Saturday, February 22, 2014

Gnosticism in "The Lego Movie"


This is one those posts where I look forward to one day looking back upon and laughing at myself for thinking that I ever knew anything.

          After hearing several positive reviews of The Lego Movie I decided it was most definitely time to go see it. One review praised the film as a critique of capitalism, and while even the chance of this was good enough to sell the movie to me, a second recommendation, from a professor at UCA, made the matter of seeing the movie urgent. His recommendation was that the movie, more than being a critique of capitalism, was loaded with Christian Gnosticism (incredibly relevant to both he and I, as we are conducting an independent study on the second century battle between Christian Gnosticism and Proto-Orthodoxy). After seeing the movie I must agree with my professor. 

          Gnosticism, in early Christianity, is not a movement that can be summed up by any one definition. To overgeneralize, simply for the purpose of this post, it is movement in Christianity that argued that the Truth (capital "T") was inside people. Thus, salvation was to find this inner truth that revealed Gnosis, or "Secret Knowledge" that was always inside a person. Gnostics believed humanity to be in much different situation than their rivals, the Proto-Orthodox, argued for. Rather than believing that this world was a perfect creation, ruined by humanity's fall and our subsequent use of free will, Gnostics refused to acknowledge this world as a creation of the perfect God. Instead, this world was created by a lesser god who botched the whole thing after borrowing some creative power from the real God. One name for this lesser god is mentioned specifically in The Gospel of Judas as "Saklas," which translates to "the fool." Gnostics argued that even after making such an obviously terrible world, Saklas had the nerve to assert himself as the one, true God. This fool, this god, is the God of the Old Testament: El, Elohim, YHWH, Jehovah, etc. This distinction is the primary idea that can be seen in The Lego Movie. 
          The big twist, the big reveal, is that the world has been made by Lord Business and he is "the man upstairs." He made this world that is imperfect. He denied anyone's freedom to build what is already inside of them. In his world of supposed order we find nothing but chaos, where in order to maintain order he has had to deny everyone in his world their own creativity, their own divinity. Meanwhile, his son is the actual God that is worth believing in; he is the God that the master builders, the ones who possess the inner knowledge, are fighting for. What else do we see? The fact that to create such a diverse world, the man upstairs is using the ideas that the master builders create, their obvious connection to the real source of creativity in the Lego universe: the real God. It is revealed that the man upstairs is subject to the creative power of the innocent God who lives further upstairs. The man upstairs has created his world in the basement, while the real creative power has been upstairs all along. 
          And what is seen in master builders' contact with the "real" world and its people? It is skepticism of the people's building ability. Is this not the recorded Gnostic's reaction to the Orthodox Christian? We see in both the Gospel of Judas and the Gospel of Thomas that the Gnostic Jesus laughs at the average Christian's perception of the divine. He laughs at the disciples in the Gospel of Judas for holding communion, saying that they "are not doing this because of your own will but because it is through this that your god [will be] praised" (Judas, Scene One). To the Gnostics, the Orthodox are mistaken in their faith because it is thoroughly of this world. Their god is not worth praise and has brainwashed his creation into believing him and only him. The key to escaping this world is finding that one does not need "the instruction manual" to attain salvation. Rather, one needs to find the Truth that the real man upstairs has instilled within a person. This realization brings salvation, it brings an escape from this world. In The Lego Movie it allows one to enter "Cloud Cuckoo Land."
          This is where Lego shows its cleverness. In Cloud Cuckoo Land there is no questioning anything, no negativity, no unhappiness, and anything that may even potentially turn into negativity is "repressed down deep inside," according to Unikitty. Is this anything other than a critique of the concept of heaven? It would appear at first that Cloud Cuckoo Land provides happiness to its members because it rids them of all the negativity that brings them down. But the truth is much darker. The members of Cloud Cuckoo Land are actually morbidly depressed. There is no happiness in Cloud Cuckoo Land because there is no more freedom there than there is upon the place they escaped from. If freedom is found precisely in one's impotentiality rather than his or her potentiality, then Cloud Cuckoo Land presents a situation where impotentiality is denied as one cannot ever not be not happy. This is manifested as happiness only while one is within Cloud Cuckoo Loud, but as the end of the movie reveals, once again the truth is inside an individual, as Unikitty officially admits to herself that she is unhappy and actually cultivates another's safety because of it.
          Thus, the critique of confessional religion that began by examining Christian Orthodoxy through Gnosticism is fully admitted by The Lego Movie. Just as Unikitty must escape her own psychological prison created by her "religion," so the main character, Emmet, a Messiah if I have ever seen one, must also. Emmet is the true kernel of Truth in Lego. First he, a working class nobody, is faced with the opportunity to be "the Special." The one who will save the world from the man upstairs, Lord Business. Then he is rejected by his new found peers, the ones who declared him to be the chosen one, except for a select few, who remain loyal. Ultimately, as Emmet is suddenly "defeated" by Lord Business, it is revealed that Vitruvious, the prophet who foretold of "the Special" who would save the world, made the whole thing up. The prophecy is not true. Emmet is not the Special because there is no such thing as the special. This is precisely what redeems Emmet and allows him to sacrifice himself to save the others and the world.
          Yet Vitruvious is wrong. The prophecy is true, even though it is completely false. To quote Lego's Messiah, Emmet: "The prophecy is made up, but it is also true." What we the viewers see is that what has occurred within the Lego realm is a religious event, yet is explained away by Vitruvious in his total atheism. To Vitruvious, there is no man upstairs that the master builders derive creativity from. It's all made up! The truth is that everything that happens is what we make happen! The cleverness of Lego is precisely in making Vitruvious a blind prophet. Vitruvious is the ironic hero as what he tells the world is self-evident to everyone except him. 
          The Lego Movie masquerades its brilliance in the innocence of a child's toy. However, it provides a scathing critique of the idea of Truth. What it repeatedly shows is that no one knows anything. Everyone is wrong, even when they are right (as Vitruvious shows)! It presents us with a world full of structures only to tell us that there are no structures and nothing is as it seems. 

