them to go and has brought him and his group of friends and colleagues together for this express purpose. When the team arrives, they make contact with the native Runa people, a peaceful people who aren’t the creators of the music. The mission itself is filled with joys and sorrows: some of the members die from unknown natural causes, some fall in love and marry. Eventually the team makes contact with another people, the Jana’ata, sophisticated city dwellers and creators of the music. Sandoz, a talented linguist, learns the language of both peoples. Some of his fellow missionaries begin to believe Sandoz is a living saint.
The team begins to garden and plant food for themselves, a skill which they share with the Runa. The Runa population grows with the introduction of the concept of agriculture. Soon the Jana’ata realize what’s going on, and arrive to cull the Runa populations. The team is horrified to discover that the Runa are the prey species, strictly bred as a food source for the Jana’ata. The team attempts to protect the Runa children, and all except Sandoz and another priest are killed in the process. Sandoz is led on a march to the city as the Jana’ata cull other Runa tribes. He’s eventually sold as a sex slave to the singer whose music originally inspired the mission. When a second Jesuit mission finds him and sends him home, Sandoz accidentally kills the second mission’s guide: the child who first helped him learn the language. Once home, he realizes that the world thinks he’s responsible for the mission’s failure, a murderer, and a sexual deviant. Sandoz is forced to explain himself to his Jesuit superiors, as news of the mission’s failure has created the biggest scandal the order has ever seen. But it’s in telling his story that Sandoz is able to begin the process of healing.
Theodicy itself tries to reconcile seemingly irreconcilable ideas. Evil and suffering clearly exist in the world. Believers are often taught that God is all powerful, all knowing, and all good. So if God is good and all-powerful, then why does God allow bad things to happen, let alone bad things to happen to good people? A classic Protestant reading of Augustine’s work gives the answer that all evil is the result of humans sinning, or breaking from God’s will. Ireneaus, another early Christian, argues that God allows evil to exist as a consequence of free will, and that in order to have free will humans must have an experience of suffering (or, an experience of the absence of God) in order to really be able to choose to love God. Both of these schools of thought have been addressed by modern philosophers and theologians, and the only thing we can all seem to agree on is that any explanation is going to be somehow lacking. Anti-theodicy, a very modern school of thought, grows out of Jewish theologian Zachary Braiterman’s attempt to reconcile God and the Holocaust, ultimately arguing that there’s no meaningful relationship between God and evil from our perspective, and yet places the blame for evil entirely on God. If evil happens, it’s God’s will, and we are not worthy to ask God to justify Godsself to us. In short, theodicy often hinges on trying to discern God’s will, or divine providence. Does God will evil, does God allow evil, or is the truth something else entirely?
Russell’s plot toes the line between coincidence and providence. It’s entirely possible that the events are all entirely natural in origin; random chance, scientific fact, or human will could very reasonably be the only guiding hands behind the series of events. The Jesuit order privately funds the mission because they’re losing relevance in the world, their superior is tied to an Italian crime family, and Jesuits have a long history of scientific exploration and discovery. The team is chosen because they have the right skills and the fact that they’re already mostly friends means there’s a better chance they’ll tolerate the long mission together. Sophia and Jimmy fall in love and get married because they’re literally the only two humans on the planet who aren’t either already married or committed to living a vow of celibacy. And yet, there’s still room to interpret events as the result of an interested and loving God. The Sparrow encourages you to take up that question through the eyes of Sandoz and others.
As each experience of suffering builds on the other, interspersed with experiences of joy and delight, the characters are forced to grapple with the problem of evil: if we believe that God is all-powerful and loving, then why does God allow evil to persist? Is suffering really God’s will? These are questions that are relevant for any believer in a loving God. When Sandoz finally returns to Earth, he learns that the world has been scandalized. They believe the missionaries did something wrong to instigate the massacre of the Runa, that somehow Sandoz willingly accepted a life of prostitution because of some deep-seated hedonistic desires and murdered a child—when, in fact, none of these things were willed by Sandoz or his companions. The massacre of the Runa was an accident of cultural misinterpretation on the part of the missionaries. The Jesuit mission had no idea the Runa were preyed upon by the Jana’ata, and that the idea of agriculture would upset the delicate peace between the peoples. Sandoz was sold into sexual slavery against his will. When he at last reveals this to his shocked superiors, he muses:
Because if I was led by God to love God step by step, as it seemed, if I accept that the beauty and the rapture were real and true, then the rest of it was God’s will too, and that, gentlemen, is cause for bitterness. But if I am simply a deluded ape who took a lot of old folk tales far too seriously, then I brought all this on myself, and my companions, and the whole business becomes farcical, doesn’t it? The problem with atheism, I find, under these circumstances… is that I have no one to despise but myself. If however, I choose to believe that God is vicious, then at least I have the solace of hating God.
It’s easy to write off the problem of evil, of theodicy, when one hasn’t experienced unspeakable suffering. It’s also easy to come up with an easy answer to it, something trite and clean, when you aren’t faced with real evil. The beauty of The Sparrow is that there aren’t any easy answers. We can believe that Sandoz really is the “deluded ape”. We can believe that God is vicious. Or, we can grapple with the contradiction of suffering and a loving God.
In Catholicism there’s a branch of thought called “liberation theology”. It’s a controversial subject depending on who you ask, and becoming more popular due to Pope Francis’s focus on the poor. Still, the controversy lies in part because it tries to come up with a Christian response to the problem of suffering, a response that doesn’t fit into a nice neat philosophical proof that largely ignores actual human experience. One of the ideas within liberation theology is an emphasis on our God as a God who suffers, namely through Christ, whose death was filled with torture, humiliation, and abandonment. It’s easy for Christians, particularly Catholics, to write off suffering as something that should be “offered up” to God to unite ourselves with Christ’s experiences. It comes off as trite and rude, at best.
But if we take seriously the idea that God suffers, we can gain a third perspective on the problem of evil in The Sparrow. It’s possible that amidst all of his questions about God’s will, Sandoz really has become more like Christ in his experiences of suffering. If God suffers in the same degree that Sandoz does, The Sparrow argues that God never wills suffering in the first place. God doesn’t want it, but it happens anyway. The difference, of course, is that God is powerful enough to stop it but chooses not to, and Sandoz is powerless. Why would God choose not to act? The Sparrow makes me wonder if it’s because God chooses to be more like us, so that God could truly know what it’s like to be human, and be better able to love us more fully. Or God might be vicious and Sandoz could be a deluded ape. Regardless, The Sparrow is a story that can resonate with any person who has struggled with faith of all sorts, and has tried to reconcile their own experience of suffering with the idea of a loving God.