“The Wrong Side of Heaven, the Righteous Side of Hell”: Religion, Faith, and Belief in Ted Chiang’s Stories of Your Life and Others

by Tammy Wahpeconiah

 

Abstract: In this article, I argue that Chiang addresses questions surrounding faith, religion, belief, and the nature of God. He questions whether God has a role in our lives, what that role may look like, and the ability of religion to provide meaning. I further argue that Chiang’s stories are apocalyptic in nature and have a certain similarity to the apocalyptic writings of John because they reveal our disillusionment with the world and our inability to find meaning in religion alone.

Keywords: Chiang, Ted; Ted Chiang; Stories of Your Life and Others; Religion; Apocalypse; Science Fiction; Tower of Babylon; Hell Is the Absence of God; Division by Zero

 

How is God in the world? Is He, according to Christian theology, both transcendent and immanent? In other words, is He distant and separate from the world and humanity while at the same time working within both? Or, did He create the universe and then remove Himself from it? Are we able to comprehend certain aspects of God through our understanding of the order and beauty of the universe? Or, do humans seek a God who is no longer interested? Many science fiction writers have asked and responded to such questions including Ted Chiang in his collection, Stories of Your Life and Others. Several of his stories deal directly with these questions and we can read them as a critique of faith, religion, belief, and the nature of God. Chiang questions whether God has a role in our lives, what that role may look like, and the ability of religion to provide meaning. Furthermore, these stories are apocalyptic in nature, especially if we think of apocalypse as “revelation,” the Greek definition.

Frederick Krueziger further defines apocalypse as “an unfolding; hence a revelation through unfolding” (5). Such unfolding always takes place within a story; thus, we must consider the inherent connection between apocalypse and story. As Krueziger says, “Apocalypse as story first of all reveals story as that which shapes our search for meaning” (5). The revelation, the unfolding, therefore is the story itself as well as what the story means. We can read Chiang’s stories as apocalyptic because they reveal our disillusionment with our world and our inability to find meaning in religion alone. For Krueziger, science fiction as apocalypse illustrates our disillusionment with “the failure of the promise of technology and science to deliver the world from poverty, ignorance, disease, war, famine, plague, and death . . . .” (6). Although I agree that many science fiction works address these particular disillusionments, Chiang’s stories, I would argue, have a certain similarity to the apocalyptic writings of John. People disappointed at the failure of the Second Coming to occur during their lifetime lost faith in the promise of God. John’s writings deal with crises of both history and faith. Thus, Chiang’s stories are similar to John’s writings in that they deal with the disillusionment and failure of faith and religion.

Before discussing the stories, it may behoove us to consider the definitions of faith, religion, and belief. Although we may feel we know what these words mean, and may even think they are synonymous, the distinctions among them are of importance to this essay. As John Bishop states, “. . . at its most general, ‘faith’ means the same as ‘trust’.” Greg Popcak defines faith more narrowly, asserting that faith “is merely the innate drive to search for meaning, purpose and significance.” Religion, at its most basic, can be defined as a specific form of human activity as a means of achieving spiritual or material improvement. However, this form of human activity is often cultural because it is a system of behaviors and praxes uniting a community. Belief, according to Eric Schwitzgebel, refers “to the attitude we have, roughly, whenever we take something to be the case or regard it as true.” Interestingly, many define faith as belief without proof. Although many use these three terms interchangeably, Chiang employs them in specific ways in his stories.

In the “Tower of Babylon,” Chiang uses the biblical story of the tower of Babel as his premise. His focus is not on God’s creation of various languages as punishment for defying Him, but on humanity’s desire “to see what lay beyond [the earth’s] borders, all the rest of Yahweh’s creation” (5-6). This story juxtaposes science with faith and religion as the Babylonians are building the tower so they can break into the vault of heaven. They desire knowledge about their world, but also desire knowledge about God, believing that the tower will enable them “to ascend to see the works of Yahweh” while allowing Yahweh to “descend to see the works of man” (6). In this story, Ted Chiang combines the above definitions of religion as a “search for meaning, purpose and significance” as well as the desire for material and spiritual improvement (Popcak).

