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The Matrix: Reloaded:

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Sunday 18 May 2003

Theological Science Fiction: Why The Matrix Matters

by Gregory Benford

As The Matrix Reloaded sets new box office records, it gets few notices in the religious press. Yet it is a spiritual story of a quest for the true world hidden behind what we think of as the real one — and, of course, it’s science fiction.

This collusion of theology and science fiction is not new. The Matrix movies (with Matrix Revolutions to conclude in November) are elaborated views of a world dominated by artificial intelligences, which keep most of us in pods, feeding us an illusory world — this one you’re sitting in — through spinal taps. Our lives are piped into our brains, complete sensory experiential Muzak.

Rebels living underground in Zion (yes) are led by a mysterious guerrilla figure (Morpheus, given to stentorian pronouncements in a butterscotch voice). They unplug from the Matrix illusion a man whose hacker name is Neo. Their mission and message is to free your mind (remember the ‘60s!) and, by the way, achieve an apocalyptic end to the artificial intelligences’ enslavement of humanity.

Morpheus plays John the Baptist to Neo’s Jesus. They battle inside the Matrix against the Agents, using ultraviolence shown in spectacular slow-motion special effects. This is no messiah who redeems by suffering. Rather, as ancient Jewish texts expected, Neo is a fighting liberator. Neo has a literal calling — he reaches Morpheus first by answering a cell phone, delivered by a messenger who says, "Hallelujah! You’re my savior, man. My own personal Jesus Christ!"

To overcome the laminated malignancy of the Agents, Neo must learn to use his spiritual powers and focus his mind. His training is a cyber-techno take on meditation, the traditional path to enlightenment. Visiting the Oracle, he asks if he is the One, and she says coyly, "Maybe next life," setting the stage.

His learned skills let him deliver dazzling martial arts blows to the Agents, but he, well, lacks something: enlightenment. We get the drift when in a bold sally, Neo swoops down to save a nearly comatose Morpheus, saying "Morpheus! Get up!" echoing Jesus’ "Lazarus, come out!"

Neo then enters the center of Matrix power, like Jesus cleansing the Temple, fights and is shot dead. His girl friend Trinity (yes) holds the lifeless Neo, as Mary Magdalene did Jesus — and Neo comes back to life. He has saved himself, reaching deep inside — transcendent knowledge, self-enlightenment.

After this self-resurrection, Neo has an unmistakable radiance. His aura dominates the film’s frames. He manifests what St. John termed the after-resurrection "spiritual body" of Jesus. Stopping bullets with a raised hand, entering an Agent’s body and exploding it, flying into the sky like Superman — all simple, now that he has been enlightened to his true nature.

The Matrix itself is not some external evil, but rather an outcome of our own error, our karmic payoff of past actions. Not merely illusion, it is an allusion to a founding myth of our culture.

Both Matrix films carry forward this spiritual, eschatological story, of the Neo new One who will return and win the last grand battle, bringing peace. A rebel named Cypher plays Judas, and they ride in a battleship called Nebuchadnezzar ("we’re on a mission from God") in defense of the transcendent last stronghold of humanity, Zion.

This blend of high tech and time-defying science fictional special effects seems to be a good example of our culture calling forth what the postmodernists term "floating signifiers" — ideas like exile from reality, and restoration of a radical newness, adrift on the Zeitgeist and ready to be used. Science fiction grounds this in the future and thus in hope; teenagers (the Matrix core audience) will not sit still for a big-budget Biblical epic.

Virtual reality you can’t tell from life, downloaded worlds, malign machines — these are customary landscapes of the young, who are probably destined to live among them. The Matrix is one way for this audience to think about a future they see more clearly than we elders do — an essential reason that science fiction has been a young, brassy culture since the 1930s.

Indeed, computers have shown us the 2D poverty of digital desserts, the postmodernist "desert of the real" (a term quoted in the films). A techno-take on radical philosophical doubt is very hip these days. It works especially if we can see the grunge look of Zion versus the all-black MatrixMatrixMatrix look of cool dusters and plenty of leather.

In science fiction, basic doubts featured prominently in the worlds of Philip K. Dick. I knew Phil for 25 years, and he was always getting on to me, a scientist. He was a great fan of quantum uncertainty, epistemology in science, the lot. Whether in science fiction or academic philosophy, we lately seem bemused by the notion that our reality may be a swindle. Computers in their flat-screen worlds help along a sensation of irreality, a liking not merely for the plausibly weird, but for the weirdly plausible. Already several Dick tales of fake realities have made it into major movies: Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report.

