A Modern Prophetess: Octavia Butler
Yesterday, several women spoke at my Unitarian church, as part of our celebration of International Women’s Day, sharing stories of women who had inspired them. One of them spoke about three modern-day “prophetesses”, female science fiction authors, who have written about futures that have already started to happen or might happen soon. The three she listed were Children of Men by P.D. (Phyllis Dorothy) James, The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, and Ink by Sabrina Vouroulais.
Another prophetic book by a female science fiction author, which I think deserves attention on this day, is Parable of the Sower (1993) and its sequel, Parable of the Talents (1998), by Octavia Butler. Butler was probably the first recognized female science fiction author and also the first Black science fiction author.
The Parable series depicts the struggle of a small community trying to survive the socioeconomic and political collapse of the mid-21st century caused by environmental degradation, corporate greed, and the growing gap between the wealthy and the poor.
Butler even predicted that a demagogue would be elected to the U.S. Presidency with the call to “Make America Great Again.” Both Trump and Butler’s fictional president are charismatic leaders with ethno-nationalistic agendas. Both target people of color, homosexuals, and anyone whom they don’t consider to be good Christian Americans. Both call their enemies rapists and destroyers of the country. Both condone violence against their political opposition, but do so in a way that gives them plausible deniability.
“He still knows how to rouse his rabble, how to reach out to poor people, and sic them on other poor people. How much of this nonsense does he believe, I wonder, and how much does he say just because he knows the value of dividing in order to conquer and to rule?”― Octavia Butler, Parable of the Talents
The protagonist of the books, Lauren Olamina, creates a new religion, which she calls “Earthseed” and which is adopted by her small community of refugees. The central tenets of Earthseed are that God is Change, that we can Shape God, and that the Destiny of Earthseed is to take place among the stars. The novels contain excerpts from a fictional book of scripture called, “The Book of the Living”, which sets forth Earthseed’s theology, ethics, and eschatology (or vision for the future).
God is Change
The first tenet of Earthseed is “God is Change”:
All that you touch
All that you Change
The only lasting truth
Butler likely borrowed this concept of God from process theology. The fundamental insight of process theology is that reality is change, motion, flux. Objects, things, moments in time: these are abstractions and unreal. This is true of all reality, including God and ourselves. This God of process theology is not a God to be loved or worshiped. It is a God that is, in Butler’s words, perceived, attended to, learned from, shaped, and ultimately (at death) yielded to:
We do not worship God.
We perceive and attend God.
We learn from God.
With forethought and work,
We shape God.
In the end, we yield to God.
Butler calls God a “Teacher”, but also a “Trickster”. She acknowledges both the creative and constructive sides of God:
Is both creative and destructive,
Demanding and yielding,
Scultpor and clay.
God is Infinite Potential:
God is Change.
Butler’s God resembles the Goddess described by another female science fiction writer, Neopagan activist, Starhawk. In her post-apocalyptic science fiction novel, The Fifth Sacred Thing, Starhawk describes the Goddess as:
“the ever-diversifying creating/destroying/renewing force whose only constant is, as we say, that She Changes Everything She Touches, and Everything she Touches Changes. ‘Nice’ doesn’t seem to be a relevant concept. In some aspects, the Goddess is nurturing and comforting, in others She’s the Sow Who Devours Her Own Young. …
“The Goddess is not some abstract thought whose qualities we can decide. She is real–meaning that when we call Her in Her various aspects, ‘shit happens,’ as the T-shirt says; the rivers of life-force burst the dams and it’s paddle-or-die. But of course that power is not separate from us; it is the deep stream that runs through the secret heart of each and every cell of our bodies. …
“Ultimately we don’t decide who or what the Goddess is; we only choose to what depth we will experience our lives.”— Starhawk, The Fifth Sacred Thing
Starhawk describes her heroine’s struggle with the ambiguous Goddess in this way:
“One of the names of the Goddess was All Possibility, and Madrone wished, for one moment for a more comforting deity, one who would at least claim that only the good possibilities would come to pass. …
“ ‘All means all,’ she heard a voice in her mind whisper. ‘I proliferate, I don’t discriminate. But you have the knife. I spin a billion billion threads, now, cut some and weave with the rest.’ ”— Starhawk, The Fifth Sacred Thing
In other words, the Goddess is the force of both preservation and destruction in nature. If we want to survive, we have to fight for it like the rest of nature. “It’s paddle-or-die,” as Starhawk says. “Paddle or die,” indeed. Earthseed is a religion for the end of the world as we know it.
What’s interesting about Butler’s conception of God is not only that God shapes us, but also that we can Shape God. God does not discriminate, but that does not mean the we should not. As Starhawk writes, “we have the knife”–the power to discriminate. And this power to discriminate gives us the power to shape God, as Butler says:
A victim of God may,
Through learning adaptation,
Become a partner of God.
A victim of God may,
Through forethought and planning,
Become a shaper of God.
Or a victim of God may,
Through shortsightedness and fear,
Remain God’s victim,
To a certain extent, we are victims of forces beyond our control–“God”, if you will. But we do have free will: We can remain victims, or we can “wield the knife” that is our power of discernment, and become shapers of God, or of the potentialities that God represents. However, our power to shape our life (to shape “God”) is limited by the finite possibilities that are presented to us. Thus, our life is a product of the reciprocal interplay of “God” shaping us and our shaping of “God”.