In addition to religion as a thematic focus, Chiang also incorporates geocentrism: a specific, albeit outdated, “scientific worldview” (Smith). As Alexander Robishaw explains:

The envisaged structure is simple: Earth was seen as being situated in the middle of a great volume of water, with water both above and below Earth. A great dome was thought to be set above Earth (like an inverted glass bowl), maintaining the water above Earth in its place. Earth was pictured as resting on foundations that go down into the deep. These foundations secured the stability of the land as something that is not floating on the water and so could not be tossed about by wind and wave. The waters surrounding Earth were thought to have been gathered together in their place. The stars, sun, moon, and planets moved in their allotted paths across the great dome above Earth, with their movements defining the months, seasons, and year. (60)

Chiang brilliantly describes the geocentric worldview through the protagonist of the story, Hillalum, who is an Elamite miner, contracted to dig into the vault of heaven. He, along with other Elamite miners, spends four months climbing to the top of the tower. Along the way, he discovers how his world and his universe functions. He comes to know that night is “the shadow of the earth itself, cast against the sky” (“Tower” 11). He and the others reach a point on the tower where they see “storms from above and from below” and where people “[harvest] crops from the air” (14). After climbing a number of weeks, the miners find themselves “at precisely the same level as the moon when it passed; they had reached the height of the first of the celestial bodies” (14). When they reach the level of the sun, the intense heat forces them to travel at night. Passing this level, Hillalum finds that the sun shines “upward, which [seems] unnatural to the utmost” (15, emphasis in original). When they are level with the stars, the miners discover that a star has hit the tower, leaving “a knotted mass of black heaven-metal, as large as a man could wrap his arms around” (16). Finally, they reach the vault of heaven itself, “a solid carapace enclosing all the sky” (16) that “[seems] to be made of fine-grained white granite, unmarred and utterly featureless” (18-19). Hillalum’s travels to the top of the tower allows him to discover both the meaning and significance of the physical world, not through religion or faith, but through his own observation.

Since, in the geocentric view, the Earth is “situated in the middle of a great volume of water,” the Babylonians and the Elamite miners fear that breaking into the vault of heaven will release another Great Flood (Robishaw 60). They believe Yahweh caused the Great Flood, or the “Deluge,” by releasing “the waters of the Abyss . . . from the springs of the earth, and . . . [from] the sluice gates in the vault” (19). Concerned that they may hit one of these reservoirs, the Babylonians enlist Egyptian masons who design a system using large blocks of granite that will “slide down until [they] rest in the recess of the floor” and will completely block any opening (22). Using this design, they are able to safeguard the world from another flood when their worst fear is realized and the miners accidently dig into a reservoir. Hillalum and two others are trapped within the vault, but only Hillalum survives. The rising water forces him upward and the current of water carries him until “the walls [open] out away from him” (25). He awakens in a tunnel, but is able to see light ahead. He comes out of what he discovers is a cave and finds himself in the land of Shinnar, which is south of Babylon. Hillalum’s return to earth from the vault of heaven forces him to realize that the world is shaped like a seal cylinder, “wrapped around in some fantastic way so that heaven and earth [touch]” (28). Thus, Hillalum’s journey is in itself apocalyptic—as his story unfolds, the world reveals itself through his experience.

The scientific worldview Chiang incorporates is fascinating; yet, what is even more fascinating is the way the inhabitants view God and their attempts to connect with Him. The people fear God’s displeasure and Hillalum feels uneasy at the thought of breaking open the vault of heaven (4). Standing at the base of the tower even Hillalum’s senses rebel, “insisting that nothing should stand so high” (6). He and the others continually wait for a sign from God “to let men know that their venture was approved,” yet God is silent (14). When the star mentioned above first hit the tower, “everyone descended . . ., waiting for retribution from Yahweh for disturbing the workings of Creation. They waited for months, but no sign came” (16). God never acknowledges their efforts, either blessing or damning them for their attempts. Their overwhelming desire for knowledge of God’s workings cause them to give “thanks that they [are] permitted to see so much” while at the same time they “beg forgiveness for their desire to see more” (18). Their reactions show lack of surety regarding their purpose as Yahweh fails to respond.

