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.