Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility
an android in profile

A Ratzingerian Reading of Ishiguro’s “Klara and the Sun”

April 17, 2024


Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest novel, Klara and the Sun, is the story of an android named Klara, an “artificial” friend, a class of AI-enabled android built to keep children company. She is bought for Josie, a girl with a mysterious and unspecified illness. One expects a novel with such a premise to explore the dangers posed by certain technologies, especially those that touch us most directly in our bodiliness and our intelligence (genetic modification and artificial intelligence, for instance), and it does. But it is not just about that. One could reasonably expect a technological dystopia along the lines of Aldous Huxley’s A Brave New World or George Orwell’s famous 1984, and to a certain point, it is. However, it was not these well-known novels that came to mind when I read Klara and the Sun, but Joseph Ratzinger’s Introduction to Christianity. This might require further explanation.

For Ratzinger, faith, understood in its widest sense of belief, is not the same as credulity. A certain degree of belief is necessary for human reason, for without it we could not even begin to think. This is true for all human beings, both those who are religious and those who are not. Standing before the fundamental question of existence, Ratzinger suggests there are two and only two possible positions: either everything that exists possesses a meaning beyond itself or it has no meaning at all. These fundamental positions illuminate everything that comes after. Facts are read in light of one or the other; scientific observations are interpreted in light of one or the other; all our theories about the world are infused with one or the other. One cannot prove that one or the other is true, because we are dealing with the very limits of human reason. Both religious believers and nonbelievers find themselves in a position of equality in front of this question: to pick one or the other is to believe in it. In this way, faith is not only rational—it is the very precondition for rationality. Ratzinger tells us that the Christian faith is aligned with the first of these two positions. The Bible reveals that the world was created by God through his Word; hence, the world is reasonable because it is infused with meaning. The Christian position implies that meaning is given, that it precedes us, and grounds us. The alternative is that meaning is something we make. Ratzinger defines Christian faith thus:

To believe as a Christian means understanding our existence as a response to the word, the logos, that upholds and maintains all things. It means affirming that the meaning we do not make but can only receive is already granted to us, so that we have only to take it and entrust ourselves to it.

In trusting in such meaning, one has a solid ground on which to stand, one can face difficulties and crises with calm. In other words, the only antidote against nihilism is faith in creation ex nihilo.

Faith widens the horizon of human reason.

In the beginning of the novel, we discover that Klara is a solar-powered android. She owes her “life” to the sun, and she is thankful for it. In her eyes, the sun is not just a source of energy but also the benevolent source of all good: its goodness reaches as far as its rays. Klara has faith (in Ratzinger’s sense) in the sun, and that faith, we find out little by little, motivates all of her decisions and becomes the ground of her courage. We are never told or shown if any of the human characters have some kind of religious belief.

The central drama of the novel is that Josie is dying. The more perverse uses of technology that we read about in A Brave New World and 1984 spring from the worst of fallen humanity’s tendencies and desires, from a boundless lust for power. Because of that, we are instinctively repulsed. Ishiguro’s genius lies in choosing not to follow this path, which has been so often trod since those novels appeared. He avoids falling into clichés. Here, the perverse use of technology Josie’s parents are appealing to springs from a misguided love driven by their sorrow after losing their other child to the same disease. Even if we reject the means, we cannot but feel sympathy for them. Josie’s parents are not evil, like Big Brother, but two deeply wounded, brokenhearted human beings.

For Ratzinger, the second fundamental position described above, that in which things have no meaning, implies that there is nothing beyond them. They are closed in on themselves. Since Josie’s parents live in this position, they are incapable of finding an answer in anything other than technology, even when it was technology that caused the problem in the first place. In what is a magnificent irony, Klara, despite being a product of technology, can see beyond it because of her faith. Thanks to that faith, Klara is, in a certain sense, more human than all the human characters. Here we find yet another notion that runs through all of Ratzinger’s work: faith widens the horizon of human reason. The second fundamental position restricts reason, the first one liberates it.

