Comics / Spotlight / Religion and Comics

Superhero Theology


By Beth Davies-Stofka
Dec 3, 2009 - 13:13

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I'm sure you're all out there wondering what the heck happened to me.  Well, instead of writing my column, I've been trotting around North America and Europe talking to students and fellow scholars about the religious meaning of superheroes.  I'm done with that now, and while I settle back into my routine, I'll share with you the speech I gave at the Understanding Superheroes conference at the University of Oregon Eugene, and at the World Politics and Popular Culture conference at Newcastle University in England.  In the coming weeks, look for articles on Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary, Astro City: Confessions, R. Crumb's The Illustrated Genesis, and more!

Part One: Life after the Death of God

There will be some confessions today, and I'll begin by confessing that I am a devout believer.  My life is a prayer of supplication, truly a sigh, and I can imagine no greater fulfillment of it than to be in the presence of God.  And yet I am here today to tell you that God is dead.

That takes some explaining.  When I say God is dead, I mean that we exist in the horizon of the infinite.  God, creator and redeemer, once sat above us, the skin around the balloon of the cosmos.  Through His creative vitality and eschatological promise, He provided sense, meaning, and reason to existence.  

But now we exist in the incoherence of the cosmos.  It seems there is no skin, only balloon.  We have lost our horizon, our great maker of meaning.  "We have left the land, and have gone aboard ship!  We have broken down the bridge behind us – nay, more, the land behind us!  Well little ship!  Look out!  Beside you is the ocean.  It is true it does not always roar.  Sometimes it spreads out like silk and gold, and a gentle reverie.  But times will come when you will feel that it is infinite, and that there is nothing more frightful than infinity."

That bit about the ship was written by Friedrich Nietzsche (The Gay Science).

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Nietzsche's language is pretty, but how can existence in the horizon of the infinite be frightful?  Aren't we liberated from burdens routinely borne by our religious ancestors: the burdens of superstition and the coercive fears of eternal damnation?  Of church-dominated societies supporting powerful and rich clerical classes who determined our lot in life and then endlessly exploited us?  Aren't we now free, free to decide our own identities and our own destinies?  Isn't this wonderful?

Of course it is!  But there will be times – when the ocean roars and when it is like glass – times that we sense our deepest anxieties.  We exist as finite beings in the horizon of the infinite, and we know it.  We die.  Heidegger proposed that being-towards-death allows us to shape ourselves according to our own choices.  It sounds nice, but death is not our greatest concern.  It is life.  Life is risky.  Being-in-the-world means suffering.  And being-with-others is agony.

Somewhere, right now, little girls live as sex slaves.  Mothers hold their tiny babies, comforting them as they die from hunger, or thirst, or preventable diseases.  Children hide from drones sent to bomb their villages.  I can't even speak about the animals despairing in laboratories, forced to test the latest mascara.  Why is anyone ever born, if this is the outcome?  Life can't mean anything at all.

Being-with-others is, I repeat, agony.  When the suffering of others is faced, eyes wide open, in its totality, a person can't be faulted for screaming in pain.  How can there be meaning in this suffering?  Life is risky because life risks despair.  By comparison, death is a cakewalk.

In life after the death of God we encounter a kind of madness.  It is madness that the creature – human, animal, plant, biosphere – has been stripped of depth and belonging.  It is madness that the creature, no longer created, has no intrinsic value.  It is incredibly nice to be free to construct the meanings of our own lives.  But how dare we ascribe meaning to the suffering of the least among us?  

Leo Tolstoy, a contemporary of Nietzsche's, keenly suffered an episode of this madness.  According to his friend and translator Aylmer Maude, for Tolstoy a godless universe meant a universe in which individual lives are meaningless.  And he found this insupportable.  "Without belief in God he could not live, yet he could not believe in God."  In his Confession, Tolstoy wrote,

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"And I turned my attention to what is done in the name of religion and was horrified.  At that time Russia was at war.  And Russians, in the name of Christian love, began to kill their fellow men.  It was impossible not to think about this, and not to see that killing is an evil, repugnant to the first principles of any faith.  Yet prayers were said in the churches for the success of our arms, and the teachers of the Faith acknowledged killing to be an act resulting from the Faith.  And besides the murders during the war, I saw, during the disturbances which followed the war, Church dignitaries and teachers and monks who approved the killing of helpless, erring youths.  And I took note of all that is done by men who profess Christianity, and I was horrified."

God is dead, said Nietzsche's madman, and we are the ones who killed him.

Part Two: Who was God, the one who died?  

