Saturday, October 26, 2013

Heretical Thoughts Jotted Down

          There is no doubt that I am a wanderer. When it comes to faith I at times think to myself that the only reason I do not call myself an atheist is the fact that when I privately say "You're an atheist" to myself, I can't seem to stomach that. This bothers me because I feel that it is a total injustice to my atheist friends who are some of the most wonderful people in the world, and here I am reluctant to call myself an atheist because it seems bad. That puts me within a stereotype I hate perpetrating: that atheists can't be good people. This is a hot button issue for me because I know that it is completely ridiculous and I know that it is wrong. Other times I love the idea of a/theism. God without God. A realization that it is impossible to conceptualize such a being that is so wholly other than us. If God is wholly other than us, and we exist, doesn't that mean that God does not? This is what I think about. God can't simply exist, God must do something that is indescribable because language just breaks down in an attempt to formulate it. So in light of these thoughts I have had to ask myself if this prevents me from being anything. Does this make me another member of the rise of the religious "nones?" Recently I have begun examining the various tenants of Christianity and asking myself what they mean to me. I fully admit to being a follower of the teachings of Jesus*, but I now have to ask if that is what makes someone a Christian or not.
          So my attention turns to a major tenant of Christianity: the resurrection of Jesus. Even during my days of pious Christian orthodoxy I must admit I had doubts about this and had questions such as "If Jesus was the 'perfect sacrifice' then how was he allowed to come back to life? Doesn't this negate the 'sacrifice' part?" A question like that is wholly theological question, already presupposing that Jesus did indeed rise. The funny part to me (now) is that this question also begs the question, "Did God screw up?" Now the questions I ask are different as I try to rethink God and even what it means to say "God." I ask, "How can I believe this? I doubt God simply because I realize that it is impossible to know one way or another. Who am I to make bold assertions of the supernatural as it potentially is and conceptualize God in any way? So if this the way I think about God, how can I believe in something I know to be absolutely impossible?" It is this question that causes a degree of entropy in my mind. How can I be a Christian and deny this event? Can anyone? 
          My answer? Yes.
          This predicates upon the idea that the Bible should not be read as a history book, but rather read as one reads poetry; finding meaning within the text and finding the truth that you know is probably not within the realm of the physical, but is instead true only in the meaning it provides. The teachings of Jesus no doubt teach that we are to hold others above ourselves, care for the poor, not judge anyone, and value life above all else. What has happened in the history of Christianity has been the lifting up of the mystical teachings of Jesus over the pragmatic teachings that apply to our lives. The mystical, religious teachings that have been so keenly held on to are the ones that come in the later gospels, especially the book of John. Many Christians have so dogmatically clung to verses such as John 14:6 (I am the way, the truth, and the life...) that they fail to emulate the other teachings. What is so tragic is the fact that teachings such as the one in John 14:6 are historically unlikely to have been uttered by Jesus. The book of John was written thirty years or more after the book of Mark and is so highly "theologized" that many biblical historians take it with a grain of salt when it comes to identifying what Jesus actually said. But yet this is the book that people so emphatically cling to. This is the book where Christianity seems to base its theological teachings. It is painfully ironic because this is the book that is radically different than the first three gospels and is the book when Jesus becomes an exclusivist. 
          As a result of preferencing the mystical over the practical, we have privileged the absurd over the practical. We have let the miracles in the bible take total meaning over the actual teachings. The water to wine becomes fact. The raising of Lazarus becomes fact. The resurrection becomes demonstration. If a historical fact, the resurrection becomes something that's only meaning beyond it's literal happening is a skewed teaching that in Christianity there is no death. That in Christianity we overcome the real thing that makes us realize just how finite we are, just how amazing and unbelievable it is that we exist, just how important it is to make every moment count in order to make an impact. In believing the resurrection as demonstration one unknowingly rejects the practical teachings of Jesus because they are not what matter anymore. If purely believing that professing yourself as a believer in Christ is what gets us a ticket into heaven, then what do Jesus' teachings even matter anymore? It is a narcissistic individualism that is bent to help only one person at a time. This is the exact opposite of everything Jesus actually taught. 
          But if we understand the Bible as full of meaning shown through allegory we begin to understand something much more beautiful and Jesus-like than current orthodoxy. In this understanding Jesus is murdered. He is not given a fair trial. His crime is seen as a falsity that has been directed at him by hypocritical, corrupt religious leaders. He is hung on a cross and dies, yet in his last moments forgives those who have committed the atrocity of condemning a man that they know is innocent. We see a moment of pure humility and doubt in his cry of "God, why have you forsaken me?**" Then we see Jesus resurrect himself. He overcomes death and declares the atrocities that have just been committed against him and against all basic understanding of what justice is as impotent. It is in this understanding that we can derive the meaning that there are atrocities in the world, there are injustices, and that it is the common man who pays the penalty of the powerful's inability to forgo their own corruption and wealth for the sake of the many. The resurrection, in this sense, is the human spirit to go on in the face of all this. The resurrection teaches us that there is a good in spite of all the evil that can never be broken. In this understanding we are faced with the truth of the matter: The evil that holds power will abuse its power and in many instances get its way, but the true instance of humanity is its ability to forgive that evil, thus negating it by declaring that its acts don't matter; they are impotent.
          So when did being Christian become equal to having a ticket stub? It is amazing to me that people can think that only Christians can have morals when it appears to me that so many Christians have fundamentally misinterpreted Jesus' message. If what it means to be a Christian is not to follow the teachings of Jesus, but rather to embrace mystical ideas that have lost their place in the modern world then I am afraid that I am a full blown heretic (as if that wasn't obvious enough). In today's world Jesus is seen in many ways. In emulation of the teachings of Jesus, I feel as if we see atheists fighting for human rights, demanding justice, and continually identifying the good that is within people. Across the aisle, we seem to see an abundance of Christians against tolerance, against granting human rights to those who are denied them, and who have chosen to fully believe that no one can be in perpetually unfortunate circumstances, but instead must be people who are not good enough (morally) to rise up and get out of them. If this is truly the case then there will come a point where I do not want to be a Christian. It would be wonderful to redefine the idea for the better, thus why I am a fan of the Emerging Church, but I do believe there comes a point in which something becomes so toxic that it cannot be saved; apparently not even by Jesus.

