A few years ago I read The Sparrow, an interesting, rather heady first novel by Mary Doria Russell. The Sparrow relates the discovery of and Christian mission to a distant planet that emanates a kind of singing, the melodies of which first attract the earthlings. The novel is a theological meditation on the classic question of evil. But beyond this, it suggests interesting, and perhaps surprising, questions of theodicy, from the epistemological challenges to revelation to the insurmountable evil that swallows up all hope by the story’s end. Like many interesting stories, then, The Sparrow allows readers of any faith-position to meditate on how meaning subsists—or doesn’t—in life, suffering, and death, forcing us to come to grips with the locus of meaning, be it objective (meaning as subsistent, that is, in God) or subjective (the thing in itself).
The story begins with a literal case of Deus ex machina (God from the machine), as the plans for a secret Jesuit mission to the newly discovered planet Rakhat fall into place with all of the predictability of a bad children’s story. But this seeming predictability is what creates the book’s hook; the characters themselves begin to address this absurd “falling into place”—is it explicable as divine providence or as a series of interconnected coincidences? And as these questions plague the characters, we readers are also not clued into what is really happening. Everyone is left guessing.
Soon, the characters come to realize that like the “turtle on a fencepost,” they have been deposited in this story by some outside force, and thus, the Deus ex machina becomes Deus vult (God wills it).1 They are dealing with divine providence, with God exercising God’s will in their present reality as it happens. This conclusion locks the characters into an expectable trap: When things begin to go awry, the Deus of Deus vult becomes a monster, and by end of the novel, the characters’ disillusionment with this God is similar to that of Nada in the final part of Albert Camus’s play State of Siege when he says, “One day you’ll find out for yourselves that man is nothing and God’s face is hideous!”2
The protagonist, Father Emilio Sandoz, is by ordination a “priest in perpetuity” (sacerdos in aeternum), and by nature, perhaps, a priest with rough edges.3 As a troubled adolescent, Sandoz collided with the Jesuits but eventually discovers a certain degree of meaning for his life because of their teachings.4 The search for greater certainty in this meaning becomes his life’s mission. He becomes a Roman Catholic Jesuit priest, a celibate, and as such, Sandoz takes a vow that prevents him from marrying and commits him to the virtue of chastity. The goal of the chaste life of a celibate priest like Sandoz is not the repression or suppression of sexual desire but, rather, a reorganization and subordination of that desire to his responsibilities as a priest; it is aiming his life at a single goal.5 It is also a struggle: “Celibacy is not the same as deprivation. It is an active choice, not simply the absence of opportunity.” If Sandoz states a loose definition of what he thinks celibacy is, it is “that we hope to reach a point, spiritually, that makes the struggle meaningful.”7 For Sandoz, celibacy brings to his life a “transcendent awareness of creation and Creator.”8
There are, then, two particular theologies of “meaning” or two ways in which Sandoz interprets reality theologically: first, divine providence—Deus vult—and, second, celibacy, in which Sandoz finds himself living in the present for the sake of some ambiguous meaningfulness that he hopes will be realized in the future. And presently, the strongest reality of God in his life is an “awareness.” So, trusting in divine providence, Sandoz struggles to define his present reality as meaningful, as God’s unfolding plan. But even when he first announces prophetically, “Start planning the mission,”9 Sandoz does not know what this will mean for the future if he is right nor does he entertain the notion that he could be wrong. Both theologies assert God’s action in the world, “that God [is] in the universe, making sense of things,” but they represent very different philosophies of what God does and how God does them.10 In these theologies, we see the difference between an ambiguous knowledge of God’s general action, which will be completed in the future and for which Sandoz now struggles in the present (celibacy), and a certainty that God is enacting Sandoz’s present specifically for some ambiguous future (providence). These theological assertions position Sandoz in a conceptual conflict between struggling for a certain future meaning and a certain meaning for present struggle.
