While reading A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr., I came to a debate involving the Book of Genesis and the natural curiosity of humankind. Their discussion I am calling Blind Faith v. The Necessity of Speculation. But first, allow me to provide some exposition to the novel, so you can know the weight of this brief (but immortal) clash of ideologies.
A Canticle for Leibowitz follows several characters throughout a time span of over 1000 years starting approximately with the year 2500 CE. The 20th century saw a nuclear holocaust and the subsequent centuries suffered a phobia of knowledge and a destruction of books. The novel follows the progression civilization (mostly Western) took in the past: a Dark Age leading to a Renaissance leading to a new technological era of space travel and nuclear rediscovery. Despite the book’s broad spectrum of time, the story’s focal point is from the monks of the abbey of St. Leibowitz somewhere in what used to be Utah. The monks spend much of their time over what they call the Memorabilia (documents dated pre-nuclear holocaust). As they do, the reader sees how history does indeed repeat itself when knowledge of the past is lost or misinterpreted.
“History is written by the winners” is a common phrase that holds true since we started telling what happened before and certainly when we wrote that down. This applies to religion too. When you study as much about world religions as I have, you see common threads the world over in how people use mythology to explain the Why of the things around them. So too do we see ourselves reflected in these rationales. Dom Paulo, an abbot at the abbey, quotes Genesis as the prime factor for why it is folly for Man to seek too much advancement from his “natural” station under God.
“God commanded him, saying: Of every tree of paradise thou shalt eat; but of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, though shalt . . . not eat. For in what day soever thou shalt eat of it, thou shalt die the death. . . . And the serpent said to the woman: God doth know in what day soever you shall eat thereof, your eyes shall be opened, and you shall be as Gods, knowing good and evil” (230-231).
And the scholar (Thon Taddeo) rebuffs the claim by listing all the boons science can contribute to civilization:
“Freedom to speculate is necessary . . . to the advancement of science. If you would have us hampered by blind adherence, unreasoned dogma, then you would prefer . . . to leave the world in the same black ignorance and superstition that you say your Order has struggled . . . against. Nor could we ever overcome famine, disease, or misbirth, or make the world one bit better than it has been for . . . twelve centuries” (230-231).
Dom Paulo goes on to dismiss the possibility of the world getting any better, “only richer or poorer, sadder but not wiser, until the very last day” (231). And similar things can be said about other religions around the world: only in the end of things when (in Abrahamic lore) the Kingdom of Heaven is established on Earth can we have any true satisfaction. As far as Dom Paulo is concerned, knowledge can only help but so far as to propagate the survival of the church; so long as it submits to the supremacy of God, it will do. But Thon Taddeo again urges for the need of speculation, of improving people’s lives on Earth, alleviating suffering and extending longevity.
Following the abbot’s dismissal, he accuses the scholar of “tak[ing] delight in leaping to such a wild conjecture from so fragile a springboard? Why do you wish to discredit the past, even dehumanizing the last civilization? So that you need not learn from their mistakes? Or can it be that you can’t bear being only a ‘rediscoverer,’ and must feel that you are a ‘creator’ as well?” (231). Previously, Thon Taddeo hypothesized from some papers in the abbey’s Memorabilia that those who came before were not the first to inhabit the Earth but a race created by another, older race of humans. Yet I find it hard to trace the abbot’s line of reason when accusing Thon Taddeo’s argument for being “fragile” or even wishing to “discredit” those who came before. Thon Taddeo’s character never expressed any gain to his personal ambition in examining the Memorabilia. This is where theocratic doctrine strangles any liberation to humanist efforts. The abbot assumes malign intent on the part of the scholar (a human) because of his association to the leader of a growing nation and — more importantly — because of what Genesis teaches about those who would amount to the supremacy of God.
So what is the quickest path to destroying the structure of monotheistic religion? Eat of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil of course. As the serpent said, “for God doth know that in what day soever you shall eat thereof, your eyes shall be opened; and you shall be as Gods. . . . How shall you know good and evil, until you have sampled a little? Taste and be as Gods” (234). Well any organization in the monotheistic camp can’t have Man transfigured into gods, or they would be no better than the countless other faiths who host many to their pantheon. If the character of God has to share his singular authority with others who are his equal, then leaders of that faith too may lose their status in the community as the arbiters to scriptural interpretation and the forgiveness of sins.
Knowledge (that from the Tree and its Forbidden Fruit) literally is power, but there are those who horde such knowledge for the clergy . . . for God. And why, again, was Dom Paulo branding Thon Taddeo as misusing the information in the Memorabilia? That’s right, one works for the Word of God, the other questions it; one seizes progress, the other nurtures it; one maintains order, the other evolves it.
I have no solution to this debate of religious v. secular. Reading the scene over several times simply struck my inspiration to write about a topic I think about often. I could go on, explore more into this theological conversation. There are monks who invent electricity and express interest in science that could branch other articles, but I think I might stop it here. I’ve given the exposure to this novel I wanted. Go read and think on this for yourselves. Maybe that way we might truly be able to relinquish ourselves from the hold of what is known and into the arms of what is truth.