*By teachings of Jesus I have to clarify that I mean the teachings that I am comfortable with historically ascribing to him. I don't follow the logic of the Jesus Seminar, who attribute only 18% of the gospels to Jesus' actual teaching, but I fully (and heretically) deny that all the red letters in the Bible are actual teachings of Jesus. 

**The only statement of Jesus on the cross that is accounted for in more than one gospel.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

(In)finite as Impotent: Faith in Response to the Immeasurable

           Perhaps St. Augustine’s famous question should be reconsidered and posited again, but this time with a different voicing. Instead of asking what I love when I love my God, maybe I should ask: What do I have faith in, when I have faith in God? But even still, that is a question not ready to be answered. Instead I must ask: What is this thing which I have, only to place in something other? As Johannes de Silentio finishes Fear and Trembling and blatantly tells his reader to either approach the paradox or watch Abraham, as the father of faith, come to an end, I am only certain that in the statement of “either there is a paradox, that the single individual as the particular stands in an absolute relation to the absolute, or Abraham is done for,” that the absolute is God, the absolute relation is faith, and that the single individual is Abraham (120). However, the key to this puzzle is the particular, and the particular can be stated as Abraham fulfilling his absolute duty to God. In this essay I want to say that this relation between individual and God through absolute duty and faith is necessary because it expresses the true relationship between the immeasurable and the finite as the finite recognizing its own impotency in the face of the immeasurable.
            To recall my repositing of Augustine’s question, this “thing” in which I have, only so far as to place in something else, is for de Silentio, faith. This faith that we can have (as it is a potentiality) is only purposeful in that it can be placed in something that is not us. It can be understood as a kernel of the truly infinite, which I call the immeasurable. It is not the ethical, but is instead beyond the ethical and into the religious. For de Silentio, this faith is the most important thing that Abraham can possess, because he must possess it or everything is lost. If Abraham is lost, everything is lost because we need Abraham’s faith for the religious to be understood. Abraham shows the existence of an absolute duty to God out of necessity. If Abraham is just a man that went on a mountain to murder his son, but then changed his mind, then there is no faith and we are all deceived. In standing as “the single individual as the particular” Abraham transcends the idea of ethical duty, as the ethical duty is simply to fulfill the universal. The ethical duty for Abraham would be simply to love his son, as a father must love his son. However, Abraham is not sacrificing Isaac out of love for Isaac; nor is Abraham forgoing the sacrifice of Isaac because he loves Isaac as a father loves his son. He is sacrificing Isaac because that is his impotency in relation to the immeasurable. Abraham is acting through virtue of the absurd. This absurdity- the religious- is beyond ethics. Who is Abraham to say that God is unethical or immoral? This is Abraham’s impotence, and simultaneously the impotence we all must confront in the face of the immeasurable. Our impotency is that our idea of infinite is still of a separate, lesser, quality than God’s infinity.
To say that God is immoral is to place God within the standards of the ethical, but God is not ethical. To say that God is ethical is to bring God down from the religious infinite into the universal infinite, which is applicable only in human reason. This is impossible to do with God or faith because “faith begins precisely where thought stops” (53).  This is not meant to be the common fundamentalist phrase that excuses God from any questioning, i.e. “God’s ways are higher than ours!” It is to say that at any moment in which one takes God and places him within a purely human sphere (albeit a non-physical, infinite one), one has perverted God into something that God cannot be if we hope to imagine him as made up of a substance or quality that is separate from our own. One goes beyond thought, beyond ethics, with a leap of faith, removing he or she from what is known, understood, and formulated, and placing his or her self into something that is unknown, impossible to understand, and impossible to formulate.