Furthermore, if Sandoz’s greatest conception of God is his experience of God in his priestly celibacy, it is a strikingly dubious one, particularly for a priest, and even more so for a priest who is a professional theologian and linguist. But this is broadly the norm for Sandoz; he is ever at a loss for God’s presence.11 And if his awareness of God is at its strongest in relation to his celibacy, then it would seem that his confidence in believing in God’s providence for the mission is misplaced, for a vague awareness hardly seems sufficient for his resolute refrain of “God wills” whatever happens.
Yet in his search for meaning, Sandoz posits God’s providential ordering of history in its unfolding to realize events that are admittedly unlikely. So, as the reader is drawn into the heart-breaking drama of Sandoz’s experience, in which everything is eventually painted with the blood of the innocent, it is easy to sympathize with his predicament; after everything has caved in on him, it is easy to sympathize with his disenchantment with God: “His lips pulled back into a terrible smile, and he began to laugh, the glistening eyes bleak. ‘John, if God did this, it is a hell of a trick to pull on a celibate. And if God didn’t do it, what does that make me?’ He shrugged helplessly. ‘An unemployed linguist, with a lot of dead friends.’”12 Or put more succinctly, “Why did it all happen like that, unless God wanted it that way?”13
These questions are common ones: If God did not cause this or that vast evil, suffering, or death to occur, then why did God allow it to turn out the way it did? Is the distinction between God causing and God allowing a false one? Is God impotent to stop such evil, and if so, how can that God be God at all? God is, thus, either a monster (à la Camus) or an impotent, though perhaps empathetic, father figure whose only consolation for the suffering and death of humanity is his deeply felt regret that it happened, a big, warm, spiritual hug, and perhaps a vague hope that things will go better next time.
In the whirlwind that takes up the characters and the reader from the beginning to the tragic end of The Sparrow, it is easy to get caught up in the story, particularly in the mantra Deus vult, which turns from a faithful hymn of God’s providence in the first half of the book to a labored wail against a sadistic, all-powerful puppet-master in the second half. Although many of the characters seem to share in his trek toward realizing whatever meaning awaits him, Sandoz’s life seems to have been directed toward this mission, toward this particular unfolding of events—at least this is the way he sees it.14 So when things fall apart, the reader easily blames God, just as Sandoz does. But I suggest that this response is just a universalization of Sandoz’s theological predicament. In taking Sandoz (especially) and the other priests (more tangentially) as God’s collective mouthpiece (they are, after all, priests) for explicating divine action in the world (at least the world this novel creates), it is easy to forget the vast disparity between the great intensity and reality of Sandoz’s longing for meaning and his lack of any cogent connection with God, other than an ambiguous awareness of God that he finds in his struggle as a celibate, in which this longing has the possibility of being realized, especially in so determined a certainty about providence. In retrospect, the threat of danger for his characters is always there, constantly rearing its head, and it frequently is met with questionable theological explanations.15 But this danger is constantly out-trumped by what seems to be God’s own words spoken through God’s priests: Deus vult. Perhaps more prophetic, however, are Anne’s silent thoughts just after the first real discussion of a mission to the Singers as a mission that is divinely ordained, or indeed, fated.16
Once, long ago, she’d allowed herself to think seriously about what human beings would do, confronted directly with a sign of God’s presence in their lives. The Bible, that repository of Western wisdom, was instructive either as myth or history, she’d decided. God was at Sinai and within weeks, people were dancing in front of a golden calf. God walked in Jerusalem and days later, folks nailed Him up and then went back to work. Faced with the Divine, people took refuge in the banal, as though answering a cosmic multiple-choice question: If you saw a burning bush, you would (a) call 911, (b) get the hot dogs, or (c) recognize God? A vanishingly small number of people would recognize God, Anne had decided years before, and most of them had simply missed a dose of Thorazine.17
This passage hints that Sandoz, while slightly crazy, is actually recognizing God’s work in the discovery of this planet and in a mission to these singing aliens—he is one of the few. But there is an alternative reading (if he is in this case faced with the divine): There is the probability that when “faced with the Divine,” people tend to take refuge in something else. This is idolatry, and the idea is reinforced in this passage in the mention of the golden calf and the crucifixion. Accordingly, this is what seems to happen with Sandoz, though it happens quite subtly. His struggle for meaning essentially becomes Sandoz’s God—that is, he lives to find meaning for himself from the nameless God, of whom he knows, experiences, et cetera radically little.18 For Sandoz, this struggle is banal, the commonplace of his everyday existence as a priest with little faith in the God he serves.