Which way would you vote, given a choice of a secure life in a pod illusion, or a tricky, dangerous reality? Plugged or unplugged? For worker-drones living in corporate lattices satirized in the hugely popular business comic strip Dilbert, the choice is obvious.

* * *

As Freeman Dyson recently noted, "Between science and theology there is a genre of literature which I like to call theofiction. Theofiction adapts the style and conventions of science fiction to tell stories that have more to do with theology than with science."

His examples include novels of Octavia Butler (a MacArthur Grant winner), C.S. Lewis, Madeleine L’Engle, and principally, Olaf Stapledon. Their works, and the burgeoning interest in films, point to the continuing evolution of this form of philosophical fiction, with strong ties to science fiction.

Wild thinking about religion and theology abounds in perhaps the most unlikely quarter, modern science fiction.

Though many think of science fiction (science fiction) as atheistic, Walter Miller, Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz is just one of the genre’s classics that spring equally from scientific/technological and theological concerns. This balance is typical, refuting the customary materialistic chasm between belief and knowledge.

The theofiction tradition was truly set forth in Olaf Stapledon’s novels such as Star Maker (1937), which portrays God the Scientist as an agency forever shaping his Creation to attain higher expressions of his vision. Stapledon incorporated both biological evolution and the grander evolution of the cosmos into a supreme pantheon, ruled by a hovering Godlike presence, the Star Maker.

Stapledon stood out for two reasons. His style ignored conventional character and plot, focusing upon ideas and scope. And he spoke about the largest issues without a hint of conventional theology. He stood alone in his time.

After World War II, though, religious science fiction flourished. That grand conflict apparently forced the emerging scientific/technological culture to grasp its roots. To grapple with the implications of interplanetary flight, Ray Bradbury in "The Man" (1949) envisioned Jesus carrying salvation to other worlds. In "The Quest for Saint Aquin" by Anthony Boucher a robot emulates St. Thomas Aquinas by logically deducing God’s existence, justifying its (and Boucher’s) Catholic faith. The story has a sad, reverential tone.

James Blish’s novel A Case of Conscience (1958) a Jesuit infers from his faith’s axioms that a planet is the work of the Devil. This means the ancient Manichean worldview of absolute good and evil is right; he decides the world must be destroyed. In Lester del Rey’s 1954 short story, "For I Am a Jealous People," God sides with alien invaders against us, because He has given up on us as the Chosen People, and moved on.

Reversing this, in Arthur C. Clarke’s 1955 "The Star" interstellar astronauts find a world whose star has exploded, obliterating a civilization more noble than ours. Working out the dating, they discover that it was the star of Bethlehem.

Similarly insouciant, Clarke’s 1953 Childhood’s End depicts aliens who look like the Devil, and concludes with an apotheosis in which humanity ascends to a higher state of being at the hands of the same aliens. (This idea he reworked considerably into the looming black monoliths and Technicolor blowout ending of the later film 2001: A Space Odyssey.) Such imagery comes from the Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955), who saw scientific knowledge as key to God’s plan, an upward march to transcendence.

This postwar flowering of interest climaxed in Walter M. Miller Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz (1960), in which the Catholic church once again conveys an ancient, high culture — ours — to one that slowly emerges after a nuclear war.

Many thought this postwar effervescence came from a crisis of faith in the face of nuclear weaponry. The film The Day the Earth Stood Still best exemplifies the idea, with a mild, Christ-like alien who dies and is resurrected by his faithful robot, finally delivering an odd message: make peace among your nations or our autonomous robots will burn your world to a crisp. Peace or else.

This effervescence crowned a sea change in science fiction’s attitude toward alien religions, as well. Before World War II, stories satirized or mocked alien faiths. After it, they took a reverent view, even crediting them with truthful aspects. This may reflect the sudden encounter of Americans with other cultures, particularly those of Asia. Many, like Katherine MacLean’s 1958 "Unhuman Sacrifice" showed human missionaries finding that the "superstitions" harbored by aliens could turn out to be true, or at least ambiguous. Poul Anderson’s "The Problem of Pain" contrasts human vs. alien values of sacrifice, without giving either the edge.