            This leap of faith is the beginning of an encounter with the immeasurable. The leap of faith is what enables Abraham to stand as the particular in absolute relation to the absolute. Abraham as the particular is Abraham expressing his absolute duty to God in a form that cannot be expressed to Sarah, Isaac, or Eliezer. The absolute duty to God is based upon the recognition of our own finitude in relation to God. Even within the ethical we fall short of our duty to God because God requires the service of the individual. The individual acts within the spheres of the aesthetic and the ethical; however, to make a movement that is neither sensual to the self as its purpose, nor an appeal to the ethical obligations of being a human, a third sphere, the religious, is required. Because this absolute duty to God brings us an experience of humanity as inhumane, it cannot be formulated in any words without a certain convolution, and with the convolution there is only misunderstanding for those around us. If Abraham’s situation is understood solely in aesthetic and ethical terms, Abraham loses his humanity; for his intentions and actions are too monstrous to be considered human. They are worse than evil dare imagines to be. There is no purpose in Abraham’s potential murder of Isaac other than murder for the sake of murder. Evil is born out of a misplaced ideology. In Abraham’s case, there is no ideology that the aesthetic or the ethical can provide. For Abraham, putting this situation into words that will only be understood by Sarah or Isaac in terms of the aesthetic or the ethical is wholly detrimental to the faiths of those around him.
            Abraham’s final movement separates two distinct forms of infinity: the ethical and the religious. The ethical is infinity that is observed and seen as infinite. It has a beginning, but has no end. It began with the beginning of humanity and unfolded itself through generations until it became what is understood between people as what is truly good or bad. It allows for a form of objectivity among people. If I say it is wrong to kill your child, ethics agrees; and people, informed by ethics, also agree. However, the infinite as immeasurable only takes place within the religious. There is no beginning and there is no end. Essentially, the differentiation of the two types of infinite expressed by the ethical and the religious is exemplified in mathematical terms when the difference between a ray and a line is understood. A ray has a set point in which it begins and then continues onward infinitely in one direction. A line infinitely continues in both directions. In attempting to explain this with the terms that de Silentio lays out, expressing the ethical is like expressing a ray that began and now continues infinitely. In expressing the religious, we express the line, as God is understood to be outside of time, and therefore to have no beginning or no end.
            Indeed it can be found that beyond just the aesthetic and the ethical, a form of religious relation must also exist. If it is said that for something to be understood it needs correct context then faith is no exception to this rule. However, the context is not to be found within the finite, or our own daily interaction with the infinite as the ethical. As Abraham shows us his faith by virtue of the absurd, this is how faith is to be found in all situations. Faith is an expression of helplessness in the sense that it is admittance from an individual that he or she cannot stay within his or her own means to understand everything. Even in this admittance of not understanding, one does not gain understanding, but yet chooses to embrace a paradox that puts the individual above the ethical in relation to the absolute. It is as de Silentio points out, “during all this time [Abraham] had faith that God would not demand Isaac of him, and yet he was willing to sacrifice him if it was demanded… He climbed the mountain, and even in the moment when the knife gleamed he had faith- that God would not require Isaac” (35-36). Abraham does not ever understand why, nor does he question it. Yet somehow he expects both to sacrifice Isaac and to get Isaac back. This is faith; and it is in this faith that we encounter our own helplessness in the face of the immeasurable. 

