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[Austin Rivera] What the Church Could Learn From Frank Herbert

We’re going to continue posting essays from the festschrift (with the authors’ permissions.)  This time it is a pleasure to introduce Austin RIvera, a 3rd year MDiv  student at Duke Divinity School and candidate for elder’s orders in the UMC.

What the Church Could Learn From Frank Herbert:Reflections on Heretics of Dune

 I am not usually a reader of novels, but just recently, feeling again the urge to indulge myself in some classic science fiction, I decided to read Frank Herbert’s Heretics of Dune, the fifth novel in his “Dune Chronicles.”  I had read the fourth novel, God Emperor of Dune, in my first year of college, and picked up Heretics of Dune a little while ago at a used book store, thinking I would probably enjoy some time continuing the series.  Herbert is an author whose art as a novelist is not equal to the ideas he engages, but that does not make those ideas any less fascinating.  I suppose I should warn you at this point that there will be spoilers in the rest of this.

Heretics of Dune takes place some 3500 years after the events of God Emperor of Dune.  The titular character of that novel, Leto II, who, by complicated processes important to the universe of Herbert’s fiction but largely irrelevant to what occupies us here, was able both to see into the future and to prolong his life indefinitely, had occupied his many-millennia long reign over the human race in minutely controlling every possible aspect of its existence with the aim of producing a future situation in which it would become impossible for humanity ever to be eradicated entirely.  His own removal from power, eventually necessitated by this “Golden Path,” comprises the action of God Emperor of Dune, although most of the novel is taken up in Leto’s own musings, which, though interesting as they are, clearly demanded a greater art and profounder mind that Herbert’s to bring them to a true artistic perfection, so far as I remember the novel.  Perhaps I should re-read it.

Heretics of Dune narrates the intrigues and power struggles between the groups that have emerged as the leaders within the area of Leto’s old empire, as well as forces which have emerged from “the Scattering,” the outward explosion of human population beyond his empire’s bounds after the God Emperor’s death.  Most of the characters through whose perspective the novel is written are with the Bene Gesserit sisterhood, an order, of a sort, which features in all of Herbert’s novels and is characterized by extraordinary powers of mental and physical discipline and its complicated and ancient breeding program.  The main rivals of the Bene Gesserit in the old empire are the Bene Tleilax, a secretive people who have so mastered the art of genetic manipulation as to produce clones called “gholas,” which even retain the memories and personalities of the original, through the use of their “axlotl tanks,” which are eventually revealed to be nothing less than their women, genetically and technologically modified to serve this purpose.  The main threat from the Scattering are the “Honored Matres,” a sort of imitators of the Bene Gesserit who possess some similar mental and physical powers but who have used especially their manipulative sexual abilities in a ruthless quest for power.  In the course of the novel, through a series of turns whose exact logic is almost impossible to follow, let alone describe, the Bene Gesserit are able to safely preserve themselves from the destructive forces of the Honored Matres, which they foresee will eventually collapse inward on themselves.

Now, the feminist reading of these situations is clear.  The Honored Matres have harnessed female sexuality as a political tool to wrest power from patriarchal structures, but they have done so in a way that assumes those very structures:  they attain their power only through the control of powerful men.  Such a power is not sustainable and is ultimately self-destructive because it relies on the reality of male power instead of truly empowering women.  The Bene Gesserit, on the other hand, wield a political power that is built around breeding and motherhood, which creates and molds structures of power through the exercise of female sexuality instead of merely using female sexuality to attain power within a world still created and dominated by men.  The Bene Tleilax are a grotesque imagination of a male-dominated society literally using its women as mere incubators of children.  As a Christian thinks on the politics of sexuality, it is also worth contemplating how Herbert illustrates the ways in which sexuality separated from procreation and procreation separated from sexuality both produce a joyless, alienating, and self-destructive society.  For a Marxist, of course, Herbert’s imagination of the effects of divorcing sexual experience from procreation is simply an adumbration of the separation of labor and production which truly sets societies on the path to inevitable collapse.  One might also find interest in comparing the biotechnological eugenics of the Tleilaxu and the maternal, aristocratic eugenics of the Bene Gesserit.  I say these things simply to point out some of the inherent interest of our author’s ideas.

