Marvel, the Gods, and Atheism

Marvel has a tense theology. Let’s lay some quick groundwork before tackling it.

One of the fundamental principles of classical monotheism is the Creator-creature distinction. Imagine a bubble. Inside is all of time and space from beginning to end. At one end of the bubble is the first domino ever knocked over, and all of reality ripples out from that first action, that first moment of creation.

Now, standing outside the bubble, outside of time and space and the chain of causality and reality as we can understand it, is the Creator. The Creator caused everything else to exist, and caused it to exist in the way it exists. But the Creator himself stands outside of that bubble of spacetime. Nothing made him exist. He just exists because that is what he does. He is the uncaused cause, the unmoved mover. Among other things.

In a monotheistic universe, all of reality is shaped by the personality and by the will of the Creator. To a very great extent, everything is just mimicking what Dad does. Each thing’s meaning is defined by the meaning he gave it, and its purpose by the intensions he has for it. And because he authored it all, he has authority over it.

In the Marvel universe, and in the imagination of those who deny any such being standing outside and independent of spacetime, this is not so. Puny mortals, superheroes, and gods all exist on a spectrum. There is no fundamental distinction between them.

Take Spiderman. Spiderman has superhuman sense, superhuman reflexes, and cool web-shooters. Your average Joe might be tempted to think his powers were supernatural, even godlike. But set him next to Thor, and there’s no comparison. Thor’s got mojo. He is so clearly godlike in comparison to Peter Parker, earthlings actually worship him. But set him next to Jean Grey (a.k.a. Phoenix), and again, there’s no comparison. So what if Thor is really strong and can fly? So what if he apparently lives for eons? Phoenix is more powerful than death itself. She controls space, she controls time, and she controls the thoughts inside a person’s mind, given a good excuse. Can most of the gods of classical paganism claim that?

And that’s why Joss Whedon’s refusal to let the Avengers bow before Loki makes sense. Sure, he’s a “god,” relatively speaking. He’s got oomph. He has power. But fundamentally he’s no different than any other creature zooming around the Marvel universe. Under the right set of circumstances, he can have all that taken away. Under the right set of circumstances—say, acquiring the Infinity Gauntlet—a puny human as klutzy and awkward and harebrained as Peter Quill might become top dog in the universe. The difference between one Marvel character and another is just degrees of power, which can be won or lost. There’s no real difference in kind.

And that’s why Captain America’s offhand remark that there’s only one God is such a big freaking deal. Perhaps Joss and the producers meant it as an offhand funny remark from a charmingly out-of-date super-patriot, but it has major implications. If Captain America believes that there is still a real God, a transcendent God, someone who stands outside of the bubble and stands as Lord of the whole shebang and judge of the actions of the Avengers and those around them—that changes everything.

In a world where the chain of being is all there is, there’s no reason for Iron Man or Thor or anybody else not to play with morality. There’s no reason they shouldn’t cross a line to get things done, let a few people die in order to save the world. Break a few eggs to make an omelet. The ends justify the means. It all comes down to what you think the greater good is and what you think you can get away with. Besides, if the other guy is bigger than you, and you let something as petty as your qualms about personal freedoms, or the sanctity of life, or whatever else get in your way, you’re going to regret it. There’s no room for that in the big leagues.

But if there is a just God standing outside of that chain of being, then you might be held accountable to him. The ends do not necessarily justify the means. Superheroes do not get a blank check and a free pass when they run around destroying cities or overthrowing democratically elected governments. There is a judge who will see justice done in the long run, and you are not him. And you might guess where I’m going with this.

Marvel’s Civil War plotline is ultimately about this question. In the grand scheme of things, are there limits to the authority of the guys with the supersuits and magic powers? Are they to be held to the standards of common mortals? Is there a God standing outside the universe who presides over the destinies of planets and the fates of the Avengers, or is it all a conflict between different degrees of power in a mechanistic cosmos? If the former, let’s put some brakes on Tony Stark. If the latter… maybe we leave the tough calls up to him. After all, he’s bigger.

Before I bring this in for a landing, let’s bring in another fictional universe. This is why H.P. Lovecraft, the materialist par excellence, is so comfortable with a universe filled with so many gods. The line between atheism and polytheism isn’t one that separates two fundamentally different mythologies. It’s just a question of terminology. If you believe that the world is one vast uncaring void, then maybe some small creatures the universe doesn’t care about worship other, larger creatures the universe also doesn’t care about. The gods of a polytheistic universe aren’t deities in any ultimate or transcendent sense, but they sure do look like it compared to the ants walking around beneath them. The Christian—or Muslim, or Jewish—disbelief in the gods of polytheism is simply nothing like the atheist’s or some polytheists’ disbelief in the Creator God.

And that is why Captain America can still not believe in pagan gods, even after hanging out with one.

