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Theological Self Help Rag

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Today there’s going to be a very confused post.  I think I know what I’m getting at here, but I’m  not sure.  And I’m getting at it because (of course) I just read a book, but it’s not actually the book I think I want to talk about.


The book is

49) Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle.  Inferno.

And let me state up front that there are going to be spoilers, lots of them, and they’re going to start right aways.

I will admit that I’ve never been able to understand  how you can discuss a book without “giving away” anything of the plot.

If you’re not discussing the plot and the ideas and the characters, what are you discussing?

Anyway, first, some notes on the book:

1) Inferno is Niven and Pournelle’s attempt at an updated Dante, but only (as the title indicates) of the first book of the Divinia Comedia.

We’re told, several times, that the Inferno is really the most interesting of Dante’s three books.  I have  no idea if that is actually true.

I will admit, though, that back when I had to read all this for school, I found the Paradiso insufferably boring, so they may be right.

2) The novel is narrated by an annoying  little twerp named Allen Carpenter, a successful-ish but not nearly as successful as he’d like science fiction writer who manages to end up dead while desperately trying to get the fans to like him enough to vote him an award.

In one of those ironic story-of-my-life sort of things, the fans never even see him fall out an eighth floor window, because just before he does Isaac Asimov enters the room, and nobody is paying attention to Carpenter any  more.

3) Actually, it’s “Carpentier.”  That’s the pseudonym Carpenter chose to write his books under.  I told you the guy was a twerp.

4) I’ve read a fair amount of Niven and Pournelle in my time, and I’d say that the experience has been…mixed.  Sometimes they write very well together.  Sometimes, not so much.

I found this novel what I can only call thin–it sort of never gets down under the surface of any of the characters, n ot even Allen Carpenter.

We are told, but never really shown, when  he’s scared, or angry, or whatever, and that is a drawback in a book with this theme.

On the other hand, you might not want to take my word for this.

I’m the person who has tried three times, over a period of 20 years, to read The Mote in God’s Eye and see what all the fuss is about, and I still don’t know.

The truth of the matter is that I may just have no ear for these guys’ work.

As thin as this book feels to me as a novel, however, it’s anything but thin in conception.

Niven and Pournelle set out to find an answer to one of the great questions in Christian theology:  how can a good God make any kind of Hell at all?

Hell is, and must be, by definition, unjust.  Sinners, no matter how bad they were, only commited finite wrongs with finite effects.  How could it be in any way just to punish them with an eternity of pain?

This is not a bad question.  It has been asked often over the years, and is, even now, one of the most frequently cited reasons for rejecting Christianity.

If  you’re going to ask questions, this is not a bad question to ask, and if you’re going to worry about the holes in traditional theology, this is a good hole to pick at.

Of course, traditional theology does have an answer, of sorts, to this particular hole.

It says that the punishment is not commensurate with the this-worldly pettiness of the crime, but with the infinite Majesty of God. 

Lying to God is different, and worse, than lying to Fred next door, because God is more important than Fred.  Betraying God is different, and worse, than betraying the United States of America, because God is more important than the United States of America.

And since all sin is automatically a sin against God as well as a sin against your neighbor (or yourself), all sin, no matter how seemingly petty, is deserving of infinite punishment.

I have seen some very good people try to defend the infinite punishments of hell this way, and I have to admit that I never quite bought the argument.

The whole thing is–as Allen Carpenter points out, time and again–disproportionate. 

It feels wrong, and by that I don’t mean that it feels morally wrong. 

It feels wrongly argued, as if I’m looking at some kind of logical fallacy that I ought to be able to catch but can’t, quite.

This may be just an accident of time and place.

Inhabitants of less democratic centuries might have found it that sinning against some people should carry a much tougher punishment than sinning against others.

From where I sit, though, I can only say that it does not compute.

I do also have to say, however, that if I was seriously looking into Christianity as a possibility for conversion, the inability to satisfactorily answer this particular question wouldn’t stop me.