On the broader level, however, the Dune novels are in part an imagination of what salvation history looks like within an evolutionary frame.  All the efforts of the God Emperor are directed towards putting the human race in a position where it would be impossible for it to be wiped out:  his “Golden Path” has humanity scattered all throughout the universe in such a way that it could never again be unified into one political arrangement and other of his stratagems have produced ways of making people invisible even to his own prescience, so that no one like him in the future could even know where everyone was.  From an evolutionary standpoint, this is immortality for the race, this is salvation, because the race will always survive.[1]  Bringing about such salvation, however, requires a mindset that thinks in terms of eons, not decades:  it requires true “grand strategy” and a conception of time that is truly super-human.  The forces struggling with one another in Heretics of Dune are all players, whether cooperative or not, in this grand plan.

The Bene Gesserit sisterhood thinks with the God Emperor’s long view, in part because their leaders, the Reverend Mothers, are in possession of the memories of all their female ancestors, and especially because all they do revolves around their complex breeding programs, which stretch back into furthest antiquity and look always far, far into the future.  As Heretics of Dune unfolds, however, we see different members of the sisterhood struggling with the ramifications of thinking within such a frame:  whether, for example, when thinking with such a long view, it is justifiable to have their only aim be the survival of the sisterhood.  At a crucial turning point in the novel, one of the Bene Gesserit, Darwi Odrade, comes upon a hidden message left by the God Emperor, who foreknew that the sisterhood would find it all those millennia later.  His message challenges the value of preserving institutions and even the meaning of institutions and civilizations themselves when viewed from the long prospect of salvation:

To you I give the certainty that the body and soul of the Bene Gesserit will meet the same fate as all other bodies and all other souls…Memories are not enough unless they call you to noble purpose…Why did your sisterhood not build the Golden Path?  You knew the necessity.  (Heretics of Dune, pp. 300-301)

The God Emperor points out the ultimate meaninglessness of any institution, no matter how powerful or how long lasting, if it does not participate in the salvation of the human race, the “noble purpose” of his “Golden Path.”  Such institutions delude themselves because they do not realize that they, and the reasons for their preservation, will inevitably pass away—for time is far larger and more all-devouring than we can ever comprehend.

Now, this narrative of salvation history which Herbert imagines is of course entirely incompatible with the Christian revelation, because it imagines the ultimate salvation of the human race not as everlasting communion with God but as earthly existence perpetuated forever, and because it sees this salvation as the accomplishment of human effort and ingenuity, however extraordinary and however extended through the millennia.  Nonetheless, even here is a lesson that our postmillennialism, our insistence on “making a difference,” our parceled out and democratized saving of the world which we display in things like “Nothing But Nets” and any number of charities (and their surrounding cultural rhetorics) that emphasize the smallness of the required donation, would all do well to learn.  All these Rosie the Riveter narratives of salvation (“we do our part”) are in full accord with the “Golden Path” of Herbert’s God Emperor, for they all attempt to bring about salvation within history and in this world, instead of seeing salvation occur through the subsumption of history into eternity (the Incarnation) and the inauguration of a new world (the Resurrection).  Every narrative of salvation which focuses on the betterment of life on earth and the ‘advancement of the species,’ on human progress, must eventually account for the God Emperor’s question “How can humanity come to a point where it cannot be wiped out?”  If the narrative cannot answer that question it is ultimately pointless and if its purveyors do not take measures to answer that question, Herbert’s God Emperor rightly (within their own framework) condemns them as shortsighted and ignoble.

