"The Kin-dom of God"1 in Joan Slonczewski's Novels

Virginia Wolf

English Department

"The Word of God." This phrase is still one with some power to enrage me. The Bible, or what Christians identify as "the word of God," has served all too often to limit my potential and to damage my self esteem. Born into this world female, one day to discover an affectional and sexual preference or orientation for another female, I don't know whether the source of my love for Carol is a genetic predisposition, social conditioning, or a choice, but I do know that the Bible, as usually interpreted, has worked more against me than for me. Its few passages taken to condemn same-sex relations and its relatively few statements about women's subordination to men seem insignificant beside its massive silence about women's and homosexual's lives and strengths and talents. Our absence from the Bible, its overwhelmingly patriarchal and heterosexist perspective led me to search elsewhere for truth. Fortunately for me, my search led me to feminist, often to feminist lesbian, science fiction, and, after encounters with several other authors, including most notably Joanna Russ, Ursula LeGuin, Marge Piercy, and Suzy Charnas, it led me to Joan Slonczewski.

I am a scholar, but my reading of this body of literature has been personal and unsystematic. I have read little science fiction criticism, other than a few pieces about feminist utopias and dystopias and several essays by Ursula LeGuin. I have tended to read feminist science fiction in spurts when I needed a release from an overly busy involvement in our competitive, patriarchal society or when I needed some healing from that involvement. This reading, of course, nurtured my self esteem, offering me numerous examples of lesbians whose sexuality is not only never an issue in their respective worlds, but whose contributions to the civilizations of these worlds are also highly valued. In other words, feminist science fiction, especially that which presents lesbianism without any suggestion that it is anything other than perfectly acceptable or normal, gave me other ways of thinking about myself and my possibilities than were offered by the Bible. This literature strengthened and deepened my feminism and provided concrete representations of how life might be different--not only for women and lesbians, but also for all of us as spiritual beings in relationship to each other, the natural world, our creations, and to God.

Although unaware of its influence, I'm sure that feminist science fiction was an important factor as I turned away from competitive involvement in university administration and toward concern for my spiritual well-being as well as that of other upper middle-class Euro-Americans similarly caught up in the myths of our culture. This concern led me to read feminist theology as I study for a master of divinity degree and possible ordination as a Unitarian Universalist minister. Imagine my delight upon discovering that Slonczewski's four novels, Still Forms on Foxfield, A Door into Ocean, The Wall around Eden, and Daughter of Elysium,2 embody many of the theological concepts advanced by the feminist theologians I have been reading.

Central to these concepts is what Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz calls "the kin-dom of God." She replaces the Bible's eschatological goal, "the kingdom of God," with a new one, "the kin-dom of God," explaining that she rejects the word kingdom for two reasons. "First, it is obviously a sexist word that presumes that God is male. Second, the concept of kingdom in our world today is both hierarchal and elitist" (304). "The word kin-dom, she explains, "makes it clear that when the fullness of God becomes a day-to-day reality in the world at large, we will all be sisters and brothers--kin to each other" (304). What is implied or involved in the notion that the kin-dom of God is the end of all our seeking? What does this central concept say about the nature of reality, of God, and of human relations with each other, nature, and God? What does this concept require of us? What are we to think, feel, and do?

Slonczewski's novels offer similar and sometime paradoxical answers to these questions. The web or kin-dom or the whole of life is the greatest good in these novels, but that good can be achieved only when every individual is fully free to express and be who she or he truly is. In all four, the model form of decision-making is consensus; each person is honored for her or his perception of the truth and each is capable of blocking the will of all the rest. The paradox is that the good of the whole must also be the good of the individual.