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Leibniz' Metaphysics: The Problem of Omnipotence and Omni-benevolence

           In Christian Theology one can never escape attempting to answer the question, “If God is omnipotent, all benevolent, and omniscient, why are pain, suffering, and evil in the world he watches over?” What Leibniz offers in the Discourse on Metaphysics is this answer: because it is necessary. For Leibniz, it is necessary that one person suffer if it means the world will benefit from it. As Leibniz states in the Theodicy, if there is “an infinitude of possible worlds… God must have chosen the best” (162). This idea, however, presents the key problem to Leibniz’ view of God as a perfect being and God as upholding the theodicy. I contend that Leibniz’ viewpoint allows for God to be either omnipotent or omnibenevolent, but not both. An omnipotent god could create a world any way it desired, allowing only evil, allowing only good, or a mixture of both. A god that possess creating power but is only omnibenevolent would, in support of Leibniz, create the best possible world for his creation to live in, but remain powerless to stop its corruption. Leibniz’ view of God relies on too many exceptions for God (and only for God) to remain perfect.
            Leibniz’ view of God, and how a perfect God can coincide with evil in the world, predicates upon the principle of sufficient reason. This is simply to say everything that comes into existence must have a necessary cause for existing. As Leibniz writes in The Monadology, God is a “necessary substance” in almost an Aristotelian sense of necessity (124). God is necessary as a substance because there must be a “final cause” (124). God’s existence in itself “is a simple consequence of its being possible” and that God has sufficient reason for himself (125). Sufficient reason is truly what Leibniz’ theology is based upon; however this principle cannot exclusively apply to God and still be taken seriously. What is sufficient reason for anything if it is simply to say that because something is possible, it therefore exists because it is necessary? What is worth being deemed necessary? I understand that the monad God is not only sufficient cause for creation, but also for what is to be considered what all truth is based upon, but Leibniz’ principle is too open ended to simply posit God as the only substance that is sufficient in itself to provide enough reason for all of existence yet not powerful enough to create an absolutely perfect world that reflects God as upholding the theodicy.
            Peter Loptson states in the introduction to Discourse on Metaphysics that “there are many different kinds of perfection, all of which God possesses” (59). I think Leibniz would agree to this statement simply because all “contingent truths” really on sufficient reason and God is sufficient reason in himself (124). Every form of perfection requires a definition which is the truth of that perfection, since God is necessary, for Leibniz, to provide a basis for these truths, God possesses all forms of truth and all forms of perfection. This is a key issue as to why the fact that suffering and pain exist is a violation to the theodicy and why this world cannot be the best of all possible worlds. If God possesses all forms of perfection then he also possesses the ability to make a perfect world. Leibniz, I believe, would intercept my claim here to say that this is a perfect world because to suppose that there is a better world is to posit that God acted with less perfection that he is capable of. If I was to accept Leibniz’ position I would have to say that God must either be only omnipotent or only omnibenevolent, but not both. The problem with Leibniz’ view is the fact that Leibniz supposes omnipotence. If God is truly all-powerful then God would automatically have the resources necessary to create a world that did not require suffering. To return to the example used in my introduction, in Leibniz’ view it is necessary that one person suffer for the good of all creation. There is simply not enough to go around in the world. For example, if there were two people in the entire world, and the world was created with only ten dollars, no more, no less, both people could have equal money at five dollars apiece, or one person could have more than that at the other person’s expense; consequently, there is no situation in which both people can have ten dollars. If God is truly omnipotent and omnibenevolent, he automatically would have the ability to create more money; allowing each person to have equality.
            To suppose that God has created the best possible world with evil in it, yet that God is both all-powerful and all-benevolent is essentially a contradiction. I agree with Leibniz “that one acts imperfectly if he acts with less perfection than he is capable of” (61). Perhaps that is why I so wholeheartedly disagree with his view of God. Leibniz supposes a God who is imperfect by the very definition Leibniz defines him as perfect with. There is no situation in which an omnibenevolent, omnipotent being has no other choice but to deem it necessary to create a situation that inflicts suffering upon persons. That is the eternal problem in the theodicy, if a being is omniscient, that being knows everything that is and could be. If that being is also omnibenevolent, that being would know of a situation in which there is only good. If that being is also omnipotent, then that being would have the power to create a situation in which it knew that everything would be good. If the being could not, then it is not omnipotent because omnipotence would allow it to forever create a new situation in which everything is good. If a being has no limits to its power and is benevolent then it can only be perceived as imperfect if it does not act with the full extent of its perfection. The Orthodox Christian God as the theodicy is only perfect in its imperfection.

