You shall be as gods… well… not so much…

POSSIBLE SPOILERS
One of the movies available on the flight was the new (newest? not too old?) Avengers (Marvel Comics).  By coincidence, a very smart writer, Edward Feser, wrote something about this movie today on his blog.  He looks at the issue of “the divine” in the Avengers’ movie.  Here is an excerpt (you might want to avoid this if you don’t like “spoilers”).  Perpend:

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.

[...]

Read the rest over there.

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About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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33 Responses to You shall be as gods… well… not so much…

  1. Navarricano says:

    I absolutely loved that film. It was a lot of fun. Unfortunately I had to see it in the cinema here, in Spanish. Unfortunate only in that I’m sure lots of the wittiest lines didn’t make the translation very well into Spanish. For example, I don’t remember the Captain America line cited above. Doesn’t mean it wasn’t there, but it probably was rendered differently. I’m looking forward to picking up the DVD and finally seeing it in English.

  2. Philangelus says:

    I was very struck by how you have Loki trying to imprison and enslave humanity because he’s NOT the “begotten son” whereas Thor was the “begotten son,” and therefore Loki wants to have the worship of the humans Thor loves and has promised to protect.

    Also, that scene with Loki and Black Widow — that must be what it’s like talking to Satan. :-( :-(

  3. LisaP. says:

    The creator, Joss Whedon, is an avowed atheist, but he is clever — he uses a lot of deeper cultural references that resonate. He’ll use tons of religious thoughts to make a good story. His old Firefly series and the movie from that were stuffed full of the stuff. J. Michael Straczynsky had a similar style for his Babylon series (hence the title). The “work” can stand for itself and I enjoy them all, but don’t be fooled — it’s for effect, not for theologizing. While watching the Avengers references to false gods I can’t help but think Whedon meant it all to apply to any belief in God at all. Babylon started as a wonderful metaphor of good and evil and fizzled out into a dull, preachy story line about how the good and evil were really just aspects of the same thing and mankind had to grow beyond them (Manachaeism light?) [We have to be constantly on guard for that, especially in the things our children see and read. The lines must be clear.]

    But it’s good stuff for itself, even if it’s being kinda stolen.

  4. LisaP. says:

    Here’s a youtube with him, the guy is not really a deep thinker, he’s kind of a sampler.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EReyF2ZzXGA

  5. CCInglish says:

    Moles frangiam!

    “Hulk smash!” in Latin. Observing noun-verb disagreement is key.

  6. Philangelus says:

    Lisa, I agree, it’s kind of like if you take a bunch of Christian symbols and run them through a lawn mower and cast them about the manuscript. eg, [obfuscated for spoilers] Iron Man’s decision at the end can be in some way considered Jesus-like, and then when he returns, what’s the first thing he says? He’s hungry, feed me. What does Jesus do? Asks for something to eat and eats it in their presence.

    That’s not to say Iron Man is a Christ-figure. He’s not. But Wheadon seems to be utilizing the symbolic language of Christianity in order to appeal to the subsurface understanding in all of us. Either because it’s cultural and therefore it’s going to appeal to those raised in a Christian environment, or else because these symbols are innate to humanity and that’s why God utilizes them in Christianity in the first place. :-) (You know, God being a better producer/director than Joss Wheadon.)

  7. LisaP. says:

    Philangelus,

    Thanks for fixing my spelling!
    I agree, and particularly on your last line, and the lawn mower is just right.
    Flannery O’Connor has some good things to say about art and religion and intentions. Wheadon’s take is that he likes to grab all these beliefs and juxtapose them, it’s the contradiction that makes it, essentially, meaningful, since his meaningfulness is meaninglessness. Which is very 7th grade.

  8. AnAmericanMother says:

    Anybody who’s done some writing knows that when you start messing with archetypes, they won’t always do what you want them to do.
    R.L. Stevenson and Kipling both talked about their characters getting away from them and doing what the characters wanted instead of what the writer intended. C.S. Lewis noted that even as great a poet as Keats wasn’t sure what he meant sometimes. May be what happened to this significantly lesser light.

  9. PostCatholic says:

    The late Douglas Adams wrote a sci-fi comedy called “The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul” in which he explored the idea that the Norse gods, being immortal, didn’t cease to exist simply because humanity didn’t believe in their divinity any more. Loki had an amusing supporting role.

  10. MWindsor says:

    It’s difficult to understand Joss Whedon. He claims to be an atheist, but always has some element of Christianity in his work. At the beginning of Firefly, Mal Reynolds wears a cross. He supposedly lost his faith during the battle that ended the war, and I heard once that the story was to continue (but for the series being cancelled after on season). Whedon tells a whopping good tale, but he’s confusing.