The inhabitants debate how God may perceive their attempts to reach Him. Qurdusa, one of the tower’s bricklayers, argues that “if the tower were sacrilege, Yahweh would have destroyed it earlier” causing one of the Elamites to counter: “If Yahweh looked upon this venture with such favor there would already be a stairway ready-made for us to use in the vault” (19). Hillalum, however, takes a more Deistic viewpoint, saying, “Yahweh may not punish us, but Yahweh may allow us to bring our judgment upon ourselves” (19). The God in this story creates the world but does not actively intervene. When Hillalum and the others hit a reservoir, he believes “his fate had come at last. Yahweh had not asked men to build the tower or to pierce the vault; the decision to build it belonged to men alone, and they would die in this endeavor just as they did in any of their earthbound tasks. Their righteousness could not save them from the consequences of their actions” (24). In this world, the focus is on the choices one makes and the consequences one must pay for those choices. Yes, God exists, but He does not intervene in human lives, nor does He care if they are virtuous or sinful, or if they worship or ignore Him.

Hillalum’s realization of how the world is structured leads him to an understanding of why God never responds to humanity’s attempts to reach him:

It was clear now why Yahweh had not struck down the tower, had not punished men for wishing to reach beyond the bounds set for them: for the longest journey would merely return them to the place whence they’d come. Centuries of their labor would not reveal to them any more of Creation than they already knew. Yet through their endeavor, men would glimpse the unimaginable artistry of Yahweh’s work, in seeing how ingeniously the world had been constructed. By this construction, Yahweh’s work was indicated, and Yahweh’s work was concealed.

Thus men would know their place. (28)

Hillalum comes to understand that faith does not provide meaning or significance to his life. He glimpses “the unimaginable artistry” of the world through human endeavor, not through worship or religious ritual. As Alan Gregory states, while all “apocalyptic texts reveal human life in its precarious contingency,” apocalyptic “science fiction finds the contingency of life before immanent powers” (161). The inhabitants of this world find “a sense of wonder at the complexity of creation” that comes from their own exploration of the world (Smith). Yahweh does not open their minds or increase their understanding of their world and their place in it, only an individual’s desire for knowledge does so. Chiang’s story is apocalyptic in that it is the story itself that reveals our search for meaning. We do not need religion to achieve spiritual or material improvement; what we need is our continuing desire to discover and understand the physical world.

The “Tower of Babylon” is a story illustrating the existence of God through the reasoning and observation of its characters, but not by supernatural manifestations. Such is not the case in “Hell Is the Absence of God.” In the world of the story, the idea of faith as belief without proof is not an issue. Angels make frequent appearances and inhabitants witness the dead ascending into Heaven or descending into Hell. Hell itself becomes visible on occasion, allowing the living to see a place very similar to their world as going to Hell means “permanent exile from God, no more and no less” (“Hell” 208). Angelic manifestations can lead to miracles but can also lead to indiscriminate death and birth defects because of the destructive power of their visitations. Furthermore, anyone caught in “Heaven’s light,” which appears “only when an angel [enters] or [leaves] the mortal plain,” goes to Heaven, even if they are wicked or evil (226).

The protagonist of the story, Neil Fisk, believes in God (as do all in this world since there is no question of God’s existence), but he does not love God. Neil views “God’s actions in the abstract,” believing that “circumstances were fully capable of unfolding, happily or not, without intervention from above” (206). Because Neil is devoid of either positive or negative feelings about God, he fully expects to go to Hell since, “for people like him, Hell was where you went when you died” (209). Permanent exile from God holds no fear for Neil as it means “living without interference” (209). His wife, Sarah, however, is devout, a fact that surprises Neil since “there weren’t many signs of her devotion” such as church attendance. Yet, he sees in her “the best argument for loving God that he had ever encountered. If love of God had contributed to making her the person she was, then perhaps it did make sense” (218). The years spent together even improved Neil’s view of God and given time, Neil “probably would have reached the point where he was thankful to God” (218). However, he is not given that time.

