Faith and Science (Fiction): Dune and the Hope for Something More

What might Frank Herbert’s classic science fiction book “Dune” have to say about hope? It just might be what a society ravaged by scarcity and struggling to survive needs. Lucas Mix offers a reflection on Christianity and the people of Dune. (Spoilers: This article references content from books in the Dune series)

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Emotionally. but not intellectually, more satisfying than A Canticle for Leibowitz.

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I don’t know Liebowitz, but as far as story-telling, world-building, and question-asking go, I found Frank’s Dune novels extremely satisfying, (particularly the first three). Sometimes a visit off-planet is very healthful.

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I’ve read Dune more times than I can remember. It’s about time!

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Good article. Makes me want to re-read the series. I read them back in the 1970’s, and some of the imagery still sticks in my mind.

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I read A Canticle in my teen and then again about 50 years later. I thought it was great the first time and just okay the last time. I think some of that was the difference between just reading it vs reading it while trying to remember having read it. But part of it was just having a wider range of comparison.

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For once, I’m caught up on my homework around here. I had just plowed through the first three (my favorites) this winter.

Don’t get me wrong. I adore Dune nearly as much as Lucas Mix. However, as a Christian, I find it a hopeless world, where even (particularly) the most elite and exceptionally intellectually adapted characters understand that they are participants in a system of systems that they continually attempt to control, yet cannot escape.
I find Herbert’s rumination on determined outcomes fascinating. The mistake of some of the mentats (and those that rely on them) and ruling Bene Geserat is their assumption that their great ability to fathom human motives, politics, personal needs and desires and economic mechinations is sufficient to soundly predict outcomes that are also reliant on disobedience, unrecognized motives, inexplicable phenomina (how can we not love even the undead Duncan Idaho, who encounters his former self?) like self-sacrifice, someone else’s even greater insight and simple randomness. Reading the book, there is a constant tension between those who see their world as a chess game they seek to control, and those who refuse to participate (entirely).

Herbert’s distrust of human institutions is instructive.

He provides a large example of the way human systems work to maintain power and control. While we see his systems operating top-down, and we even admire some of drivers, he is also very clear that their motives are personal, only interested in justice in as far as the provision of it can be used to maintain power and control.
As a Christian, I find Herbert’s insights here instructive again. What am I a part of? In what and in what ways am I complicit in things I dislike, find immoral, abhor? In what ways am I being manipulated or seeking to manipulate others? Are my allegiances to one thing/person/institution causing me to behave in conflict with my stated beliefs, morals or values?

Herbert’s plays with a tension between athiesm, agnosticism and (using @MarkD’s term) “god belief” throught the books is very interesting. In particular I find Herbert’s views on all but pariticularly institutional religion instructive. The Bene Geserats and other elites, for example, see no purpose for religion beyond a tool for expoiting the people. Worship is provided to give the therepeutic outlet people want as well as capture their minds in an invisible net of “faith ties”. It’s a cynical but insightful view of all religion and faith. It reinforces questions I have related to systemic tools of manipulation and my own motives. “Why do I stay (specifically) ‘here’?” Or did. To what degree are my own allegiances to people and my perception of their feelings and needs causing me to avoid changes I intellectually and spiritually belief I need to make? To what degree are my feelings of disloyalty indications of disloyalty or of psychological ties? There are other questions Herbert’s insights into religion and belief cause me to ask, but this is what is on the front burner now.

There are other questions Herbert forces within the excellent story-telling and exquisite world-building. These are probably two of my biggest.

Would love to hear more from others in the neighborhood.

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Reading this makes it clear I do not remember much from having read it in the 70’s. Maybe I have homework to do.

One negative reaction I have to the story based on your review is my suspicion I won’t like it because of the political angle. Top down control and Machiavellian intrigue smacks of conspiracy theory. There is so much of that all around us that I’m afraid I’d have a hard time buying into the story.

On an up note I appreciate your mention of “god belief” which of course seems the more appropriate spelling given the generality of my level of interest. But I write “God belief” to avoid the appearance of a snub and genuine desire not to offend my Christian friends. I’ve been thanked here for observing that cultural norm but I confess before I came here it never occurred to me to capitalize the first letter of “Bible”. One sees that word used to refer to the most comprehensive and authoritative book in a field. For example I think Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind is it will become seen to be the bible on morality. Here it seems natural not to capitalize since the Bible is basically being used as emblematic of a genre.