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

John Caputo and the Deathly Hallows

           In J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, “The Tale of the Three Brothers” offers significant commentary on religion. As a reward for evading Death (a being), Death awards the three brothers magical items of their choosing. Though the items of the oldest and youngest brother are important to the story, the item of the middle brother offers up a critique of religion. As his reward, the middle brother “wanted to humiliate Death still further… [he] asked for the power to recall others from Death” (Rowling 407). Death granted the brother this power in the form of a stone entitled The Resurrection Stone. Ironic due to the obvious harkening to the infamous Easter story, this stone represents the unique power not to raise people from the dead, but rather to present the user of the stone with images of his or her beloved. As a result of this power, the brother is “driven mad by hopeless longing” and commits suicide (409). Thus, it appears that the critique of religion that the story of the Resurrection Stone offers is exactly what John Caputo means when he writes that “Literalized, heaven and hell ruin everything” (241). Because of this I am contending that both the Stone and Caputo argue that confessional religion demeans the value of life by its negation of death. Thus, Caputo’s idea of the Nihilism of Grace rescues religion by negating its negation of death; placing the value of life being shown through death, just as the stone shows that the value of life is shown in its necessary and permanent end.
            The consistent theme of Insistence is the continual hammering home that people are finite beings. Things must be able to end. Caputo writes, “The beauty of the songs lovers sing is intensified by the fact that they know they will die” (237). Insistence is not so much about “God” as much as it is about the relationship that humanity shares with the name. It is, more than anything else, about negating the negation of death that confessional religion has resulted in. The negation of death that confessional religion has championed has been the reduction of life to something that has no meaning beyond the answer to a question. In Christianity, if to accept Jesus is to gain a ticket that permits access to a heavenly realm, then this realm is forsaken. Why is there need to save the planet? Why is there need to act morally? Why must I even love God if it is, in the end, of no consequence to my eternal consequence? Even within the doctrine of universalism stirs the unsettling idea that nothing in this life is important. If past villains such as Stalin and Hitler will join me in this other realm, why was what they did any better or any worse than anything I have done? The result of a literal heaven and hell is the negation of this life; and this is above all what Caputo is desperately trying to save religion from.
            Caputo is a radical Kierkegaard who not only mocks the idea of so-called Christendom, but goes a step further by arguing that fidelity to even the God of Kierkegaard is distinctly dangerous to the event that is housed within the name (of) “God.” However, to establish this, I must first directly confront Kierkegaard. In The Sickness Unto Death, Kierkegaard defines sin as “before God, or with the conception of God, in despair not to will to be oneself, or in despair to will to be oneself” (77). Thus what Kierkegaard is attempting to expound upon is his declaration that within each person lays their infinite self, placed there by God, who is infinite. He writes, “A human being is a synthesis of the infinite and the finite, of the temporal and the eternal, of freedom and necessity, in short, a synthesis” (13). To Kierkegaard, this synthesis is represented by the infinite regression created by self-conscious. If an individual is self-conscious of the fact that she is conscious then she is conscious of the fact that she is self-conscious of her self-consciousness. These degrees of consciousness regress infinitely, and for Kierkegaard, if they are ideally balanced, are a synthesis between a person’s finite body and her infinite soul, placed there by God. This also, for Kierkegaard, creates a need for God. Because the regression of consciousness (the soul) is infinite, it can never be filled by the finite. Therefore God is a necessity to humanity’s condition because only the infinite (God) can fill an infinite space.
            Though Kierkegaard calls God a conception, that is simply because he is writing of the human mind. For him, God is very real and the greatest form of despair (sin) is defiance, or “the self that a person in despair wills to be…he himself wants to compose his self by means of being the infinite form” (68). This is to say that the greatest sin is imagining oneself as in total command of becoming her true self. This sin replaces God, to Kierkegaard a non-anthropomorphized hyper-being, with oneself. Thus, here is where Caputo and Kierkegaard must part. For Kierkegaard has proclaimed that life has true meaning only in willing to become one’s true self before God, thus finding salvation in bringing something that is beyond this world into one’s self to synthesize the finite and the infinite that make up a person. However, to Caputo this participates too much in the idea of two-world metaphysics; and above all “Life is demeaned the moment it is made a means, the subject matter of a covenant or contract, instead of recognizing that we already belong to a contract with life that was signed in advance for us being born and does not require our countersignature” (242). However, using Caputo, Kierkegaard can be reframed into something he most certainly would not want to be: a theologian of the perhaps. To the Kierkegaard of the perhaps, to sin is to either not will to be oneself before God, perhaps; or to will to be oneself in defiance of God, perhaps. Thus, if life is demeaned at the moment it is viewed as a means it is also negated, and this would be the Kierkegaard’s sin. However, there is a Hegelian double movement required in the logic of the perhaps: a negation of the negation that results in an affirmation. By willing to embrace Caputo’s Nihilism of Grace, a binding to life unbound, one negates the negation caused by a confessional religion and wills to become oneself before God, perhaps.
            This represents the response to God’s insistence, thus it becomes an event as it is “entirely on the plane of the event, extricated from all commercial exchange with divine beings about an after-life, forced to face the fateful fact that the chance of grace comes down to the grace of chance” (242). Here, the negation of the negation results not in an affirmation of unending life, but in a life that will end in the death which affirms life. It does not attempt to distance itself from the mortality of humanity, but instead embraces it as recognition that death is what assures us that life happened. Thus we must return to the resurrection stone, which denies that death is what creates life. If Caputo is correct in arguing that the death of God is actually the birth of God, then this means that death is the bearer of life. The resurrection stone negates death as it once again denies death the opportunity to birth life. The resurrection stone is the manifestation of a literal heaven and hell. What is done on this earth does not matter because the stone removes the meaning from the event. With the stone there is no room for events because there is no possibility for the impossible. There is only the possible.
            We are suspended between the beginning and the end. What Caputo does is demand that this fluctuation we flirt with have meaning precisely in its lack of meaning. Where, according to Caputo, Ray Brassier says that for humans there is only being-nothing (which is our new Kierkegaard’s idea of willing to be oneself in defiance of God, perhaps), Caputo says that there is “being-for-nothing” (244). Once again there is something suspended betwixt “being” and “nothing;” between “birth” and “death.” The “grace” of the Nihilism of Grace is the embrace of the suspension between the two sides that ultimately will mean nothing because it is pure chance that it was even a possibility. It is a result of the possibility of the impossible.

