A Helpful Portrayal of Religion in SF: Ursula Le Guin’s The Telling

This is part of a series of posts about the value of speculative fiction in understanding religion.

I’ve discussed portrayals of religion I think are best avoided in speculative fiction, but how can we understand what makes a of portrayal of religion in speculative fiction helpful? One place to start is Ursula K. Le Guin’s 2000 novel The Telling. In The Telling, Sutty has traveled from Terra (Earth) to the planet Aka to understand the native tradition for which the book is named. When she begins her investigation in earnest, Le Guin writes, “One of the historians of Derranda said: To learn a belief without belief is to sing a song without the tune.” If this historian’s words were literally true, religious studies would be largely impossible because religion studies is an outsider discipline. Having to become an insider to understand the object of study would reduce religious studies to theology. But Le Guin clarifies what the historian means by belief, “A yielding, an obedience, a willingness to accept these notes as the right notes, this pattern as the true pattern, is the essential gesture of performance, translation, and understanding. This gesture need not be permanent, a lasting posture of the mind or heart; yet it is not false. It is more than the suspension of disbelief needed to watch a play, yet less than conversion. It is a position, a posture in the dance” (90).

When approaching a tradition other than our own or a community who engages with our own religion differently than we do, we should begin where Sutty does, sympathetically accepting the views and patterns we observe as putatively true. This can be very difficult to do because of political differences, a strong commitment to our own worldview, or the presuppositions we bring when reading a text. Scriptural texts we take as authoritative or dismiss as false were often produced and commented upon within a very different culture than our own, and we can’t hope to understand them on their own terms if we aren’t willing and able to suspend our biases and read the words that are actually on the page or spoken by a teacher.

In the process of working herself into the Telling—which Sutty names variously as the Forest, the Mountain, and the Great System—she describes it as, “Day after day she recorded her notes, observations that stumbled over each other, contradicted, amplified, backtracked, speculated, a wild profusion of information on all sorts of subjects, a jumbled and jigsawed map that for all its complexity represented only a rough sketch of one corner of the vastness that she had to explore: a way of thinking and living developed and elaborated over thousands of years by the vast majority of human beings on this world, an enormous interlocking system of symbols, metaphors, correspondences, theories, cosmology, cooking, calisthenics, physics, metaphysics, metallurgy, medicine, physiology, psychology, alchemy, chemistry, calligraphy, numerology, herbalism, diet, legend, parable, poetry, history, and story” (91).

Why is this portrayal helpful?

Focus on the particular: Sutty relies upon her concrete observations to work her way into the tradition of particular communities at a particular moment in time. She isn’t grappling with religion in the abstract. Indeed, she judges her understanding of the Telling as a religion to be “not incorrect, but not wholly adequate” (96). This isn’t to say that secondary sources that discuss religious traditions at a higher level aren’t helpful. Secondary sources can clarify while the “wild profusion of information” from many primary sources confuses, but our study of religion and how we present it in fiction should always be grounded in particular texts, reports, and practices.

Integration with many aspects of life: Religion isn’t always as multi-disciplinary as how Sutty describes the Telling, which Le Guin modelled upon Daoism. For some religion truly is just what they do on Sunday mornings, but we should be wary of couching religion as just the vocation of clergy or what a community does on certain holidays or when they perform rituals. Much more commonly, we find religion integrated with many aspects of life. This can be because religious obligations infuse daily life. Consider Islamic jurisprudence, which generally does not condone separation of church and state or kosher dietary requirements for Jews. It can also be because one’s religion provides technologies that improve daily life. Consider yogic and tantric traditions in India, which involve the use of esoteric practices to acquire magical powers; naga busts and other architecture in Cambodian Buddhist temples for warding off demons; and shamanic manipulation of a spiritual realm for healing or divination.

Complexity of religion: Particular passages in scripture, commentaries, or reports of practitioners can describe a tradition, religious duties, or the goal of a tradition very simply, but as soon as we appreciate the views of whole communities and their textual traditions, we find the “jumbled and jigsawed map” Sutty describes. We learn that we only have “a rough sketch of one corner of the vastness” of the tradition. Most every claim we’re inclined to say of a whole tradition admits of exceptions. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t talk about Buddhism in general, Islam in general, etc.—after all, these categories are discussed by Buddhists and Muslims and are key in interreligious dialog—but we need to be aware of the limitations of the generalizations we make and the extent of those limitations. Sometimes exceptions are so common that generalizations distort more than they illuminate.