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Religion in Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower Term Paper

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Updated: Apr 16th, 2019

The main reason why Octavia Butler’s 1993 dystopic novel Parable of the Sower is being commonly referred to, as such that represents a high literary value, is that the themes and motifs, contained in it, are discursively relevant. That is, they do reflect people’s anxieties, in regards to the challenges of a post-industrial living.

One of these challenges is the fact that, as time goes on; the religious appeal of Christianity to Americans continues to become ever more undermined. This simply could not be otherwise, because for even mildly intelligent people, the Biblical fables about Sun standing still in the sky, talking donkeys and Saint Mary becoming impregnated by the ‘holy ghost’ appear rather unconvincing, so say the least.

The same can be said about the provisions of Christian morality, based upon the vicious assumption that there are ‘chosen people’, favored by God, on the one hand, and ‘infidels’ that will be eventually thrown into the ‘lake of fire’, on the other. At the same time, however, the overwhelming majority of Americans continue experiencing an urge to be spiritually guided.

In its turn, this causes many people to think that there are now objective preconditions for the creation of a new religion, which would be both: thoroughly humanistic and conceptually consistent with an ongoing social, cultural and technological progress.

This is what Butler’s novel is all about. In it, the author provided readers with an insight as to how religion and science could be successfully combined together – hence, creating a ‘spiritual product’, thoroughly adjusted to the challenges of modernity.

Nevertheless, even though that, as it will be illustrated later, the fictious religion of Earthseed (described in the novel) is in fact scientifically legitimate, there are still a few discursive shortcomings to how the author went about reflecting upon this religion’s social implications.

Probably the most important qualitative aspect of Butler’s novel is that, even though that its plot unravels in the dystopic future, readers nevertheless do emotionally relate to the characters’ experiences of living in the ‘godless’ universe.

After all, just as it happened to be the case with the novel’s main character Lauren Olamina, they do often experience the disturbing sensation that there is too much injustice and violence in this world. Such their sensation, of course, contradicts the Christian dogma there is all-loving and omnipotent God, who answers people’s prayers.

Yet, as it was illustrated in the novel, it is not only due to the ‘classical’ God’s de facto absence that spiritually sensitive people find it hard to deal with the objective reality’s emanations, but also due to their own intellectual inflexibility. As Lauren noted:

A lot of people seem to believe in a big-daddy-God or a big-cop-God or a big-king-God. They believe in a kind of super-person. A few believe God is another word for nature. (8)

These Lauren’s words, of course, reveal her as a pantheist, who knew perfectly well that there is very little rationale in believing that God is an individual, capable of experiencing the human emotions of love, fear and anger:

My God doesn’t love me or hate me or watch over me or know me at all, and I feel no love for or loyalty to my God. My God just is. (22)

At the same time, however, it could not escape Lauren’s attention that there is an apparent order in the universe, which given the main character’s perceptual idealism, was causing her to consider the possibility that, even though there is no ‘big-daddy God’, the ‘divinity’ is still there. Lauren revealed the true nature of ‘divinity’ in what can be well defined as the ‘manifesto’ of her newly found quasi-religion of Earthseed:

All that you touch, you Change. All that you change, Changes you. The only lasting truth is Change. God is Change. (51)

What gives Lauren a particular credit, in this respect, is that the earlier mentioned theological provisions of Earthseed are fully consistent with the most recent breakthroughs in the fields of biology and physics.

After all, today’s scientists are thoroughly aware of the fact that, while remaining in the state of a constant transformation (due to the forces of gravity), the chaotically dispersed universe’s matter has a tendency to self-organize itself into complex structures. As one of the 20th century’s most prominent scientists Alan Turing pointed out:

Chaotic substratum, although it may originally be quite homogeneous, may later develop a pattern or structure due to an instability of the homogeneous equilibrium, which is triggered off by random disturbances. (37)

The full soundness of this statement can be well illustrated in relation to the grains of sand in the desert, which never cease self-organizing themselves into ripples, waves and dunes – quite contrary to the fact that these grains have no awareness of the shape they become a part of.

This also explains the seemingly intelligent design of organic life-forms – this design comes as an ultimate result of a physical matter/energy, on the one hand, and the forces of gravity, on the other, continuing to interact for the duration of billions and billions of years.

What it means is that there is indeed no God, in the traditional sense of this word. What causes the universe to be observably complex and even ‘intelligently designed’ to an extent, is the never-ending flow of energy from the universe’s ‘energetically rich’ regions to the ‘energetically poor’ ones, which will eventually result in the ‘energetic death’ of the universe – the so-called state of ‘universal entropy’.