            Perhaps I write on this subject in a way that is too certain and too dogmatic. However, Leibniz reveals his own certainty of his methodology at the end of the Discourse. The problem with Leibniz’ own certainty is defined previously with his writing “To know in particular, however, the reasons that have moved him to choose this order of the universe, to permit sin, to dispense his salutary grace in a certain manner- this passes the capacity of the finite mind” (62). I agree with Leibniz. Humans cannot fathom true omnipotence. However, we can encounter the idea of it and engage it. Omnipotence is truly a quality of God, however, not the quality of the God that potentially made this world if we are to believe him to also be benevolent. 

I'll Pray For You

          I stumbled upon an article earlier this week that outlined the particular issue of a man who had recently told his fundamentalist parents that he was gay. The story really upset me (as such stories always do) and also made me think about the phrase that truly caused the man so much pain. The phrase, which was included at the end of so many letters written by his mother and father, was the very common "I'll pray for you." The problem with this seemingly caring sentiment is the fact that it is horribly insulting to the person who it was told to because of a reason that the person who gave the sentiment sees as a fundamental flaw. When someone is about to take a test and is stressed, or someone is in pain after an injury and is feeling the emotional trauma of thinking through the ramifications of the injury (such as an athlete who hurts his or her knee) saying the phrase, "I'll pray for you" is entirely appropriate and helpful thing to say. It is comforting to the emotions. It is sentiment that you care about what is ailing them. 
          However, when you say this phrase to a person because you feel that they have a fundamental flaw about them, the phrase becomes one of the most hurtful things you could ever say to another person. If you believe God designed people and knew them before they were even born, why do you feel that God made a mistake in making them gay? It is an absolutely despicable attitude. It's analogous to a white person telling a black person that he'll pray for him because he is not white. The phrase, in this way, becomes "I will pray for my idea of you." When you pray that someone will change an inherent quality about them, you have ceased to care about who they actually are. You only care about who you think they should be. 
          This is multiplied when placed in a family setting. When you write to your family member and say "I will pray for you" because he or she is gay you have ceased caring for who they actually are. You do not love the person they are. You despise it. You only love your own idea of them and what they "should" be in your eyes. It is like a parent who raises a child to become what he or she could not as a child. That parent then judges that child's success along the lines of what success they achieve. There is no actual way to meet the parent's approval because the bar is set too high. It is like attempting to reach the outside of a circle when all you can do is take a step halfway to the outside every time. When you create an idol of what you think a person should be, you cease to love that person and only love the idol because the idol is more fulfilling.
           So the question is put into your relationships with those around you: Who do you love? The person as they are, or the idol as you wish them to be?

