Lex Luthor vs. Maximus the Confessor: An Apophatic Response to Atheism


Jesse Eisenberg as Lex Luthor in Batman vs. Superman

Warning: This Post Contains Spoilers

As nerds around the world fume over, what many agree is “a crime against comic book fans” and “the worst superhero film of all time“, one aspect of Zack Snyder’s controversial new film, Batman vs. Superman, has yet to be analyzed. I am, of course, referring to: (SPOILER ALERT) Lex Luthor’s argument for the nonexistence of God.

Moments before the film’s climatic battle between two of the worlds most beloved heroes, the insidious Lex Luthor–portrayed in this film as a sort of morbid cross between Mark Zuckerberg, Victor Frankenstein, and Jim Carrey–delivers a good-ole-fashion super-villain monologue. One that explains his motivation for seeking to destroy Superman (a seemingly all powerful, godlike, being who writes the sports section at a local newspaper) and reveals the movie’s true meaning. That’s right folks, Batman vs. Superman is not merely a superhero flick; it’s an allegory.

Lex Luthor is the personification of New Atheist Post-Enlightenment ideology: a zealous scientist hellbent on proving to the world that God (i.e., Superman) is neither omnipotent nor omnibenevolent and, thus, a sham. Batman represents man’s struggle (unwittingly spurred on by Luthor’s ideology) to overcome and ultimately defeat the God delusion; a delusion that many claim is harmless–and even beneficial–yet has the potential to destroy humanity. In short, Luthor’s speech reveals that the true conflict in this film is not between Batman and Superman; but, between man and God . . . or, at least, a particular conception of God.

As a philosopher, I found this subversive underlying theme intriguing. Not the least of which, because it affords me the shameless opportunity to use pop-culture as a platform for having a serious philosophical discussion. Also, because it affords me the chance to correct several common misconceptions.

Stated succinctly, Lex Luthor’s idea of God is so far removed from traditional Classical Theism (CT) it’s laughable. To demonstrate this, I will contrast Luthor’s conception of divinity with that of one of the greatest ancient exponents of CT: St. Maximus the Confessor. Then I will show how St. Maximus’ apophatic approach to theology provides a powerful response to Luthor’s argument for the nonexistence of God.

We shall begin by examining Luthor’s conception of the divine, and his argument, a little more closely.

God as Man Writ Large

Lex Luthor holds a grossly anthropomorphic view of the Divine Essence. His picture of ‘God’ is simply ‘man writ large’.  In other words, he imagines God is something like a human being; only with unlimited power, unlimited knowledge, and unlimited goodness.

These are all attributes Superman appears to possess: he is virtually an unstoppable and indestructible being, he can listen to any conversation, or radio transmission, or TV broadcast, around the world, and has unlimited access to a Kryptonian super computer–containing virtually all the knowledge in the known universe–and seems completely unimpeachable.

Luthor’s conception of God–which I’m going to call the omniGod thesis–entails the Divine attributes are essential properties of the Divine Essence.  In other words, for Luthor, what it is to be God is to have: unlimited power, unlimited knowledge, and unlimited goodness.

Copy of Lex Luthor's God2It is precisely this conception of the divinity (or something like it) that many contemporary arguments for the nonexistence of God are aimed at. One popular line of reasoning goes like this: If we identify something from general experience that conflicts with the notion that a single being possessing one or more of the divine attributes actually exists, then we can show that God (who, just is, a single being possessing all of the divine attributes listed) does not exist.

Atheists, utilizing this type of argument, typically point to the fact of gratuitous evil to demonstrate that no omnipotent and omnibenevolent being actually exits. According to them, if such a being actually existed, it would, necessarily, ensure there was no gratuitous evil. In other words, if the omniGod thesis where true there would be no gratuitous evil. Since, however, we do experience evil, we can only conclude that God–conceived of as an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent being–does not exist.

Lex Luthor's God

The argument above is what philosophers call the problem of evil. Interestingly, Lex Luthor utilizes a similar line of reasoning in his climatic rooftop monologue. In this speech, it becomes crystal clear that his stupid-elaborate plan to wrangle Batman and Superman into a gladiator style battle is motivated by his determination to prove the Man of Steel does not posses the essential properties needed to be divine.

If Superman loses, and Batman kills him, he is not omnipotent. If Superman wins, and brings Batman’s head to Luthor, he is not omnibenevolent.  As a backup plan, Luthor also hacks into the source of Superman’s omniscience (i.e., the Kryptonian super-computer) and uses it to create an abomination that will totally obliterate the Man of Steel; thereby proving he is neither omniscient nor omnipotent. No matter what, the outcome of Luthor’s allegorical battle will prove, definitively, that: God is Dead!

