Discover more from New Means
Earthseed Part 4
The Theology of Octavia Butler
Hi everyone, real quick just wanted to start by saying if you’re new to New Means, the main page has a whole Earthseed tab. This is the fourth piece in a longer, serialized essay on Octavia Butler’s brilliant theology. I think and hope this section make sense independently, but I invite you to read the earlier segments either way! And hope you enjoy this one -Josh
Earthseed: The Theology
So far we’ve examined two threads that can help us understand the fabric of Octavia Butler’s Earthseed theology. Womanism, rooted in the triple oppression of Black women, and moving outwards to liberate all people, and Afro-Futurism, constellated from far-flung points to reach towards a better and radically different future. As important as these two threads are, and as much as we’ll return to them, it is important to state that the spiritual and religious concepts of Earthseed, compiled in Lauren Olamina’s Book of the Living, are distinct unto themselves. That is not to say Butler created out of thin air, not at all. In a 1997 interview with Joan Fry, Butler was asked about where the “philosophical” ideas in Parable of the Sower came from. She responded:
“My character got her Books of the Living by my going through a lot of religious books and philosophical writing and stopping whenever I found myself in agreement or violent disagreement. Figuring out what I believed helped me figure out what she believed. And the answers began coming to me in verse.”
There has been criticism of this approach, which will be discussed, but for the moment this quote serves to illustrate that in combining existing ideas in a unique way Butler came up with something new, and distinct. Her use of existing threads, both in religious and philosophical thought, and specifically in terms of Womanism and Afro-Futurism, do nothing to lessen her work. As she wrote in the epigram for Parable of the Trickster, the unfinished and unpublished third book of the Parable series, “There’s nothing new under the sun, but there are new suns.”
This idea and theme of “new suns” perfectly captures the vast possibilities contained within Earthseed, as well as the belief that within Earthseed Octavia Butler did create a new religion, one that breaks from the past and creates something sufficiently innovative to be called a new sun. And while we’ll examine several of the legitimate and important criticisms and complications of her novel ideology, we want to first understand what it is, to first see it in a generous light before considering critiques. We also want to understand that Butler herself did not view Earthseed as a panacea. In fact when asked directly if Earthseed could become a real religion, by John Snider in 2004, Butler replied, “Oh, it wouldn’t work as a real religion. There’s not enough of it. It’s not comforting enough, really.” So in understanding Earthseed, we know not to look for a cure for all of our ills, and we know that there in limits, that the most generous view of describing it as a new sun may in fact be over the top. But, while there may be flaws, and limits, in what Earthseed does contain, and with what exactly we can learn from it, the theology itself is a necessary place to start. As we learn what’s there, we may also see that Butler has planted seeds beyond even her own expectations, that the lack of comfort may actually point in a valuable direction when it comes to thinking through a religious or spiritual movement of survival, of making a way out of no way.
The place to begin is somewhere we’ve already been, briefly, the first verse of Earthseed.  At the end of this first verse Lauren Olamina writes, “God is change” which, both in the following verses and the popular imagination, has become the centerpiece of Earthseed Theology. Upon this foundation, which grounds the theology away from the supernatural, and rests it upon a very natural axiom, the rest of the theology is built. Verse 4 shows most clearly what results from the starting premise of God being Change, being the world and its creatures and humanity, and all of the constant fluctuations that are inherent within these systems, rather than a static Being. It reads:
We do not worship God.
We perceive and attend God.
We learn from God.
With forethought and work,
We shape God.
In the end, we yield to God.
We adapt and endure,
For we are Earthseed
And God is Change. 
What leaps out immediately is the notion that we lowly humans shape God. In understanding what this line means, and how it does not in fact reflect the pride that you might initially read into it, we need to remain grounded in Earthseed’s conception of God. If God is change, if God is the ever changing world all around us, then of course we shape God. We shape God when we till a field, or when we pollute, or when we reproduce. It is certainly not controversial to claim that humanity is collectively changing the world in immense ways, and that if this world is a significant element of our conception of God, then we are changing God. So the key insight here is not that we change God, it is the ability to do so consciously, thoughtfully, to shape God with forethought rather than through reckless logging and smogging and expansion.
If you find this writing helpful or useful, please consider contributing to make more of it possible. Thank you!
