Aliens and Jesuits: James Blish’s A Case of Conscience

James Blish’s A Case of Conscience  is a very peculiar book indeed. I first read it years ago as part of the After Such Knowledge series. The other books in the series are explicitly fantasy or horror, this is science fiction set in a universe in which Christian theology as Blish imagines it is explicitly true. It’s written in two distinct halves. In the first half, a four man expedition to the planet Lithia, discovering it to be inhabited by aliens, discusses what recommendations they will make to their superiors. In the second half, a Lithian grows up on a decadent and dystopic Earth and causes chaos there.

It’s like shooting fish in a barrel to point out all the things that are wrong with this book, from errors of theology and science to question begging and jumping to conclusions. But it’s also very good. It’s written in a quiet but compelling style that’s thoroughly absorbing. It’s easy to swallow the absurdities as I go along, it’s only on reflection that they leap out. It has genuinely alien aliens, and we see one of them grow up from inside. It’s very unusual and quite unforgettable. It won the 1959 Hugo, and it’s good to see it going to a philosophic adventure story like this.

Four men were sent to Lithia, the Jesuit Father Ramon, a biologist, Cleaver, a physicist, Agronski, a geologist, and Michaelis, a chemist. Almost the whole first half of the book is taken up with them squabbling over what is to become of Lithia. Cleaver wants to make it into a sealed atomic research planet, Michaelis wants to open it up to trade and contact, Agronski will go along with whoever makes a good argument and Father Ramon at first wants alien contact and then wants the entire planet sealed off as it’s a temptation created by Satan. The weirdest thing about this is that Lithia is the first planet inhabited by aliens that humanity has found. This is the first alien biology, the first alien language, the first alien civilization. It’s amazing that humanity would leave a decision about how to deal with that to one four man team, or that anybody, no matter how obsessed a physicist, could even think that the potential for making bombs was more valuable than the actual living aliens.

The second half of the book is back on Earth—a horrible overpopulated and decadent Earth in which everybody is living underground for fear of a nuclear attack that never happened, and frantically having decadent parties or watching TV. This could be considered satire, except that it’s too odd. Egtverchi, the Lithian who grows up among humans, does not instinctively follow the calm reasonable and utterly Christian-avant-le-dieu morality of the Lithians, but instead joins in the decadence and tries his best to destroy Earth in rioting once he has his own talk show. (No, really.) The very best part of the book describes his coming to consciousness from his own point of view. There’s not much science fiction about becoming conscious and self aware—only this chapter and Egan’s “Orphanogenesis,” yet it’s a very interesting idea.

The book ends with Father Ramon exorcising the planet Lithia by FTL radio as the planet is simultaneously destroyed in a nuclear explosion as part of one of Cleaver’s experiments.

Father Ramon seems to me to jump to conclusions about the demonic nature of Lithia, and the Pope is no less hasty in his conclusions. Their reasons are very odd. Firstly, the Lithian process of growing up recapitulates evolution—they are born as fish, come out of the water and evolve through all the intervening stages up to sentience. The idea is that because this utterly proves evolution, people won’t believe in creation. This doesn’t seem like a Catholic position to me.

Secondly, once they’re sentient they are reasoning and reasonable and without any religious instruction they naturally seem to follow the Christian code as laid down by the Catholic Church. Father Ramon believes the devil made them and nobody could resist the temptation of seeing them and ceasing to believe in God — despite the fact that creation by the devil is the Manichean heresy, and he knows it is. The Pope believes they’re a demonic illusion that can be exorcised, and the text seems to go along with that.

I think what Blish was trying to do here was to come up with something that a Jesuit couldn’t explain away. I decided to try this on a real Jesuit, my friend Brother Guy Consolmagno, SJ, an astronomer and keeper of the Pope’s meteorites. (He also has the world’s coolest rosary.)  I asked him first about evolution and then about the other stuff.

Well, to start with, that’s not and has never been any kind of traditional Catholic teaching about evolution. Certainly around the time of Pius X (say 1905) when the right wing of the Church was in the ascendency (following Leo XIII who was something of a liberal) there were those in the hierarchy who were very suspicious of evolution, but even then, there was never any official word against it.