God was the one who defended, consoled, and redeemed his people.  We yearn for the One who said:

"Do justice and righteousness, and deliver the one who has been robbed from the power of his oppressor. Also do not mistreat or do violence to the stranger, the orphan, or the widow; and do not shed innocent blood in this place."  (Jeremiah 22:3)

God was the one who insisted on justice.  We yearn for the voice that cries,

"Enough! Put away violence and destruction, and practice justice and righteousness." (Ezekiel 45:9)

God was the one who told his prophet to say:

"He has told you what is good; and what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?"  (Micah 6:8)

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This is the God we mourn.  We yearn for the one who urged us to "let justice roll down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream." (Amos 5:24)

The one who promised us that He would restore us to Himself, who said, with such tenderness,

"Comfort, comfort my people…
those who hope in the Lord
       will renew their strength.
       They will soar on wings like eagles;
       they will run and not grow weary,
       they will walk and not be faint." (Is. 40)

In the canopy of God, the suffering would be comforted, the oppressed would be freed.

The 20th century was the first century without this intervening God.  We struggled on without the voice defending the outcast and tormented, the liberator of the powerless and enslaved.  The God of the ancient Hebrews and of Roman-occupied Palestine, the God of the Bible who repeatedly punished worldly powers for exploiting the weak, was Himself weakened in the religious wars of the 15th and 16th centuries.  He received a mortal wound in the centuries of absolutist states, bourgeois clergy, and Inquisition.  His grave was dug in the European wars of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and His coffin was filled and covered by the 60 million dead of the Second World War.

Jacques Derrida was perhaps closer to Tolstoy than Nietzsche.  In 1991 he surprised his partisans and interpreters with a confession of his own, a reading of Saint Augustine's Confessions.  Derrida, a Jew, called his a Circumfession.  To the surprise of his interpreters Derrida confessed that he too sighed, and awaited the tout autre, the wholly other, the impossible yet necessary:

…you have spent your whole life (he said to himself)
inviting calling promising,
hoping sighing dreaming,
convoking invoking provoking,
naming assigning demanding,
prescribing commanding sacrificing…

This great 20th century atheist, critic of the grounds of philosophy, who famously proclaimed that there is nothing outside the text, whose deconstructionist project exposed the inherent injustices of metaphysical justice, and admitted only the impossibility of God, did not abandon his convictions in this Circumfession.  Derrida simply confessed:  to inviting calling promising, to hoping sighing dreaming.

In their different ways, Nietzsche, Tolstoy, and Derrida each lived life in the horizon of the infinite, as we all do.  For Tolstoy and Derrida, it was a struggle, while for Nietzsche it was nothing short of life in the wake of deicide, a monumental act that demanded an equally monumental response.   

For each of them, the solution was a practical one:  

Nietzsche advised us to create ourselves through the writing of new myths, myths so grand as to be worthy of our act of deicide.  He composed Zarathustra to show us how it could be done.

In the wake of a saving dream, Tolstoy put aside thoughts of suicide and took a leap of faith.  Life was not meaningful without God, and therefore there would be God.  Taking Jesus' Sermon on the Mount to heart, he sold all he had and gave it to the poor and worked for the liberation of Russian serfs.  After years of criticizing the State Church and government despotism, Tolstoy was excommunicated.  As all true Christians should be!

Derrida's critics argued that deconstruction was a paralyzing philosophical stance, as it disputed the claims of normative philosophy.  How can we fight for justice, if there are no grounds for justice?  

Far from reversing his position, instead Derrida surrendered to a passion for justice.  Among the many principled activities that drew his talents over his career, he worked to defend blacklisted and censored Czech intellectuals.  He fought for voting rights for French immigrants.  He joined the anti-apartheid movement, doing such lofty work as creating a project uniting writers against apartheid and such necessary work as stuffing envelopes for mass mailings.  

Not only hoping sighing dreaming, Derrida spent his whole life convoking invoking provoking.

Nietzsche set the table, but Tolstoy and Derrida worked to ensure that everyone would have a place to sit.  Despite the frightful conditions of life in the horizon of the infinite, these are philosophers who found solutions to a life that must be lived without God.

Part Three: Enter the Superheroes

The Superheroes do not stand in for God.  They stand in for us.

Once upon a time, the Christian tradition teemed with accounts of holy beings: Jesus, angels, apostles, and saints.  They offered a promise of perfect justice, even if we didn't understand it.  But the centuries of religious wars and persecutions destroyed our faith in the promise of perfect justice.  Now what?  If God could not withstand the onslaught, then how could mere humans have any chance in the struggle for justice and freedom?

Whether out of desperation or optimism, people began to entertain the possibility that they could themselves fashion some system of justice.  It might not be perfect, but it would replace the discredited system of divine justice.  In other words, the practical response of the philosophers was also our response.  Taking a leap of faith (Tolstoy), we crafted new myths (Nietzsche) that reflect our passion for justice (Derrida).

In the ancient stories, the God of the Hebrews established the principle that the weak and powerless among us need to be defended, and that worldly power needs to be checked, and humbled.  In the modern world, we remind ourselves over and over through our stories that these ancient principles still bind us.  Superhero stories spring from our optimistic ideals, from our belief that we have the goodness within us to do the job once left to God.  The superhero embodies our confidence that ordinary humans can prevail in the pursuit of justice, even if that justice is flawed.  