Saturday, August 24, 2013

I am (God): Certainty that God Does (Not) Exist

          Perhaps this post will have a bit more of a personal feel to it. No, scratch that thought. This post will most certainly have a personal touch to it. I write this in response to an issue that occurred within my life yesterday. If you're not aware of this, then believe me when I tell you, Arkansas is not a place where freethinking is exactly... encouraged. Half of Americans see unbelief, which they define as atheism, as something wholly detrimental to society (when it is in fact just the opposite, see: Denmark). Most of those Americans will not go far enough in their own thinking to determine a difference between atheism and unbelief, seeing them only as identical. Therefore, any form of unbelief has an above average chance of being greeted with hostility, even in an urban area where there is more of an abundance of education. My idea is that unbelief acknowledges that there was at one point something to believe in, or even that there potentially remains something to believe in. Atheism, as I define it, is the distinct absence of belief; a rejection of any idea of God. For Atheism, there is not anything to believe in at all. Now let us go to Arkansas, perhaps even the Bible Belt in general. This is a place where to be religious means to be Christian, in many cases; and to be Christian where I am from is to believe in Biblical inerrancy and that faith is not faith unless it is a certainty. And there is where I must begin.
          To be certain is to transcend faith and move on into knowledge. Because God requires faith for belief in him, to say, "I am certain that God exists" is to become an anathema of Christianity. While opposites certainly depend on each other to create the chaos that creates new, faith and knowledge can not interact in such a way that faith becomes an asset of knowledge and knowledge an asset of faith unless there is only doubt to be reflected upon. This is to say that doubt is the place where faith and knowledge meet to interact. Without opening up an entire new topic, I must posit that to approach this subject from the idea of God in the New Testament is to attempt to fathom God as a supernatural being. To approach God as supernatural is  to admit that God can not be found in the natural world. Because the natural world is all that we can measure and experience, it is therefore impossible to know that God either exists or does not exist. Thus to be Christian and believe in God is to have faith. Faith is to believe something in the absence of proof. Yet it is a fundamental misunderstanding of faith that fuels the burning desire of a fundamentalist's "faith." To be certain that God exists is to deny the key fundamental element of the God of Christianity, the idea that he is supernatural. Therefore to be certain of God's existence is to deny his existence. The certainty of God is a danger to the world because it falsely gives people the "authority" to say whatever they want and to condemn whoever they want. John Caputo writes on this problem in On Religion where, in summary form, he states that people who know the will of God only know the will of themselves. There is no chance that they are wrong because God can not be wrong. The phrase "I am certain that God exists" only builds upon itself until it is revealed to say, "The god independent of me does not exist, I am God."
          With the title of this post I am hinting squarely at Peter Rollins' wonderful book, How (Not) to Speak of God. It is upon this book that I found myself on a quest with Rollins for a new form of Christianity that bothers to think about its beliefs. I am met with very real opposition to this idea from the people I hold most dear, and that is what troubles me the most. An article Rollins wrote for the Huffington Post in February outlines the idea that Christianity very much must go beyond belief into unbelief if it wants to believe at all. This excerpt assesses the situation of people such as myself: 
"This is why the people who leave fundamentalist communities are often not the ones who don't take it seriously enough, but those who do (and who are thus confronted with the true horror of the communities beliefs). In my own experience I, along with a few friends, began to break free of religious belief precisely because we were naïve ones who took the teaching of the church more seriously than those in the church. The people who continued in a mode of disbelief were the ones that stayed because they were able to protect themselves from the trauma of actually believing their beliefs."
This is the inherent problem of a set of "beliefs" that allow for no middle ground. It is not a supernatural sort of belief if it is altogether certain. A thing that one is certain about is something that does not require any thought. It is this all or nothing, black or white, chocolate or vanilla attitude that creates animosity between people. There is only "us" and "them" when a belief with no middle ground is taken up. I am reminded of the example my friend Jon always brings up when speaking of fundamentalism and church: "Why is it that even when a community has hundreds upon hundreds of churches in the area that preach about Jesus, if there is not a certain kind of, say, baptist church there, that area is still considered 'unchurched?'" It is a question that should have never had to have been asked. This is a problem that goes beyond splits in religious communities and extends well into those who deride the religious communities. I would contend that a theologian such as Rollins writes what he writes for the good of Christianity, to advance it. I know that my ideas are bent towards what I consider the health of Christianity. Yet to believe what Christianity leads us to actually believe is to become "them" and be exercised from "us."
          Christianity needs a gray area. What I hope I have not done with this is in any way condemn atheism as wholly negative, which it is not. I believe Slavoj Zizek says something along the lines of "only an atheist can be a true Christian" in his book The Puppet and the Dwarf. I say unbelief admits to a God (even be it a dead God), while Atheism admits to none. What certainty in belief in God does is condemn both, but eliminate God and replace him with oneself, something more dangerous than any other belief.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Kev Mequet's Response to "Elysium and the Death of God"