On Reacting to Culture Warriors

A  number of years ago I was confronted with a strain of conservative Christianity that was very free in its use of insults, ridicule, and slander towards people on the other end of the “culture war” as they understood it. This often included other Bible-believing Christians, from a great range of theological persuasions, and across the social, cultural, and political spectrum. As someone from a fairly broad evangelical background, I found this extremely frustrating. As someone belonging to the very “axis of treacle” these folks spent a great deal of their time targeting, I was very, very angry.

I did not have to run in those circles long before I discovered others frustrated with the sort of rhetoric this crowd used. In the face of the sort of language I am not allowed—and not inclined—to repeat in front of my students, these other frustrated people spoke out. Sometimes quietly, sometimes loudly. They defended their brothers in Christ as brothers in Christ, but they also defended those outside the faith as human beings made in the image of God and therefore worthy of some measure of respect. This was good.

Over the years I saw these folks defend liberals. (Are they not rational human beings? Why must we assume the worst of them?) I saw them defend Muslims. (People lie about us, say we’re bloodthirsty theocrats bent on taking over the world. Why must it be any more true of them?) I saw them defend homosexuals. (Sure, it’s a sin, but so is slander, so is hating your brother, so are a thousand other things people on the right are glad to overlook.) I saw them defend illegal immigrants in the face of what certainly seemed to be racism. (Didn’t we come here looking for a better life, too?) The years rolled on, and I saw them stand up and say “Black Lives Matter.” (How can you spend all this time talking about big government and the militarization of police and not question a system that guns down a child holding a toy?) And, in their way, these things were very good.

These people raised their voices against a Christianity that slandered God’s children. They raised their voices against people who dehumanized their opposition, who turned them into orcs in need of slaying rather than the lost in need of saving. They raised their voices against a politics that would not hear opposing views. They raised their voices in the name of fair-mindedness, in the name of love and mercy, in the name of justice in rhetoric.

These people stood against a view of culture war that looked for enemies in every shadow. Christ teaches that if we take up His cross, people will persecute us for it. But these people saw Christians behaving in an un-Christlike manner while claiming the name of Jesus. They saw people picking fights and stirring up trouble, not by preaching Christ, but by a deliberate, belligerent, combative attitude towards anyone that moved. They opposed that, and a siege mentality that likens all opposition to persecution, all trials to martyrdom.

Insofar as these people stood against that form of rhetoric, and that form of culture war, I could stand with them. And if their politics changed over the years, so be it. How could it not? How can you be shown a way of life filled with slander, with bullying, and with an uncritical attitude towards one’s own faults, and not want something better? I might not agree with the politics these folks adopted, but so what? We were still brothers.

To those brothers, and sisters, I say this.

You stood for justice, you stood for mercy, and that is commendable. I have seen that and applauded it, not always loudly, and not always in as unqualified a manner as it may have deserved in context. But I applaud it. Whatever else can be said, you have won my respect.

But now I know your principles. I know where you stand. I know you stand against baseless insult, and against unfounded slander. I know you stand against a siege mentality, against the sort of knee-jerk tribalism that turns everyone who disagrees with you into an enemy that must be battled. I know you are against dehumanizing the opposition, whoever the opposition is. I know where you stand, because I have seen you stand there again and again.

But I have seen you say other things. Not in the privacy of your own home, or in emails, or texts. Not between a few close friends, but openly. On Twitter. On Facebook. On WordPress. On Tumblr.

I have seen you slander, mock, and deride conservatives. I have seen you ascribe to them the worst possible motives, and give them no hearing, no benefit of the doubt. I have seen you call Republicans morons. I have seen you turn a Northwesterner’s slander of all feminists as “small-breasted biddies” into your own slander of “Southern biddies.” I have seen you call all people who own guns toothless, backwards hillbillies, and anyone who votes Republican a racist asshole. I have seen you tear evangelicals a new one time and again, with no distinctions among them, none of the nuance you would afford any other group. I have seen you say horrible things about Bible-believing, honest, and sincere Christians that I would not repeat. You have branded all American Christians (by what grounds do you exclude yourself?) with perverting the Gospel, of being vile, rank hypocrites.

Now, I know where this comes from. I have seen at least some of the sources of your anger, and how they treat you and those you love. And I have seen why, now, in your eyes, all those gun-toting Cruz voters are just nameless, faceless, worthless SOB’s.

But to me, those conservatives do have worth. They are real people. They have names and faces.

They taught me to ride a bike and fold a paper airplane. They taught me to fish, to drive, how to do long division, and how to fix a sandwich. They taught me to respect a man, regardless of his background, and to take care of those who cannot take care of themselves. I have seen Bush voters, out of their abundance, give much, taking in orphans whose “parents” I knew, as well as orphans who truly had no parents. I have seen gun-toting rednecks, out of their poverty, give everything they had, give what they did not have, to help widows and single mothers provide for children whose fathers had abandoned them. They have been that single mother, working themselves into the ground for children they love. They have been young families, sacrificing a life they had dreamed of to provide their kids with an education they never had a chance to get themselves. I have seen the love and tenderness of Jesus in the hearts, in the mouths, in the actions of the people you slander.