Butler does not write her protagonist in Parable in a way that implies Lauren Olamina thinks human beings will suddenly take up this path and start shaping God and creating a better world out the benevolence of their hearts. Verse 23 reads, “In order to rise/ From its own ashes/ A phoenix/ First/ Must/ Burn.”  In other words, Earthseed is an ideology conceived amidst decay and collapse. Lauren begins writing it when she senses that the walls of her little community of Robledo will not hold, that one day they will be breached, and that the faith of the adults in her community—those hiding and hoping for the ship of world affairs to somehow right itself—is insufficient. And she is proven right, not only by the invasion and destruction of Robledo, but by the continued societal decline all around her as the novels continue. But even in this chaos she doesn’t believe that the drowning people all around her, those trying to rise from the ashes, will magically have a better outlook, will spontaneously develop a better relationship with God and the world and people about them. So she creates a scaffolding, a layered series of beliefs that build on one another, which she believes can collectively shift the direction of the people she, and her theology, encounter, and eventually humanity as a whole. Building on the initial ideas of God as change, and people shaping God, she writes, ‘We are all Godseed, but no more or less so than any other aspect of the universe.” This intervention is meant to help correct one of the core causes of the decay and chaos surrounding Lauren, namely humans viewing themselves as distinct from nature, and the climate collapse that results from that belief. Yet, once this foundational belief is shifted, later verses indicate clearly that humans are seen as semi-different from other creatures in a nuanced way, a way that implies a responsibility to other life. Butler writes, “We are that/ aspect of Earthlife best able to shape God/ knowingly. We are Earthlife maturing.” And from this position as the aspect of life of Earth best able to shape God, Lauren encourages those who want to take this path to partner with God. Verse 50 reads, “Partner life. Partner any world that is your home. Partner God.” Here she’s encouraging an evolution of the human role on Earth, and in the human relationship to Earth. In a 1998 interview with Mike McGonigal, Butler was asked about viruses and disease, and she replied, in part, “I think we’ll learn, if we survive, to partner them more than to fight them.” She also repeated called Earth a “living planet,” an outlook that can shift our view of this one and only home we have, and our relationship with it.
But, at the same time, one of the more controversial elements of Earthseed, which manifests in the conclusion of Parable of the Talents, is the aspiration to leave Earth and go to other planets. As Verse 50 of Book of the Living reads, “Partner any world that is your home,” complicating the human-Earth relationship and the concept of stewardship.
Critiques of this element of the text range from arguing that aiming to abandon the Earth has a detrimental impact on the planet here and now to denouncing the ideological impact of reinforcing a colonial mindset or approach to liberation. But while multiple verses, as will as dialogue from Lauren and other section of the books do say something along the lines of, “Destiny of Earthseed/ Is to take root among the stars,”  it is worth noting context both from Butler and from other elements of the theology itself. On the one hand, when Butler discussed the “destiny” of humanity as going to other planets, she did not view it as a cure-all. She viewed it as just one hope, one possible opportunity to reconfigure our relations to one another, a chance to develop cultures and societies that are not so premised upon domination. In an interview with Juan Williams on Talk of the Nation in 2000 Butler discusses how Lauren’s theology could shift humanity, saying, “Well, basically, her people get tot go to heave while they’re alive, the ones who go. She does feel that the destiny of Earthseed is to take root among the stars…” She also explains that space travel wouldn’t lead to heaven directly, in that the first generation to leave Earth wouldn’t reach some utopia, and neither would the future generation that eventually settled on a distant planet. Rather, it’s about uniting people around a goal that could help them put aside differences and buy time while society on this planet collapses, time to try again and perhaps have a chance at creating something better.
It’s crucial to remember that Butler developed this idea in the context of a fictional dystopia that had devolved significantly beyond the many very real and pressing problems already present in the world when she wrote Parable. But, a more nuanced response to these significant critiques looks at what else Earthseed has to offer, specifically looking at how much Lauren’s theological writings have to offer us in the immediate present, and at how most of these offerings are not contingent on taking root among the stars. Before getting into the verses that offer us advice for ways of living and coming together in the community that can be applied here and now, it’s worth mentioning one further contextualization, which is that “The Book of the Living” is structured far more like the Dao de Jing or The Analects than Western religious tracts. Its verses were originally presented in the beginning of each chapter of the Parable series, removed from the rest of the text, to a degree. In compiling them into The Book of the Living there is repetition, contradiction, and ultimately a compilation of sayings rather than one progressive, linear message. At the same time, the sayings are semi-embedded in a story, fleshed out and lived out by Lauren and others in the series. But, rather than the Torah, Christian Bible, or Koran, this living out occurs in a projected and very much fictional future, rather than in the past. That is to say, even the narrative which Earthseed is embedded in is potential, possible, uncertain, and not intended to have the definite-ness of a Western religious text. As stated earlier, Butler’s utopian writing is speculative and questioning, not filled with religious certainties. Earthseed’s goal of fulfilling a “destiny among the stars” is tempered or balanced by other, immediate offerings, and the role of this writing is largely to tease out those threads that seem most helpful to contemporary and future religious and spiritual movements, and the goal of settling on other planets will, in this essay, take a backseat to the offerings that can be grounded on planet Earth.