Unfortunately, Sarah is one of eight casualties during a visitation from the angel Nathanael; she is “hit by flying glass when the angel’s billowing curtain of flame [shatters] the storefront window of the café in which she was eating” (206). Witnesses see her ascension to Heaven, and while Neil “could have seen Sarah’s death as a wake up-call,” he instead becomes “actively resentful of God” (218). He wants to be reunited with Sarah, and the only way to achieve this reunion is for Neil to learn to love God. However, he finds himself in a paradox: “Sarah had been the greatest blessing of his life, and God had taken her away. Now he was expected to love Him for it? For Neil, it was like having a kidnapper demand love as a ransom for his wife’s return. Obedience he might have managed, but sincere, heartfelt love? That was a ransom he couldn’t pay” (218-19). He joins a support group of those who witnessed the visitation but is bothered by the suggestion that he should “[accept] his role as one of God’s subjects” (208). Unlike those who have discovered a “newfound devotion to God,” Neil is unable to accept his loss and make peace with God (208).

Unable to find a way to love God, Neil finds a loophole when “Barry Larsen, a serial rapist and murderer who, while disposing of the body of his latest victim, witnessed an angel’s visitation and saw Heaven’s light. At Larsen’s execution, his soul was seen ascending to Heaven, much to the outrage of his victims’ families” (225-26). Neil decides to become a “light-seeker,” one of those who go to sites where angels either arrive or depart the mortal plane. When the angel Barakiel appears, Neil attempts to follow him but ends up crashing his truck into a boulder. However, a shaft of Heaven’s light passes over Neil, blinding him. At that moment, “the light revealed to Neil all the reasons he should love God” (232). As he now loves God “with an utterness beyond what humans can experience for one another,” he confidently assumes that he will go to Heaven since “he [is] truly worthy of salvation” (232-33). Yet, “God [sends] him to Hell anyway” (233). In Hell, Neil’s sight is restored and he has a perfectly formed body; nonetheless, he experiences “more anguish than was possible when he was alive, but his only response is to love God. . . . He knows his being sent to Hell was not a result of anything he did; he knows there was no reason for it, no higher purpose” (234). His love for God, the narrator tells us, “is the nature of true devotion” (235).

In “Hell Is the Absence of God,” Chiang brilliantly critiques a fundamental tenet of those who espouse a religious belief: that God rewards those who love Him. Chiang forces the reader to grapple with a deeply philosophical question: why would a loving God impose suffering on the innocent? Chiang believes this “is one of the fundamental problems of religion,” accepting and making peace with “all the terrible things that happen in the world” (Solomon). Faith Mendlesohn reads this story as “Chiang’s consideration of an ontological world in which the miraculous is a daily event [that] directly challenges the comfortable assumptions of the religious Right that miracles are always good things” (274). While I do not agree that it is just the religious Right who believe miracles are always positive, I do agree that many who would define themselves as religious have such beliefs. In the world of the story, supernatural visitations can have both profoundly negative and profoundly positive effects on people.

However, we see characters on whom these visitations have no effect at all. Ethan Mead, a witness to the angel Rashiel’s visitation, believes God has a purpose for him and longs for “an encounter with the divine to provide him direction” (214). However, Rashiel’s visitation does not change Ethan either spiritually or physically. He witnesses Neil Fisk’s death and descent to Hell, which leads Ethan to a recognition of God’s ambivalence: “He tells people that they can no more expect justice in the afterlife than in the mortal plane” while encouraging them to worship God, just not “under a misapprehension” (234). Whether one worships God or not seems to have no effect on whether one ends up in heaven or hell. Therefore, the reader is forced to question the benefits of religious faith.