Nietzsche and Superman: creating new myths

I think of Siegel and Shuster, little boys, poor and 12 years old.  Learning about life in harsh conditions, they created a character and experimented with him until they had a hit.  Superman is one of the great cultural achievements of the 20th century, beloved the world over, and why?  

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Superman came from another planet and has powers beyond anything conceivably human.  He can fly!  He can outrun bullets and trains.  He can leap over tall buildings.  Heck, he can move the planet.  These attributes hook us, make his stories exciting.  But this isn't actually why he is beloved.  It is his sense of fairness and concern for the welfare of others that has endeared him to readers for decades.  Superman is synonymous with the good guy, the trustworthy guy, the guy who does the right thing.  On the same scale of cultural relevance, Zarathustra doesn't even appear.

I find Steven T. Seagal's 9-11 Superman story, Unreal, to be a particularly beautiful example of what Superman means to us. It is Superman's lamentation, in which he mourns his inability to reach out from the pages of a comic book to help a child in a time of crisis.  

In lamenting his unreality, and lauding the real world heroes, Superman does not turn the firefighters into symbols. He highlights their humanity.  We all felt a little unreal that day, caught up as we were in a nightmare.  In protesting his helplessness, Superman becomes just like us, wanting so much to do something, and feeling thwarted.  By identifying with us, Superman comforted us.  He reminded us that we have real, human protectors, made not of steel, but of flesh and bone, and a love for humanity more powerful than fear.

Far from being an Ubermensch, Superman is, well, a mensch.  Superman is Everyman, a model of who and what we can be.

Derrida and Batman: surrendering to a passion for justice

Like Derrida, Bruce Wayne has spent his life

hoping sighing dreaming

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Bruce hopes and sighs and dreams for a second chance at the day a criminal took his parents' life.  And since he can't ever return to save them, he will avenge every other cruelty, and save every other victim.  He has billions to spend on technology and training, and his is a darker story of street justice, driven by a passionate belief that the vulnerable and unsuspecting deserve a defender in a harsh world.  

Think of Batman Begins, a vivid portrayal of Gotham, effectively filmed in Chicago, where the system works really well if you are corrupt.  If you are on someone's payroll or in someone's pocket, whether you are a policeman, a judge, a lawyer, a city councilman, even a psychiatrist, if your job is public service, you're fine as long as you screw the public.  In fact, you profit.  The rich are fine, too, of course they are.  Who is not fine?  The poor, the working classes, the children, those who need help, and anyone who clings to a memory of what service for others could be.  

People seem to remember God, but no one takes him seriously.  Think of when Batman is tormenting Flass, a corrupt police detective.  Flass is wriggling at the end of Batman's line, and screeches, "I don't know where they're going, I swear to God!"  And Batman barks at him, "Swear to me!"  Batman is literally standing in for the divine defender of the weak and the powerless.  Batman is spending his life

convoking invoking provoking

and does not ever rest from his vigilance.  If every other vestige of justice is gone, Batman will remain, a sign in the sky that there are still those who will check worldly power, and humble those who abuse it.

Tolstoy and Spider-Man: taking the leap of faith

Peter Parker has the proportionate strength and agility of a spider, but we love him for his inability to turn his back on those in need.  And I think we love him for his self-doubt and his uncertainty.  I know I do.

Peter is the most ordinary of them all.  Superman might be the most unassuming of fellows, with broad shoulders ready to carry the world and no thanks needed.  Batman might be the most dedicated and vigilant of avenging angels, the force that sweeps the darkness to keep us safe.  

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But Spidey?  He's the boy next door, a regular working class kid from Queens who stumbles into his role as defender, and accepts this responsibility in spite of his uncertainty.  Peter is every single one of us who is willing to turn our lives over to the world in which we find ourselves, just as it is.  The greatest of existential heroes, he defies all existential stereotypes.  He's just a regular guy, with a New York sense of humor, who isn't the least bit afraid to enjoy a little web-slinging.

Since the bite by the radioactive spider, his life has been a leap of faith.  Think of his role in the recent civil war in the pages of Marvel comics.  In Amazing Spider-Man #537, he confronts Captain America, and receives some good old-fashioned advice about sticking to what's right.  And Spidey reflects,

"as I run toward the edge of the roof, off the edge of what I've known and into the darkness of whatever's coming, beside the one hero who will never betray his convictions, never betray those who followed him, I think,

It feels good to be on the right side again."

Summary

The superhuman attributes of the superheroes attract our imagination and curiosity.  

Their humanity holds us.  

They embody the best of what it means to be human: kindness, fairness, goodness, and willingness to care of the well-being of others.  Whether these stories are worthy of our deicide is perhaps for our descendants to decide.  

God's death is keenly felt, yet his promises to us are not dead.  Yearning for God is yearning for something more than the world has to offer.  It is the existential response to God's death.  If we can survive the darkness, we can achieve our highest calling, the one that makes all our heroes heroic: we can be-for-others.  And there we will find the meaning in the horizon of the infinite.


Last Updated: Jun 26, 2018 - 9:28

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