Another telling scene with regard to this theme occurs after Sandoz reflects on his past and on his life as a priest at the end of chapter 12:
So, while he hoped someday to find his way to a place in his soul that was closed to him now, he was content to be where he was. He never asked God to prove His existence to little Emilio Sandoz, just because he was acting less like a shithead nowadays. He never asked for anything, really. What he’d been given was more than enough to be grateful for, whether or not God was there to receive or care about thanks.
Lying in bed, that warm August night, he felt no Presence. He was aware of no Voice. He felt as alone in the cosmos as ever. But he was beginning to find it hard to avoid thinking that if ever a man had wanted a sign from God, Emilio Sandoz had been hit square in the face with one this morning, at Arecibo.19
The second paragraph here shows that the first one is at best some kind of self-deluding false humility. Certainly, Sandoz is anything but content to be where he is; his life is defined in his struggle for it to mean something.20 He has no grounds on which to claim any degree of certainty in the plan to go to Rakhat, for he feels no presence; he hears no voice that would lead him to such a conclusion. Sandoz may even have more evidence that God (whose very existence he is unsure of) is not ordering the universe than that God is ordering the universe. For Sandoz to assert providence in this situation is, then, either merely presumptuous or it is engaging in “a kind of game.”21
But Sandoz rationalizes this dangerous game as he invests more and more of his longing for meaning into the idea—the playful jest of divine providence becomes a serious presumption on the works of a God Sandoz does not really know:
So. Things kept happening just like God was really there, making it all happen. And I heard myself saying Deus vult, like Marc, but it all seemed like some kind of huge joke. And then one night, I just let myself consider the possibility that this is what it seems to be. That something extraordinary is happening. That God has something in mind for me [. . . .T]here are times when I can let myself believe, and when I do [. . .] It’s amazing. Inside me, everything makes sense, everything I’ve ever done, everything that ever happened to me—it was all leading up to this, to where we are right now.22
Indeed, Sandoz falls “hardest of all” in love with this conception of God because it is filling the void that he has felt since he was an adolescent, since he first tried to compensate for a vague spiritual emptiness by taking solace in winning awards for “excellence.”23 Finally, there is confirmation that Emilio Sandoz is somehow special, that there is inherent meaning in his life. God seems finally to be giving Sandoz what he has always longed for; he is proving “his existence to little Emilio Sandoz” in the most personal and meaningful way possible: as some kind of “emotional truth” in which God is real to him.24
By this time in the novel, the other characters, and probably the reader, have “bought into” Sandoz, which is completely appropriate—he is finally finding answers to the search that they all, in different ways, experience. And his experience of these answers brings him to a Christic ecstasy when he encounters the young Runa (aliens) for the first time:25
Smiling and in love with God and all His works, Emilio at last held out his arms and Askama settled happily in to his lap [. . . .] She nestled down and watched him greet the other children and begin to learn their names in the tripled sunshine that broke through the clouds. He felt as though he were a prism, gathering up God’s love like white light and scattering it in all directions.26
The tension enters the picture when this scene is contextualized, for Father Alan Pace is only freshly dead. The tension, then, is that just as things begin to fall apart with Alan’s death, Sandoz experiences his greatest, most certain revelry, a confirmation of divine meaning in his life. He defends and will continue to defend this experience until it spirals in on him specifically, until it claws at “the center of his soul.”27
In the comic book world of Superman there is a menacing counterpart to the justice-seeking, evil-fighting Superman. This super-doppelganger bears the moniker Bizarro. Bizarro exists as exactly the opposite of Superman: He is a supervillain; he inspires evil in people; and injustice and chaos are his choice flavors. Hlavin Kitheri, the sadistic alien sex poet of Rakhat, provides a similar contrastive juxtaposition to Father Sandoz in The Sparrow. Just as Superman and Bizarro are similar in that they both have super powers (et cetera), Hlavin and Sandoz are similar in that they are both, in a sense, “lacking a future” and are “outside the bounds of their society”: Hlavin because of the sociocultural implications of being a “third”—as a third-born, a “reshtar,” he suffers a kind of stigma in the culture of Rakhat, part of which includes a ban on procreating—and Sandoz because of the social and ecclesial implications of being a Catholic priest.28
It is in the sacrifices that accompany celibacy and in the generally God-ward orientation of the celibate life that Sandoz’s most intense connection with divinity exists (against the notion that his conception of providence supercedes this in his life). The art of the celibate’s life is to aim all appetites and desires toward this connection with God—to use all of those energies for this specific end, of which the celibate has utterly little grasp, other than, perhaps, knowing it will at some point become a meaningful struggle.29 The point is to press on, to endure patiently in the present for the promise of a completion that is coming somewhere in the future, and in this way the celibate lives in the “between time,” the space between the command for him to live in obedience to the virtue of chastity and the completion of what that virtue will mean in the future, and in beatitude.