Robert A. Heinlein’s pivotal 1961 Stranger in a Strange Land powerfully made the case for new ideas in theology by portraying "a Martian named Smith" — a human stranded there since birth, who brings to Earth Martian ideas, founding a new faith that grows quickly, with many Christ-like echoes, including a scene where Michael Valentine Smith’s followers literally eat of his body. The new Messiah disposes of his enemies by shifting them into some other realm.

The novel prefigured many of the "free love" ideas of the late 1960s, and much else; Heinlein was always ahead of the cultural curve.

It also satirizes a fictional Earthly religion that seems a combination of Mormonism and L. Ron Hubbard’s vastly successful Scientology (itself a faith constructed by a science fiction writer, starting with a series of articles in a science fiction magazine, Astounding, in the late 1940s).

I wrote with Gordon Eklund an exploration of alien theology in If the Stars Are Gods, treating an astronaut who encounters several life forms in the solar system, all with theological implications. The central image is aliens who journey here not to meet us, but to visit our star, which they believe is a God. The astronaut is able to share their way of perception, and so glimpses a wholly different worldview.

This concern to share differing insights animates much of science fiction’s reaching for the "other side" — up to and including Godlike states. Star Trek in its earliest form ("classic Trek") often gave us aliens or deranged humans who thought they were Gods because they had vast powers; inevitably, a Fall followed.

Hubris seldom bodes well in science fiction. Roger Zelazny’s Lord of Light depicted people who, cast into a primitive off-world society, used their high-tech gifts to present themselves as members of the Hindu pantheon. Such overblown confidence inevitably fails, of course, but it has a lot of fun along the way.

Some approaches try to revisit great religious events, not conceptually but literally. Time travel to the crucifixion is a staple. Robert Silverberg’s time traveler in Up the Line matter-of-factly finds that no matter how many tourists he escorts to the scene, the crowd never gets larger. Is this an ingenious inversion of Christ’s miracle of the fishes? The story wisely doesn’t say.

Richard Matheson’s 1954 "The Traveler" visits Calvary to find faith. In Michael Moorcock’s 1969 Behold the Man and Barry Malzberg’s 1982 The Cross of Fire protagonists find the opposite — there is no Christ, so they feel compelled to become Him, suffering the crucifixion as a path for their own personal redemptions. Though on the surface antireligious, their emotional currents run oppositely, creating a vortex effect.

Not everybody was so reverential. Ian Watson in God’s World (1979) and Ted Reynolds in The Tides of God (1989) suppose that God is not supernatural, but in fact a truly powerful alien presence. After much vexing, the only reasonable solution is to oppose and destroy Him.

The persistent science fictional posture of confronting categories of Godhood, and of revelation, is typical of the culture that made modern science fiction. The genre is, more than anything else, about change. Religions change, too, the writers remind us. We incorporate into our mind’s eye of God our current knowledge. This is inevitable, and fundamentally positive.

Today science fiction has many currents. Popular writers like Orson Scott Card depict future societies much like Mormon ones, but suffused in a utopian glow. Other writers excoriate fundamentalist faiths, and satirize Theocracy. The genre is a useful antidote to certainty. It promotes a more experimental, and historically sophisticated, view of the whole range of theological thought. It especially is unafraid of spiritual insights and methods like Zen Buddhism, and often contrasts nature-centered Asian faiths with the more axiomatic and rigid Western ones.

The point of speculative ideas and science fictional treatments is not to foster propaganda (though many do so, usually too obviously and unsuccessfully), but to make us think. As a literature of change driven by technology, science fiction presents religion to a part of the reading public that probably seldom goes to church.

Movies are another matter; The Matrix Reloaded sometimes seems like the New Testament on steroids. It also suffers from the bind of superhero epics — if Neo is unstoppable, how can there be real constraint, and so suspense?

Beyond the cool violence, vinyl cat suits and dazzling bullet-time effects, the prominently Matrix world points both toward our future and to basic theological mythologies, to spiritual meta-narratives that can appear backlit by modern science.

In this sense science fiction is an ambassador between the two most widely separated tribes of modern thought, the scientific and the religious.

Negotiations should prove profitable, but only if they are imaginative.

Gregory Benford is a professor of physics at the University of California, Irvine and the author of Timescape, among other novels.

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