  11. wmeyer says:

    It’s difficult to understand Joss Whedon. He claims to be an atheist, but always has some element of Christianity in his work.

    Not so difficult. Whedon is nothing, if not commercial. He separates his own beliefs from the story, the better to capture audience share, without which he will have no work.

  12. mamajen says:

    @PostCatholic

    Douglas Adams is one of my favorite authors! He, too, was an avowed atheist, and yet there is so much in his work that makes one wonder how he could have been so stubbornly atheist and not at least agnostic. His Hitchhiker’s Guide series (my favorite) is all about how little mankind knows about the universe, and yet he was certain that God does not exist? Really?

    I think a lot of atheists are less convinced than they would have people believe, and the truth always comes through somehow.

  13. Philangelus says:

    wmeyer, it may be that God’s at work and Wheadon finds Christian symbolism and Jesus’s words alluring because God’s courting him. Which, to be fair, God is doing to all of us all the time. :-) My Spousal Unit and I both sat bolt upright on the couch during Firefly (“Ariel”) when Mal shouts at Jayne, “You did it to me! Whatever you do to my crew, you did it to me!” That’s not the Bible verse on the tip of most atheists’ tongues.

    Lisa, I didn’t even realize you’d used a different spelling. LOL. Not enough coffee yet.

  14. Scott W. says:

    It’s not so much Whedon’s atheism that is irksome, but rather his avowed feminism while at the same time loading up so much of his work with juvenile male sexual titillation .

  15. AnnAsher says:

    We enjoyed Avengers and particularly the “puny god” line !

  16. PostCatholic says:

    The Hitchhiker series frequently poked fun at Christianity in a gentle way, mamajen. Adams had themes in the “inaccurately named trilogy” that humorously explored the futility of the second coming, the boredom of immortality, the problems of extrapolating the infinite, proofs of divine existence, and so on. Also, the idea that humankind little understands the universe is one which atheists generally accept quite readily.

  17. Johnno says:

    Atheists continuously strive after attributes that are Godly. For example: justice, equality, etc. in many cases more so militantly with greater frevor and zealotry than even the Christian. Of course most of their ideals are contradictory, misplaced, flawed, and evil. But their zeal is there. Satan seeks to decieve and damn the soul, by perverting what is best about him and disordering his natural God given talents. That’s what Satan does. Pervert Truth and reality. Upend us so we’re facing the other way while thinking its the right way. Atheists would convert if they are led to see that they things they want and believe in, however irrationally in their worldview, are in reality found in God. They want justice? God is justice. They want something rational and logical? God is logic. It is also necessary to break their materialist worldview of naturalism and destroy the pseudo-science they have deified. They worship a god and are at their core religious people with their own dogmatic constitutions. It’s just not the right god or the right religion, and contradiction is rife and denial acceptable throughout, which is the hallmark of the Satanist.

    PostCatholic: “the idea that humankind little understands the universe is one which atheists generally accept quite readily.”

    That is… until you demonstrate that the little they thought they understood that made their atheism intellectually grounded was false…

  18. Gail F says:

    Big Whedon fan, though not of all his work. I can’t tell whether it’s his atheism that messes him up, or that he gets bored and just churns stuff out after a while — the last two years of both Buffy and Angel (okay, I’m guessing about Angel because it became unwatchable) were terrible because all the depth and symbolism of the shows disappeared and they turned into shows about monsters, which are inherently stupid. But up to the fifth year of Buffy it was an amazing exploration of growing up in a basically pagan society where there was almost nothing a person could count on, and up to the part where Darla got pregnant Angel was an exploration of salvation and damnation — the part where he was in the Wolfram and Hart building was the best storytelling of what it means for Satan to drive someone to despair through lies that I had ever seen up to that point. And I will never forgive him for the way he ended Buffy, which was pretty much to have her commit suicide (she didn’t die but she got rid of her “slayer” power which was in the show symbolic of her identity — she destroyed who she was to gain nothing but a life he had already shown was bleak and awful, unlike the end of season five when she sacrificed herself to save everyone she loved).

    But as far as the Avengers goes, I think Whedon was just using one of his great talents, which is to take an existing “world” or cast of characters and the rules that govern them and make a fantastic story of his own. Captain America would believe in God, so in the movie he does. The “gods” of Asgard are not really gods in the Marvel universe, so they aren’t in the movie. I don’t think Whedon was making a theological statement beyond that. I loved that movie, I want to watch it again!