As an example of what an educated layperson at that time thought about evolution, may I quote G. K. Chesterton, who in Orthodoxy (published in 1908) wrote: ’If evolution simply means that a positive thing called an ape turned very slowly into a positive thing called a man, then it is stingless for the most orthodox; for a personal God might just as well do things slowly as quickly, especially if, like the Christian God, he were outside time. But if it means anything more, it means that there is no such thing as an ape to change, and no such thing as a man for him to change into. It means that there is no such thing as a thing. At best, there is only one thing, and that is a flux of everything and anything. This is an attack not upon the faith, but upon the mind; you cannot think if there are no things to think about. You cannot think if you are not separate from the subject of thought. Descartes said, “I think; therefore I am.” The philosophic evolutionist reverses and negatives the epigram. He says, “I am not; therefore I cannot think.” ’ (from Ch 3, The Suicide of Thought)

In other words, it’s not the science that was considered wrong, but the philosophical implications that some people read into evolution. (In the case Chesterton was referring to, he was attacking the strict materialism that saw no differentiation between a man, an ape, and a pile of carbon and oxygen and other various atoms.)

Granted, this was written about 15 years before Chesterton formally entered the Church, but you can find similar statements in his later books (I don’t have them in electronic form so I can’t search quickly). And no one would call Chesterton a wooly liberal by any means!

A classic, specific endorsement of evolution in Catholic teaching came in 1950 with Pius XII’s encyclical Humani Generis, which basically makes the same point as Chesterton about accepting the possibility of the physical process of evolution while being wary of possible philosophical implications that could be drawn from it.

So, point one: even by the time that Blish wrote his book, this description of Catholic teaching of evolution was not only inaccurate, it was specifically contradicted by a papal encyclical.

Point two: as you point out, the attitude described is Manichean, which is not only not Catholic but even moreso not Jesuit. The whole nature of Jesuit spirituality, the way that we pray, how we think about the world, is one that specifically embraces the physical universe. “Find God in all things” is the sound-bite mantra. That’s why we’re scientists. If the world, or any part of it, is a creation of the devil (that idea itself is contrary to traditional Christianity since only God can create, and the devil is merely a shorthand way of referring to the absence of good, not a positive entity in itself) then why would you want to wallow around in it, studying it as a physical scientist?

Likewise it was the Jesuits who were the strongest (and still are) for “inculturation” and accepting alien cultures, be they Chinese or techies, for who they are, and adapting religious practices into a form and a language that can be accepted. Our best records of non-European cultures comes from Jesuit missionaries who were the strongest at protecting those cultures from the bad effects of western influence… often at great expense to the Jesuits themselves (for examples, look up the Reductions of Paraguay, or the Chinese Rites controversy).

But I guess I am confused here about what Blish is trying to do. Is the main character becoming something of a Jansenist? It was the Jesuits who most forcefully attacked Jansenism (which is, after all, where the phrase “Case of Conscience” first comes from), and which can be taken as a kind extreme version of Manicheism. (And they accused the Dominicans of being too friendly to that point of view. Maybe the main character should have been a Dominican?)

Point three: every scientist is used to holding two or three (or six) contradictory thoughts in their heads at the same time. That’s what science is all about—trying to make sense of stuff that at first glance doesn’t make sense, that seems to contradict what you thought you understood, and thus come to a better understanding. So any scientist (not just a Jesuit) would be excited by encountering contradictions, and would be horrified at trying to destroy the evidence that doesn’t fit.

Point four: what does it mean to have a “soul”? The classic definition is “intellect and free will”—in other words, self awareness and the awareness of others; and the freedom to make choices based on that awareness. Freedom immediately demands the possibility of making the wrong choice, and indeed of making a choice you know is morally wrong. So how would you know that a race of creatures that didn’t “sin” was even capable of sinning? If they are utterly incapable of sin, they are not free. Point five, and somewhat more subtle… even official church teachings like encyclicals are not normative rules that demand a lock-step rigid adherence; they’re teachings, not rules, and meant to be applied within a context, or even debated and adapted. For example, there’s a lot of Pius XII’s encyclical which says, in effect, “I don’t know how you could reconcile x, y, or z with church teaching”—but that kind of formulation leaves open the possibility that someone else, coming along later on with more x’s and z’s to deal with, will indeed figure out the way to reconcile them. There’s a big difference between saying “you can’t believe this” and “I don’t see how you can believe this” since the latter keeps the door open. Indeed, it is not the idea of sin that is hard to swallow in Christianity (just read the daily paper if you don’t believe in the existence of evil) but the concept that it can be forgiven, constantly and continually.

As for creatures who have no sin… what’s so hard about accepting the existence of such creatures? Aren’t angels supposed to be exactly that?

So, if Brother Guy had been on Lithia, we’d be in contact with cool aliens and finding out as much as we could about them.

Meanwhile A Case of Conscience remains a readable and thought-provoking book.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and eight novels, most recently Lifelode. She has a ninth novel coming out in January, Among Others, and if you liked this post you will like it. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.


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