In Still Forms on Foxfield and A Wall around Eden, the human communities are Quaker. They value every individual for the Light she or he possesses and thus take no action until all agree on what to do. In the first novel, Foxfield encounters UNI, United Nations Interplanetary, an organization of all sentient beings in the universe, requiring the psychological adjustment of all who don't fit and run by the vote of the majority. The Friends on Foxfield refuse to accept a system that doesn't respect the individual(s) who disagree(s). UNI rejects a model of government that is inefficient on Foxfield in a community of under a thousand persons and would totally shut down UNI with its huge numbers of citizens. But we side with Allison Thorne, the narrator and citizen of Foxfield on the side of both a small community and consensus. The Foxfielders' Quakerism prohibits taking life and honors the freedom of the individual as essential to the good of the whole.

The alien life forms in the first novel are similarly organized into a community of the whole. On Foxfield, there is the One, a being formed by the conjoining of aged commensals, also called Fractions, who are sentient, moving vegetables, capable of quickly reproducing any organic substance which is presented to or described for them. The One is an unmoving mass of coral with the combined intelligence and power of all the commensals. It says, "I am the One Organism, the Eye of Many Faces, the Seeker of All Things. . . . I seek the stars. I drink their energy waves to seek the source of their long lives" (199). The One is also a student of the "human substance [which] exhibits exceptional instability" (200). The reader gets no suspicion that among the commensals or between the commensals and the one, there is anything like the disagreement humans experience with one another..

In A Wall around Eden, Gwynwood Hill is a community kept alive by aliens, after humans engage in nuclear warfare, destroy most of the earth, and throw it into nuclear winter. The angel bees and the keepers of the pylon are hive-like creatures, who once served a Queen, destroyed--it is suggested--when the inhabitants of their planet blew themselves up. These aliens build domes over less damaged communities such as Gwynwood Hill; work to restore the ozone, the vegetation, and the animals; and attempt to teach humans not to hate and fear, but to work for the common good. The conclusion of the book leaves us in some doubt as to humans' capacity to learn not to be destructive of themselves and other life forms--whenever they possess intelligence and powerful technology. The aliens are the only ones we can trust have learned, and for their world it is too late. Like the aliens, what hope we have is for the citizens of Gwynwood Hill, who, as Quakers, are by far less abusive than other communities portrayed. But even they let their children believe that the angel bees destroyed the world, leading the children to hate the angel bees and to resist their captivity.

Slonczewski's fullest exploration of what the kin-dom of God might be like comes in her portrait of the Sharers of Shora in A Door into Ocean. Aliens who once destroyed their world, the Sharers have learned to live on a world of ocean, a world without land. They live in harmony with the ocean, its raftwood, fleshborers, sea swallowers, and all of its other inhabitants, including themselves. Fully aware of the interdependence of all life forms, they accept death, realizing that all life forms live by means of others' deaths, but they hastening death is unacceptable. Like the Quaker communities in the two books already discussed, they are non-violent. Also they meet in gatherings and decide by consensus. Theirs is a world without men, a civilization so advanced in the life sciences that they can form a fetus from two ova, heal almost any injury quickly and without invasion of the body, communicate by means of insects (clickflies), use giant squid to pull them quickly through the ocean, and manufacture any organic substance. By means of a microbe which turns them purple, they retain large amounts of oxygen that allows them to stay under water for long periods of time. They do not fight or kill one another. When in severe disagreement, pain, or grief, they can unspeak one another or go into white trance, losing their color and slowing down their physical processes. If awakened from white trance by anyone other than a small child, they die.

When the book begins, the Sharers have lived in peace for centuries, worshipping their god Shora, until discovered by Valan traders, who introduce stones, tools, and machinery that begin to alter the Sharers' way of life and Shora's environment. For the first time, some Sharers know greed--or stone sickness--and machines begin polluting the ocean and obscuring the sound of the starworms whose song, sent through the depths of the ocean, maintains communication among all the rafts of Shora. The Valans, as human as us in appearance, will put to the test the principles by which the Sharers live, displaying the worst features of human nature--greed for endless possessions and power over others and a willingness to torture and kill to achieve these ends.

