Transhuman and Subhuman Part XIV: Childhood’s End and Gnosticism

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Continuing from the previous post, we now consider the Gnostic foundations of Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke as demonstrated by John C. Wright.

“I say CHILDHOOD’ S END is ‘Gnostic’, a heresy of the Christians,” Wright explains, “because I do not see the attitude or mind-set of any other religion represented.”

Wright bases his case for Childhood’s End’s Gnosticism on the scene in the book where an alien device capable of looking into the past is said to disprove “all the world’s religious writings” and “all the world’s great faiths”. Clarke depicts everyone on earth abandoning religion as a result.

Pointing out that Christianity is the only major religion that claims its theology is based on concrete historical events, Wright concludes, “…there is only one religion under attack here, and it is misleading to pretend any religion but one is in the crosshairs. Like far too many atheist writings, this passage is not atheist, merely antichristian.”

The resemblance of the aliens who provide the time device to devils from Christian demonology is significant, says Wright, because the inversion of good and evil is a central Gnostic theme. Gnosticism teaches that the Christian God is a liar who must be cast down. As a science fiction story, Childhood’s End can’t literally portray God being overthrown. Instead it uses the exposure of his lies to prove that he doesn’t exist.

Wright calls the story’s conceit that images from an unsubstantiated alien source would drive the whole human race to atheism, “…a ridiculous idea, handled with ham-handed clumsiness that breaks suspension of disbelief.” In response to Clarke’s wishful thinking, Wright points out that, “Religion answers basic and deeply-rooted human emotional and psychological and intellectual needs.”

Even when he himself was an atheist, Wright “…thought religion would always be among us, and never pass away, any more than racism or warfare would ever pass away. I now believe religion will always be among us and never pass away, any more than true love or times of peace will ever pass away.”

In response to the line in Childhood’s End where men are said to have outgrown gods, Wright asks, “…what is the evidence that religion is not a development of intellectual effort away from a more primitive state, rather than the opposite?”

In real life, every regime that has attempted to eliminate religion for something more modern (The Revolutionaries of France, the bloody gangsters of Russia, China, and Indochina) always ushered in a rapid decivilization, a new barbarism. It is almost as if—heretical thought alert—atheism is a regression to a more primitive state, not an improvement.

Wright acknowledges that Clarke himself wasn’t a Gnostic. Why, then, did Childhood’s End turn out to be such a Gnostic work? “It is always the Judo-Christian tradition they plagiarize for ideas. No one bothers to blaspheme the Aztec Gods.”

The answer: “…if Clarke had written any other book aside from CHILDHOOD’S END it would not have been an answer to the question posed by the Space Trilogy of C.S. Lewis.” Wright views Childhood’s End  as part of a dialogue among the great books of Western fiction about the final destiny of man, along with War of the Worlds and Out of the Silent Planet.

Wells started the conversation by asking readers to imagine what would happen if a race more highly evolved than man invaded earth according to merciless Darwinian principles. Lewis turned the tables by asking what would save a hypothetical unfallen race from fallen human space explorers. Wouldn’t it be better for violent, vicious mankind to remain earthbound?

Arthur C. Clarke answers C.S. Lewis with speculation of his own. ‘What if science can take the place of religion? What if evolution, the striving ever upward, can replace these primitive superstitions, and offer a transcendence that is real? What if it is not only good, but necessary, for us to venture into space?’

Why did Clarke frame his answer to Lewis in Gnostic terms? “Clarke could not help but give a Gnostic answer to the Christian challenge because, within the framework of Western assumptions about man and life and afterlife, there is no other answer.”

Within the confines of Western thought, there are only three possible answers to the question of man’s final fate. Either there is no God, and humanity is doomed to be surpassed by another species; there is a God, and humans are individually saved or damned according to his will; or–the Gnostic answer–each man is a god.

“By sticking with the Christian assumptions about ultimate destiny, but rejecting the Christian answer,” says Wright, “Arthur C. Clarke has no choice but to pen a naturalistic and science-fictional version of an old Gnostic myth.”

Wright concludes: “Either you glorify Man with the Gnostic and call God a liar, or you glorify God with the Christian and call Man to repent.”

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About Brian Niemeier

Brian Niemeier is a John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer finalist. His second book, Souldancer, won the first ever Dragon Award for Best Horror Novel. He chose to pursue a writing career despite formal training in history and theology. His journey toward publication began at the behest of his long-suffering gaming group, who tactfully pointed out that he seemed to enjoy telling stories more than planning and adjudicating games.