The reshtar’s art is the opposite the celibate’s art. His challenge is to make some sort of beauty, or meaning, however distorted, of his own meaninglessness, his own “living death.”30 Hlavin sacrifices the depth of the meaning inherent in sexuality—the connection of past, present, and future—for the utter the uselessness and vacuity of a radical focus on the orgasm itself in an attempt to maximize for himself the erotic beauty of this ephemeral instant. He makes this (anti)aesthetic move because his social status prevents him from participating in the depth that is already present in traditional sexuality on the planet of Rakhat. He latches on to the effervescence of the orgasm to build a necessarily false “aesthetic voluptuousness” in an attempt to lionize the fleeting itself.31 As a “connoisseur of the ephemeral,” Hlavin immortalizes the transitory by embracing its very transience and immortalizing it in his songs.32 And in using whatever he will to enhance the moment of orgasm, not excluding the pain and fear of his victims, Hlavin transforms his experience into songs that mark the triumph of the ephemeral.33 In doing so, he acts specifically against the patient endurance in which the celibate lives; the poetry of the reshtar is the very selfishness inherent in impatience itself—it is the grasping of meaning to which one is not entitled. But the goal of this practice is not entirely dissimilar to Sandoz’s goal in asserting divine providence so certainly earlier on. Both celibate and sadist commit the same sin in different ways: Each recklessly grasps after meaning to which he is not entitled, each attempting to sate his voracity for some kind of personal significance.
So, who is at fault in the debacle of this mission to Rakhat? Is it God, who whether he set this sad puzzle in motion or not surely could have helped his children when they were in such dire need? Is it Emilio Sandoz, who started all of this “divine providence” business in the first place? Is it the Catholic Church or the Jesuits for making this foolish mission possible? It is difficult, even impossible, to tell. My point is to offer an alternative reading to the usual reactionary interpretations of this novel and to locate the theology inherent in celibacy (as the novel presents it) as an alternative to the damning effects of the novel’s images of both a theology of providence and the (anti)poetic/aesthetic practices of the Reshtar, Hlavin Kitheri. But is there any evidence of God’s good work in the book?
God’s providence in the novel seems only applicable in retrospect—not in reference to history as it unfolds, as Sandoz sees it, but instead, in renarrating stories of God’s action, as they manifest themselves in the tales that the characters can already tell:34 For example, Felipe Reyes says, “As a matter of fact you [Sandoz] made a priest out of me. I am a Jesuit, old friend [. . .]”; “Maria went to University of Krakow [. . . .] Maria set up a scholarship fund for La Perla kids. Your work is bearing fruit, Father.”; “And remember Julio Mondragon? That kid you got to quit defacing buildings and paint the chapel? He is a tremendous big deal now! His stuff goes for amazing prices and it’s so beautiful [. . . .] People come to the chapel to see his early work, can you imagine?”35 Is it Emilio Sandoz’s hunger for meaning, then, that causes him to assert an immensely problematic divine providence without valid grounds to do so, and is it Hlavin Kitheri’s appetite for significance that causes him to pillage it so violently and so maliciously from others, or is it impatience on both accounts? Could it be the failure and refusal to wait, to abide, to endure the seemingly meaninglessness of their present struggles, no matter how real they become, that sends these characters (and, perhaps, innumerable others) careening through space or through a long line of sexual partners in their attempts to fill the voids of their respective sufferings? Perhaps patience is what is missing here, a kind of hard-headed context from which people can refuse to reach conclusions about this or that struggle, be it personal insignificance or the inexplicable death or suffering of an innocent, and instead they can attempt to live a life in which they “hope to reach a point, spiritually, that makes the struggle meaningful.”36
1. Mary Doria Russell, The Sparrow (New York, NY: Ballantine, 1996), 121. Follow the link to support The Other Journal by purchasing The Sparrow on Amazon.com.