I know there are other people who say it has stopped them.  Since I have no way to prove otherwise, I have to stipulate to the proposition that they’re telling the truth.

But I always have the feeling that it’s more of a rationalization than a reality.

The book itself comes to a conclusion that that works well with the modern approach to everything, even sin–or at least works well with it circa 1976, when the book was written.

But if the solution works out well for a modern approach, the sins don’t really.

The sins are not only distinctly Christian, but distinctly traditionalist Christian.  They include “sins against nature”–meaning having homosexual sex, which is lumped in with sex with animals and tree trunks and apparently  masturbation.

As far as I know, only one of these two is Christian in any substantive sense.  Even given the time period, it’s hard to figure out why there is such antipathy to sexual sins of all kinds–or rather, to sexuality of all knids, most of which are labeled sins that deserve what has been described as almost unbearable punishment.

The judgment on homosexuality itself goes considerably farther than anything Orson Scott Card ever said, and he’s in the middle of a nationwide boycott of his movie.

The book has a traditionalist Christian sense of sin in another way, too–there are Muslims in hell because they are Muslims.  Christians in hell appear to be there only if they are schismatic to the true Church, or if they try to start their own religion that isn’t the true Church, or…

You see what I mean.

If you seriously look at what this book seems to be identifying as good and evil, it’s more than a little astonishing that this book has become the kind of cult classic it has become.

I think, though, that the answer to this is simple–I think that most of the people who read this don’t think seriously about what this book identifies as good and evil.

I think what they do is get off on the modern examples of evil people–crazed environmentalists and anti-environmentalists both, including the people who shut down nuclear power plants, psychologists and psychiatrists and teachers  and social workers who come  up with fake “diagnoses” that ruin people’s lives, corrupt politicians and bureaucrats…

And, yes, all those people belong in hell, and even I was glad to see them.

And Niven and Pournelle did one very good thing with the theology–you don’t end up in their hell for espousing the wrong position, but only for espousing it when you’re convinced that your opponents are right and the position you’re taking is actually going to cause harm.

All in all, it was an interesting book, even if I spent a lot of time wishing it was better and more seriously written.

Written by janeh

August 3rd, 2013 at 11:31 am

Posted in Uncategorized

4 Responses to 'Theological Self Help Rag'

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  1. I did’t read the book – I went off Niven at quite an early stage, and never read Pournelle or, as far as I can recall, any of the joint books.

    And I know many people find that the problem of Hell (along with the existance of evil) is enough for them to leave or never accept Christianity.

    That being said, in ordinary everyday life, people seem to think that the wickedness of an act depends on who you do it to – and they act on this assumption. It’s a lot more evil to rob or beat your own mother than a random old lady you meet on the street. It’s worse to steal from a friend than it is to take the same amount from, say, the government by not declaring that bottle of booze.


    3 Aug 13 at 12:36 pm

  2. Cheryl, I’ve read all three and I’d say Niven & Pournelle is a different author than either Niven or Pournelle, and often a better one. Which doesn’t mean you’d enjoy them–just that having read either one doesn’t tell you whether you’d like the collaborations.

    On to INFERNO. Well, you can dislike or like a book for any reason and ask anything of it–but in wanting better-realized characters and a defense of Catholic–or Christian–theology, you’re asking more of Niven & Pournelle than Dante delivered.

    Let anyone who doubts me read the Niven & Pournelle INFERNO, then as many translations of the first book of the Divine Comedy as they wish. Carpentier and his guide Benito may not be perfect depictions of real people–but they are substantially better ones than Dante the narrator and Virgil.

    Neither does Dante justify God’s judgment. He simply accepts it, and shows some of the logical consequences. I might note that N&P never show anyone in Hell except for reasons which seem reasonable to a semi-modern Methodist. “Carpentier” speculates that his homosexual neighbors may be down there, but we never see them–nor is anyone shown in Hell for adhering sincerely to a false religion, though we do see people in Hell for deliberately creating a religion they know to be false, or even for creating a schism. That’s quite a different thing.

