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.

Do We Need the Church?


DSC01969

In our fiercely individualistic and overly cynical society the statement, “I don’t need the Church,” has become somewhat of a truism. Typically followed by something like, “I don’t see why I need to go to some building every Sunday when I can experience God just as well on my morning walk?” Faith or, as it is nebulously referred to these days, ‘spirituality’, is viewed as purely a private affair. Church is perceived as some drafty building filled with stuck up, superstitious, people who gather to hear some stuck up preacher foist his opinions on a bunch of mindless drones for an hour. Ironically, these sentiments are increasingly shared by Christians who feel all they really need is their Bible and a personal relationship with Jesus.

Now, it is certainly true that we can experience God on our morning walks (or whilst doing any number of things); it is equally true that we need to read Holy Scripture and have a relationship with Jesus. But, is the Church largely irrelevant in this process? Can a vague spirituality, practiced in relative isolation, ultimately satisfy the deepest longings of our hearts? To answer these questions, let’s examine the popular sentiments I just canvased a little more closely.

Experiencing the Numinous

Clearly, there is more than one way to experience–to have some sort of contact or interaction with–a person. Take my wife, for example. One way I can experience her is through her art (she’s an extremely talented photographer). When I observe her photos–paying attention to the way she frames each shot, to the colors and lighting she utilizes, and to the story each picture tells–I, in some limited way, experience her thoughts, her intentions, and her creative power. Yet, I am far removed from her. She is the cause and her art is but an effect.

Another, more intimate, way I might experience her is through reading her blog. Her writings afford me a glimpse into her mind. In them I discover her hopes, dreams, and desires; I learn about her values, convictions, and overall philosophy of life. I become very close to her; yet I am still one step removed. For she is not wholly present to me; her words are but a shadowy extension of the reality that is her.

Which brings us to the next level of experience: personal contact. When I sit down with my wife, and speak to her face to face, I encounter the creative power behind the photos and directly interact with the mind from which the writing sprung forth. I have come into personal contact with the reality I had, up to that point, only experienced from afar. I am no longer interacting with the cause through its effects but dealing directly with the cause herself.

Yet, I can get even closer still. As her husband, there is an even deeper way in which I can experience my wife; and that is through the nuptial embrace. When she and I become one; and share ourselves with one another in the most intimate way possible.

Each of these interactions describe very real ways to experience my wife; yet, clearly, these experiences vary greatly in terms of the level of intimacy involved.

The point being, many of us only seek to experience the numinous from afar; avoiding any intimate or personal contact. This is not to downplay the importance of such interaction. For, surely experiencing God through the beauty of His creation whilst on our morning walk is a great good (like any experience of great art). However, if I want to draw closer to and fully experience the Creator of all things I have to come into direct contact with Him; I must move beyond the Universe and interact with its ultimate cause.

Just as with my wife, I might seek to experience God through something He has written (or has inspired to be written). Again, this too is a great good. For, without a doubt, reading and meditating on the Bible will reveal much about God’s character, His motives, and His plans for my life. The key question is: Is this all God has to offer? Are we stuck merely experiencing God vaguely through the Universe He has made or through reading His inspired writings? Or, has He provided a more intimate, more personal, more direct way to experience Him? Something akin to the intimate relationship that I share with my beloved bride.

A Personal Relationship

As I said before, many Christians advocate having a personal relationship with Jesus. Yet, most understand this relationship, this experience of the numinous, to be an isolated, private, affair; one that is mediated almost entirely through the private study of the Bible. Perhaps, however, this is only scratching surface; it is only the tip of the proverbial ice-burg. Perhaps, God is interested in something deeper; something more profound. Perhaps God is offering Himself to us; that we might intimately experience Him in a way analogous to that of the relationship I share with my wife.

The biblical theologian Brant Pitre explains:

 …none of these ways of seeing God–as a distant watchmaker, as an impersonal force that binds everything together, or as a kind of invisible superhuman hero–is the way a first-century Jew like Jesus of Nazareth would have seen God. From an ancient Jewish perspective, the one true God–“the LORD” or “He Who Is” (Hebrew YHWH) (Exodus 3:15)–is not just the Creator. From an ancient Jewish perspective, the God of Israel is also a Bridegroom, a divine person whose ultimate desire is to be united to his creatures in an everlasting relationship that is so intimate, so permanent, so sacrificial, and so life-giving that it can only be described as a marriage between Creator and creatures, between God and human beings, between YHWH and Israel.

Christians believe this divine marriage was fully realized in the person of Jesus Christ who, through His incarnation and passion, initiated a New Covenant between God and men; who gathered for Himself a people; namely, a Church; i.e., the New Israel. St. Paul communicates this idea, utilizing the imagery of marriage, on multiple occasions. Perhaps, most clearly, in this passage from Ephesians:

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the Church and gave Himself for her, that He might sanctify and cleanse her with the washing of water by the word, that He might present her to Himself a glorious Church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she should be holy and without blemish. So husbands ought to love their own wives as their own bodies; he who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as the Lord does the Church. For we are members of His body, of His flesh and of His bones (Ephesians 5:25-30).

Being a Christian means being grafted or adopted into a community; a family. It means entering into the life of God who exists as an intimate communion of three distinct persons sharing one essence and will: The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. It means being part of a living Body–the One Holy Catholic Apostolic Church–whose head is Christ. It is within this community that we fully and completely encounter the risen Lord; the Bridegroom who desires us to know Him and to experience Him directly.

Within this community, this communion of saints, we are able to experience Christ in a very real, very tangible, very personal, and deeply intimate way: namely, through the most Holy Eucharist. Through partaking of the Eucharist–the body, blood, soul, and divinity of our Lord really present in the bread and wine–we not only become one with our Lord but He draws us into union with each other as well. St. Paul explains:

The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ? For we, though many, are one bread and one body; for we all partake of the one bread (1 Corinth. 10:16-17).

Understood in this sense, asking the question, “Do we need the Church?” is on par with asking, “Do I need to spend time with or make love to my wife?” I suppose I could get by with a long distance relationship; but that is not my hearts deepest desire and longing. My desire is to be near her, to experience her personally, and to be as intimate with her as I possibly can. Likewise, we can get by on our own, experiencing God from a distance, but this will never satisfy the deepest yearning of our hearts: which is to be known by and to know the God who brought us into being in the most intimate way. Such an experience of the numinous can only take place within the context of the Church.