I am impressed with this take on the movie and appreciate the effort that went into it. I do think there's a missed opportunity to speak into a larger context. While it is of course undergirded by Christological correspondence, I think there is more at work.

Blomkamp is an atheist and this makes sense given his youthful upbringing in South Africa where he experienced first hand horrible disregard for human dignity -- let alone rights -- by the Afrikaaners against the native black population under the aegis of Apartheid. A rather blatant demonstration of abusive imperial colonialism -- both religious and political -- that he strongly critiques in his films.

It's shocking to me how vehemently people have derided Jodie Foster's portrayal of Delacourt. If you understand the dynamics that Blomkamp is drawing from then you have to acknowledge Foster adopted a mannered Afrikaaner dialect to deepen his political critique. In that I judge her performance successful. She was chillingly ruthless in her embodiment of entitled bureaucratic banality of evil. But I digress.

I think Max De Costa is more a future dystopic everyman Prometheus. Hear me out on this. Elysium and the Elysian Fields were the beatific paradise of the Greek gods that privileged and exclusive human beings were invited to visit and live with the gods in harmony, leisure and opulence. It was an idyll specifically separated from the filthy disharmony of earth and its mass of unruly humanity. Blomkamp deftly weaves these stands into his story.

Prometheus stole fire from the gods in Elysium and exiled himself to earth presenting humankind with the first technological tool: fire. The gods in their fury at this affront sentenced him to eternal torment to have vultures tear his abdomen open and devour his liver only to have his wounds healed over night for it to be repeated the next dawn. A creditable correspondence between Delacourt and Zeus is not out of line. Kruger is Delacourt's vulture ripping open Max's abdomen if you recall.

Kruger played as gleefully manic and deranged by Copley is the prefect vicious, unruly killing machine Delacourt needs -- on earth, never to be allowed upon the Elysian Fields at all costs.

The real opportunity here is to see Blomkamp's morality play as a lesson too in imperial colonialism that drew Promethean themes into expressing Christological orthodoxical formation in the 1st and 2nd centuries of the Common Era. Elysium is the Hellenistic antecedent of Christian heavenly tropes.

Max's unpardonable arc is his audacity to bring the technological fire of cybernetic healthcare from Elysium down to earth. But he doesn't do this out of some abstract ideology of either altruism or communism but as a act of absolution to the only thing he ever loved outside himself, Frey. But not a gift of life for himself once he realizes the impossibility of it, or to his love, but to the object of his love's love, Matilda.

'Tell Matilda I know why the hippopotamus did it.'

At this point I started to cry and I've seen it twice and it's happened both times. Blomkamp also ingeniously weaves African storyteller traditions too.

It's a truly beautiful film but you must look beyond the gratuitous popcorn violence and have an overflowing tool box of referential materials to decode it. It's worth the effort. Thanks, Keith, for posting this and inviting me to respond. 

Kev Mequet

Thank you so much for taking the time to write this profound response, Kev. I am not that familiar with Greek mythology and the Max as Prometheus makes complete sense. I am particularly fond of your line, "Elysium is the Hellenistic antecedent of Christian heavenly tropes." If anyone else wants to write a response, I want you to. 