The offerings of Earthseed that can be applied in our present moment are many. We’ve spoken, and will speak further, about the threads of Womanism and Afro-Futurism that run through the theology and the texts. These are realized through tangible, communal guidelines and possibilities that are neither about space travel nor directly about a conception of God, but rather about healing and relationality. For example verse 23 reads, “Once or twice each week/ A Gathering of Earthseed/ is a good and necessary thing./ It vents emotion, then/quiets the mind./ It focuses attention, strengthens purpose, and/unifies people.” In discussing Earthseed in a womanist context specifically, Monica Coleman identifies concepts like those in verse 23 as equally central to the theology as the formulation of God as change, and more central than space travel. In Making a Way Out of No Way she writes, “The essentials of Earthseed are simply stated, ‘To learn to shape God with forethought, care and work; to educate and benefit their community, their families, and themselves.’”  The womanist thread is seen is the way Earthseed is grounded here in survival and quality of life. Survival in Earthseed is based around gathering together, unifying people, learning and shaping, care work, and community most especially. There is no glorification of violence for the sake of violence here, even in a tumultuous world. It is, at times, necessary for survival, but community and connection and intentionality play much bigger roles.
Intentionality does not mean dogma, however. Far from it. For Butler the intentional community, the intentional faith and struggle to survive means thoughtfulness, deliberation, and most of all adaptability. It means trying a path with effort and intention and forethought, but being willing to change and adapt if that path is not conducive to the survival of the individual and the species. As Coleman writes, “A postmodern womanist interpretation of Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower describes salvation as ‘walking a way out of no way.’ Salvation is found in the process of building a community of diverse, disenfranchised people with a common yearning for a better life.” Walking a way out of no way is an insightful adaptation of Coleman’s early refrain of “making a way out of no way.” What it implies is the constant struggle, the constant movement and adaptation that we see in Butler’s novels. When the first Earthseed community, Acorn, is raided by Christo-fascists, who enslave the inhabitants, Lauren and the other community members do not give up. They survive first and foremost, then eventually get their freedom, and adapt the Earthseed movement from one sedentary community to a roving and evangelizing movement, eventually recruiting enough people to become a powerful force. As Coleman says, “It is not a static community…” and the proscriptions of the theology are similarly not static, they are adaptable guidelines and principles rather than rules written in stone. We see this in Earthseed’s relationship with the past, just as much as we do in its relationship to God, to the present. Verse 64 reads, “To survive,/ Know the past./ Let it touch you./ Then let/ The past/ Go.” One of the many aspects of the past that Coleman shows is present in Earthseed is the Yoruba God Oya. Coleman writes, “When they embrace God as change, they summon the creative aspects of Oya. Creative transformation is found in a theology that is strikingly similar to both traditional Yoruba-based religions and the postmodern theological framework.” This complex and dynamic relationship between past and present, between Yoruba religion and the creation of a new theology echoes Mark Dery’s description of Afro-Futurism being “constellated from far-flung points.” Butler weaves together several of the world’s, and of Black folks’, traditions and spiritual paths, culminating in one of Earthseed theology’s most powerful strands.
At the same time, some have argued that this womanist thread is overshadowed by a universalism that shows up in the Parable series, and in the theology itself in multiple ways, a contentious and nuanced claim that deserves inspection from multiple angles. Peter Stillman, in writing about Earthseed, frames this universalism as a positive and even necessary aspect of the nascent religion. He writes, “In a way, Butler tries to place the reader, via Earthseed, into a world of post-identity politics, or at least into understandings that are post-identity—because we human beings are not only our identities, we are always forming ourselves, developing our potentials, changing ourselves, as we act.” He also goes on to discuss this element of Butler’s work in slightly different terms, adding that her work, or rather Earthseed itself, seeks to accomplish, “the undermining of the barriers that separate human beings…” And Stillman views this aspect of Earthseed as vital for the characters in the book living in what he describes as a “Hobbesian state of war.” In that context, he argues that a ideology which is thoroughly centered around human relationships and our relationship with the natural world is vital for their survival, and that Earthseed helps foster intense relationality by breaking down the barriers that separate people to the point of deemphasizing the individual as an autonomous subject. Instead of teaching the separate individual as the ultimate actor, “Earthseed teaches, on the contrary, that individuals gain understanding, agency, and effective action in and through their interactions with others.” The text of Earthseed itself is very much in accordance with what Stillman is saying here. While Butler does write about the self, and the need to shape and change ourselves, ultimately the theology is group oriented. As Verse 45 reads, “Civilization is to groups what intelligence/ is to individuals. Civilization provides ways/ of combining the information, experience,/ and creativity of the many to achieve/ ongoing group adaptability.” In her fiction and her interviews this goal of group adaptability is repeatedly emphasized. Specifically Butler said several times in interviews that she wanted to question and think through the human obsession with hierarchy. In a 2001 interview with Scott Simon she said, “We are a sadly hierarchical species, and the hierarchical tendencies that we have do seem to be old and more likely to dominate our intelligence…” For this reason, in addition to the immediate survival needs of her characters, Butler is focused in Earthseed and her other work largely on exploring the question of what we can do about hierarchy, and one of her several probing, possible answers is to begin breaking down the ideology of individualism, and to try replacing it with a communal outlook, and theology.