Nevertheless, even though that we are now well aware that there is no ‘big-daddy God’, we cannot help but to experience awe, while exposed to the wonders of the universe. This sensation of awe, on our part, is where the ‘divinity’ actually resides. Therefore, Lauren’s suggestion that God is Change is thoroughly valid – Change is what causes Complexity, and Complexity is what we commonly perceive in terms of God.

This, of course, implies that we should not seek God up in the sky, but rather within. The fact that we, as the representatives of Homo Sapiens species, have evolved to the point that we now understand the universe’s mechanics, without having to evoke the notion of ‘big-baddy God’, makes us nothing short of semi-gods ourselves.

As such, we have the responsibility to act ethically – even in times when this undermines our chances of a physical survival. Hence, the Earthseed’s foremost ‘commandment’:

The weak can overcome the strong if the weak persist. Persisting isn’t always safe, but it’s often necessary. (79)

Apparently, Lauren knew that, in order to encourage people to behave in a socially appropriate manner, they should not be constantly reminded of the prospect of being sent to hell, on the account of their ‘sins’, but that they should instead be provided with incentives to remain fully aware of the behavioral implications of their basic humanity.

Nevertheless, as it was mentioned in the Introduction, Butler’s vision of the ‘future religion’ cannot be thought of as such that represents an indisputable truth-value. This is because; there are a number of good reasons to think that, even if Lauren did succeed in setting up the communities of ‘earthseeds’ across America, her newly founded ‘Church of Earthseed’ would not remain functional for too long.

After all, throughout the course of the novel, Laura continues to position herself as a somewhat socially-withdrawn person, who believed that the pathway towards making people more gentle towards each other is being concerned with suppressing the truth about the fact, in the biological sense of this word, they are nothing but hairless primates.

For example, Laura does not seem to understand that people’s endowment with the sense of greed cannot be dealt with mechanistically, because being primates; it is in our very nature to act selfishly. This is the reason why there are strongly defined Communist overtones to her concept of a ‘spiritually rich’ communal living. As Phillips noted:

According to Lauren, the moral destiny of earthseed is ‘to take root among the stars’… But this spiritual and political ideal is rendered impossible by a social order based on stark economic polarities. (304)

Yet, according to the laws of nature, which define the qualitative dynamics in just about every human society, without ‘polarities’ (inequality), the continual flow of energy that enables Change, in the first place, would have been impossible.

After all, the notion of equality is synonymous with the notion of entropy (chaos). In other words, the way in which Lauren went about conceptualizing how the communes of ‘earthseeds’ should operate, contradicted her own understanding of Change, as the driving force of ‘divinity’.

There is also another reason to think that the religion of Earthseed would have proven short-lived – while elaborating on the proper ways of a ‘spiritually rich’ living, Butler never ceased to promote the idea that, as compared to what it happened to be the case with men, women are better suited to act as the community’s leaders.

This explains why Parable of the Sower has been traditionally referred to as an unmistakably feminist novel (Miller 337). Nevertheless, it does not take a scientist to understand that promoting philosophies that add to already existing tensions between the representatives of opposite genders can hardly be deemed socially productive.

The fact that even today, the feminist movement continues to be strongly associated with the notion of mental deviation (which explains this movement’s marginal status), substantiates the validity of this suggestion.

Thus, it will only be logical to conclude this paper by reinstating once again that there is indeed a good rationale in referring to Butler’s Parable of the Sower, as an intellectually enlightening novel.

This is because, as it was shown earlier, Butler’s idea, as to what the ‘future religion’ should be all about, does adhere to what today’s scientists know about how the universe actually function.

Unfortunately, as it appears from the novel, the sheer strength of Butler’s prophetic powers, as an advocate of the new post-industrial religion, does not seem to correlate with her somewhat undermined insightfulness, as an individual who understands the qualitative essence of dynamics in just about every human society.

Works Cited

Butler, Octavia. Parable of the Sower, New York: Warner, 1995. Print.

Miller, Jim. “Post-Apocalyptic Hoping: Octavia Butler’s Dystopian/Utopian Vision.” Science Fiction Studies 25.2 (1998): 336-360. Print.

Phillips,Jerry. “The Intuition of the Future: Utopia and Catastrophe in Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower.” Novel 35.2/3 (2002): 299-311. Print.

Turing, Alan. “The Chemical Basis of Morphogenesis.” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London 237.641 (1952): 37-72. Print.

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