Sunday, September 30, 2012
The Avengers and classical theism
Watched The Avengers again on Blu-ray the other night. In a movie full of good lines, a few stand out for (of all things) their theological significance. Take the exchange between Black Widow and Captain America after the Norse god Thor forcibly removes his brother Loki from S.H.I.E.L.D.’s custody, Iron Man gives chase, and Captain America prepares to follow:
Black Widow: I’d sit this one out, Cap.
Captain America: I don’t see how I can.
Black Widow: These guys come from legend, they’re basically gods.
Captain America: There’s only one God, ma’am. And I’m pretty sure he doesn’t dress like that.
Or consider the scene in which Nick Fury, director of S.H.I.E.L.D., exchanges words with the imprisoned Loki:
Loki: It burns you to have come so close. To have the Tesseract, to have power -- unlimited power -- and for what? A warm light for all mankind to share? And then to be reminded what real power is.
Nick Fury (walking away from Loki’s cell contemptuously): Well let me know if real power wants a magazine or something.
Finally, there is Loki’s defeat at the hands of the Hulk:
Loki: Enough! You are all of you beneath me. I am a god, you dull creature. And I will not be bullied by…
[The Hulk grabs him, repeatedly smashes him to the floor like a rag doll, then walks away as Loki lays there moaning]
Hulk: Puny god.
We cannot assume Captain America to have had time between battles to study classical philosophy and theology, but his words could be read as containing implicitly the answer to pop atheism’s “one god further” objection (which I have discussed here, here, and here). The God of classical theism is not “a god” among others, precisely because He isn’t an instance of any kind in the first place, not even a unique instance. He is beyond any genus. He is not “a being” alongside other beings and doesn’t merely “have” or participate in existence alongside all the other things that do. Rather, He just is ipsum esse subsistens or Subsistent Being Itself. He is First Cause not in the sense of being the cause that came before the second, third, fourth, fifth, etc. causes, but rather in the sense of having primal or absolutely underived causal power whereas everything else has causal power in only a derivative and thus secondary way. He is not “a person” but rather the infinite Intellect and Will of which the persons of our experience are mere faint reflections. Since He has no essence distinct from His existence which could even in principle be shared with anything else, He is not the sort of thing there could intelligibly be more than one of. And so forth. Nothing less than this could be the ultimate source of all things and thus nothing less could truly be divine. (See my earlier posts on classical theism for the rundown.)
Hence the good Captain was correct to insist that there is only one God and that He just isn’t the sort of thing that wears a superhero costume, wields a hammer, can get knocked around by Iron Man, etc. (Whether you think the God of classical theism actually exists is not to the point -- for the point is that if He exists, He is not the sort of thing of which Thor, Loki, et al. are instances.) Fury was right to mock Loki’s claim to be “real power” since even if Loki existed, his power, however great, would still be merely participated or derived power rather than the Power Itself that is the God of classical theism. The Hulk was right to dismiss Loki as “puny” despite his claim to divinity, since any god would, even if he existed, be merely one creature among others and thus (like everything else) be puny compared to the God of classical theism.
Such beings, if they existed, would differ in no significant respect from the powerful extraterrestrials, other-dimensional beings, etc. of modern science fiction. And thus it is no surprise that that is exactly how they are treated in contemporary pop culture. Thor, Loki, and Co. would simply not be worthy of worship even if they existed. But let’s give ‘em their due: They make for some bitchin’ comic book and movie characters!