Friday, June 30, 2017


I just finished re-reading Dune again and had to get this off my chest. Please note: I have never read beyond a couple of chapters into the sequels of Dune and have no real interest in reading further. Everything that follows limits itself exclusively to the original 1965 novel.

Besides the Bible and a select number of the Church Fathers, there are very few books that I actually bother to read more than once. Ironically, one of those is Frank Herbert’s Dune.

I use that word ironic because I disagree almost completely with the way Herbert represents religion in his universe:

  • Christianity is nowhere to be found except as part of a synchronistic pseudo-religion concocted by those in power to control the masses. Christ explicitly declares that He will be with us always and that not even the gates Hades will be able to overcome His Church. So, any science fiction or speculative fiction that eradicates Christianity usually falls outside my ability to suspend my disbelief.
  • All religions are enough alike that in the face of billions of lives lost they could suddenly find a means to unite under one watered-down version of themselves. Christ specifically says: And this is eternal life, that they know You the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent (John 17:3). There is no way to water that down.
  • “Men looked at their gods and their rituals and saw both were filled with that most terrible of all equations: fear over ambition.” Herbert makes an assumption I see a lot of moderns make: that Christianity keeps its faithful in line through fear. I won’t discount that possibility in certain communities or denominations, but it runs completely counter to the Gospel which declares that there is no more need for fear because death itself has been defeated. Over and over again in Scripture when people encounter the Angel of the Lord (the pre-incarnate Christ) he tells them “Do not be afraid.”

I find myself drawn to Dune for three reasons:

  • It is well written and entertaining.
  • The world-building Herbert pulls off is breathtaking.
  • For an author that (at least within the pages of his book) denies the divine, he is brutally honest about what a world looks like without God.

It is this last point that I find most interesting about Dune and was what really lept off the page when I most recently read the book again. Unlike all of the various adaptations of Dune (there are three that I am aware of), the books end with Paul failing.

To put this in context, let me focus on a theme that is so deep in the world-building of Herbert that no adaptation has ever bothered to explore: the Butlerian Jihad. It is only mentioned in passing in Dune in Appendix II:
Then came the Butlerian Jihad — two generations of chaos. The god of machine-logic was overthrown among the masses and a new concept was raised: “Man cannot be replaced.”
This conflict is hinted at early in Dune by the Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam:
Once men turned their thinking over to machines in the hope that this would set them free. But that only permitted other men with machines to enslave them.
and the Baron Harkonnen:
A most efficient Mental, Piter, wouldn’t you say, Feyd?…But he consumes too much spice, eats it like candy. Look at his eyes! He might’ve come directly from the Arrakeen labor pool. Efficient Piter, but he still can err…This is a Mental, Feyd. It has been trained and conditioned to perform certain duties. The fact that it’s encased in a human body, however, must not be overlooked. A serious drawback, that I sometimes think the ancients with their thinking machines had the right idea.
The society in Dune abandoned “thinking machines” in favor of honing the human form to the best of its ability through genetic breeding programs (Bene Gesserit), the use of Spice (Space Guild and Mentats) and training (Sarkurkar and Fremen). The stated goal of all of this was power.

Baron Harkonnen, though a despicable human being, was absolutely correct: no matter how much human beings try to control themselves and their environment, they are still human beings and will err. There are things that will always be out of our control.

This is wonderfully expressed by Paul’s angry warning to the Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam, “Here I stand…but…I…will…never…do…[your]…bidding!” He is referring to the fact the he is the culmination of the Bene Gesserit breeding program, the Kwisatz Haderach, which they sought to control.

When Paul first discovers the truth about Himself, when the Spice of Arrakis begins to change him, he begins to see how various choices affected possible timelines. This prescience allowed him to see a future he desperately wanted to avoid: a jihad by the Fremen in his name that would embroil the entire universe. He spends the rest of the book trying to figure out a way to avoid this jihad.

