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.

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Hypocrisy and Belief


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We all have friends who profess a major obstacle to belief in God and Christianity because of the sinful behavior of the people that do believe. Who wants to associate with hypocrites and liars? How could God? This is truly a scandal, a road-block, for onlookers and outsiders. The quick rejoinder is, thank the Lord they are in the Church (or one of its traditions) or we’d have to suffer their true wrath divorced from any transcendent restriction and duty. This is of course a wisecrack, but perhaps more wise than it appears.

The first thing to be said is that belief in God and belief in Christian Revelation are two quite distinct things. God, the omnipotent, omniscient, un-moved mover and bedrock of all reality has been found a necessary inference by some of the brightest minds on record. This is first of all a philosophical question, which is to be considered by reason divorced from the specifics of the faith of Christianity, just as we would infer a quark based upon the observational data we collect in physics. To explain existence as we know it a first (highest) principle is required.

God is not thought to be a physical being, or a substance like water or fire or rock, a combination of chemicals, or even an old man in the sky. That idea is absurd, and every atheist who professes to not believe that the spaghetti monster exists is quite right in his suggestion. If that is absurd, then this is a question of a reality that we cannot see. To accept this should not be as difficult as it has become in our physical-science drenched perspective. We try to solve every quandary by measuring it and cutting it up, and if that doesn’t work, we deny it because we already think the real is always physical.

This is a seriously questionable position, which philosophy throughout recorded time has treated as such. Problems concerning universals, the mind or soul, propositions, mathematics, and morals cannot be resolved nicely into a material principle without damaging our raw data: we cannot explain them along physical lines without explaining them away. One must deal with Plato, Aristotle, and Aquinas and Descartes, and many, many, many others in the great tradition before floating away blissfully on the materialist’s river. For they suggest that river ends in quite a spectacular fall. Otherwise, one is prematurely closing themselves to protect their desired preconception. How could absolutely brilliant and sober minds believe the invisible world is quite real and that it’s ultimately incoherent to disavow it? Simply because they couldn’t fly to the moon or study cellular biology? We should shudder at avoiding this profound question.

Philosophy in its essence is not some specialized, arid, desert where only oddball hermits should wander; in short, it is not its current academic face. Philosophy is simply the orderly attempt to make explicit and coherent what we know about allof reality, and it uses as its primary data our common and full experience. We would not be good scientists if in the study of all we pre-screened part of the allout of our purview. In philosophy we come to a determination about man and the universe. The praeambula fidei are the foundational propositions about reality that reason can attain, if considered carefully and patiently (to be clear, no one has said that understanding these is easy, or even attainable for everyone; consider, is understanding quantum physics attainable for everyone??). It is in the least true that, via reason alone, it is not absurd, illogical, patently false, or unreasonable to affirm the existence of that which we cannot see or sense and ultimately of God.

It is from this platform that one must begin to consider the possibility of revelation and the God of the Bible. Divorced from clear thinking about reality, how could we possibly undertake an examination of the essence of Christianity? If we do not have the truth about man from a natural perspective, how could we possibly grasp what it means to the “new man”; if we don’t have a good understanding about creation, how could we possibly come to understand the “new creation”; if we do not even understand the meaning of the word God, how possibly can we come to grasp (ever so slightly) the Trinity? Would it shock anyone to learn that faith per se, far from revolving around the existence of God, properly pertains to the promises of Christ about himself, the Father, the Holy Spirit and the eternal life we might attain a share of? We don’t have faith that God exists, but that God is three persons in one divine nature. And certainly, even with the clearest rational eyes, we cannot fully comprehend the transcendence of the revealed truth. While robust reason is necessary, it’s not capable of exhausting the mysteries of the faith because they are in their essence beyond our capacity to understand. A mystery is not wholly incomprehensible: we can know God is a Trinity, but we cannot know how this works or how this is. Our term “Trinity” is a flimsy sign to a deeper reality that we cannot articulate but is used by necessity for the sake of communication.

Belief in the Christian Revelation means one believes that God has reached out to man. In fact, it’s the more incredible Creator “coming down” to the level of man to rectify his seemingly impossible separation from Him. As Peter Kreeft says, it’s a divine rescue mission. It’s completely and utterly gratuitous, and done simply because of God’s love for mankind. To believe this, one must have some very good evidence; and in this case, it is primarily historical evidence that one must examine. To “believe” anything is to mean that you accept the testimony and the message of someone else’s knowledge; I believed my astronomy professor’s testimony about whatever physical principle he told us in class that day; and he believed his professors’ on and on until the discoverer of it “saw” it. One must judge the evidence to determine if Jesus was a credible witness, and if so accept his revelation about the divine.