  19. LisaP. says:

    There is a Catholic author who has put forth the theory (so, so wish I could credit him, can’t remember his name) that horror is one of the last places people are still allowed to openly profess belief in something beyond this materialistic world. As such, it can support religion, and I think science fiction / fantasy falls into that, also. (I’m not sure the status of the Scifi Catholic blog, last I read he was entering the seminary?) The first step in religiosity has to be believing there is something beyond our obvious selves and obvious environment. Horror goes further in that it relies on good and evil to move the plot, so it acknowledges both the supernatural and the moral aspects of the universe.

    I think this is why Wheadon’s works are so effective and appealing, and I think he is very skillfully utilitarian in his use of our need for these aspects in our art.

    What worries me is that since I originally read this theory I have seen that atheist and anti-theist points of view are trying to take over these genres. The Dark Compass theory is a good example, it’s not good enough any more just to leave God out, people yearn for God, so we’re putting him back in and making him the bad guy. Even the Unfortunate Events books, so clever, had to throw in Garden of Eden imagery in the final book and take shots at religion. Horror is under assault with the torture movies that are actually not an outgrowth of horror but of porn — porn takes on different genres, but the genres themselves are not necessarily responsible for the porn. If you look at the sexual aspects of traditional horror, for example, there is an allure, but it is laden with consequences and despair. Hyde, Nosferatu, etc. — their victimization has a sexual aspect, but it is not the same as, say, an Ann Rice vampire’s allure. My husband points out that in the book Dracula, the victim is a terribly pitiful creature who lives in torment, not the sexy victim of the movie.

    I ramble because while I very much enjoy some of this work, I’m cautious about how I view it and allow my kids to view it. The scene with Loki asking everyone to bow down before him, for example, can appeal to the idea of never prostrating yourself before a false god, a Hitler. The imagery, however, could easily put a little bug in my kids’ brains, kneeling and ritual are evil in themselves. I am suspicious of these folks.

  20. Salvatore_Giuseppe says:

    This image made its rounds around the time of the movie, and is quite funny, if not inaccurate in that Thor and Loki aren’t actual gods in the Marvel U…
    http://weknowmemes.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/captain-america-logic.jpg

    As for other Whedon things, its also worth remembering that one of the main characters on Firefly was Shepherd Book, shepherd being the title of some sort of christian monk of un-elaborated nature. He constantly quotes from the bible, and holds prayer services at some points.

    Of course, his words to Mal in Serenity were “I don’t care what you believe in, but believe in something.” Elsewhere the exchange happens:

    Zoe: Preacher, don’t the Bible have some pretty specific things to say about killin’?
    Book: Quite specific. It is, however, somewhat fuzzier on the subject of kneecaps.

    So he isn’t exactly presented as model Christian…I think its simply a case of Whedon knowing that a wide mythology can’t be narrow-minded in its approach. When you imagine a whole universe, its likely that some of them will have maintained or developed religions of some kind. As a story teller, you have to be aware of those things, and he does a good job of it.

  21. Legisperitus says:

    There’s a very interesting scene in a Firefly episode, albeit not written by Whedon himself, where River is trying to “correct” the Book of Genesis by ripping out pages and making marginal notes about evolution, and Shepherd Book tells her “You don’t correct faith; it corrects you.”

    A very Benedict XVI-like statement in its own way, although it is partially undermined by the way it’s used as a comment on the main plot of the episode (basically concluding that believing in noble things which aren’t entirely true makes you a better person).

  22. PostCatholic says:

    “That is… until you demonstrate that the little they thought they understood that made their atheism intellectually grounded was false…”

    No, just on it’s own. The notion that the universe is not fully understood by humankind, and perhaps cannot be, is very much in line with a belief that there is no god to explain what is unknown about it. I won’t get into a debate about the non-existence of God here. I was merely stating a fact.

  23. wmeyer says:

    Actually, PC, you presented an opinion; a fact is something objectively true, despite the abuse “fact” routinely suffers in the media.

    As to atheism, it is a religion. Atheists are no more able to prove through science the non-existence of God, than we are able through science to prove His existence. Atheists believe there is no God, just as we believe God exists. Atheism is a matter of faith; misguided, at best, but faith, nonetheless.

  24. LisaP. says:

    The idea that the universe is unknown and unknowable is very much consistent with agnosticism.

    It is not particularly consistent with atheism. Atheism posits that it is possible to know that there is no god, to a practical certainty. This is not consistent with the belief that “humankind little understands the universe”.