St. Maximus and the Apophatic Way

In stark contrast to the omniGod thesis, Classical Theism (CT) has never pictured God as ‘man writ large’. Rather, it says God is so radically distinct, so different, so transcendent, that he is literally beyond understanding. Which is just another way of saying: we have no idea what God is! In fact, because he defies all human categories, and human thought, we can never know what God is. St. Maximus put it like this:

“God is one, unoriginate [i.e., he has no beginning or end or cause or explanation], incomprehensible . . . altogether excluding notions of when and how, inaccessible to all, and not to be known through natural image by any creature.”

When he says God is “inaccessible to all”, he is not claiming it is impossible to have a relationship with God. Remember, he is using metaphysical language. What he means is, ‘God’s Essence’ or ‘Divine Nature’–what it is to be God–is inaccessible to the human intellect. Rest assured, St. Maximus strongly emphasizes the fact that we can enter into a direct personal relationship with God in his other writings. The point, in this passage, is to establish that we have no idea what God’s essential properties are.

He goes on to explain that the Divine Essence stands in marked contrast to created being which, according to St. Maximus, can be understood and lead us to believe God exists:

“Created beings are termed intelligible because each of them has an origin that can be known rationally. But God cannot be termed intelligible, while from our apprehension of intelligible beings we can do no more than believe that He exists. On this account no intelligible being is in any way to be compared with Him. Created beings can be known rationally by means of the inner principles which are by nature intrinsic to such beings and by which they are naturally defined. But from our apprehension of these principles inherent in created beings we can do no more than believe that God exists.”

In other words, creation (which encompasses everything in existence outside of God) is fundamentally intelligible. This means it is possible for the human intellect to grasp it, to define it, and to explain it. The Creator, however, exists outside of the universe; and we simply can not grasp the nature of something outside the universe. We can, according to Maximus, know that the Creator exits; but we can’t say what he is.

Classical Theism: Radical Ontological Distinction Between Creator and Creation

classical theism

 

An Apophatic Response to Atheism

It may have occurred to you, by now, that CT is completely immune to arguments for the nonexistence of God like Lex Luthor’s. Why? Because Lex Luthor style arguments are aimed at the omniGod thesis; which assumes God’s attributes are His essential properties.

According to proponents of CT like St. Maximus, this couldn’t be further from the truth. For him, the attributes are either negative statements (with no positive content) or grounded in God’s energies (i.e., his active presence in the world). For example, to say that God is omnipotent is really just to say: God does not lack power. This is a negative–or, apophatic–statement with no positive content.

Positive statements can be made, but are made in reference to God’s energies (not to His essence). For example, when we say that God is good or just, we are not referring to His essence but to His energies. We come to believe God is good or just because he reveals Himself as good or just through His real presence and interaction, in history, with people and in the world.

All things considered, Lex Luthor is, not only, a disappointing super-villain, but a lackluster philosopher.

I’m not a “Christian” Writer: Revisiting the Secular/Sacred Split


A couple of weeks ago I wrote several posts encouraging Christians to stop investing in what I termed ‘top-down’ approaches to cultural transformation.  Instead, I argued that cultures are transformed from the ‘bottom-up.’  Only when virtue is cultivated, faith is engendered, and the hearts of the people are changed, shall we see true cultural transformation.  Today I’d like to examine another facet of the problem of cultural transformation which is intimately related with the above issue: the so called secular/sacred split.

The late Francis Schaeffer often spoke about modern man’s unfortunate tendency to compartmentalize life—that is to separate, or segregate, the various fields of knowledge and human experience into non-overlapping boxes.  We see this problem among the various academic disciplines which are often taught as if they were completely isolated subject matters.  Consequentially, many scientists fail to understand the philosophical underpinnings of their discipline, many artists and musicians know absolutely nothing about the scientific aspect of their work, and so on and so forth.  When we become so specialized that we fail to see the intimate connection points between the various fields of knowledge we have fallen victim to this harmful form of compartmentalization.

The secular/sacred split is somewhat similar to this.  Evangelical Christians often segregate the things they perceive to be ‘secular’ and the things they perceive to be ‘sacred’—and act as if there are some things which are ‘spiritual activities’ and others which are simply neutral or ‘non-Christian.”  For instance, many would consider going to church on Sunday morning a ‘sacred’ activity—in contrast, few Christians would consider going to eat at McDonald’s ‘sacred.’  Now, I’m not arguing that these activities are one and the same (clearly there are huge differences); however, there is a problem when we fail to see the sacred aspect of even the most mundane parts of our life, like going to McDonald’s.  We are still Christians when we go to McDonald’s, we are still called to live out our faith at McDonald’s, to honor God at McDonald’s, to respect and love people at McDonald’s . . .

