Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Prometheus and Post Modern Theology

Fans of Ridely Scott's Alien got more than they could have possibly hoped for the prequel Prometheus. More than a sci-fi horror romp, Prometheus uses the sci-fi platform to entertain the questions of human origins, purpose, and extraterrestrial intelligent life...and God.

In an indication of the tenor of our age, the response from Christian circles has not been one of intelligent interaction with the movie and the questions it raises. Rather, it has been a defensive knee-jerk reaction. The Christian reaction to Prometheus has largely seen the movie as lauding doctrinal heresy and, among more extreme voices, as a fully functional attempt by Hollywood elites to undermine traditional religion. Here is an excerpt from one such review:

"Unsurprisingly, given his knack for crafting popular entertainment, it has enough substance and spectacle to be intriguing and immensely profitable. Yet it's the opposite of enlightening. What jumps out is the movie's rejection of a fundamental tenet of theism, namely, the belief that God created the human race. This element -- combined with significant violence and offensive language -- renders "Prometheus" extremely problematic for viewers of faith."


"Shaw's faith, signaled by the cross she treasures, is the primary means by which the movie tries to hedge its bets vis-a-vis religion. Her desire to know why the "engineers" chose to fashion mankind isn't quenched. Moreover, how they themselves came into being isn't explained. According to the film, this allows for the possibility that a Creator exists whom Christians and other deists can accept.

Dramatically and theologically, it's a weak argument: too little and too late. We knew going in Ridley Scott was a shrewd commercial filmmaker rather than an auteur with great artistic ambition. Judging by "Prometheus," he's not a coherent cosmologist, either."

I am not going to deny that Prometheus proposes a concept of God that is foreign to traditional Christian theology. In this cosmology, God would not be the direct creator of humanity; God would not, as it were, have engaged in the very immediate creation of the human species as appears in the creation accounts of Genesis.  However, this scenario is nothing new. Among UFO enthusiasts, the notion of extraterrestrial progenitors has had currency for at least the last forty or so years. The late Zechariah Sitchin, and to a lesser degree, Erich Von Danniken, spent his writing career constructing an entire mythology in which an alien humanoid beings (identified by Sitchin as the Annunaki of Sumerian myth) visited the earth in its distant past and used their DNA to essentially create modern homo sapien sapiens. Modern man is created as a "slave race" and eventually rebels against their extraterrestrial gods/creators, repelling them back to their home planet and establishing an independent homo sapien sapiens society, the memory of the ancient astronauts preserved in mythology and religion. Sitchin remained steady in his output since the 1970s, riding a dip in popularity in the 1980s, and riding a subsequent wave of increased interest in the 1990s. The 1990s boom for Sitchin's work was dependent upon two important co-factors. 1) The general interest in all things related to religion and spirituality in the 1990s - Sitchin's work does propose an alternative construction of human religion and interpretation of sacred texts (including the Bible). 2) The X-Files began utilizing more of Sitchin's ideas for the series' main story arch - the aliens being the implied source of human religion. The two factors took Sitchin's fringe idea (and some would say debatable scholarship) and turned it into an increasingly mainstream idea. 

In this light, Prometheus does not so much propose a new concept of God's relationship to humanity and corresponding cosmology as it reflects a now popular idea in the West, an idea that has grown in potency due to the speculations of what awaits humanity when we successfully embark outside of the solar system or finally discovers another planet with a fully functioning society. Prometheus does not so much try to convince its audience to deny the existence of a transcendent God, as it does reflect the human desire to preserve God in an age of ever expanding cosmic discoveries. Granted, we haven't found an alien civilization. However, the scenario of an advanced species engineering life on another planet just seems to make sense - it sounds like something we would do if in that position and it seems entirely plausible. Does Prometheus exclude a faith perspective? No, not really, not in my estimation. It does, however, challenge absolutist faith claims. 

Prometheus' utilization of the theme of extraterrestrial engineers of the human species reflects the broader acceptance of the idea (though not necessarily assimilation) in the culture. In turn, it points to a change in the broader theological paradigm - the concept of God in the West is gradually changing. Changing theological paradigms typically challenge the surety of faith claims. Specifically, it challenges the precise understanding of the religion at the time of the conceptual change. Thus, the basic concept of the Deity behind Christianity may not be affected by the change in the popular concept of God, however, the narrative details are thrown into question. We see this on a regular basis when the faith claims of Christianity encounter those of another religion, Islam for instance. I've heard it argued that Christianity was assuredly true in all its details (as this person understood it) because of the phenomenon of the Stigmata, the bleeding of the wounds of Christ. When I replied that Islam has a similar phenomenon (bleeding the war wounds of Muhammad), the reply was that Christianity preaches a God of love, whereas Islam's God is violent. When I replied with excerpts from the Koran which also teaches a God of love, this person retorted that Islam practices violence. When I replied with the long list of Christian inspired violence (Catholic and Protestant), the discussion ended with my conversation partner being visibly upset and challenging my Christian credentials. 

There is nothing about affirming the legitimacy of Islam that necessarily deprecates Christianity. It simply says we have options. Islam isn't my option but that doesn't mean I can't learn a thing or two from it.Similarly, the cosmology of Prometheus doesn't deprecate God. God is the lord of history, whatever the incidents and accidents used to create life. It does, however, challenge one from resting on cosmological presuppositions.

Of course, all of this is not being said of an actual scientific discovery. We're talking about an idea presented in a movie. Nevertheless, if the reaction among certain Christian viewers is indicative of things, Christianity is in for a tough go of it. Not because Christianity couldn't reconcile with such a concept should it prove defensible, but because Christians lack the intellectual ability or will to engage in the tough theological work required.