At the very end of the book, he acquiesces to Feyd-Rautha’s challenge despite the fact that a) he could very well die at the hands of his arch-rival, and b) as Muad’Dib he had no reason to abide by the rules of kanly. The real reason he went forth to his potential death was because he was resigned to the fact that there was nothing he could do to halt the jihad. It would go on whether or not he died, whether or not he fought. So, he chose to fatalistically step into the fighter’s ring to try and kill his cousin:
Paul saw how futile were any efforts of his to change any smallest bit of this. He had thought to oppose the jihad within himself, but the jihad would be. His legions would rage out from Arrakis even without him.
When God is removed from the equation, all that is left is the biological imperative:
The race of humans had felt its own dormancy, sensed itself grown stale and knew now only the need to experience turmoil in which the genes would mingle and the strong new mixtures survive.
The vanguard of this strength would be the Fremen, a people dominated by the Darwinian code of the survival of the fittest. Tempered in the harsh, water-starved planet of Arrakis and shaped by the Spice they would take that strength, mingle it with humanity across the universe in a bloodbath that would cull the weak.

As I said, brutally honest. Without God all we have is death. By the billions.

This all re-enforces my own Christian faith. The same race-consciousness that Herbert hints at in the pages of Dune is embraced in toto by Christ when He becomes incarnate. The transformative power that the Bene Gesserit, Space Guild and the Jihad grasp at is freely given in Christ. The mechanism for transformative change is wrested from the hands of death by the resurrected Christ and becomes not just life but eternal life.


Geoffrey McKinney said...

"Once men turned their thinking over to machines in the hope that this would set them free. But that only permitted other men with machines to enslave them."

C. S. Lewis makes a similar point in his book, The Abolition of Man, in which he notes that man's control of nature all too often results in man's control of man.

JDsivraj said...

I'd recomed the second book of the Dune series if you like the first it follows v ery closely on the heels of the first book without straying into the really odd as it does later in the series.

As for Christianity being arround in the time of Dune I see it as a cultural and historical impossibility that a relgion any of us today would readily recognize as Christianity will be in place over 20,000 years from now. Men of every age have seen their gods as eternal and history has seen them all forgotten or replaced. All men those who recognize Jesus now do not worship as men did 1,500 or even 500 years ago.

JB said...

RE the era of thinking machines

It is my understanding that a later series, penned by Herbert's son, deals with this era. But it considered fairly disappointing compared to the original.

BTW: I was wondering if you've had a chance to watch the new Wonder Woman film. You've blogged before on your feelings on film these days, but there's quite a bit of interesting (sometimes startling) Christian-symbology and messaging in the film...quite strange considering Wonder Woman may be the most iconic pagan in comics.

FrDave said...

All men those who recognize Jesus now do not worship as men did 1,500 or even 500 years ago. Then how is it that every time I do the liturgy, I am using a text that was written in the 4th century and has been in continuous use since the 4th century?

FrDave said...

It has been so long since I have been to see a movie I enjoyed in the theater that I don't bother any more. When Wonder Woman becomes available in other media, I have heard enough good things about it that I plan to see it.

BTW I haven't had a chance to write about it, but Captain America: Civil War (my favorite in the MCU by a long shot) was surprisingly a very Christian movie...super heroes and Christianity are a much better fit than people imagine.

JDsivraj said...

We don't use the same Bible. We don't read it in Greek, Gothic, or Latin. When was the last time you bought an indulgence? Yes pieces are the same but Christianity has changed since the 4th century.

FrDave said...

We don't read it in Greek Yes we do. Both the bible and the liturgy book that I use are both in English and in Koine Greek.

JDsivraj said...

We don't all do so. And therein lies part of the issue. Christianity is not a consolodated monolithic faith now. There is nothing keeping nontrinitarianism from ascending to the dominance and reforming the faith with futuree councils, that would certainly change Christianity and how man relates to Jesus. What happens when man has populated other worlds for thousands of years and new prophets and even new messiahs are recognized? Tens of thousands of years is a very long time and a lot can happen in that time. Man and his relationship with God is certainly going to change in that time as humanities relationship to the divine has changed throughout history.

JDsivraj said...

Just to clarify I'm not knocking Christianity here at all.

FrDave said...