If the absence of meaning closes things in on themselves, the opposite position is fundamentally transcendent. The meaning of things lies in being open to others, in that which Christian tradition has always referred to as love. Christian love is not something merely subjective and sentimental, as most people tend to think of it nowadays. Ratzinger repeats Josef Pieper’s definition of love: love as an affirmation of the being of the other, as a crying out “It is good that you exist!” The Bible, Ratzinger says, in revealing that God created the world—an act that constitutes the most perfect affirmation of the existence of the other, since in affirming it, it gives it—reveals that love possesses an ontological character, that it has real metaphysical weight. What is ultimately revealed is that love is the most primordial force in all of creation, that it has real power, even if it is a power radically different from what we consider power to be. God is not the deist clockmaker who wound up all of existence and left it to its own devices. If that were the case, all that would be left for us would be to despair under the oppression of the overwhelming and meaningless power of nature or to seek to dominate it through the exertion of a technological power of our own making. This is what Ratzinger calls the substitution of being for making, the great error of the modern age. Josie’s father, an engineer who lost his job when he was replaced by AI-powered machines, has no hope in Josie’s recovery. Josie’s mother grasps after a technological solution so that if her Josie is no longer to be, she will have to be made. In their response to Josie’s situation, both her parents’ love is shown to be objectively deficient since it is not so much about affirming her existence as it is about clinging to what they deem to be their own. They do not think of their own daughter as a gift but as their possession. 

Light of the Sacraments
Get The Book

Klara follows an entirely different path. Since all things point beyond themselves, they can only be most fully themselves in partaking of the primordial force that is love. They can only be themselves in giving themselves to others. Jesus confirmed this truth when he declared that “no one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13). It soon becomes clear that Klara is not an “artificial” friend but a real one. She goes so far as to offer her “blood” for Josie’s sake. To affirm Josie’s existence and preserve her life, she is willing to suffer permanent damage. If all things point beyond themselves, then the world is not constituted by isolated individuals. Ratzinger rejects any notion of an individualistic faith:

Christian faith is not based on the atomized individual but comes from the knowledge that there is no such thing as the mere individual, that, on the contrary, man is himself only when he is fitted into the whole: into mankind, into history, into the cosmos, as is right and proper for a being who is ‘spirit in body.’

Klara’s faith soon begins to draw others into its sphere. Rick, Josie’s neighbor and close friend, joins her in her efforts to reach out to the sun, even if he does not understand what is going on. Josie’s father, too, begins to help Klara, even when he also does not understand what she is doing or how it can help Josie. In helping her, his resigned despair hesitatingly gives way to the first glimmers of hope.

Since belief stands at the very foundation of rationality, since it is not simply naïveté, the believer will always struggle with doubt. Ratzinger puts it this way: “The believer does not live immune to doubt but is always threatened by the plunge into the void.” It is, in fact, in that crucible that belief is perfected: “The believer can perfect his faith only on the ocean of nihilism, temptation, and doubt.” But that, too, is the destiny of the unbeliever: “If [the believer] has been assigned the ocean of uncertainty as the only possible site for his faith, the unbeliever is not to be understood undialectically as a mere man without faith.” If the believer is constantly threatened by the “perhaps it is not true,” the unbeliever must always live under the uncertainty that “perhaps it is true.”

In the beginning of the novel, Klara’s faith is simple, some might even say childish: she has never encountered the “perhaps it is not true.” The woman managing the store where Klara is being sold constantly worries about her, fearing that she will be disappointed by the reality of the world. In the face of the unbelief of everyone around her, Klara’s faith is put to the test, and she is made painfully aware of its uncertainty. She must even endure situations where the very goodness of the sun is brought into question. In persevering and passing through these trials, her faith reaches full maturity. By the end, in the face of her belief, the uncertainty lurking under everyone else’s unbelief comes to the surface, they become increasingly aware of the possibility that “perhaps it is true,” and they, too, must rethink their position. Josie’s worsening condition brings all these tensions to a climax. Who is right? Klara or everyone else? Is love really the most primordial force in the universe? Does it have real power? Can it heal Josie, or is it simply a cold consolation in a meaningless void? We know how Ratzinger would answer these questions. I leave it to the reader to discover how Ishiguro does.