This is a follow-up to a previous post on Arthur C. Clarke’s classic short story “The Star” as being more optimistic than it may seem at first sight – as expressing perhaps the first phase in a future self-transformation of the priest.
The story works as expressing the subjective drama of the Jesuit when faced with a crucial objection to his beliefs. He believes in the literal truth and historical accuracy of the Christian narrative and in the theological conception of God as both all-powerful and all-loving. The scientist-priest is confronted with a major falsifying instance to the doctrines of his faith.
“The Star” dramatises the familiar problem of evil and suffering and the failure of theodicy by transposing it onto the cosmic scale, thus making it difficult to explain away by references to God’s transcendent wisdom and his Divine Plan.
A dogmatic, unscientific, believer could have reacted by deciding that the date of Christ’s birth had been miscalculated or that the Bible story is all symbolic, and implies no real birth or historical dating.
Viewed statically the story presents us with the possible nihilistic collapse of his faith if our Jesuit hero once allows himself to view his religious belief system scientifically and integrates his observations as constituting an insurmountable refuting instance. He is bringing back Bad News to the Vatican.
Viewed dynamically, there is an unfinished aspect to this tale. We can see the astronomer-priest as being deeply moved by the religiousness of this alien people, and so perhaps as capable of paradigm-change, moving on to some sort of secular spirituality that would not be in conflict with science.
I think the story works even better when viewed in this dynamic perspective. He is bringing back Bad News for the Vatican, but perhaps Good News for Mankind – the love of God is refuted, but the love of Life (even under desperate circumstances – cf. the aliens) is confirmed.
The priest-protagonist is confronted with the refutation or negation of his faith, but I think that this is not the final word. There is also an underlying Clarkean affirmation, as figured in the life-affirming testament of the alien civilisation.