When the Bright Empires series began with The Skin Map, I found the religious element to be scant. It grew stronger in The Bone House, a quiet but steady undercurrent throughout the novel. In The Spirit Well, religion has a stronger presence yet. This comes mainly from the Zetetic Society, a group devoted to exploring the multiverse. They are the Questors spoken of in the first book – whom I had, I confess, clean forgotten.
In one scene, the Questors Brendan and Rosemary try to persuade a young woman named Cass to join their society. Brendan declared to her, “Our aim is nothing less than achieving God’s own purpose for His creation.”
When Cass asked what purpose that would be, Rosemary responded, “Why, the objective manifestation of the supreme values of goodness, beauty, and truth, grounded in the infinite love and goodness of the Creator.”
You would think that a sentence with so many nouns would have more meaning.
A little later in the conversation, Brendan expanded on his theme: “When the universe reaches the point where more people desire the union, harmony, and fulfillment intended by the Creator, then the balance will have been tipped, so to speak, and the cosmos will proceed to the Omega Point.”
And Rosemary elaborated, “This world, this universe, transfigured – the New Heaven and the New Earth. … Human destiny lies in the mastery of the cosmos for the purpose of creating new experiences of goodness, beauty, and truth for all living things.”
I don’t really know what they’re talking about. But I know this: The Bible also speaks of a new heaven and earth – but not this universe transfigured. This universe, this world will be destroyed. “Heaven and earth will pass away,” Jesus Christ declared, “but my words will never pass away.”
Much is obscure in the Bible’s end-times teachings, but this is clear: When God makes everything new, it will not be because “more people” want it. And I at least am suspicious of any philosophy that holds that it is the destiny of humanity to create new experiences of goodness and truth for all living things.
C. S. Lewis once said that no creature is so bad as something that is going to be human and isn’t yet. And I would contend that no religion is so bad as one that is going to be Christian and isn’t yet. I wondered if the Questors’ talk was so much psuedo-Christian jabberwocky. But I can’t say that it is, and for two reasons.
One is that some of what they say is solid. The other is that I can’t understand the rest of what they say. Their language is esoteric enough to create unease, and vague enough to create confusion. It confounds understanding. Their words are lofty, up in that airy region where the line between being high-minded and being fuzzy-minded is exceedingly fine.
The heroes give other signs. Brother Lazarus, a Catholic monk, joins with them; Mina finds the “daily office” (of praying) to be meaningful; Kit is moved to offer this prayer at the death of a primeval hunter: “Creator of all that is and will be, we give you back one of your creations. His life in this world was taken from him, but we ask that you receive him into the life of the world that has no end.”
None of this makes me trust the Questors more, but it does make me trust the author more.
The Zetetic Society gives other reasons for unease. Toward the end of The Spirit Well, Cass meets a Questor named Tess. Tess derides religious dogma and revivalists, and says, “Anyone who tells you he knows the mind of God is selling something.”
She’s not bad at selling things herself. She gives Cass her first mission: searching for Cosimo Livingstone, another Questor and the man Tess almost married. This, Tess assures Cass, is why she came to the Society. “There is no such thing as coincidence.”
They often say that in the Bright Empires series, and usually it has a noble ring. But not here. In this context – You are here because we need someone to look for my old flame; nothing happens by accident! – it seems more than a little self-serving.
“Zetetic”, by the way, is a real word; it means “proceeding by inquiry; investigating”. Samuel Rowbotham founded a number of zetetic societies in America and Britain at the end of the nineteenth century. Their purpose was to promote the belief that the earth is flat.