    I except “working atheists” who run off the *assumption* that there is no god but don’t discount the possibility they could be proven wrong.

  25. PostCatholic says:

    Atheism is to a religion as bald is to a hairstyle. The word simply means non-belief in a deity. There are many atheistic religions; religion is more than posture towards supernatural beings.

    Atheists have no recourse to a deity to explain what is unknown about astrophysics. This, ipso facto, means “I do not know” is an answer the atheist must be willing to proffer in the absence of knowledge.

  26. Johnno says:

    Postcatholic: “No, just on it’s own. The notion that the universe is not fully understood by humankind, and perhaps cannot be, is very much in line with a belief that there is no god to explain what is unknown about it. I won’t get into a debate about the non-existence of God here. I was merely stating a fact.”

    Any debate engaged in with most atheist over the falsity of evolution etc. will expose that that are only so far acknowledging of the limits of science when it is within a comfortable zone that allows them to feel secure in their ‘non-belief.’ You will also encounter many who believe in prophetic ‘scientism’ as a deity that will lead to inevitable knowledge of everything including the phenomena of absolute beginnings from absolute nothing. Which is why if they say, “I do not know” they usually mean “We do not know yet.” But it is impossible as the scientific method cannot operate under such conditions when there is no preceeding phenomena to explain absolute beginning of all phenomena.

    This is why they, as well as you, end with such sentences as “I won’t get into a debate about the non-existence of God here.” Because it automatically leads to uncomfortable overlong discussions that risk tearing down the convenient and flawed belief system they’ve placed around themselves, where acknowledgment of not knowing basic things that they accept and that help them undermine traditionally established religions, is uncomfortable to admit. This is why atheists are generally alright with compromised religious beliefs, such as Christians who also accept naturalist biological and cosmological evolution theories and marry them to their faith and redefine Genesis as allegorical, but absolutely lose their mind when confronted by the Intelligent Design community, Biblical Creationists and Geocentrists because it attacks core tenets of their faith that they feel comfortably offers a probable solution to origins without God and therefore grounds to allow them behavior that traditional religions state are immoral.

    Postcatholic: “Atheism is to a religion as bald is to a hairstyle. The word simply means non-belief in a deity. There are many atheistic religions; religion is more than posture towards supernatural beings. ”

    Correct. Atheists also have assumed unprovable dogmas rooted in naturalist and materialist philosophy. Some even go so far as to move the question away to extraterrestrial origins. However, by rejection of a ‘deity’ they mean a deity who has a personality. Ironically they willing ascribe all the power and miraculous nature of God to nature itself instead coupled with random chance and multiple universe fantasies. In this way they deify nature and ascribe miracles to it, but at the same time will simultaneously claim they do no such thing and therefore accept a contradiction they will not admit or are oddly blind to.

    “Atheists have no recourse to a deity to explain what is unknown about astrophysics. This, ipso facto, means “I do not know” is an answer the atheist must be willing to proffer in the absence of knowledge.”

    As I explained they will only be so up to a comfortable point. Challenge the underlying assumed dogmas of atheists about origins that they felt they could comfortably accept, and then to say “I don’t know” becomes grossly uncomfortable, no different than if a Christian was challenged about an underlying critical tenet of his faith and could not answer. Hence I did not say athiests could not admit what they don’t know, just that they could not always comfortably state so depending on the topic they must admit being unkowledgable about.

  27. PostCatholic says:

    Wow.

    Johnno, I believe you have in mind specific types of atheists. As I said, atheism simply means a belief in the non-existence of a deity or deities. To go further, to “atheists also have assumed unprovable dogmas rooted in naturalist and materialist philosophy” is to describe something more than an atheist.

    As for not getting into a debate over the non-existence of God or gods, I decline to do so not because I’m uncomfortable with the debate but because this isn’t the place for it.

  28. LisaP. says:

    To declare “I know there is no god” at the same time you declare, “I know that I and others know almost nothing about almost everything” — how can that be consistent?

  29. Suburbanbanshee says:

    The Marvel Universe was largely founded in good old middlebrow American Judeo-Christian values (especially considering the large number of Jewish founding writers from the old neighborhoods in NY). So the founding bias of the universe is a general background that God is there, and that any other powerful beings are either advanced aliens, advanced humans, or angels and demons of some kind.

    Of course, in recent years there’s been a lot of attacks against this background, but Whedon is an old school Marvel fan at heart, at least when writing the Avengers movie. So of course he went with what made sense: an old school Cap, and old school everybody else. It made the story work, and it was what his heart and gut liked.