This split happens in other more subtle ways too.  For instance, Evangelicals have created their own subculture by attaching the label ‘Christian’ to art, music, film, and literature.   For many Evangelicals music, to use an obvious example, is ‘secular’ unless we attach the descriptor ‘Christian’ to it—hence, we now have Contemporary Christian Music.  The same has happened with all of the above categories—we now have Christian Fiction, Christian Movies, and Christian Artists.  We’ve created our very own subpar, subculture.

When I was a teenager I used to be proud of the fact that I didn’t listen to ‘secular’ music.  I would tell my friends that I only listened to ‘Christian’ music.  The truth is, however, music is neither secular nor Christian—people are.  That is to say, people can be Christians not music (although, I would add that music, by nature, is a great good, in virtue of the fact that God created it).  Christ calls people, like you and me, to help redeem the culture through living out our faith in the culture.

To redeem a culture, to transform it from the bottom-up, we have to break through the secular/sacred split and allow our faith to penetrate every aspect of our being.  This takes far more than merely “Christianizing” the arts and sciences—that is, duplicating what the general culture is doing, badly, and attaching pithy scripture verses to it to make it sound spiritual.  Rather, it takes Christians approaching their individual vocations with the heart and mind of Christ.  It means striving for excellence, striving to attain virtue, and striving for truth in all that we do.  Most importantly, it involves doing this in the general culture.

A Christian who is a musician should not, by default, assume the only way he can pursue his vocation is by writing and performing “worship” music.  Rather, he should strive, first and foremost, to be a good musician.  He should seek to cultivate virtue through his music.  He should think about and theorize about music through the lens of the Christian worldview, he should develop his skills and abilities (striving for excellence), and honor God through the work of his hands (or mouth if you sing or play a wind instrument).  He should conduct business honorably—with honesty and fairness.  He should use his music to support the weak and less fortunate.  Music can be, and should be, sacred even when we don’t sing the words “Jesus loves you.”  And this is true of all of the arts and sciences.

Christians should be on the New-York Times Bestsellers list, not as “Christian Authors,” but as authors who are Christians.  Their faith should be evident in the quality and depth of their work, in the nobility and justness of their business practices, in the way they treat others and use the money they make, etc…  Christians should be at the top of their academic field, not because they are “Christian Biologists,” or “Christian Psychologists,” or “Christian Philosophers,” but because they strive for excellence in all they do, live lives of holiness and virtue, and bring their faith to bare on every decision they make or theory they propound.  Christians who are artists should strive to have their work on display in the world’s top galleries–not merely paint quaint landscapes to be sold as household decorative items at Lifeway Christian Bookstore.

If we truly want to transform our culture we’re going to have to break free from our subculture—tear down the divide—and allow the Holy Spirit to use us as a source of renewal and life.

Damascene Cosmology – On the Nature of Immutable Beings


Second Sub-Premise – “If they are immutable, then they are uncreated”

As the first sub-premise says that anything that is created is also mutable (which implies the need for a creator), the second sub-premise provides the opposite, that if something is uncreated, then it is immutable.

The first thing to understand about immutability is that if a being is immutable, it does not require a creator. If an immutable being had a creator then we could posit that at one time the immutable being was created; this would mean that the immutable being was no longer immutable. If something came into existence it went from one state S1 to another S2. That is, the being went from non-existence to existence, which is a change of state for the being. Thus, to be immutable, by definition a being must be without a creator or without a beginning.

This means that whatever is immutable is also eternal. If we accept Aristotle’s explanation that time is motion (that is, the measurement of things) and combine it with Einstein’s theory of relativity, then it would seem that time can speed up or slow down depending upon the motion of matter, meaning that time is the measure of the motion of matter. Continue reading

Damascene Cosmology – On the Impossibility of an Infinite Regress


An infinite regress is impossible

Since the “if/then” is contingent upon an infinite regress being impossible, we must look to see if an infinite regress actually is impossible. Those who argue for an infinite regress usually make the followings points:

1)   It is not impossible to think of something that is infinite regressive. If we imagine a man is stacking books in a library and he’s stacking books on an infinite number of shelves, then it’s not impossible for us to imagine he’s been doing this for eternity.

2)   It’s not impossible to imagine something existing for eternity and impacting other things. If we think of an atom that has existed for eternity, we can imagine it wandering around space, moving and containing energy, without ever have being created.

If we take such views prima facie then an infinite regress does indeed seem possible. However, I would contend that such analogies misconstrue the issue of an infinite regress and do not align with reality. That is to say, while it is possible to imagine an infinite regress (and in fact mathematically we can use infinity in equations), there cannot be an actual infinite regress when applied to reality, especially in light of modern science.

Continue reading