For Stillman, interdependence and interconnectedness are Butler’s logical conclusions to a world falling apart due to hierarchy and hyper-individualism. In fact, Stillman argues that Earthseed, “has surpassed the Enlightenment’s bifurcation of reason and faith.” For Stillman this is part of a larger argument, which is that Earthseed is a post-secular religion. In explaining this argument he first says very explicitly that, “The world in Earthseed is the secular world.” But, he goes on to a more nuanced point which is that, “Olamina does not split reason and faith, rather she combines them: she believes in Earthseed because it gives her a reasonable and practical understanding of her world and how to act in it…” And while Stillman believes that this is a noble effort, a path well worth pursuing, the point is controversial. Setting aside the post-secular/secular distinction temporarily, the idea of combining faith and reason arouses some strong reactions from a lot of people. Not only does it beg the question of whether or not uniting these two concepts is possible, it also brings up a question of whether or not such a union is desirable, or whether something fundamental and necessary is lost in the process.
What Octavia Butler saw was that unlearning and radical imagination are needed. Before we rebuild society a breaking down of that which came before, ideologically and theologically, is necessary. There is great humility in that endeavor, and great creativity in creating combinations of thought that have never before taken hold. Earthseed is not full of commitment, permanence, and authority. Instead it’s based around a commitment to adaptability, imagination, and the struggle to survive. As Toni Morrison wrote, “If I had to live in a racial house, it was important, at the least, to rebuild it so that it was not a windowless prison into which I was forced, a thick-walled, impenetrable container from which no cry could be heard, but rather an open house, grounded, yet generous in its supply of windows and doors.” And this is very much in alignment with Butler’s project. Whether or not the discussion of race is sufficiently explicit is a question very much up for debate, but to overlook the role of imagination in constructing a new racial and theological house is to miss a fundamental step. One of the things we can learn from Earthseed the role of undoing, of giving space to imaging and build new paradigms as we deconstruct the old, rather than believing we have perfect solutions that can be implemented without first dismantling what is already there. So while Earthseed is not a perfect religion, or a political theology, it does not aim to be. Instead it offers us core principles, and possible approaches. And we can take these principles in and of themselves, but we can also look to womanists, Afro-Futurists, and others to see how these principles are being embodied, and bring our movements and struggles and theologies a little closer to the examples we see being thought out and lived out in the world.
Thank you for reading this longer piece, and if you find this writing valuable please consider supporting and sharing it! - Josh
 Butler, Octavia E., and Conseula Francis. Conversations with Octavia Butler. Literary Conversations Series. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2010. Pg, 131.
 Los Angeles Review of Books. ““There’s Nothing New / Under The Sun, / But There Are New Suns”: Recovering Octavia E. Butler’s Lost Parables,” June 9, 2014.
 Conversations, 215.
 For convenience and to exemplify how I regard Earthseed as a serious theology in and of itself I’ll be referring to the verse of Earthseed as compiled in what Butler called “The Book of the Living” rather than citing page numbers from Parable of the Sower.
 Book of the Living, Verse 4.
 Ibid, Verses 9 and 23.
 Ibid, Verse 10.
 Ibid, Verse 22.
 Ibid, Verse 50.
 Conversations, 140.
 Book of the Living, Verse 13.
 Conversations, 175.
 Book of the Living, Verse 23.
 Coleman, 146 (Citing Sower, 269.)
 Ibid, 147.
 Book of the Living, Verse 64.
 Coleman, 147.
 Stillman, Peter G. “Dystopian Critiques, Utopian Possibilities, and Human Purposes in Octavia Butler’s Parables.” Utopian Studies 14, no. 1 (2003): 15–35. Pg, 29.
 Ibid, 29.
 Ibid, 28.
 Book of the Living, Verse 45.
 Conversations, 191.
 Stillman, 28.
 Ibid, 27.
 Ibid, 28.
 Morrison, “Home,” 19.