The Theology of Isaac Asimov's Foundation Series

Isaac Asimov, along with Robert A. Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke, is considered one of the "Big Three" science fiction writers of the 20th century. Asimov basically invented robots. Sort of. Not only did he coin the word "robotics", he formulated the Three Laws of Robotics.[1]

Along with his Robot and Empire series, Isaac Asimov's Foundation series is one of the classics of the sci-fi genre. So what does it have to do with theology?

Asimov's era of science-fiction rarely painted organized religion and the Catholic Church in a positive light. Is it possible that the classic trilogy of the era was inspired by the institution of the Church?



Interested in the Theology of Isaac Asimov? How about the Theology of all the Sci-Fi in the Galaxy? I have written the following book to cover exactly that. The Theology of Sci-Fi covers Star Wars, Dune, Asimov's Foundation Series, The Matrix, Superman, and the classics of science of fiction:


Since the 1950s, the Foundation series remained just a trilogy: Foundation, Foundation and Empire, and Second Foundation. In fact, it won the one-time Hugo Award for "Best All-Time Series" in 1966.

Thirty years later, Asimov decided to double the size of the series. Asimov wrote two sequels, Foundation's Edge and Foundation and Earth, and two prequels, Prelude to Foundation and Forward the Foundation. The additions to the series allowed Asimov to connect the Foundation story-line to his other two epic series, Robot and Empire. This involved some of the most tectonic examples of ret-conning in sci-fi history.

If you haven't read at least the original trilogy yet, you should! Here are the links:





SPOILERS TO FOLLOW ...

What is Asimov's Foundation Series About? Hari Seldon & Psycho-history

The Foundation series centers around Hari Seldon. Seldon is a mathematician who discovers a scientific method to predict and analyze the multiple futures of the universe. Seldon basically discovers a way to turn to turn the soft sciences of sociology and psychology into hard sciences, able to produce repeatable and predictable results. This is called psychohistory.


Seldon uses psychohistory to foresee the coming collapse of the Galactic Empire and the thousand generations (30,000 years) of anarchy and barbarism which would follow. Hari Seldon then uses psychohistory to invent an ark of sorts that will preserve humanity's knowledge. This is called the Foundation. The purpose of the Foundation is to shorten the period of barbarism to just one thousand years.

What if I told you the Foundation is the sci-fi version of the Catholic Church?

The Foundation series takes place so far into humanity's future that earth, the origin of humanity, barely even survives as a legend. So how could this sci-fi series possibly be inspired by the history of the Church?


The Theology of Asimov's Foundation Series: Is Asimov's Foundation Actually the Catholic Church?

For starters, what is the Foundation? How does it function in galactic history? Here are some of the basic ideas:

  1. Psychohistory: Hari Seldon is able to predict the next several thousand years of human history.
  2. The Empire is ending in 300 years: Seldon predicts that Trantor, the Empire's capitol (more on Trantor below, and how Star Wars was inspired by it), will be destroyed within 300 years as the climax to the fall of the Galactic Empire.
  3. Anarchy and barbarism to follow Empire's end: The fall of the Galactic Empire will lead to a 30,000 year period of anarchy before a Second Empire is established.
  4. Foundation will reduce age of barbarism from 30,000 years to 1,000: The purpose of Seldon's project is to influence events so that the interregnum period will be only 1,000 years and not 30,000. 
  5. Foundation will guide galaxy until the founding of the Second Empire: The First Galactic Empire will be followed by a Second Galactic Empire, it's just a matter of when. 
  6. Preserve all the Galaxy's collective knowledge: the Encyclopedists were to create a giant Encyclopedia Galactica which will contain all human knowledge.
  7. Create a book: As above, Seldon's stated public purpose for the Foundation was to create a book, but its purpose was actually much more far reaching.
  8. Foundation designed to weather several historic crises: Seldon designs the Foundation and situates it to perfectly weather several historical crises. 
  9. Foundation to begin at the remotest corner of the Galaxy: Seldon manipulated the emperor to set aside Terminus as the planet of the Foundation. Terminus was as far from the galactic center as possible. 
  10. Foundation to spread to the farthest reaches of the Galaxy: From the remote Terminus, the Foundation's influence would spread across the entire galaxy. The Foundation was extremely persecuted in the beginning because it had no weapons or sources of metal ore. 
  11. Seldon predicted that he would only need a small group to change the course of human civilization: Seldon predicted the Foundation would only require a small cadre of 100,000 people who could be trained in the ways of science, technology, and civilization to eventually change the whole galaxy. This highly trained and disciplined group of scholars and visionaries became the the Foundation. 
  12. The Second Foundation: Seldon founded not one, but two Foundations at the beginning. The other Foundation was established on the opposite side of the galaxy from Terminus.

Are you starting to see how all this points to the Catholic Church? Let's go step-by-step through these details to see the connections.

I have not found any statement from Isaac Asimov confirming the connections. After we review them, however, you decide whether Asmiov had the Church in mind when he created the Foundation.