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The ethics of orthography can be overwhelming at times, Mark, can’t they? The lower case I used was deliberately considered, because it is not clear that there actually is a referant to it in Herbert’s thinking, and if there is, certainly not at all resembling the object of my faith. I appreciate your overt sensitivity to and respect for the sensibilities of Christians here.

The conspiracy aspect I think is more than tolerable. However the monger might see it differently. Give it a try. I think you would like it.better than you expect. Would love to hear your response to it if you do reread.

Among the many things you’ve already suggested, Kendel, the Dune stories might also serve as a reminder that Christianity (and religious life generally) predates and does not necessarily depend on WIERD (Western, Industrial, Educated, Rich, Democratic) culture before it can thrive.

In fact, given what we see today, one might be forgiven for asking if or how sustainable Christianity is in the west! Scary question to ask - and I don’t put it out there lightly. Because I very much do remain committed to democracy as a superior answer over tyranny. But the jury is probably still out on the relative civilizational survivabilities of these various systems (to put a western metaphor on it all). In too many ways, life (and death) does get much simpler while living in autocracy. Probably often ‘simpler’ in ways that make one long for nearly anything else - especially if they’ve at least had a taste of participatory freedom.

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Thanks for this, Merv. I had never heard of w.e.i.r.d. but yeah. I think there’s definitely something there.
I wonder a lot about the connection of power, wealth and influnce in the western church to (what I see) as an ever increasing confusion of the two kingdoms within the church. It seems to me it that thought is also connected to your points about sustainability. Wrong focus, tools, and authority categories eventually alters what the Church in the west can do. At least in Jesus’s name.

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I don’t think Dune lends any support to religion especially Christianity as much as it echoes it, picking up on themes like the idea of a messiah. It does seem to accept the innately religious nature of human beings, seeing it as instinctively incorporating hard learned lessons into into its religions. There is considerably more support for the reality of evolution, where it sees humanity evolving in a number of very different directions.

I don’t think it supports top down control as much as it addresses our inevitable tendencies to fall into such patterns of behavior. In the third novel, the aim of the God emperor is to liberate humanity from the tyranny of absolute control (by means of this new ability to see the future), which the emperor sees as a dead end threatening human survival.

Of course this is all built on a false sci-fi premise of FTL star travel making star empires possible – really more of a fantasy. There has been more than one classic sci-fi using such a premise to resurrect the idea of nobility and empire which many see as romantic in some way. The structure of the universe makes most kinds of stellar governments let alone the feudal and imperial sorts rather unworkable.

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Herbert also seems very interested in demonstrating how this nature can be exploited or seen as exploitable. Particular examples:
*Jessica and RM Gaius Helen discussing the fictitious prophecies that had been “planted” on Arakis to prepare the people to eventually rever or worship a Messiah.
*The cult of Alia, which was used to maintain allegiance to and reverance for the family.

Yet for all of his agnosticism or athiesm, Herbert plays with the concept of posession and even communing with spirits of — well— pretty much everybody who had ever lived. I suppose that doesn’t require a god of any sort, but certainly plays with the supernatural.
I think Herbert worked to maintain that tension.

Well - the first thing I should do is at least correct my spelling on the acronym - “I” before “E” except after “C” or sounding like ‘A’ as in ‘neighbor’ and ‘weigh’ … or spelling “weird”, apparently!

Part of that is no doubt to be a reminder that our “WEIRD” culture is by far only a small fraction of all human experience historically.

One of the fascinating commonalities that at least two major series seem to have in common (Dune and Asimov’s Foundation series) is an innate suspicion of computers that lead toward artificial intelligence. In Dune, AI, is almost religiously forbidden due to a history of bad experience with it. Likewise, in Asimov’s Foundation, they have emerged from a past history with robots that makes the presence of any androids a super big (mostly taboo) deal - which of course figures prominently into the plot. Neither of these visionary authors was apparently able to envision a sustainably long term future for humanity coexisting with an also long-term AI presence. This is in marked contrast with the more Trekian style universes that lean heavily on all manner of tech and AI as integral parts of their storylines. While Trek does pull in the obligatory human element into its stories - it is very much a story of interaction between humanity and technology. Whereas I suspect that Asimov or Herbert - who are not anti-tech I’m pretty sure, nonetheless made their stories a bit more purely invested in the human element alone, with a bit of technology adornment on the side. It probably makes their stories deeper and more satisfying, and I think, reflects a more profoundly connecting story line with deeper rewards for the patient reader.

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“Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” -Colossians 4:6

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