CSFF Blog Tour: Proceeding by Inquiry

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.

5 thoughts on “CSFF Blog Tour: Proceeding by Inquiry

  1. As usual, you enunciate my concerns with the religious aspects better than I can. The Zetetic Society sort of redeemed itself for me later on, but the early bits were so worrying, I don’t blame you for being concerned… I probably should be more concerned myself. (I also didn’t like Tess one bit!)

    Kit’s prayer was nice but it felt really universalist to me.

  2. I think the church scene goes far in settling doubts about the Zetetic Society. I’m still not sure what to make of them, but there are two more books coming. We’ll see what happens.

    Kit’s prayer didn’t feel universalist to me, but I can understand why you say that. There really is no hint of the Gospel or Jesus Christ in it. I found it interesting, though, that Kit refers to the caveman as “one of your creations”. I wonder if the cavemen, although biologically close to us, are not really part of the human race – a bit like Tolkien’s Elves, maybe.

  3. Interesting discussion. I was wondering if anyone else was suspicious of the Zetetic Society. I honestly didn’t know until they mentioned Cosimo which side they were on and didn’t want Cass to be too quick to trust them.

    The thing I’m noticing is an increase in an awareness of God in the story–from the Egyptian pharaoh who apparently was worshiping the One True God, but was unconscionable in his treatment of others–on through those you named here. Who has the truth? Who sees things aright? Who can the reader trust as a reliable source? It’s all still very much in the air.

    What I like, though, above all else, is the Spirit Well itself. If fits the picture of Jesus as the life-giving water, of God as the Fountain of Living Waters. Jeremiah 2:13 came to mind: \For My people have committed two evils: They have forsaken Me, The fountain of living waters, To hew for themselves cisterns, Broken cisterns That can hold no water.\


  4. I love that verse from Jeremiah. Whenever we forsake God, we then have to try and replace Him – and we never can.

    I’m still a little suspicious of the Zetetic Society. Cass should have thought longer before taking those vows, in my opinion. A secret society: red flag. A secret society devoted to “ushering in the final consummation of the universe”: big red flag.

    That being said, I think that Brendan and Rosemary are well-meaning. Tess might be bad news; there’s no reason to think the Zetetic Society can’t have any bad apples in its barrel.

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