    It IS notable that no one in Dante questions the judgment–or repents. No one says “let me out and I’ll never do this again!” In Niven & Pournelle some do–but this works with their different justification for Hell. They may be wrong, but N&P weren’t careless. They thought this through.

    They also paid attention to Dante and his commentators–not just the layout, but details. Dante places the Flatterers in a pit of Excrement. N&P accept this, and show where it’s coming from–hilariously. Dante describes the hoarders and wasters banging rocks into each other. N&P identify the rocks, and I think they must be right.

    Back briefly to characters. I’d suggest that for the author who says “there’s right and there’s wrong: you’ve got to do one thing or the other” what the critic calls “fully realized” characters probably aren’t an option. ATLAS SHRUGGED may be as close as you’re going to get. When you do get said “three-dimensional” characters, the moral or political message always seems muddled or ambiguous–as, for instance, a lot of Shakespeare.

    Which is not to say you can’t have cardboard characters AND a muddled moral message, of course. But to say you may fail at both is not to say you can succeed in both at the same time.


    3 Aug 13 at 1:24 pm

  3. I think Dante’s Inferno was required reading in a compulsory World Literature course at university. Enough said!

    The theological problem of Hell doesn’t bother me much because I don’t understand why people would expect a God who could create the universe to have the same standards of behavior that human beings have.

    Of course we need to remember that Medieval ideas of “universe” were very different from ours.


    3 Aug 13 at 9:05 pm

  4. “It feels wrongly argued, as if I’m looking at some kind of logical fallacy that I ought to be able to catch but can’t, quite.”

    “Here, then, I take my stand on the acknowledged principle of logic and of morality, that when we mean different things we have no right to call them by the same name, and to apply to them the same predicates, moral and intellectual. Language has no meaning for the words Just, Merciful, Benevolent, save that in which we predicate them of our fellow-creatures; and unless that is what we intend to express by them, we have no business to employ the words.

    If in affirming them of God we do not mean to affirm these very qualities, differing only as greater in degree, we are neither philosophically nor morally entitled to affirm them at all. If it be said that the qualities are the same, but that we cannot conceive them as they are when raised to the infinite, I grant that we cannot adequately conceive them in the one of their elements, their infinity.

    But we can conceive them in their other elements, which are the very same in the infinite as in the finite development. Anything carried to the infinite must have all the properties of the same thing as finite, except those which depend upon the finiteness.

    What belongs to either as Infinite or as Absolute I do not pretend to know; but I know that infinite goodness must be goodness, and that what is not consistent with goodness, is not consistent with infinite goodness. If in ascribing goodness to God I do not mean what I mean by goodness; if I do not
    mean the goodness of which I have some knowledge, but an incomprehensible attribute of an incomprehensible substance, which for aught I know may be a totally different quality from that which I love and respect…what do I mean by calling it goodness: And what reason have I for respecting it? I

    If I know nothing about what the attribute is, I cannot tell that it is a proper object of respect. To say that God’s goodness may be different in kind from man’s goodness, what is it but saying, with a slight change of phraseology, that God may possibly not be good? To assert in the words what we do not think in
    meaning, is as suitable a definition as can be given of a moral falsehood.

    Besides, suppose that certain unknown attributes are ascribed to the Deity in a relation to external evidences of which are so conclusive to my mind, as
    effectually to convince me that it comes from God. Unless I believe God possess the same moral attributes which I find, in however inferior a degree, in a good man, what ground of assurance have I of God’s goodness?

    But when I am told that I must believe this, and at the same time call this being by the names which express and affirm the highest human morality, I say in plain terms that I will not. Whatever power such a being may have over me, there is one thing which he shall not do; he shall not compel me to worship him. I will call no being good, who is not what I mean when I apply that epithet to my fellow-creatures; and if such a being can sentence me to hell for not so calling him, to hell I will go.
    [John Stuart Mill, “An Examination of
    Sir William Hamilton’s Philosophy”]

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