Heresies of all stripes have existed since the beginning of the Church. She has survived it all, including almost non-stop persecution for almost 2 millennia. She has survived and thrived exploration of multiple continents and a plethora of languages and cultures.

If you don't mind me saying, you are making a similar assumption that Herbert does: that somehow Christianity is man-made and/or man-driven. If that were true, certainly Christianity would not survive 20,000 years into the future. However, if one looks at the history of the Church and all that she has been through, she shouldn't have survived these last two millennia, but she has. That is made possible because the Church is also a divine institution and Christ has promised that if He should allow the fallen world to continue 20,000 years, the Church will still be there just like it is today.

You also make a fundamental error in your understanding of God: He does not change. If He did He would have a beginning and an end and our relationship with Him would have no purpose. He will always be who is now. Our relationship with Him, therefore, can also always be constant regardless of the context as demonstrated by 2000 years of constant turmoil.

FrDave said...

P.S. Don't worry about offending this old grognard. I love discussions like this and I love being challenged like this. So, if anything, thank you.

JDsivraj said...

Stictly speaking "The Church" hasn't survived uncanged for 2,000 years (not as a uniform and cohesive entity). The Eastern and Western divide alone show this as does the extreme differences in Western traditions. Men do drive the development of Christianity as can be seen by the various hsitorical councils, many sects, and many different versions of The Bible.

The staus of Purgatory has changed in my lifetime. The status or any existence at all for The Harrowing of Hell has changed. Men are the cause of the creation and change in the status of these notions. The Bible is full of the word of God as expressed by men.

Don't get me started about eating of fish on Friday.

As for Christianity and Dune: I did a a search on google after talking to the wife about Christianity in Dune (she was a sys admin on a Dune mush years back) and it seems there are a couple/few Christian sects (of some sort) in the Dune universe but they don't get much mention or have much influence. Interestingly enough one of them involves the notion that Christ was one of the Buhdas (a concept I've bumped into a few times over the years).

FrDave said...

From the perspective of Western Christianity, you are correct; however, Eastern Orthodoxy has a much deeper connection its own history. We have rejected the whole concept of the development of dogma and even refuse to change any of our canon law to update them to the current context (we have to do that on an individual basis). So there is an argument to be made that the ancient form of Christianity persists into the present age.

The stuff about the various sects can be found in Appendix II. There is one sect that seems tied to Christianity called the "Navachristianity of Chusuk." I didn't see a blend of Bhuddism and Christianity (which is a non-sequitur), but there are mentioned "Buddislamic variants."

However, these are mentioned in context of forces that shaped the religious beliefs of the Imperium leading up to Muad'Dib. In other words, whereas "Navachristianity" is an influence, it could be understood to be something that existed in the past but is no longer dominant such as the Neo-Platonism that shapes Augustinian theology.

FrDave said...

P.S. Eastern Orthodoxy also still maintains fasting on Wednesdays and Fridays from meat, fish, dairy, wine and oil to this day.

JDsivraj said...

Here i the US it is custom for Catholics to eat fish of Friday. Many of my classmates and neighbors thought it was some sort of actual church thing but it wasn't it was actually a means to help the fishing fleets of Portugal by eating more fish but in time people came to believe it was some sort of religious pohibition against red meat on Friday.

Michael said...

That story about eating fish on Friday being a move political to get in good with fishermen is an Urban legend. Not eating fish on Friday was a discipline, not a dogma. You are still supposed to give something up on Friday, and going meatless is still the preferred discipline on Fridays, but you can choose to substitute something else.

JDsivraj said...

Michael imagine how much sucha fishy tale could change in tens of thousands of years.

WQRobb said...

His son's prequel books are appalling weak in comparison to the original novel although you can argue their worth versus the later ones.

Fr. Dave, you are wise to stop where you are in the series, however. Judaism is touched on in the later books, but by then the whole series had sort of fallen apart.

Michael said...

I was just pointing put the story you mentioned is not true. As far as the church lasting 20,000 I'm Fr. Dave. If Jesus was the son of God, it will last 20,000 years, if he was not, it probably will not.