On a personal note, I write this as someone who became absorbed in Stranger in a Strange Land, who has felt its pull, and who has overreached and undershot in the same act many times. The things I critique are never too far from home for me. But there is something interesting to be said, and it begins with Christological heresy.
The Eastern Orthodox Church has often been called the Church of the Seven Ecumenical Councils, and these councils, especially the early ones, were about who Christ was and is, namely Christology. The Orthodox Church rejected as heresy a number of answers to the question, “Who is Christ?” as deficient. What the councils affirmed might be titled “Maximum Christology.” And what they rejected was Christologies that were too small, and made Christ too little.
Arius, perhaps the most castigated of the heretics, taught that Christ was “a Creature, but not as one of the creatures,” a pre-eminent created work through whom God created all else. (And his teaching is alive and well, especially among Protestants; what Arius invented, keeps getting re-invented.) The insight of Athanasius was that this “a-mermaid-at-best Christ” failed to bridge God and his Creation: he has been summarized as saying that Arius’s Christ was an isolated post in the chasm between God and his Creation, and the proof that the chasm could never truly be bridged.
Nestorius came on another solution, that Christ included both complete God and complete man, but there was something like a gentleman’s agreement; they were not fully united. The Council that rejected him affirmed that not only was Christ fully divine and fully human, but the divine nature and the human nature were fully united in Christ’s person. Another council affirmed that while the divine and human natures were fully united, they yet remained unconfused. Other rejected teachings included that Christ had a human body but no human soul, the soul’s job being done by the divine nature, or that Christ had most of a human soul but not a human will. (To which the Orthodox reply that this is a most curious omission: it is by the will that we fell from our original glory, and what is not taken up in Christ is not saved. The maxim goes, “What is not assumed [taken into Christ] is not deified.” But more of that later.) The Church in rejecting these affirmed the maximum Christology of a Maximum Christ, maximally God, maximally man, with the divine and human natures maximally united, and yet maximally unconfused. The Christ worshipped by Orthodox is the Maximum Christ.
One book commented that someone had made a perceptive study of Martin Luther’s crisis of faith in light of modern identity crises, although Martin Luther probably would not have understood the comparison between his great crisis of faith and modern identity crises, and he almost certainly would have found the comparison reprehensible if he had understood it. In somewhat similar fashion, Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, in either the cut or uncut edition, cannot be placed alongside Arius, Nestorius, or the other classic arch-heretics as trying to offer a compelling solution to the question, “Who is Jesus Christ?” Heinlein has been called a “sex-crazed, anti-Christian libertine,” and Stranger in a Strange Land plays it to the hilt. But Stranger in a Strange Land admits a quite fruitful comparison to seductive Christological heresies, and I might suggest that this book, in which Heinlein was aiming for something monumental, is a Messiah story. Heinlein had nothing higher to shoot for. However anti-Christian Heinlein may be, he had nothing higher than a Messiah story to shoot for.
The figure of Merlin, deepened, becomes Christ. But I would like to clear away a distraction in Michael Valentine Smith, and avoid going down the road of, “Well, Christ has a dual nature, and Michael Valentine Smith also has a dual nature by the end of the book: he is both Martian and human.”
Stranger in a Strange Land is riveting. You can love the book, or you can be offended at it, but yawning and asking if there’s anything good on television is not an option, or at least not one I’ve met. Michael Valentine Smith “passed through the earth like a flame” and quite assuredly “never bored a soul,” to use words Dorothy Sayer applied to Christ. He comes to offer a gospel, and to awaken people to abundant life. Stranger in a Strange Land is a cult classic, with devoted readers who have never liked another science fiction book, and there are people who tried to create and live the Church of All Worlds it outlines: quite an achievement for a work of fiction with no pretensions of being anything else.
In this book, which a number of people consider the greatest science science fiction novel ever written (sound similar to “the greatest drama ever told”?), Michael Valentine Smith is born and raised on Mars with the wealth of Martian culture; early on he is referred to as a man, and another character adamantly denies this, says that he is not a man, calling him a Martian with the genes and ancestry of a man. He is brought to earth, but this is no homecoming, at least not at first; he faces the struggles and challenges of dealing with what is to him a completely alien culture and language.
Much of the early part of the book is concerned with his struggles; when the book moves on to the next stage, where he tries all sorts of professions, fails at most of them, and undergoes a sort of self-directed apprenticeship about living and doing things on our world. Here he is still struggling at being human, and his failures are often spectacular, but he has made a connection on something that eluded him earlier: he has something that those around him do not. He bears a wealth of Martian culture, language, and psychic powers, and he is gaining a foothold in how to do things on earth.
In the last part of the book, he begins a church, the Church of All Worlds, and uses the genre of a mystery religion to share the wealth of Martian culture. It is a microcosm of Mars on earth, as well as being presented as fully human, and the story culminates in the martyrdom of a man who gave and received culture shock practically everywhere he went.
