Day: September 4, 2009

the coherent incoherence of theology

The science-fiction writer Ursula Le Guin has been getting some good press lately (which is fantastic because her writing is brilliant and stimulating).

Le Guin begins the preface to her collection of short stories, The Birthday of the World, by┬áreporting how she feels about her science-fiction universe, ‘the Ekumen’: ‘I don’t exactly feel that I invented it. I blundered into it, and have been blundering around in it unsystematically every since — dropping a millennium here, forgetting a planet there’.

This, it turns out, frustrates her fans, particularly those who want to plot everything neatly on a time line, map every world (or whatever).


Yet the confusion and disorder of Le Guin’s fictional universe actually turns out to be a coherent incoherence. There are good reasons why it resists the attempt to be plotted and mapped.

Her explanation of this coherent incoherence is worth quoting at length because I think it opens a window on Christian systematic theology, which likewise resists over-neat ‘totalising’ explanations that explain — or rather explain away — everything, resolving every tension:

There are reasons for this incoherence, other than authorial carelessness, forgetfulness, and impatience. Space, after all, is essentially gap. Inhabited worlds are a long, long way apart. Einstein said people couldn’t travel faster than the speed of light, so I generally let my people travel only nearly as fast as light. This means that whenever they cross space, they scarcely age, thanks to Einsteinian time dilation, but they do end up decades or centuries after the set out, and can only find out what happened meanwhile back on the farm by using my handy device, the ansible. (It’s interesting to think that the ansible is older than the Internet, and faster — I do let information travel instantaneously.) So in my universe, as in this one, now here is then there, and vice versa, which is a good way to keep history from being either clear or useful.

What I’m suggesting is that what is true of Le Guin’s fictional universe is also true of systematic theology. Make sense?