Although we operate from a different story of salvation, our United Methodist connection, so convulsed by senses of crisis continually lurching between the hysterical and a faithless (and mediocre) realpolitik, might nonetheless be well served by a cultivation of her own versions of those virtues which Herbert imagines in his Bene Gesserit.  First of all, we would do well to think with a long view.  The bulk of the plot of Heretics of Dune concerns the efforts of the Bene Gesserit to pull off a massive and complicated interplanetary intrigue, centuries in the making, which, if successful, should secure the sisterhood for millennia to come.  Nevertheless, at multiple points in the novel various sisters contemplate cutting short the operation and restarting, even though it would mean a devastating blow to the sisterhood in the short term (the ‘short term’ in these novels of course being hundreds and thousands of years), because the short term sacrifice might better preserve them within the prospect of their long view, their ‘grand strategy’.  The long view of the Church, of course, is always an act of hope, not an act of planning, and it also always assumes that this day we could be with Jesus in paradise; nonetheless, as Luther said, “If I knew the world would end tomorrow, I would plant a tree today.”  The long view of the Church is intimately related to eschatology, but it is also not just singing “we’ll understand it better by and by.”

The United Methodist Church possesses nothing approaching such a long view.  Partially, of course, this is because we are ideologically fractured—Herbert’s Bene Gesserit, despite their disagreements, share some fundamental assumptions about the purpose of the sisterhood and display an uncompromising loyalty to it and deep connection with one another.  However, even the various factions within our connection are not much capable of thinking with a long view.  For part of thinking with a long view also involves realizing that it is not really the same sort of thing as shorter term views.  As we debated human sexuality amendments to send on to Tampa at the Kansas East annual conference this year, one of our more prominent proponents of amending the language of the Discipline stood up and, with a not unpleasing bit of rhetorical polish, opined that, just as at one time women’s ordination was debated, and at another time divorce, so now we were debating homosexuality, and that he couldn’t wait to see what the next thing would be.  On the surface this appears to be something of a long view, since it places a current struggle which dominates the consciousness within a broader historical framework.  That framework, however, does not imagine the history of the church as anything other than a succession of similar challenges, and thus it merely takes a short-term narrative  (we meet an obstacle to progress and overcome it) and extends it as a principle to cover the whole of future (and past) history.  The progressives of our denomination are not alone in this sort of short-sightedness: our pleas for a return to ‘Wesleyanism’ or ‘Biblical Faith’ are equally facile because one still asks “What then?  What will we do in this purified and perfect church?”

It is because of this lack of a long view that things like our denominational mission statement are so dangerous.  So far as a mission statement goes, “Making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world” is not really as bad as it could be, but many of the very things that make it a useful mission statement, such as its achievability and its firmness, make it utterly incompatible with a long view.  “Making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world” is a strategy but it is not a grand strategy.  This would not be so much of a problem if our denominational rhetoric did not seem to take it for the essence of the Church, deploying it in all official communications as a shibboleth of orthodox intention and liberally applying its delimiting force in the shaping of our plans and debates.  Because, as a mission statement, it is short-term by nature, our constant referring to it and our insistence on deploying it as the rhetorical frame of any discussion stifles the ability of the denomination to think with a long view. Likewise, it is of course a political necessity that the statement be as broad as it is, but the confident deployment of this compromise statement, to which all may agree, also itself makes possible the sort of Western Front, bloodbath-for-an-inch politics that exists in our church, for by giving the appearance of having settled all long-term discussions it not only allows but encourages short-term and short-sighted debate to become the established norm.  Thus a statement presumably drafted in part in the hope that it would provide us a common framework actually helps to establish a situation that sanctions short-sighted squabbling because the framework it establishes tables any long view of the church and thus compels all debate of any issue to be undertaken in the absence of root, form, or context.

It is not that Christian communities in our day and age cannot any more sustain the long view. Eastern Orthodoxy maintains a long view in the deepest fiber of its being, as does Roman Catholicism to a lesser extent; when Reformed communions are true to their motto Semper Reformanda, they too embrace a long view.  Our Confession of Faith, providing here, as with so many things, the only really catholic viewpoint in the whole Discipline, does far better than the mission statement in furnishing us the foundations for a long view of the church:  “Under the discipline of the Holy Spirit,” it says, “the Church exists for the maintenance of worship, the edification of believers, and the redemption of the world.”  (Article V of the Confession of Faith, 2008 Discipline pp. 67-68)  This is a long view precisely because it cannot be achieved, let alone achieved in the short-term.  We can say “today we transformed the world, today we made a disciple,” but one cannot achieve “the maintenance of worship”—worship simply is maintained.