In many ways, “Hell Is the Absence of God” is a commentary on Pascal’s Wager. In the world of the story, the inhabitants know God exists; therefore, there is no infinite gain or infinite loss in choosing to believe or not to believe. The infinite gain or infinite loss is situated in the love one has or does not have for God. If one loves God and goes to heaven, then one receives infinite gain. However, if one loves God and goes to hell, as does Neil Fisk, then one experiences infinite loss. There is no “best bet” in this world as one cannot trust God to reward the righteous.

Rudy Busto argues that “Chiang is asking us to take a religious belief and make it a real, statistically measurable thing-in-the-world, and by so doing, he forces us to think about ways religion can be so abstracted and ‘unreal’ in our lives” (398). Many of us feel comfortable pronouncing certain events as either a blessing or a scourge from God, yet few of us would feel comfortable definitively pronouncing a birth defect, for example, as one or the other. Chiang brings us into a world where the inhabitants do not have such options, a world where “God is not just, God is not kind, [and] God is not merciful” (“Hell” 234). This God is the God for those who do not see religion as a means of achieving any kind of spiritual improvement. Chiang lays bare the mystery and the incomprehensibility of God’s purpose. We never know why God sends Neil Fisk to Hell and Barry Larsen to Heaven. “Hell Is the Absence of God” is an apocalyptic story that reveals a crisis of faith, the disillusionment of those who no longer (never?) believe in the promise of God to reward the faithful.

The disillusionment of faith affects those who do not see God as a way of improving their lives. If belief is, as Eric Schwitzgebel defines it, something we regard as true, what happens when one proves that something incorrect? To return to Pascal’s Wager, what if one can prove that God does not exist? Moreover, what happens when the one to prove it is the one for whom religious belief fundamentally structures one’s life? In “Division by Zero,” math professor Renee and her husband, Carl metaphorically represent what happens when the devout seek and find unexpected answers to the questions surrounding religious belief.

Renee’s understanding of herself and the universe centers on her certainty of the consistency of mathematics. For Renee, mathematics “is the sacred language of the high priests, the scientists and the technicians. As a sacred language, mathematics . . . is all-inclusive, timeless, transcendent, and incapable of being misinterpreted. . . . To think and speak the sacred language of mathematics is to think and speak the truth” (Kreuziger 38). Math has always provided Renee with a “sense of rightness”; she discovers this “rightness,” when she is a child and the epiphany grounds her understanding of the universe (74). However, Renee’s research leads her to a theorem that proves mathematics is inconsistent and thus meaningless. She discovers “a formalism that lets you equate any number with any other number,” thus proving that any two numbers are equal (80). Her discovery, which disproves “most of mathematics,” engenders in her the same sense of rightness that has structured her world up to this point, but this sense of rightness leads to her realization that the language of mathematics is neither sacred nor true (81). Her encounter with apocalypse reveals that mathematics can no longer provide meaning or structure to her life and she attempts suicide.

Carl’s understanding of himself and the universe centers on his certainty that “compassion [is] a basic part of his character” (87). Carl’s suicide attempt 20 years earlier allows him to become a person who knows “the difference between sympathy and empathy” and he finds his identity in his ability to “offer comfort in similar situations” (87). Just as mathematics provides “rightness” to Renee’s world, helping others, “[sitting] in the other seat, and [playing] the other part” provides rightness to Carl’s world (87). Therefore, Carl is stunned to discover he has no empathy for Renee’s predicament: “Whatever was bothering Renee, it was something he couldn’t fathom” (79). In fact, he feels “no more than a sense of duty toward her” (74). Similar to a devout person when faith and religion no longer provide structure and meaning, both Renee and Carl lose their bearings when they discover that what they have always taken as the truth of themselves and their world can no longer be trusted.