These are the people who taught me to love Jesus, not as a symbol in the culture war, but as a merciful Savior and Lord. These are the people who taught me to seek his will and keep his word, not to blindly follow slick-haired preachers. I do not know who taught you what marriage looks like, who taught you the roles of men and women. We both agree these things are more complicated than Leave it to Beaver might have us to think, but I began learning it in a hospital in Fort Ord, when they laid me in the arms of a woman with a sharpshooter medal pinned to her BDU’s, and in the arms of the man secure enough to love her. Conservatives? You bet they are. Godly people? Absolutely.

When you slander conservative Christians, these are the faces I see. When I go to work on Monday, and look into the eyes of my students, many of them still young and wild with love of God’s glorious creation, it is their eyes I see as you curse their fathers and mothers. When I spend the weekend marveling with my friend over the glories of the Gospel, the wonderful diversity of cultures God has given us, or the excellence of Mexican food, it is his face I see as you cry “toothless hillbilly.”

I do not judge you by my standards. What goes on in your heart is between you and the Master of us both. But I have seen the vilest hypocrisy, the rankest violation of your own principles, not in secret, away from the world, not in private conversations between us two, but out on social media, out on the internet, loudly and vocally, with the aim to wound, to shame, to denigrate. The sort of behavior you cry out against when it is directed at minorities, at people of leftist political persuasions, at people of other faiths, at homosexuals, at a thousand others, that is the sort of behavior you freely engage in towards God’s children, towards your own brothers, in the public forum.

You say you hate careless slander, but do you slander carelessly? You claim to hate it when people assume the worst of those who disagree with them, but what do you assume? You tell the world you wish people would lay off the siege mentality and consider that people who have other positions might be rational human beings with their own lives to live outside politics. Are those Neanderthals you rail against exempt from that judgment of charity? You say you want to end the culture war, but you have not left it behind. You’ve merely changed the direction your guns are pointing in.

Look at the people who angered you, who did wrong to those you loved and gave you reason to speak out against them. They believe they are doing the right thing when they engage in this behavior. You can hear their justification from their own mouths. But you say you have seen the error in that way of life, you say you have turned against it. So when you engage in that behavior, loudly and in public, are you not twice as bad, because you are condemned not by others’ standards, but by your own? Do you not commit the same sins, but with your eyes open?

Again, it is not my business what goes on in your heart. That is between you and God. But what comes out of your mouth, what you spread freely over the internet, that slander with which you attack those I love, and those you claim deserve dignity and respect, that is my business.

I have tried to be even-handed on Twitter and Facebook. Compare my attitude with where I have come from, and you will see that this is true. And in part, it was you that taught me to think before I speak, to hold my tongue far longer and far more often than I wish. I go far out of my way to avoid being unfair to those on my left, because of your example. Because I agree on those principles.

But those principles actually matter. If you can call out conservatives on it, and do so honestly, then you should be willing to call yourself out on it. If you set up a standard for people to follow, you yourself ought to follow it. Do not lament the lack of love you have seen on the part of some conservatives, and then display that same lack of love yourself. If a particular brand of conservative ought to be taught to accept all manner of other Christians as their brothers, then you also ought to accept conservative Christians as brothers. To do anything less is shameful on your part, and brings disgrace to the Body you claim to love and the principles you claim to hold.

Now, having said all this, let me say two things further. First, while this behavior is widespread among my acquaintances who are critical of this kind of culture war, it is by no means universal. And not all who have participated in it do so with the same bile and the same gusto. To the disillusioned, the angry and excluded, and the pseudo-hipsters whom I love and who have not done this, I do not intend this for you. And even if it does describe you completely, please know that I still love you and count you my brothers and sisters. I speak not because I hate one side of a war and identify with the other. I speak because I identify with the Body of Christ and I am as tired as you are of seeing warfare, backbiting, and unnecessary division tear it apart.

My second postscript is to a certain strain of conservative who might be tempted to see this as a declaration of loyalty to your cultural and political mission. Resist the temptation. I oppose the sort of culture war mentioned above every bit as much in conservative Christians as I do in hipster, leftist, and moderate Christians. I have spoken critically of that before, though perhaps not as vocally as I might have, and I maintain that critical stance now. I stand with Christ and with the Jerusalem that is above, not with conservatism as such, or those who wage war on its behalf.

Finally, let me end on this note. I have been guilty of the sins mentioned above, and I have been guilty of blindness. I have been guilty of using strong words and speaking rashly. And I have been guilty of more than a few things this post is not meant to cover. I am a sinner in need of Christ. Not “I was a sinner in need of Christ.” I am a sinner in need of Christ. If anything I have said here is unjust or beneath his standards, I apologize. If anything I have said distresses you in ways that it should not, I also apologize, and seek your forgiveness. We all need to take a good look in the mirror, and we all need Jesus. I do not exclude myself from that.

In Him,

David H.