“Maintenance” cannot be atomized into discrete events and attainable goals, for by its very nature it is continual; likewise to “edify believers” lacks the achievable finality of “making disciples.”  And of course “the redemption of the world” is not ours to complete:  we “wait the consummation / of peace forevermore.”  A long view does not posit a history of successive events and achievements, as the mission statement would, but rather sets all that occurs into a story whose stillness (and eschatology) point towards the eternal.  For this very reason a long view does not feed hysteria over the trends of decades or half-centuries, as does the shortsightedness exemplified (and reinforced) by the mission statement.  The reader may protest that I am splitting the hairs of semantics, but, for my part, I have faith in the shaping power of repeated institutional formulations and in the significance of their nuances.  We can never hope to be more than what we say we ought to be.

Secondly, Herbert’s Bene Gesserit work out their long view through careful and intentional procreation across hundreds of generations.  The Bene Gesserit do not find suitable people and then try to recruit them and train them for their plans:  they engineer patterns of breeding so that people well suited to their plans will appear.  Of course, here again one must be wary of the degree of control Herbert gives his characters over their future and remember our attitude towards the future is governed not by calculation but hope.  Nonetheless, this aspect of Herbert’s Bene Gesserit is another welcome example of patient foresight.  In nothing is our lack of denominational prospection so devastating as the inattention to education and formation at every level, and especially to the institutions of formation, such as, on the local level, the Sunday School or its equivalents, the confirmation and new membership classes, and, most disastrously, liturgy and the pulpit.  Nor do we do much better on the wider level, where the seminaries and the teaching and mentoring offices of the District Superintendent and Bishop have not been given a due (indeed often any!) weight of importance.  There is a great deal of hand-wringing about cultivating new leaders within the denomination, but most of the proposed solutions are very ad hoc, very short-term, very tactical, because they address people at far too late a stage, when they are teenagers or college-students or even when they have already entered the process for ordination.  This is like running around a field watering whatever wild sprig of wheat happens to pop up—who does not see that it is more prudent to first plant seeds?  The best way to develop these coveted leaders would be to cultivate spiritual maturity within our churches with a meticulous prodigality, just as the Bene Gesserit sisterhood seems to have its finger in every family line in the universe, shaping for the future even those who show little discernible potential.  This approach, however, requires a long view, because it does not have much direct bearing on the production of these leaders and in fact does not solve the problem of their paucity.  A stronger commitment to church discipline and the cultivation of spiritual seriousness and maturity in all our brothers and sisters does not produce more leaders, but it does form a church in which more people will be fit to serve in leadership:  like the products of the Bene Gesserit breeding program, they will appear, we will not need to find them, catch them, and hold them.

Finally, the situation of the Bene Gesserit in Herbert’s novel reminds us of something which I at least have thankfully heard more often in our connectional discussions than these first two:  the need to exist for a purpose greater than institutional survival.  I think it a great strength of the way that Herbert presents this theme that he offers no rationale for it:  it simply arises periodically in the consciences of his characters and is given its most concrete form by a simple and inscrutable demand of the God Emperor that the sisterhood embrace a noble purpose.  This idea has very little effect on the plot, but its shadow hangs over all that the characters struggle to accomplish, haunting and questioning their almost incomprehensibly grand and ambitious efforts—how much the more should we be constantly reflecting on the nobility of our efforts and purposes!  Many of us, in our passion for the church, end up arguing that we must get beyond worrying about the survival of the institution because that is the only way we will ever attain to that so precious ‘growth’ and ‘vitality’, often oblivious that we have subverted our own reasoning by such circularity.  It is easy to try and reach past the nobility of our high calling for some further anchoring justification, some more concrete and worldly explanation of the value of our faithfulness, or some trick of the light that makes us think we see it actually “working” and producing our coveted and calculable results.  Yet we must resist all these temptations to justify our faith.  True enough, clinging in our debate and discourse to nobility and the lofty heights of holiness can take on the shape of a pious blindness, but it would be a strange thing to think we could become ennobled and learn to worship in the beauty of holiness without constantly reminding ourselves of the beauty, nobility, and sanctity of the calling wherewith we have been called.  In Herbert’s novel, the Reverend Mother Odrade reflects upon the God Emperor’s message: “Noble purpose?  What a fragile thing that always was.  And how easily distorted.  But the power was there immersed in constant peril.”  (Heretics of Dune, p. 302).  Fragile, often distorted, but the high calling that God has placed on our lives is the only thing to give them real power or real meaning, and hence we would be fools to expect any real vitality from another source but the laying hold of eternal life.