Now on to the issue about hypocrisy. Man is a sinner. The Church is man’s seafarer to redemption, but there are rough waters until the very end. People in the Church are not sinless, and that is not apart of the content of revelation. They are obligated to seek perfection, and that means through grace to attain virtuous behavior like being just, prudent, humble, patient, etc. and to have faith, hope and charity. They will not, however, be without sin no matter how well they respond. The Catholic Church, acting in the person of Christ, offers the Sacrament of Reconciliation (Confession), precisely because man is going to be with sin even after he is in the Church. Being a Christian is an act of the will, to accept the grace that God has offered and to offer one’s self back in light of the incredible gifts one has received (starting with life itself). It is not a magical ticket to immediate reform of one’s behavior.

In the end, the scandal of believers’ sin should not be a real obstacle to faith, because if one is honest in examining the situation, one will see even more the need for relief from it. We have heard many telling us that sin is illusory, or that it can be cured by better education, or a more loving and prosperous home life etc. Ultimately, sin resides at the heart of man, the very center; the divide is so deep that it reaches the depth of his being; and there is no relief except through Christianity. Nothing proves original sin more clearly than the horrible behavior of people, within or without the body of Christ. Chesterton memorably stated that original sin is the only tenant of the Faith that can be proved by simply looking at the newspapers.

Further, if one only sees the hypocrisy of believers, then one is not looking at the full picture. There are saints among us and people selflessly forgoing comfort and even the “American dream” to spend their time in effort to help those least among us. Love, honesty, virtue, faith, compassion, sacrifice, suffering etc. These all exist here and now in believers. If one mistakes tenets of traditional Christian moral teaching as being “hate speech”, then they are regrettably confused about its true nature and true meaning. Christ absolutely never wanted us to hate another person; but he absolutely did want us to hate sin and evil behavior. If one denies the existence of sin and evil, then they are going to have quite a hard time understanding the Christian revelation. If, on the other hand, one doesn’t believe in the full veracity of that revelation (e.g. in some of its moral teachings), then they have a different issue altogether.

I will quote someone much more learned than I in nature of the human heart at length:

All your dissatisfaction with the church seems to me to come from an incomplete understanding of sin. This will perhaps surprise you because you are very conscious of the sins of Catholics; however what you seem actually to demand is that the Church put the kingdom of heaven on earth right here now, that the Holy Ghost be translated at once into all flesh. The Holy Spirit very rarely shows Himself on the surface of anything. You are asking that man return at once to the state God created him in, you are leaving out the terrible radical human pride that causes death. Christ was crucified on earth and the Church crucified in time, and the Church is crucified by all of us, by her members most particularly because she is a Church of sinners. Christ never said that the Church would be operated in a sinless or intelligent way, but that it would not teach error. This does not mean that each and every priest won’t teach error but that the whole Church speaking through the pope will not teach error in matters of faith. The Church is founded on Peter who denied Christ three times and couldn’t walk on the water. All human nature vigorously resists grace because grace changes us and the change is painful. Priests resist it as well as others. To have the Church be what you want it to be would require the continuous miraculous meddling of God in human affairs, whereas it is our dignity that we are allowed more or less to get on with those graces that come through faith and the sacraments and which work through our human nature. God has chosen to operate in this manner. We can’t understand this but we can’t reject it without rejecting life.

Human nature is so faulty that it can resist any amount of grace and most of the time it does. The Church does well to hold her own; you are asking that she show a profit. When shows a profit you have a saint, not necessarily a canonized one. I agree with you that you shouldn’t have to go back centuries to find Catholic thought, and to be sure, you don’t. But you are not going to find the highest principles of Catholicism exemplified on the surface of life nor the highest Protestant principles either. It is easy for any child to pick out the faults in the sermon on his way home from Church every Sunday. It is impossible for him to find out the hidden love that makes a man, in spite of his intellectual limitations, his neuroticism, his own lack of strength, give up his life to the service of God’s people, however bumblingly he may go about it…

It is what is invisible that God sees and that the Christian must look for. Because he knows the consequences of sin, he knows how deep in you have to go to find love. We have our own responsibility for not being “little ones” too long, for not being scandalized. By being scandalized too long, you will scandalize others and the guilt for that will belong to you.

It’s our business to try to change the external faults of the Church — the vulgarity, the lack of scholarship, the lack of intellectual honesty — wherever we find them and however we can… You don’t serve God by saying the Church is ineffective, I’ll have none of it. Your pain at its lack of effectiveness is a sign of your nearness to God. We help overcome this lack of effectiveness simply by suffering on account of it.

To expect too much is to have a sentimental view of life and this is a softness that ends in bitterness. Charity is hard and endures I don’t want to discourage you from reading St. Thomas but don’t read him with the notion that he is going to clear anything up for you. That is done by study but more by prayer. (Flannery O’Connor, December 8, 1958)

Quote of the Day: Peter Kreeft


“You can see the nature of ultimate reality when you look at a crucifix.  There is more metaphysical wisdom in that simple gaze of the simple Christian child than in the highest mystical experiences of the sage or guru, and more than in the finest philosophical systems of a Plato or an Aristotle.  They may have known the experience of Being or the concept of Being, but the Christian child sees Being’s face.”