When we say “God is Change”, we deny the claim that God is unchanging and affirm that this world of contingency is all there is. When we say that God can be shaped by us, we deny the claim that God is transcendent and affirm that we have only ourselves to look to for a better future. “Shape God” is a challenge to see, to learn, and to work to shape our reality, just as we are shaped by it:
Alter the speed
Or the direction of Change.
Vary the scope of Change.
Recombine the seeds of Change.
Transmute the impact of Change.
Adapt and grow.
God is Climate Change
“God is Change” is an acknowledgement that the greatest power in the universe is Change. Change is an irresistible force—and there are no immovable objects. We can see this all around us: in the seasons, in the aging of our bodies … and in climate change.
It is human nature to want a different kind of God, a God who does not change, a God we can rely upon to be the same, always and forever. We want a God who will protect us from Change, not a God who is Change. But when we don’t recognize the true nature of God as Change, we can also fail to recognize change in the world around us.
For example, if we believe that we are made in the image of immortal gods, then it is easier to deny our own mortality. If we believe in a creator god who spoke all the species into existence in a day, then it is easier to deny that entire species are now going extinct. If we believe in a god whose precepts cannot be altered by human action, then it is easier to deny the reality of climate change. But if we understand that God is Change, then we will be more likely to recognize Change all around us, including climate change.
If God is Change, then God is climate change too. God is not causing icebergs to melt, crops to whither, forests to burn, oceans to acidify, or species to go extinct. God is the melting icebergs, the record drought, the burning forests, the acidifying oceans, and the extinction of species. If we understand the true nature of God, we cannot hide from the true nature of … nature … or the consequences of human action on nature. In addition, if we understand that we can Shape God, then we will be empowered to work to slow climate change and adapt to its effects.
The Destiny of Earthseed
The third tenet of Earthseed is called “The Destiny”:
The Destiny of Earthseed
Is to take root among the stars.
It is to live and to thrive
On new earths.
It is to become new beings
And to consider new questions.
It is to leap into the heavens
Again and again.
It is to explore the vastness
It is to explore the vastness
This part of Earthseed didn’t appeal to me at first, and I remain ambivalent about it. The idea of escaping this planet to go to the stars seems escapist, a way of avoiding the real consequences of our way of life on this planet. But a close reading of the books shows it’s not meant to be understood that way.
Olamina explains that the Destiny is Earthseed’s vision of heaven or immortality. Because Earthseed is a naturalistic religion, meaning it eschews supernaturalistic explanations, Earthseed’s heaven is literally in the heavens–i.e., in space. And while we likely will not reach it in any of our lifetimes, we don’t get there by dying. While there is no personal immortality in Earthseed, the Destiny creates the possibility of a species immortality:
Each of us is mortal.
Yet through Earthseed,
Through the Destiny,
We are purposeful
And while our individual morality may not determine whether any of us get to the heavens, how we collectively live will determine whether we get there at all.
The pagan in me wants to revolt at this idea as escapism. The skeptic in me suspects it as fantasy. And the leftist in me sees it as colonialist. But the Destiny that Olamina describes is arguably none of these things. Many Pagans, pantheists, and religious naturalists believe the concept of heaven is at the root of our environmental crisis. But because Earthseed’s heaven is material, the Destiny has very real practical benefits for us and the planet in the here and now. Olamina explains:
“The Destiny is important for the lessons it forces us to learn while we’re here on Earth, for the people it encourages us to become. It’s important for the unity and purpose that it gives us here on Earth. And in the future, it offers us a kind of species adulthood and species immortality when we scatter to the stars.”— Octavia Butler, Parable of the Talents
Olamina goes on to explain that the Destiny has the potential to create a kind of species-consciousness for humankind, to bring us together to work toward a common goal, and to do so in a sustainable way with the Earth.
“I wanted us to understand what we could be, what we could do. I wanted to give us a focus, a goal, something big enough, complex enough, difficult enough, and in the end, radical enough to make us become more than we ever have been. …
“We can choose: We can go on building and destroying until we either destroy ourselves or destroy the ability of our world to sustain us. Or we can make something more of ourselves. We can grow up. We can leave the nest. We can fulfill the Destiny, make homes for ourselves among the stars, and become some combination of what we want to become and whatever our new environments challenge us to become. Our new worlds will remake us as we remake them. …
“Earthseed is about preparing to fulfill the Destiny. It’s about learning to live in partnership with one another in small communities, and at the same time, working out a sustainable partnership with our environment.”— Octavia Butler, Parable of the Talents
The seed metaphor is key here. If we want to spread the seeds of a tree, we don’t chop down the mother tree. We care for it and nurture it so that it can continue to produce seeds. The Earth is the mother tree for Earthseed.
Olamina proposes the Destiny as the alternative to the post-apocalyptic world she lives in, where the United States has exhausted its physical and moral resources, where education has become more a privilege of the rich than the basic necessity, where convenience, profit, and inertia excused greater and more dangerous environmental degradation, where poverty, hunger, disease became inevitable for more and more people, where people have become commodities … a world that looks increasingly like our own everyday world.
As for whether the Destiny is realistic, Olamina has no illusions about it, but she points out that there is nothing logically impossible about it either. It would be incredibly difficult. But that’s the point, in fact. We need something “big enough, complex enough, difficult enough”, but still possible, to bring us together, in a way that not even the immanent destruction of this planet’s ability to support human life has been able to. The Destiny is so challenging, we might just be forced into a paradigm shift. We might just move beyond the ideal of national cooperation to a truly global community. And because every human being might potentially provide a breakthrough necessary to achieve this monumental goal, universal health and education would be seen as a necessity, not a luxury.
You can learn more about Earthseed at GodisChange.org.