It is neither life alone, which we take for granted, nor death alone, in which we concede that death comes to us all, but precisely the suspension between life and death, the fluctuation between two worlds, that is truly “solemn.” That is the solemnity of life/death, the solemnity of the ur-ethical and ur-religious event of life/death, I would say. (233)

Caputo succeeds where Kierkegaard does not because Caputo has no preoccupation with a thought that this life has any meaning for anything outside of ourselves. Kierkegaard will not stand for a negation of a negation not simply because of his hatred of Hegelian thought, but due to his inability to perceive God as something other than a hyper-being; where God is the ultimate being because he is the ultimate conception and to sin is to deny this. Caputo’s theology relies not on a conception of God, but on the name (of) “God” and the event that is housed within it.
            Life is made by death. This is just to say that death is not an anathema of life, but is actually the fulfillment of it. The event that is housed within the name (of) “God” is one in which life is found by realizing that life must be lost in the annals of time. The insistence of God is the call of the event that is harbored within “God.” It is a call that requires us to embrace the suspension between life/death in order to live for nothing. But to live and then to die is all that matters, for death establishes that we lived at all. To no surprise, this is also the close of the “The Tale of the Three Brothers.” The first brother wished to become a master of ending life, leaving no room for the tension that must lie between life/death. The middle brother took the resurrection stone, ending death’s sting by ending the ability to grab what was suspended between life/death as life extended past death, becoming life-(death)-life. The youngest brother, however, took the cloak of invisibility, allowing him what was necessary to embrace life until it was time for it to end, and then, just as Caputo would demand of any practicing radical theologian, “he greeted Death as an old friend, and went with him gladly, and, equals, they departed this life” (Rowling 409).