Herbert’s novel is also acutely aware that, in real history, there is rarely such a thing as attending to institutional survival as a means to a greater end:  that dictator rarely returns to his farm, and the survival of the institution comes consistently to eclipse all greater purpose.  It will not do to think of institutions with a physician’s mind, imagining that we must first perform the reparative surgery, then move on to recovery, and then the physical therapy and so forth until finally we come to the living of life.  Institutions cannot be justified while they are simply moving from one degree of survival to another in the hope that some day they may attend to a loftier goal, but must be always infused with the boldness of noble purpose.  Thus all our strategies to attract people to the church, all our advertising and welcoming demeanors, from the congregational level on up to the denomination as a whole, very simply do not matter, for no dead soul is raised to life again merely by crossing the threshold of a sanctuary, no matter how unthreateningly that sanctuary takes on the appearance of a theater or a gym or how good their coffee is.  We recognize this and yet we cling to these things as remedies because we feel the condition of the institution must be stabilized before the work of salvation can begin.  Jesus teaches otherwise:  “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things will be added unto you;” seek first that thing which you will rest in at the last.  We must do away with all process, every schema that defers, every calm and rational analysis that allows us to postpone the ever-present yet sublimely final work of holiness in favor of “first steps.”

Again, this is not a question of purpose providing a boost to morale or greater productivity or whatever metaphor you choose from worldly affairs, but rather of the legitimacy of the institution’s very existence in the sight of heaven.  What is the point, asks Herbert, of anything human beings come together to do, if it does not participate in the course of salvation?  “Why did you not build the Golden Path?  You knew the necessity.”  Anything less than this participation is nothing to be proud of, it is ignoble, it is base, it is unjustifiable, that is, it is not right.  However much Herbert’s definition of salvation may differ from ours, the frighteningly plain ethical demand that cuts through all the novel’s baroque and byzantine layers of human effort proves still, I think, a quite salutary meditation. Though only one secular imagination’s poor shadow of the ways of God, as with all such shadows, in it can be discerned some semblance of the shape of what is true by those with eyes to see.  Herbert’s imagined God Emperor calls on his descendants to join in the story of his noble purpose, and likewise the God Who Is says to us:  “Come, follow me.  As the Father sent me, so I send you.  For the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.  You, who have received the Word that dwelt among you, have been given power to become those children of God, for whom all creation groans.”  Called to join the progress of such a triumph, why would we ever grasp for shorter-sighted and lower purposes, why would we even think to do anything else but take up the glorious work that God has wrought in Christ Jesus?

This, at least, I should like to think we would not have had to learn from Frank Herbert.

Austin Rivera is a reactionary aesthete, a sometime doctrinaire Marxist, and a candidate for elder’s orders in the Kansas East Conference of the United Methodist Church.  Having learned at the University of Chicago that thinking the great thoughts is all that matters he has come to Duke Divinity School, where people like Dr. Hall insist that actual living breathing human beings matter too.  Now he doesn’t know what to think.  



[1] One should also note again the inevitability with which various strategies of eugenics become the driving forces of Herbert’s salvation history.  A tendency towards eugenic thinking, whether aristocratic or technological-biological, is very often the clue revealing a worldly narrative of salvation.

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