The Theology of Asimov's Foundation Series: Comparing Asimov's Foundation to the Catholic Church

I have laid out the distinguishing characteristics of the Foundation above. Now, let's see how all these connect to the Church:


1. Psychohistory: The Prophecies of Jesus

Hari Seldon is basically a sci-fi version of Jesus, and psych-history is the sci-fi version of Christian prophecy. What's interesting is that science-fiction and fantasy usually like to tell the story of the Messiah before his victory. This is how Dune, Star Wars, etc. all start. Asimov skips right over that (at least until he published Prelude to the Foundation).

Hari Seldon is able to predict the next several thousand years of human history - that's why he establishes the Foundation. Jesus, of course, is able to prophesy clear through until the end of time. 

Seldon predicts several "Seldon crises". Jesus prophesies the first major "Jesus crisis" to befall the Church: the Fall of Jerusalem in 70AD. Jesus told the Christians what to expect and how to avoid being slaughtered: “But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near" (Luke 21:20).

The Siege and Destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans under Titus, A.D. 70
by David Roberts of Britain’s Royal Academy; mid-19th century

The historian Eusebius records that every single Christian escaped the city's terrible destruction: [2]

The whole body, however, of the church at Jerusalem, having been commanded by a divine revelation, given to men of approved piety there before the war, removed from the city, and dwelt at a certain town beyond the Jordan, called Pella.

Jesus, of course, predicted far more than just the first hundred years of the Church. Like Seldon, Jesus provided for all the subsequent crises of the Church, too. More on that below.

2. The Galactic Empire is ending in 300 years: The end of the Roman Empire 

When Christ "founded" the Catholic Church in the 30s AD, the Roman Empire had about the same number of years left. Most historians place the end of the Western Roman Empire at 476AD, the year Romulus Augustulus was forced to abdicate to the Germanic warlord Odoacer.

The End of the Galactic Empire - More on the connections between Asimov's Foundation and Star Wars below 

3. Anarchy and barbarism to follow Empire's end: The Dark Ages

The fall of the Galactic Empire will lead to a 30,000 year period of anarchy before a Second Empire is established.

The fall of the Roman Empire led to a period of anarchy and barbarism called the Dark Ages. Whether the Dark Ages were actually as "dark" as all that, there was an extended interregnum of small (by comparison), warring barbarian tribes.

Triumph of Death by Bruegel the Elder

4. Foundation will reduce age of barbarism from 30,000 years to 1,000: the "Holy" Roman Empire

The next large-scale empires to even compare with the size and scope of the Roman Empire were the Frankish Empire of Charlemagne and the succeeding Holy Roman Empire. Both of these empires were, in part, based on the centralizing power of the Church.

The pope crowned Charlemagne emperor, for example. The pope would crown most all of the holy roman emperors. It was a mark of the legitimacy of their reign.

Pope Leo III crowning Charlemagne Emperor


5. Foundation will guide galaxy until the founding of the Second Empire: The Second Roman Empire

As stated above, there was a second Roman Empire (even a third): The Holy Roman Empire. The Dark Ages lasted, more or less, from the Roman Empire until the Holy Roman Empire. 

What was the "Third Roman Empire", you might be wondering? It was actually called the "Third Reich" ... by Hitler. Hitler intended the Nazi Empire to be the 3rd iteration of the Roman Empire. The Church (read: Foundation) actually helped prevent this calamity, but that's an article for another day.

6. Preserve all the Galaxy's collective knowledge: The Monasteries

The monasteries of Christendom preserved many of the Greek and Latin texts of the classical age. Nearly all the manuscripts from this age that were held in secular libraries or privately owned were destroyed during the Dark Ages. The Viking raids of the period were especially destructive to books.

The Church's monasteries, like the Foundation, preserved the collective sum of human knowledge through the Dark Ages. 


7. Create a book: What book did the Church create? Hmm ...

As above, Seldon's stated public purpose for the Foundation was to create a book. What book did the Catholic Church compile, publish, and disseminate across the world?

The Bible, of course! The Bible is still the most published book in the world ... and Galaxy.


8. Foundation designed to weather several historic crises: "the Gates of Hell" & Church Councils

Seldon designs the Foundation and situates it to perfectly weather several historical crises. 

Jesus also designed the Church to withstand all the forces of history. Jesus himself said, "and on this rock, I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it" (Matthew 16:18).

Jesus promises that the Church will last, not merely until the Second Galactic/Roman Empire, but until the end of time, itself! So Christ exceeds in reality even the imagination of one the greatest science-fiction writers of all time.

Not only that, Christ designs the Church to withstand several crises. Several theological crises, or heresies, cropped up in the first thousand years of the Church (as well as the second thousand). The Church weathered all these crises through the use of Church Councils, like Council of Nicaea and Aryan heresy or the Council of Trent and the Protestant heresies.

The Council of Nicaea

9. Foundation to begin at the remotest corner of the Galaxy: Church's Birth in Israel

The Foundation was established on Terminus, as far from the galactic center as possible. Similarly, the Christian Church began in Israel, in the Roman province of Judea, among the most remote and insignificant of all the provinces of the Roman Empire.


10. Foundation to spread to the farthest reaches of the Galaxy: Spread the Gospel to the Ends of the Earth

From the remote Terminus, the Foundation's influence would spread across the entire galaxy. The Foundation was extremely persecuted in the beginning because it had no weapons or sources of metal ore.

