Theological Science Fiction

Why The Matrix matters


As The Matrix Reloaded sets new box office records, it gets few notices in the religious press. Yet it is a spiritual story of a quest for the true world hidden behind what we think of as the real one—and, of course, it's science fiction.

This collusion of theology and science fiction is not new. The Matrix movies (with Matrix Revolutions to conclude in November) are elaborated views of a world dominated by artificial intelligences, which keep most of us in pods, feeding us an illusory world—this one you're sitting in—through spinal taps. Our lives are piped into our brains, complete sensory experiential Muzak.

Rebels living underground in Zion (yes) are led by a mysterious guerrilla figure (Morpheus, given to stentorian pronouncements in a butterscotch voice). Their mission and message is to free your mind (remember the '60s!) and, by the way, achieve an apocalyptic end to the artificial intelligences' enslavement of humanity.

Morpheus plays John the Baptist to Neo's Jesus. This is no messiah who redeems by suffering. Rather, as ancient Jewish texts expected, Neo is a fighting liberator. Neo has a literal calling. "You may have spent the last few years looking for me," Morpheus tells him, "but I have spent my entire life looking for you. Early in the film, when Neo is still selling pirated software, one of his customers declares, "Hallelujah! You're my savior, man. My own personal Jesus Christ!"

To overcome the laminated malignancy of the Agents, Neo must learn to use his spiritual powers and focus his mind. His training is a cyber-techno take on meditation, the traditional path to enlightenment. Visiting the Oracle, he asks if he is the One, and she says coyly, "Your next life, maybe," setting the stage.

His learned skills let him deliver dazzling martial arts blows to the Agents, but he, well, lacks something: enlightenment. We get the drift when, in a bold sally, Neo swoops down to save a nearly comatose Morpheus, saying "Morpheus! Get up!" echoing Jesus' "Lazarus, come out!"

Neo then enters the center of Matrix power, like Jesus cleansing the Temple, fights and is shot dead. His girl friend Trinity (yes) holds the lifeless Neo, as Mary Magdalene did Jesus, and Neo comes back to life. He has saved himself, reaching deep inside—transcendent knowledge, self-enlightenment.

After this self-resurrection, Neo has an unmistakable radiance. His aura dominates the film's frames. He manifests what St. John termed the after-resurrection "spiritual body" of Jesus. Stopping bullets with a raised hand, entering an Agent's body and exploding it, flying into the sky like Superman—all simple, now that he has been enlightened to his true nature.

The Matrix itself is not some external evil, but rather an outcome of our own error, our karmic payoff of past actions. Not merely illusion, it is an allusion to a founding myth of our culture.

Both Matrix films carry forward this spiritual, eschatological story, of the Neo new One who will return and win the last grand battle, bringing peace. A rebel named Cypher plays Judas, they ride in a battleship called Nebuchadnezzar ("we're on a mission from God") in defense of the transcendent last stronghold of humanity, Zion.

This blend of high tech and time-defying science fictional special effects seems to be a good example of our culture calling forth what the postmodernists term "floating signifiers"—ideas like exile from reality, and restoration of a radical newness, adrift on the Zeitgeist and ready to be used. Science fiction grounds this in the future and thus in hope; teenagers (the Matrix core audience) will not sit still for a big-budget Biblical epic.

Virtual reality you can't tell from life, downloaded worlds, malign machines—these are customary landscapes of the young, who are probably destined to live among them. The Matrix is one way for this audience to think about a future they see more clearly than we elders do—an essential reason that science fiction has been a young, brassy culture since the 1930s.

Indeed, computers have shown us the 2D poverty of digital deserts, the postmodernist "desert of the real" (a term quoted in the films). A techno-take on radical philosophical doubt is very hip these days. It works especially if we can see the grunge look of Zion versus the all-black Matrix look of cool dusters and plenty of leather.

In science fiction, basic doubts featured prominently in the worlds of Philip K. Dick. I knew Phil for 25 years, and he was always getting on to me, a scientist. He was a great fan of quantum uncertainty, epistemology in science, the lot. Whether in science fiction or academic philosophy, we lately seem bemused by the notion that our reality may be a swindle. Computers in their flat-screen worlds help along a sensation of irreality, a liking not merely for the plausibly weird, but for the weirdly plausible. Already several Dick tales of fake realities have made it into major movies: Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report.

Which way would you vote, given a choice of a secure life in a pod illusion, or a tricky, dangerous reality? Plugged or unplugged? For worker-drones living in corporate lattices satirized in the hugely popular business comic strip Dilbert, the choice is obvious.

The persistent science fictional posture of confronting categories of Godhood, and of revelation, is typical of the culture that made modern science fiction. The genre is, more than anything else, about change. Religions change, too, the writers remind us. We incorporate into our mind's eye of God our current knowledge. This is inevitable, and fundamentally positive.

Today science fiction has many currents. Popular writers like Orson Scott Card depict future societies much like Mormon ones, but suffused in a utopian glow. Other writers excoriate fundamentalist faiths, and satirize Theocracy. The genre is a useful antidote to certainty. It promotes a more experimental, and historically sophisticated, view of the whole range of theological thought. It especially is unafraid of spiritual insights and methods like Zen Buddhism, and often contrasts nature-centered Asian faiths with the more axiomatic and rigid Western ones.

The point of speculative ideas and science fictional treatments is not to foster propaganda (though many do so, usually obviously and unsuccessfully), but to make us think. As a literature of change driven by technology, science fiction presents religion to a part of the reading public that probably seldom goes to church.

Movies are another matter; The Matrix Reloaded sometimes seems like the New Testament on steroids. It also suffers from the bind of superhero epics—if Neo is unstoppable, how can there be real constraint, and so suspense?

Beyond the cool violence, vinyl cat suits and dazzling bullet-time effects, the Matrix world points both toward our future and to basic theological mythologies, to spiritual meta-narratives that can appear backlit by modern science.

In this sense science fiction is an ambassador between the two most widely separated tribes of modern thought, the scientific and the religious. Negotiations should prove profitable, but only if they are imaginative.