Chiang’s structure of “Division by Zero” adds further context to the effects of loss of faith. The story is laid out in eight numbered tripartite vignettes, with the exception of the last one, which only contains two sections (“9” and “9a=9b”). The first section is numbered one through nine and provides a mathematical concept; the other two sections are based on either Renee’s perspective (the “a” section) or Carl’s perspective (the “b” section). Each initial section details a discrepancy in mathematical logic and we can read each one as a metaphor for faith and belief.

For example, in Section 6, the narrator tells us that “In 1931, Kurt Godel demonstrated two theorems. The first one shows, in effect, that mathematics contain statements that may be true, but are inherently unprovable. . . . His second theorem shows that a claim of the consistency of arithmetic is just such a statement: it cannot be proven true by any means using the axioms of arithmetic” (79). In other words, mathematical truth and mathematical proof are not the same thing: we can know certain things to be true while not having the ability to prove they are true. Such is one of the definitions of faith: belief without proof.

Chiang provides us with an intimate look at what happens when what we believe “[imposes] meaning onto the universe” is proven false and the proof comes, not from the outside, but from ourselves (86). As Renee tells Carl, the fact that she develops this theorem is analogous to a “theologian proving that there was no God. Not just fearing it, but knowing it for a fact” (88). For Renee, mathematics was something she “believed deeply, implicitly” and she is “the one who demonstrated” that it is not true (88). At the same time, Carl discovers his ability to empathize, his belief that imposes meaning onto his understanding of the universe, does not extend to Renee for whom “he couldn’t feel anything” (85). He feels exactly as she does, that he, too, has discovered the falsity of something he “believed deeply, implicitly,” which is why the last section of the story is titled “9a=9b.” However, this empathy, this connection, Carl feels for Renee divides rather than unites. Both Renee and Carl lose their faith and both do so through their intellect and insight.

Ted Chiang’s apocalyptic stories are commentaries on our own search for meaning. Many science fiction writers often consider “what religion may become under vastly altered circumstances” (Reilly 6). Chiang, however, creates places and characters where religion and faith are somewhat altered, while at the same time appearing familiar to the reader. As the stories unfold, we recognize our own disillusionment and loss. Like many of us, the characters in the “Tower of Babylon” are forced to ask themselves whether they put “ultimate trust in knowledge or faith” (Frisch and Martos 18). Hillalum’s discovery and understanding of the world reveals to him that meaning is found in scientific exploration, not ritual or faith. Neal Fisk, on the other hand, lives in a world where proof of God is a given fact, yet he comes to know that God dispenses justice, kindness, and mercy arbitrarily. We, too, may question why God, like the God in “Hell Is the Absence of God,” rewards the unrighteous and damns the righteous seemingly without rhyme or reason. In “Division by Zero,” religion is, for Carl and Renee, “the audacious attempt to conceive of the entire universe as humanly significant”; yet, they find their universe not only insignificant but false (Berger 28). Chiang’s story speaks to those whose belief structure has crumbled under intense scrutiny and whose search for meaning leads them not to a structured and orderly universe, but only leads them further into chaos.

As with all science fiction, Ted Chiang’s stories reveal more of our present than our present reveals to us. We are not given definitive answers to God’s role in our world; instead, his stories force us to question our own beliefs. Chiang’s apocalyptic literature is born out of our own profound disillusionment that is centered “not on the world, but on the promise of God . . . which has dimmed, flickered, and for some expired” (Krueziger 11). Yet, these stories do not leave us with, or lead us to, despair and nihilism. Ted Chiang’s apocalypse reveals and reaffirms that meaning and therefore, life, come out of death—the death of falsely held beliefs.

 

 

Works Cited

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—. “Hell Is the Absence of God.” Stories of Your Life and Others. Small Beer Press, 2002, pp. 205-35. Print.

—. “Tower of Babylon.” Stories of Your Life and Others. Small Beer Press, 2002, pp. 1-28. Print.

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Schwitzgebel, Eric. “Belief.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Summer 2015. Web. 10 Feb. 2016.

Smith, Jeremy. “The Absence of God: An Interview with Ted Chiang.” InfinityPlus. September 2002. Web. 27 Jan. 2016.

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