  30. PostCatholic says:

    LisaP., for the answer to your question, you can see Russell’s Teapot. Of course, that answer only serves to introduce new questions.

  31. Johnno says:

    PostCatholic

    It is impossible for an atheist to take God out of the picture and leave a vaccuum to explain existence and whatever moral framework he has left. So ALL Atheists must assume many things to drive their continued existence and actions. They require a myth and a framework. Without God. naturalism si the only recourse. Something they don’t want to admit and that you yourself aren’t admitting, because it is uncomfortable to admit it, not that you cannot.

    We have here the perfect opportunity tom talk about this in light of discussing Joss Whedon’s views and hwo the Fictional Marvel Universe functions. Russell’s Teapot also likewise applies to atheists who will use the concept against theists, but hilariously then go on to propose quite matter-of-factly equally unprovable or irrefutable philosophies about materialist origins, yet somehow hilariously claim they’re being more ‘rational’ becaus they’re being more ‘scientific’ by discarding God and using their human imagination.

    However I will go above and beyond that to state that one can seriously demonstrate that God does in fact exist and that we can scientifically refute much of atheistic dogma.

  32. LisaP. says:

    I can make the assumption that the teapot isn’t out there because I can make assumptions from what I know already. I know a great deal already about teapots, and how they work, and where they come from, and it’s reasonable to have some certainty that teapots don’t spontaneously generate so to be an atheist about teapots in orbit until which point, if ever, I’m proven wrong is perfectly rational and consistent with a belief in a mysterious universe.

    But a god or gods are, inherently, largely not known. If, of course, you go with Mr. Russell and think of gods as only pantheistic, largely literary figures then you could certainly be as certain that Zeus isn’t hanging out in orbit as you are that his teapot isn’t. But that is not what deity means to those who believe a deity or deities exist, or really to anyone who is intellectually honest in approaching the question.

    Russell certainly was right to claim an overwhelmingly probable certainty about a teapot. But if, for example, he wanted to claim a convincingly probable certainty that there had never been water on Mars, because no proof had been delivered scientifically, that would be a different matter, wouldn’t it? He could certainly be of the opinion that there had not been water on Mars. He could have been of the opinion that there was water on Mars. He is welcome to apply the “don’t buy it until it’s scientifically proven” doctrine to his POV. But he cannot claim it as *fact*, beyond rational doubt, that there was never water because it hasn’t been scientifically proven yet that there was.

    Therefore, claiming as *fact* that there is no deity because there is no scientific proof shows that Mr. Russell felt that his knowledge of the universe was fairly complete — that he understood the universe, and god, about as well as he understood the teapot. I don’t dispute that he was an atheist, but I dispute that he felt that “humankind little understands the universe.”

    My personal experience with self-labeled atheists, I’m afraid, reinforces my belief that atheists cannot rationally also believe the universe is still largely a mystery. The atheists I have conversed with pretty much think they’ve got it in the bag. So my personal experience may skew my opinion, but I still cannot see, rationally, how a person could claim to know the universe is largely unknown and yet know there is no god or gods in existence. Yes, a person can claim to know the universe is largely unknown and still say with certainty that there are no tomatoes growing on the sun, because you can use two fairly certain knowns to extrapolate a conclusion about that unknown. Yes, a person can feel the laws of the universe are largely known (with just the details needing to be filled in) and say with confidence that you believe it a rationally verifiable fact that a god or gods do not exist. But if you consider “the universe” fairly unknown, and if “god or gods” are by definition fairly unknown, you cannot then reasonably extrapolate about the relationship between the two. You can form an opinion, you can decide to assume one way or another until proven otherwise, etc. But you cannot state as a fact that you know that God does not exist unless you feel mankind substantially understands existence.

    You know, I don’t buy into the whole “everything I needed to know in life I learned in kindergarten” thing, generally, but isn’t this pretty much a clear shot? Is it just my bias here that makes this really 2 + 2 = 4 obvious to me?

  33. wmeyer says:

    Atheism is to a religion as bald is to a hairstyle. The word simply means non-belief in a deity.

    Be careful. You speak now of atheism, as distinct from atheists. What the word means is one thing; what we observe in the most visible of those who assert that belief, quite another. I find no value in discussing hypothetical atheists, as I know none. We do, however, routinely encounter the assertions of actual atheists, and all those which come to mind are quite insistent on their belief that no God does or can exist. They do not call it a belief, but in this, their logic fails utterly, as they have no method of proof to offer.