2. Albert Camus, State of Siege in Caligula and Three Other Plays (New York, NY: Vintage, 1958), 231. Follow the link to support The Other Journal by purchasing State of Siege on Amazon.com.
3. Russell, The Sparrow, 288.
4. Ibid., 105-107.
5. Ibid., 252; Richard P. McBrien, Catholicism (San Francisco, CA: HarperCollins, 1994), 562-563. Follow the link to support The Other Journal by purchasing Catholicism on Amazon.com.
6. Russell, 155.
8. Ibid., 159.
9. Ibid., 96.
10. Ibid., 100.
11. Ibid., 111, 160, 307.
12. Ibid., 399.
13. Ibid., 398.
14. This is to say that in less compelling ways some of the other characters see their lives as coming into some completeness in the mission to Rakhat. Consider Sofia’s reflections on this subject on page 125.
15. On page 79, the Father General mentions that all of Sandoz’s experiences have occurred to Jesuits in the past; there is a historically validated likelihood that such tragedies can occur in any mission. On page 97, just as the mission is suggested, Anne rambles off a train of the “half a million things that will go wrong.” And on pages 114-115 we find that the deciding factor that convinces Anne to go on the trip is a tragic bus wreck. Accordingly, this would be God’s murder of a dozen or so people just to get an old lady on an asteroid.
16. Ibid., 96-100.
17. Ibid., 100.
18. Ibid., 106-108.
20. Indeed, consider his discussion of the occupation of a linguist on pages 232-234. The entire conversation, played off as a way to describe linguistic analyses, really reaches into Sandoz’s character. His entire life, his learning and analysis of all of the languages he comes across point toward his search for meaning. Just in this conversation, in the context of a couple of words in one language, the radical searching that Sandoz does to find what meaning lies behind or within these symbols is elucidated. It is a microcosm of his life as a priest.
21. Ibid., 178.
22. Ibid., 179.
23. Ibid., 106, 189.
24. Ibid., 108, 177-79.
25. Consider here, too, the journal entry from D.W. noted on 237.
26. Ibid., 228.
27. Ibid., 160. Of course, this is Sandoz’s celibacy. But look at how he defends against the possibility that he was wrong. Anne catches the absurdity of the claims right away on pages 197 and 198. Sandoz theologizes that “God is in the why of things, in the meaning” (288). This is a rather recent development, for Sandoz is notoriously ignorant of God previously in the book. It seems as if he is reaching here so as not to invalidate his experience thus far: for him it must be God, or his life means nothing. God must be in the meaning because that is where Sandoz is. At the point that this conversation occurs, there is little more to balance the reason for Alan’s death and D.W.’s illness than whatever has been worked out between the Runa and Sandoz—he defends this with the notion of the tragic-poetic death of babies on page 289 by saying, “It is perhaps harder to appreciate.”
28. Ibid., 274, 159. Though, of course, this parity breaks down on different theological levels of reflection. The main idea here is that they both lack a future in not having family and in that they are outside the ordinary social bounds by some form of isolation (see pages 285 and 306 for more on Sandoz’s sacrifices of love and family).
29. Ibid., 155.
30. Ibid., 276.
32. Ibid., 275.
33. Ibid., 392.
34. Ibid., 179.
35. Ibid., 131-32.
36. Ibid., 155.