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Jesus Allegory Matt Damon: Elysium and the Death of God

           I've seen Elysium twice now. I was expecting a highly political commentary on the state of the world today and the direction the world is headed if it stays down this path. I wasn't disappointed. However, what truly surprised me were the amount of parallels drawn between the society of Elysium and the society of Jesus of Nazareth; and even more so, the parallels between each society's protagonist. Mind you, my screening of Elysium was presented to a mind thoroughly enthralled with Mark C. Taylor's After God, but the point of this post is point out that Matt Damon's character, Max, is a form of Christ, bridging the gap between the Kingdom of God and Earth, bringing Elysium to poor and endangered, and in the process positing a radical theology for Christianity.
           It's important to begin by defining what exactly Elysium is. Simply put, it is paradise. In the movie this paradise is built up that unless one is born into favorable conditions, he can never hope to attain it. This immediately calls to mind the Christian idea that before Jesus, one must have been Jewish to find a path to God. To be outside of this path was to be a gentile. But what Elysium brilliantly points out is that what creates the obstruction to ascertaining this singular path is that which the path is designed to arrive at: God. God set up the grounds for who gets into Elysium. God chose a certain people to be inherently advantaged at reaching this path. In doing this, God becomes a blockade to Himself. But this is not to say that God is not aware of this. This is not to re-posit the age old question of "Does God get what God wants?" in a new package. It is evidenced by the book of Joshua in the Jewish Scriptures that God most certainly did not want anyone other than his chosen people existing in the same conditions as his chosen people. This, naturally, is where Jodie Foster comes into play.
          Her character, Delacourt, is this idea of God in blockade form. Delacourt only reacts in ways that 100% effectively eliminate any opposition to her own paradise and the people she desires to protect. Because of this, she must be eliminated in order for there to be any newcomers to Elysium beyond those who were selected from birth. My idea here is that for salvation to be achieved for anyone outside of those guaranteed it by their fortuitous births, God must have no power or be unable to interfere. God must either incapacitate Himself or be rendered inert. This, for me, brings to mind Slavoj Zizek's On Belief, where Zizek states:
"This divine self-abandonment, this impenetrability of God to Himself, thus signals God's imperfection. And it is only within this horizon that the properly Christian Love can emerge, a Love beyond Mercy. Love is always love for the Other insofar as he is lacking - we love the Other BECAUSE of his limitation, helplessness, ordinariness even." (146-147)
The difference I will gladly admit between Delacourt and God (and a difference that I hope is not seen to subvert my entire idea) is that in Christianity, God undergoes a change and wants the people who do not belong. Thus is the necessity of the death of God. For God to allow the space for the redemption of souls outside the realm of his own chosen people, the space that Jesus must occupy, He must first remove Himself from said space. In Elysium this is experienced through the death of Delacourt, which creates the space for Max to bring Elysium to earth.
          Max plays a Jesus-like figure in his vision of world that he can only see as unjust. Reza Aslan depicts his idea of the historical Jesus in his recent book Zealot, wherein Jesus is seen as more of a political insurrectionist, seeking to overturn the established order through a radical reversal in which the poor become the rich. Unlike Jesus' historical death, however, Max's death ushers in this radical reversal simultaneously. The historical Jesus of Reza Aslan remains a martyr for the ideological hope to overcome injustice, but Max is seen to succeed. However, the theological Christ is where Max ushers in true reversal of the established order. We see Max begin on Earth and ascend into Elysium not to wait for the arrival of others, but to send Elysium back to where he came from, and not return with it. Thus Max is the reversal of the theological Christ and the confirmation of the historical Jesus. He ends the separation of Elysium and earth upon his death, and instead synthesizes them. Hearkening back to Zizek, this is true praxis of "Love beyond Mercy." God's love is brought to earth by both His death and the death of Christ creating the space for it to exist. Through the death of God and Christ, there becomes and established locus of love in which life can flourish beyond redemption, overcoming the blockade.