On Re-reading Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy
I enjoy re-reading books. As a rule of thumb, after reading a new book, I’ll go back to revisit one I’ve read before. Recently I had a chance to re-read Isaac Asimov’s classic Science Fiction trilogy Foundation, Foundation and Empire, and Second Foundation.
I have been reading these books since high school. Although the books haven’t changed, I have and so has society around me and this observation is really behind today’s commentary on the series.
In the trilogy, Asimov imagines Homo Sapiens spread throughout the Milky Way galaxy participating in a galaxy-wide empire run by Trantor. This empire has existed for 16,000 years and is thought to last forever. The new science of psychohistory is able to predict the inevitable actions of large groups of people (an interesting metaphor for some theological reconciliations of predestination and free will) and Hari Seldon, the originator of psychohistory, predicts anarchy as the empire inexorably disintegrates. Seldon plans to mitigate the interregnum from 30,000 years of anarchy to 1000 years. That sets the stage for the formation of the Foundation at the fringe of the galaxy. You’ll have to read the book to find out what happens.
What interested me in this reading was a simple statement that came about in the dialogue between Sermak and Bort who were discussing Salvor Hardin’s (Mayor of Terminus, the Foundation home world) use of a technology-based religion to control neighboring worlds (Bort and Sermak are dissidents). Bort is asked what kind of religion is it? He says (p95, first Avon printing):
[Sermak] “But what kind of religion is it Bort?”
Bort considered. “Ethically it’s fine. It scarcely varies from the various philosophies of the old Empire. High moral standards and all that. There’s nothing to complain about from that viewpoint. Religion is one of the great civilizing influences of history [italics mine] and in that respect, it’s fulfilling—”
When I read that statement “Religion is one of the great civilizing influences of history” written by Asimov in 1951, I wondered how we as a society have moved from “great civilizing influences of history” to the twenty first century mantra that “religion ruins everything?” After all our history hasn’t changed and the actual facts of church history known today are substantially the same as those Asimov’s considered in 1951.
As I thought about this, I realized our perspective has changed because the reporting on religious history, particularly the history of the Christian Church has changed. In Asimov’s time, as in ours, there were many aspects of the history that were positive, and others that were terrible. What has changed? Where we focus our camera and where we place our microphone as we report on the past has changed.
William Tyndale was burned at the stake (after being strangled) at the age of 42 on October 6, 1536 in Vilvoorde, near Brussels. His crime? Translating the Bible into English so that people could read the scriptures for themselves.
Tyndale’s execution (according to Foxe) was witnessed by the attorney and doctors of Louvain who then moved off to complete their day.
So what’s my point? One’s perspective on this story depends on where you point the camera and hold the microphone. I think in 1951, the camera and the microphone were pointed at William Tyndale, who’s love for freedom and the truth motivated him to risk and lose his life in a translation project that would give others the chance to read the Bible for themselves—an example of religion’s civilizing influence.
What about today? We point the camera and microphone at the religious power brokers—the attorney and the doctors who set up the execution. But that’s the difficulty. History is a mixture of power, politics, noble aspirations, courage, conviction, and tragedy. The message we receive from history depends on where we point the camera and how we use the images. Curiously today, we have a secular perspective that completely dissociates itself from any of these historical actions because they are presumed to be religiously (and not politically) motivated and from our modern perspective, thankfully we’re through our religious phase. The net result is a general villainization of religion in our culture.
An accurate reading of history compels a much more balanced view, a view that does not assume that modern secularists don’t have their own injustices that they foist on their own political and ideological opponents, particularly the religious. History, if we read it properly, will help us to avoid acts of injustice on our part, not just inflict them on a new target group.
To me this is one of the reasons for re-reading older books—it let’s me see the world through the eyes of someone from a different culture than my own, and lets me discover some of the assumptions that make up my own perspective.
Thanks for reading,
Posted on May 25, 2014, in History, History of Christianity, Science Fiction and tagged Asimov, Foundation, Foundation and Empire, Review, Second Foundation, Tyndale, William J. McRae. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.