Caputo, John D. The Insistence of God. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013.
Kierkegaard, Soren. The Sickness Unto Death. Ed. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980.
Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. New York: Scholastic, 2007.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

The Real Loser in the Creation Debate

     I've seen many responses to the Nye/Ham debate that took place last night, but none of them seem to have been similar to the thought that I took from it. Mainly the response has been that either Evolution had a resounding victory or that Science was embarrassed for even participating in the debate, such as the article here. However, the danger that debate really hammered home was this incorrect idea that one cannot be a Christian and reject Creationism. What is truly sad, but not surprising in the least, is the fact that Bill Nye did a better job arguing for the compatibility of science and faith then Ken Ham did. In fact, when asked if anything could change his mind, Ken Ham said nothing could, but more importantly, started his response with, "Well, I am a Christian so..." And therein lies the problem. Within the context of the question that is a radical fundamentalist response that only further does a disservice to the religion that is Christianity. What people such as Ken Ham do not (and perhaps refuse) to understand is that being a Christian is not something that can be narrowed down to exact.. well.. science.
     What makes a Christian? Is it believing that Jesus died and rose back to life? Literally or metaphorically? Is it based off one's actions that reveal a true faith within? Is is believing that the entirety of the Bible is literally true and must be taken as such? To Ken Ham it is very black and white. There is no gray area. This is precisely the problem. The real loser of the Creation debate is not Ken Ham. It is not Bill Nye. It is not Science. It is Christianity. Christianity loses in debates such as this one simply because it further propagates the idea that Christianity is comprised of one, simple, absurd worldview that one must ascribe to if he or she wants to be a Christian. One must go no further than Twitter and search "#CreationDebate" to see that the majority of people found Ham's views to be ridiculous. But here is where the real danger for Christianity comes into play. Today's world is obsessed with polar thinking and it poisons everything. This debate may have only pitted Creation against Evolution, but it did not take much of a push until it was obvious that for many people it became a debate that pitted God against Evolution. There were an equal amount of people that "were praying for the soul of Bill Nye" as there were laughing at Ken Ham for believing in God. It was obvious that for many people accepting Evolution meant rejecting Jesus.
     For many Christians there is a belief which they have been indoctrinated with and they do not even realize it. For many Christians if one word of the Bible is wrong, the entirety of the Bible is wrong. Thus, Genesis must be entirely true. This runs under the false assumption that the writers of the Bible were conscious of the fact that they were writing the Bible. The Bible represents a variety of viewpoints that span a massive amount of time. Most of it being a form of truth that is entirely foreign to a modern understanding of the word "truth." The creation story is wonderful example of it. It is called Mythos, or Myth. This form of Myth is lost in today's world. It is a word for "story" that does not connote either reality or falsehood. It is a story that is a story. It relays what you want it to relay. Myth is truth, but not the truth that science finds. Genesis is a pure Myth. It is not that it is not true, but it is instead that it is a different way of thinking about what is true. From a Judeo-Christian perspective the Myth of creation represents the special connection humanity has with God. Taking it as as an actual moment in history makes no sense and actually takes away the real truth that is contained within the story.
     As Kenneth Miller said in his wonderful book Finding Darwin's God:
A strong and self-confident religious belief cannot forever pin its hopes on the desperate supposition that an entire branch of science is dramatically wrong, thereby to teeter always on the brink of logical destruction. To be sure, genuine faith requires from its adherents to trust in God, but it also demands a confidence in the power of the human mind to investigate, explore, and understand the evolving nature of God's world.
Ken Ham's Christianity makes Christianity something that is too far beyond reason ever comprehend in a modern world. It ignores context and refuses to acknowledge that people have not always thought the same way about life. It denies that Physics, Chemistry, Biology, and Philosophy are valid. It stands in a room with nowhere else to go and flips the lights off in order to pretend that nothing else is true. Yet Ken Ham is more dangerous than that analogy because Ken Ham finds himself in a position of authority. When Ken Ham spoke last night he did not simply speak as a proponent of Creation Science, he spoke as a Christian who proclaimed that his stance was the stance of Christianity. When Ken Ham said that nothing could change his position simply because he is a Christian and that is what Christians believe, Christianity instantly lost the debate. What he damaged was the idea of the Christianity in thousands of watchers who were instantly brought into the incorrect dichotomy of Atheism or Christianity, Evolution or Creation.
     If what Ken Ham wants to call Christianity is to be understood as the Christianity then I must reluctantly join Mary Daly in walking out of the Church, giving up on Christianity, and denying that anything fruitful is left to be found within its sphere. I say reluctantly as I do not want to give up on something I think can be saved and is potentially beneficial to people. I do not even want to be a heretic in this form of Christianity, simply because it connects me to it. Creation Science has been discredited in both science and popular culture. However, a debate such as this one lent credibility not to Creation Science, but to Ken Ham's Christianity, which is the stereotype Christianity. The moment that fundamentalism was able to take center stage and call itself the one, true Christianity (as if there is such a thing), Christianity, in all its forms, lost the debate.