Solar System Story: an extract

I stood near the edge of Yasu Dome, looking out across Triton towards a new, as yet unnamed volcano, spewing water and methane into the thermosphere, where it variously froze and dispersed, making its minor contribution to the thin veil of gases, that could occasionally be glimpsed as a haze against the sun. I was waiting for my friend, the Anglican Archbishop of Neptune to return to his office, where we had arranged to discuss a business venture over coffee and drugs.

Of the Neptune system’s roughly ten million inhabitants, around ten percent subscribed to some kind of religion, leaving aside whatever notions individuals may profess regarding the nature of spiritual existence or human consciousness. Of that million souls perhaps two hundred thousand were Christian, and of those, precisely twenty-seven were confirmed Anglicans. Justin Woo was in fact the only Anglican priest in the Neptune system, although his status as an Archbishop was equal in the Anglican Communion to the Archbishops of Canterbury, or Mars. As I understand it the majority of Justin’s church merged with an older, larger sect to become the Afro-Orthodox Church, to which most Neptunian Christians belonged, in some kind of wrangling over sexual preference.

For this reason his stipend did not provide a whole living, and his ‘palace’ was a one bedroom apartment: it was still officially a palace however, and had been purchased for the Church of Neptune by the very wealthy Bishop of Io (from his personal fortune) on a drunken binge, along with the locked office I stood outside, and the identical one next to it, which was the Cathedral of St. Desmond.

I am not a Christian, or any other kind of religious, although I am very much in tune with the idea that there are more important things than us in the universe. My close association with the First Returners when their huge asteroid vessel made its tour of the solar system, inculcated in me a strong sense of the vastness of everything: even with the anti-aging treatments they all used, and even accounting for the relativistic benefits of the significant fraction of the speed of light at which they travelled, everyone aboard would have spent most of their lives in transit by the time they got back to Alpha Centauri. And once they did get home, they would be living a domed existence with ready access to less than a million other people, in an entire binary system. The bigness of all the stuff among which we find ourselves, is according to Justin, a very good place to start: his account of his faith is very much more attractive than most other religious creeds I have encountered (not that I’ve ever been particularly proactive in seeking them out).

‘It’s completely pointless,’ he once told me, ‘to talk about knowing religious truths. Or at least, if you’re going to say you know about God, you should make it clear it’s not the same kind of knowing that it is every other time you use the word.’

This is a good kind of talk to hear from a religious leader, even a politically irrelevant one like Justin. (I only wish the Hindu fundamentalists that exposed a hundred thousand to vacuum at Pavonis Mons had felt a similar lack of certainty.) But of course, when you hear such a view from a minister of religion, you challenge it.

‘So wait… what? Are you saying you’re not sure about God? And Jesus, and all the other things?’

‘Oh please, come on! I’m a fucking Archbishop! Of course I’m sure, it’s just that…’

‘Go on.’

He took a deep breath. ‘I know, with great certainty that God is real, that God loves me, in the same very personal way we love the people we have close relationships with. And more than that, I know that Jesus Christ is real, and that it is through Jesus that I can approach God; and I know that it is through the sacraments of the Church that I can approach Jesus.’

‘But how do you know?’

‘Aha! Precisely! That’s a rhetorical gift: we should form a double act. How do I know?’

Justin leaned forward, speaking as intensely as I’ve ever seen him speak (which was something more than slightly, but still less than moderately).

‘I know these things to be truths because I’ve experienced them for myself. I’ve gone through the motions of being a Christian, and I’ve felt God’s love. You can’t argue with God’s love.’

‘People do.’

‘Yes, but that’s my point. It’s irrelevant: to argue for or against a religious truth is to be utterly mistaken about what sort of truth it is. It’s personal experience. Personal experience that anyone can share, but only if they are willing to take, well… a leap of faith.’

He sat back and toyed with a bottle of his latest venture, a somewhat less than successful effort to invent an indigenous Neptunian liquor, which he was optimistically calling gin, and I was calling the holy spirit.

‘Okay. So obviously, we’re actually talking about faith or belief, not knowledge.’

‘I know I said it was pointless to think about it in those terms, but yes, it is knowledge. You have to understand that knowledge is something that happens inside you. The thing you know, the fact, is out there, but the knowledge is an experience you have. And in the case of religious knowledge, the ‘thing’ is also an experience you have.’

I made a dismissive gesture. ‘Yeah right. You know you’re not convincing me: I mean, that’s not, ever, what I mean when I say I know something. How do you know you’re not deluding yourself?’

Justin grinned. ‘If I am, it’s a delusion that works for me. And yes, other people have spiritual or religious experiences, and place other interpretations on them, Buddhist, or Islamic, or Hindu, or Judaic, or Zoroastrian, or psychological or atheist ones. I’m not saying that they are wrong. We religious types do not have a monopoly on the spiritual; even someone whose slant on it says that only their creed is right, and that all others are false, is just as right as I am. I’m not very evangelical, as you may have noticed…’

‘Oh come on, this is no kind of knowledge, or even belief! Everybody’s right? Fundamentalists, murderous fanatics? Are they right too?’

‘They’re entitled to their beliefs. A belief is a route towards the spiritual knowledge we’ve been discussing. I would suspect that someone who wants to wage holy war is not actually in a very healthy state, mentally or spiritually, but the part of their creed that says they should kill the infidel, or not use contraception, or always have salt on the table at mealtimes, or wear special hats on certain days, is extraneous to the task of coming to know God. I mean, Jesus is fundamental to me; the Anglican liturgy is extraneous. It just happens, like all these things, to provide a good context, to help create a sense of identification with the faith. It gives you something to do while you’re waiting for religious knowledge to come along.’

‘I have plenty to do,’ I laughed. ‘What’s wrong with drugs, or sex, or music, or… yadda yadda, whatever?’

‘Nothing,’ he said, taking another slug of his almost undrinkable gin.

Sadly, Justin’s contingent, nuanced sense of belief is not widely shared by religious people in general, whose favoured ideologies have tended more towards the fanatical as their numbers have dwindled. The religious ten percent of Neptune’s population are a somewhat larger proportion than can now be found anywhere else in the solar system, although Justin’s own faith is much better represented further down the well, particularly in the Jupiter system, where it is the largest Christian sect.

Neptune is the last place, the utter edge, the extreme limit of human habitation (other than the small weird groups of scientists and isolationists that have made their homes on trans-Neptunian objects such as Pluto and Makemake). As such it has been a popular destination for those who want to make an escape from the main stream of human society: religious fanatics, political extremists, anarchist libertarians, fugitives from justice, hedonists and perverts. Every habitat is independent, coming together only to share resources, and latterly to co-ordinate their naval forces, the Piracy Crisis having forced the issue. It has a reputation as the wide open, lawless system where anything goes, where anything can be had. To a large extent this is true, but daily life is tamer there than the rest of the solar system generally believes, especially in Yasu, which operates a legal code directly borrowed from Free Mars.

Yasu Dome is the de-facto system capital, as it is the city where most of the co-operative ventures are headquartered, and the site of Triton’s largest spaceport and transport hub. Which is why Justin is based there. He arrived, apologising that his rare pastoral visit had overrun, and we went inside.

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