The most remarkable feature of this novel is its concept of sharing. Surely most of us were taught as small children that we had to share. The stroke of genius here is that the Sharers realize we have no choice. Because we are utterly interdependent upon others, what we do, we share. As teachers or students, we share learning. As killers or victims, we share murder, and so on. The reason for not harming another, in other words, is the desire not to share harming--not to experience another's harm. This concept of mutual relations, Isasi Diaz calls "kin-dom," emphasizing out relatedness. Carter Heyward, another feminist theologian, calls it "mutuality" and defines god as "our power in mutual relation."3 Heyward defines mutuality as follows:

Mutuality is the process of loving and is a way of speaking of love. It is the experience of being in right relation. Mutuality is sharing power in such a way that each participant in the relationship is called forth more fully into becoming who she is--a whole person, with integrity.

Experientially, mutuality is a process, a relational movement. It is not a static place to be, because it grows with/in the relationship. As we are formed by mutuality, so too does the shape of our mutuality change as our lives-in-relation grow. We become bearers of God. Not perfectly, but authentically.

In these terms, each Sharer is a bearer of God, and the whole, Shora, is their God.

Against this belief system, Slonczewski positions the Valans. Ruled by the Patriarch of Torr, who controls all of the known worlds but Shora, Valan soldiers are sent to Shora to acquire learning of the Sharers' lifeshaping and to place Sharers under the control of the Patriarch. The Sharers, of course, freely share their knowledge of lifeshaping, making the Valan doctor an apprentice to one of their gifted lifeshapers. But they will not allow their minds to be probed or changed, going into white trance and dying before they give up self-control. They lack fear and refuse to fight back. They come in large numbers, women and children, to witness against any death, captivity, or atrocity. Many of them having been killed, some Sharers wish to kill also, but Merwen, a wordweaver, convinced that Valans are human, speaks and behaves always for sharing life and opposes death hastening. She welcomes the two Valans who choose to live with them, even the male Spinel, who becomes her daughter's lovesharer, and she leads the Sharers in a resistance that eventually defeats the Valans and drives them from Shora. The Valans leave, having learned that they cannot control Sharers, who are individually autonomous (in control of their own minds), who do not fear for their lives, who will not fight back and who return kindness for harm. Thus compassion defeats force.

Slonczewski's first three books, thus, are portraits of religious or spiritual communities--groups of people bound together by their beliefs in and respect for the individual's perception of what the correct or ethical thing to do is and in mutuality, that is, their right to expect respect and support from those whom they respect and support. Such community is yet another strong feature of feminist theology, which stresses that there can be no individuality without community and no community without individuality.

In her fourth novel, Daughter of Elysium, she expands on what is evident but not stressed in the others. Here in the three parts of The Web read by Raincloud to Blackbear, we learn not only that we are called to live in true human community--in kin-dom or in mutuality--but in community with all that lives as the Sharers do in A Door into Ocean. Once again different human communities are imagined--those of Bronze Sky, Elysium, and Urulan--but the focus shifts to human alterations of nature, for example, mating humans and gorillas to produce slaves, genetic engineering for the sake of prolonging life, and the creation of sentient or conscious machines. The Sharers, of course, defend themselves by altering nature. They infect the Valans with microbes that turn their skin purple. To express their displeasure with Elysium, they send small tumbleweeds into their streets to clog their cleaning machines and create a mess and inconvenience. But for the Sharers the primary goal is "to strengthen the Web" (158), that is, to maintain the balance of nature. They heal wounds and sickness when they can, but they accept death as a natural part of the Web, feeding life. They keep the destructive sea swallowers alive because they maintain that balance, clearing out the fleshborers and raft seedlings when they have become too numerous. "The Web of Shora encompasses all living organisms and their needs for each other, including the community of Sharers" (158). This is a thorough-going portrait of interdependence.