Towards the middle of Stranger in a Strange Land, Michael asks Jubal, a father figure who gave Michael (much of) his humanity, why he didn’t mention “faith” when Jubal told him the list of bad words he shouldn’t say.
The “faith” that Michael rejects may well be a “faith” that Orthodoxy rejects too: if “faith” means believing in a God who does not interact with daily life, and a Heaven which only starts after death, then Orthodoxy rejects that “faith” too—as surely as Orthodoxy rejects “faith” without works. Faith in the Orthodox Church is something practical, an interaction that begins here and now, something that tastes and knows. To “grok” in Martian is to drink deeply and to know, and this is bedrock to Orthodox faith. So the “faith” that is rejected in Stranger in a Strange Land is something the Orthodox faith rejects too.
Nonetheless, it seems somewhat clumsy to speak of Michael’s “tenets of faith” in the book, and I will strike through the “bad” word, writing, “tenets of
faith.” (You are welcome to read this as “The word ‘faith’ is behind the line used to strike through it.”)
I would like to look at several tenets of
faith that run throughout the book, and underscore and unfold something: It is possible to overreach and undershoot in the same act. This happens in Stranger in a Strange Land‘s tenets of faith.
“Thou art God”
Mike, after struggling with human concepts, tells Jubal, “Thou art God!” and Jubal facepalms and says to back up. But Michael is confident and serene, and “Thou art God” becomes a foundational tenet of
faith for the Church of All Worlds.
It has been said, “I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give everything I own for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.” And that is a hint of why everything simply being God from the beginning is much less powerful a drama than God creating something else besides himself, and then by his grace deifying it. “Pantheism”, the idea that everything is God, has been called “paneverythingism,” the idea that “everything is everything else”—and something like this is underscored by a joke later on in the book where one worm asks another, “Will you marry me?” and the other worm says, “Marry you? I’m your other end!” It kind of drains romance, and if that is being God, then it isn’t really that much of an honor, or that big a deal, to be God. (Or, one might say, it isn’t really that much of an honor to be Everything, like everything else.)
It has been observed that love poetry flourishes in cultures where people believe God has a conversation with something that is not-God. If everyone and everything is God by nature, if as the dialogue in the book goes the cat that eats the bird or mouse is God and the bird or mouse is God and it doesn’t matter who is eaten, then being God does not hold a candle to the Orthodox teaching of divinization, that the Son of God became a Man and the Son of Man that men might become gods and the sons of God.
That is the simplicity on the other side of complexity: that is the deification on the other side of being created and not God.
Michael’s Martian “Thou art God!” overreaches and undershoots in the same movement.
The Kiss of Brotherhood
Within the bond of Michael’s group, there was a kiss of brotherhood, and this among the most central tenets of
faith—but Heinlein was really borrowing here. Remember the Bible on “Greet one another with a holy kiss?”
The kiss of love, shared within the community of the Church, is the one act the Bible calls holy. It has been said, “Examples of the kiss as a means of making and breaking enchantments have been found in the folklore of virtually every culture in the Western world,” and this resonates with the holy kiss.
The Orthodox holy kiss is a microcosm of spiritual life. It is tied to Holy Communion, and receiving the Holy Mysteries is itself understood as a kiss. It is by the mouth that one breathes with one’s spirit, and with the mouth that one receives communion, and though it is a kiss on the cheek, by implication it is a kiss on the mouth, displaced somewhat.
Perhaps there is much more to be said in this vein, even if the holy kiss seems somewhat restrained compared to the “all-out kiss of brotherhood” which was, um, more than a kiss. But there is another shoe to drop.
“Good fences make good neighbors:” we have a culture with boundaries and limits that are there for our protection. The difference between the Martian “kiss of brotherhood” and the Orthodox holy kiss is a bit like the difference between liberating yourself to be drunk all the time, and drinking wine in moderation. And the holy kiss is not a fixation: it is one of many things that fit into a larger reality, only one tree in a large forest. This factor is completely lost in Stranger in a Strange Land. Heinlein may have made much more of a to-do about the kiss itself, but there are some things in life where less is more.
The Orthodox holy kiss is much more striking in its original ancient context than one might imagine; and yet the Church preserved a balancing act with a holy kiss that respected boundaries. Exactly how it did so has changed over time, but balance has been preserved. Heinlein, to make it different from Christianity, toppled the balance by leaving nothing of personal or community boundaries. Destroy the balancing act, and the holy kiss becomes a gateway to pain.
In the “kiss of brotherhood”, Heinlein overreached and undershot in the same act.