Similarly, the Church's early history was marked by extreme persecution and the deaths of the martyrs: like "lambs to the slaughter" (Psalms 44:23). Nevertheless, the Church persevered. The Church eventually became the state religion of the Roman Empire ... and much more.

Jesus told his tiny group of followers: "... you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samar′ia and to the end of the earth" (Acts 1:8).


And so they did. Like the merchant princes of the Foundation, the Apostles did receive power. The Church spread the Gospel to the ends of the entire world. Some of this even occurred within the first generation of the Church - St. Thomas the Apostle reached all the way to India.

>> Speaking of "merchant princes", here's my article on the Patriarch Abraham, the Merchant Prince.


11. Seldon predicted that he would only need a small group to change the course of human civilization: Jesus started with the Twelve 

Seldon predicted the Foundation would only require a small cadre of 100,000 people who could be trained in the ways of science, technology, and civilization to eventually change the whole galaxy.

100,000? Jesus only needed 12! Again, Jesus surpasses even the imagination of science fiction.

These Twelve, as described above, went quite a ways toward reaching the "ends of the earth."



12. The Second Foundation: The Eastern Orthodox Church

Seldon founded not one, but two Foundations at the beginning. The other Foundation was established on the opposite side of the galaxy from Terminus.

Just like Seldon established two Foundations, two great churches can trace their founding directly back to Jesus: the Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church.

The Catholic Church survived in the West, and the Eastern Orthodox Church in the East. Similarly, the two Foundations were established on either ends of the galaxy, like east and west.

Conclusion: Was Isaac Asimov Inspired by the History of the Church?

There are just too many connections. Whether Isaac Asimov wittingly wrote about Jesus and the Church is not attested to directly. However, it is well documented that that the Roman Empire and the Dark Ages formed the plot of the Foundation series.

Sources do attest that Isaac Asimov created the fictional Galactic Empire in the early 1940s based upon the Roman Empire. This was undertaken as a proposal to John W. Campbell, after Asimov read Edward Gibbon's The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire while he was working at the Philadelphia Navy Yard ... with Robert Heinlein.[3]

The decline and fall of the Galactic/Roman Empire concept evolved through short stories and novellas in Astounding Science Fiction magazine during the 1940s, culminating in the publication of the Foundation trilogy in the early 1950s.[4]


Newt Gingrich: The Church and the Foundation

Interestingly, Newt Gingrich, whose own political activity was inspired by Gibbon and Asimov, is one of the few to make the connection between the Church and the Foundation.

In To Renew America, Gingrich states that Asimov turned the Fall of Rome into a science fiction novel in the Foundation trilogy. Gingrich further states that "The Foundation" represents a secular group of individuals who play a role comparable to that of the Catholic Church when it maintained civilized knowledge during the Dark and Middle Ages. The Foundation scholars cannot stop the Empire's decline by they gather knowledge so as to limit the Dark Ages and bring about a Renaissance.[5]

Gingrich, like Seldon, is also a far-sighted professor of history. Amazingly, Gingrich is also a convert to Catholicism! Speaking of "all roads lead to Rome"!

Sidenote: Star Wars also seems to owe a lot to the Foundation series

The Galactic Empire? An Emperor? This seems oddly familiar ...

 

The Imperial Capitol Planets: Trantor and Coruscant 

In the Foundation series, the planet Trantor was so overdeveloped that its surface was completely covered by construction. The Star Wars planet of Coruscant was very similar. Coruscant was also covered with layers and layers of constructions - the entire planet was one big city. Both planets were also nearest to the center of their respective galaxies. Coruscant was actually called "Imperial Center". Lastly, both were the capital cities of their respective empires.

Isaac Asimov on Being an Atheist: 

When asked in an interview in 1982 if he was an atheist, Asimov replied,

I am an atheist, out and out. It took me a long time to say it. I've been an atheist for years and years, but somehow I felt it was intellectually unrespectable to say one was an atheist, because it assumed knowledge that one didn't have. Somehow it was better to say one was a humanist or an agnostic. I finally decided that I'm a creature of emotion as well as of reason. Emotionally I am an atheist. I don't have the evidence to prove that God doesn't exist, but I so strongly suspect he doesn't that I don't want to waste my time.[6]


The Theology of the Foundation Series - Footnotes:

[1] "Robotics: A Brief History", Stanford University
[2] Eusebius' Ecclesiastical History, tr. C. F. Crusè, 3d ed., in Greek Ecclesiastical Historians, 6 vols. (London: Samuel Bagster and Sons, 1842), p. 110 (3:5).
[3] Neil Goble, Asimov Analyzed, Mirage (1972), 32–34.
[4] Gary Raham, Teaching Science Fact With Science Fiction, Libraries Unlimited (2004), 27, 96–97.
[5] Newt Gingrich, To Renew America, Harper Collins (1996); Joan Didion also refers to Gingrich's insight in her Political Fictions, p. 187.
[6] "Isaac Asimov on Science and the Bible," Free Inquiry, Spring 1982.

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