Like feminist theologians (most notable for me are Sallie McFague, Starhawk, Margaret Miles, Grace Jantzen, Christine Downing, and Carter Heyward), Joan Slonczewski imagines an incarnate God, one not separate from nature--what Sallie McFague calls The Body of God.4 Her Sharers are naked and unashamed. They cannot understand the foolishness of clothes. Sexuality and every other physical reality of their world are sacred. All that has been devalued and feared in patriarchal culture is here reclaimed: nature, the physical, the human body, women, sexuality, lesbianism, children. There is no hierarchy with a God over humans; heaven over earth; mind over body; human over nature; male over female; adult over child; white over black. Indeed, the dark-skinned Windclans are from a dark planet where white symbolizes evil, where women are the strong fighters and goddesses, and men are the nurturers of children and homemakers, and children like Hawktalon are vital to the survival of life. For Slonczewski, the Web, balancing the consumption of and compassion for all living things, is sacred.

As much as I delight in the reflection of feminist, lesbian theological concepts in Joan Slonczewski's novels, I value them first and foremost for their creation of different worlds and cultures and people and creatures and machines. Concretely she reveals what is the central tenant of my theology--that all theology is metaphorical--an attempt to describe what is ultimately beyond words. This is the thesis of Sallie McFague in Metaphorical Theology: Models of God in Religious Language,5 where she discusses the problem of religious language, its becoming idolatrous and irrelevant because its metaphorical and historical nature is forgotten--as the model of God the Father has become. For me it is not even enough to recognize that all theology is metaphorical. I want lots of models of god--lots of metaphors--all of the metaphors that Joan Slonczewski can create and many, many more. In our understanding of God, ourselves, and our capacity for knowing, we are undergoing a paradigm shift. The feminine is being recovered to join with the masculine; the homosexual, with the heterosexual; the physical, with the spiritual; earth, with divinity. And all the nuances and variations between the extremes are also being recovered and honored.

But our understanding of goodness will continue to change and evolve. So we cannot settle on one model, even if as individuals we may find one speaks to us more fully and evocatively than others. We need them all--all that we can imagine--if we are to avoid the creation of idols and of damage to all that are not valued by a particular model. We need more than one book we celebrate as the word of God. Many of my lesbian friends in Minneapolis go to church at St. Stevens, where they have recognized that many books may express the word of God. And so when they do a reading from a book, they finish by saying "the word of God according to Adrienne Rich, or Martin Buber, or Starhawk," or whoever the author is. I celebrate here the word of God according to Joan Slonczewski, a woman who I think offers us many visions of the kin-dom of God.

1 This is Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz's replacement for the Bible's "kingdom of God" in her article, "Solidarity: Love of Neighbor in the 1980s," in Lift Every Voice: Constructing Christian Theologies from the Underside, edited by Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite and Mary Potter Engel (San Francisco: Harper, 1990), 31-40, 303-305.

2 Still Forms on Foxfield (New York: Ballantine, 1980); A Door into Ocean (New York: Arbor, 1986); The Wall around Eden (New York: William Morrow, 1989); and Daughter of Elysium (New York: Avon, 1993).

3 See Our Passion for Justice: Images of Power, Sexuality, and Liberation (New York: Pilgrim, 1984); The Redemption of God: A Theology of Mutual Relation ( New York: University Press of America, 1982); and especially Touching Our Strength: The Erotic as Power and the Love of God (San Francisco: Harper, 1989), 188. See also Beverly Wildung Harrison's Making the Connections: Essays in Feminist Social Ethics, edited by Carol S. Robb (Boston: Beacon, 1985); Elizabeth Johnson, She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse (New York: Crossroad, 1994); and Sherry Ruth Anderson and Patricia Hopkins, The Feminine Face of God: The Unfolding of the Sacred in Women (New York: Bantam, 1991).

4 The Body of God: An Ecological Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993); Starhawk, Dreaming the Dark: Magic, Sex, and Politics (Boston: Beacon, 1988); Margaret Miles, Carnal Knowing: Female Nakedness and Religious Meaning in the Christian West (Boston: Beacon, 1989); Grace Jantzen, God's World, God's Body (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1984); Christine Downing, The Goddess: Mythological Images of the Feminine (New York: Crossroad, 1981); and Heyward's Touching Our Strength.

5 (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1982).

Last modified: June 29, 1998

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