In Stranger in a Strange Land, the idea of wearing clothes for modesty is ridiculed as an irrational local custom. “Clothes optional” is a defining feature of the little bubble of Mars on earth. Not just a tenet of
faith in the book, it was a basic practice when people tried to make a real-life Church of All Worlds following Heinlein’s blueprint. But the bumper sticker saying, “God’s original plan was to live in a garden with two naked vegetarians” is really missing something.
As to what exactly is missing, a frequent Orthodox hymn says of the Devil, “He who of old stripped you both naked” to Adam and Eve. What Adam and Eve had in the Garden of Eden was not something we re-create by taking our clothes off; we are in fact closer to Adam and Eve’s original condition when we are clothed in modesty. The term “naked” itself comes from “nake”, a verb that one would use to talk about stripping the natural covering from a nut. Never mind that some cultures don’t use clothes, and express their modesty in other ways. The natural condition is to present the person, not simply expose flesh, and the human person is presented properly when properly clothed. The New Eve, the Mother of God, is hymned, “Rejoice, robe of boldness for the naked!” because a person is naturally and properly presented when naturally and properly clothed.
Robert Heinlein sure makes nudity look good on paper. But from all reports, particularly Wendy Shalit’s A Return to Modesty, living nude is not all it’s cracked up to be.
This attempt to remove barriers by removing clothing, too, overreaches and undershoots in the same act.
Laced with escapism
Stranger in a Strange Land has bubbles of Martian culture, and Martian life, introduced to earth; and Orthodoxy brings the Kingdom of Heaven and eternal life into earth. But there is a difference. The literary work of Stranger in a Strange Land, and the Martian culture it heralds, is laced with escapism. Escapism is not simply a tenet of
faith; an escapist streak gives form and substance to every tenet of faith. By contrast, Orthodox eternal Life, lived here and now, is not escapist. It is intended for the here and now we are in, even the messy circumstances of our real lives, not the lives we might wish we were living.
It is difficult to describe the lust for escape, the lust to escape this world, that is laced through and through the novel and its movement. I tried to describe it in Exotic Golden Ages and Restoring Harmony with Nature: Anatomy of a passion. It is a lust I know well. And to those thirsting with that lust, there is good news and bad news. The bad news is that you can’t make the escape you thirst for. The good news is that you don’t need to.
Orthodoxy seems exotic enough; when you start out, things are very exotic, and in a certain sense it becomes something better than exotic when you have worn the shoe for long enough. But it lifts up slogwork, and offers engagement where one is tempted to seek escape. Stranger in a Strange Land, when its woven spell works its magic, leaves you wishing Martian culture was something you could enter. Orthodoxy leaves you able to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, and live the eternal life, where you are now, wherever you are now.
Stranger in a Strange Land, in trying to reach for something beyond the ken of earth, overreaches and undershoots in the same act. We need to let go of escape and discover that escape is not needed.
Water brothers are described as a very serious bond, “much more serious than a marriage,” and the tenet of
faith of water brothers is indeed more serious than Heinlein’s version of marriage. But to some readers it seems mysterious how Heinlein tears up traditional, permanent, monogamous marriage and then rushes in with water brotherhood as if there was a gaping hole he needed to fill.
The seriousness of water brotherhood parallels the seriousness of marriage and monasticism the Orthodox Church celebrates, and arguably its “inner circle” version of friendship bears such gravity. I’ve never read a reviewer of Stranger in a Strange Land say, “You know, this ‘water brother’ bond is something I just can’t relate to.” Water brotherhood is good and it appears different ways in different places. But in Stranger in a Strange Land its job is to fill a gaping hole after Heinlein has ripped up traditional marriage.
I remember reading a book where, to build up alchemy and give it a sense of transcendence, a character said he had studied all the world’s religions and spurned them for the seriousness of alchemy. There was a very recognizable move of literary craft being made, if one that struck me as oddly: alchemy is not a more serious alternative to lightweight world religions, but a lightweight alternative to more serious world religions, and any one of Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Christianity, and sundry other religions offer a much meatier alternative to the alchemy that was being offered. Here, in Stranger in a Strange Land, the same kind of move is offered: kindred, friendship, and even traditional marriage are dismissed to make way for the weight of water brotherhood. But we would do well to avoid lusting for the depth of “water brother” bonds and pursue deeper relationships with those around us, especially if we are married to them.
After parenthetically adding a note about “Good fences make good neighbors” being part of how you form healthy bonds, I would say that in Heinlein’s thirst for transcendent friendship, he has overreached and undershot in the same move.
Martian discipline and powers
Although the term “psychic” never appears for Martian disciplines and powers, Michael Valentine Smith and the people he trains in Martian discipline have psychic powers. If you follow their tenets of
faith in this book, you should expect to develop psychic powers. Characters see things and communicate far away, they can psychically kill and make things disappear (though a gun is very much a wrong thing, killing by psychic powers is a light and casual deal), and more. And on that point I would admit a comparison.
Orthodox saints levitate, see things past and future and know what is in others’ minds, and shine with the Light of Heaven. But to mention this is misleading, because it is a side effect: The Ladder of Divine Ascent says that people who see these things are like people who look at a sunbeam and see specks floating in the sunbeam because they are looking at the sunbeam itself. Michael Valentine Smith psychically kills a great many people; the greatest of Orthodox saints have raised the dead. But the Orthodox voice is insistent, emphatic, adamant. Repenting of your sins is greater work than raising the dead! The saints insist: Feeding the hungry is greater work than raising the dead! The few saints who work miracles see less wish fulfillment than us, not more; their struggles are like the messy circumstances of our lives, only much moreso.
The freedom in Stranger in a Strange Land is the freedom of wish-fulfillment, of immature desires sated. The freedom in Orthodoxy is the freedom that counts: the Mother of God who is addressed, “Rejoice, robe of boldness for the naked!” is also addressed, “Rejoice, love that doth vanquish all desire,” and the freedom in Orthodoxy is triumph over immature desire, and freedom to move on to more excellent things than one desires. In English, Stranger in a Strange Land tells us, being happy is a matter of functioning the way a person is meant to function; in Martian the statement amounts to a complete working manual. But Orthodoxy knows what it is, and has not only the Philokalia (volume 1, volume 2, volume 3, and volume 4) written out of deep knowledge and experience of what the science of spiritual struggle entails, but has Tradition, a living voice that offers bite-sized morcels to help day-by-day in our struggles. Orthodox Tradition trains us in the only freedom that really counts: not anything like psychic powers to sate unrefined desire, but transforming and transfiguring desire itself, which is itself greater work than raising the dead!
Heinlein offers powers equal to the powers of the saints in the superficial sense of the miraculous, and equal biofeedback-type control over their bodies so that one could stand through an ice storm naked (which some Orthodox saints can probably do), but without the most excellent way of the ABC of moral refinement and spiritual struggle. Fighting lust is one part of it, but not the only one, and here Heinlein offers heroes who win the Nobel prize for literature but do not deign to learn handwriting or typing. In Orthodoxy, the realization is that Nobel prizes are really not the bread-and-butter of life, but literacy in spiritual discipline is.
In psychic giants who embrace lust, Heinlein has overshot and underreached in the same heroes.
The initial working title for Stranger in a Strange Land was, The Heretic, and this seems a carefully chosen title. On that point it is worth quoting St. Irenaeos, Against Heresies:
Their manner of acting is just as if one, when a beautiful image of a king has been constructed by some skilful artist out of precious jewels, should then take this likeness of the man all to pieces, should rearrange the gems, and so fit them together as to make them into the form of a dog or of a fox, and even that but poorly executed; and should then maintain and declare that this was the beautiful image of the king which the skilful artist constructed, pointing to the jewels which had been admirably fitted together by the first artist to form the image of the king, but have been with bad effect transferred by the latter one to the shape of a dog, and by thus exhibiting the jewels, should deceive the ignorant who had no conception what a king’s form was like, and persuade them that that miserable likeness of the fox was, in fact, the beautiful image of the king.
This image seems apropos to the “practical gospel”, if you will, in Stranger in a Strange Land, and it doesn’t speak much of Michael Valentine Smith.
Or does it?
In antiquity, there were Alexandrian and Antiochian schools of thought, and the Alexandrian school understood Christ as a teacher and a bearer of important teachings. And from the Alexandrian perspective, St. Paul’s epistles in the Bible are quite puzzling: they make almost nothing of the wealth of teaching preserved in the Gospels; there is little if any trace of the parables the Gospels keep finding in the Lord’s mouth. And all of this is puzzling until you realize that St. Paul was not making an Alexandrian use of Christ as a pivotal Teacher, but laying the foundations for what would become the Antiochian school, which found the significance of Christ in his becoming incarnate as man, dying as a sacrifice, and rising from the dead and trampling down death by death. And that is everywhere in St. Paul’s quite Christocentric letters.
And if we place Stranger in a Strange Land‘s account of Michael Valentine Smith with respect to these poles, Heinlein’s precept and example are alike Alexandrian: his Messiah is a Teacher who is significant for the tenets of
faith he bears. At one point Michael is compared to the first man who discovered fire; in that sense he is more like the most important of many important saints than a Messiah proper. In the Orthodox Church, Christ alone is divine by nature; the faithful and even the saints are made to be divine by grace when God transcends the difference between Creator and creature. The uniqueness of Christ is too secure to be threatened by his divinizing work among the Church and Creation with it. And in that sense, Michael Valentine Smith stands the hero of a Messiah story, but in an Alexandrian sense.
Michael Valentine Smith is significant as a deliverer of tenets of
And in that sense his story stands as a Christological heresy, like the heresies the Church rejected in confessing her Maximum Christ.