Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Faith in Space

Article first published as Faith in Space on Blogcritics.

When it comes to believing that Ridley Scott's 1979 sci-fi-horror classic Alien is one of the best movies of its kind ever, I have discovered that I am not alone in the universe. I have also discovered that finding his new, not-quite-a-prequel Prometheus really annoying is also a shared experience. Among its most annoying attributes is the way it deals with issues of faith.

Here's a quick synopsis. Archeologists find cave paintings in Scotland that are similar to others they've found around the world. These images lead them to conclude that human beings were created by an alien race a zillion years ago, and now they want to go and find the aliens. They assemble a rag-tag team of corporate suits, scientists, and working-class types, go to a mysterious moon to make contact with these aliens, and learn that in space, someone can in fact hear you scream.

The film's first faith-based offense is in the Christian imagery used to represent religion. One of the archeologists walks around with a crucifix on. Look, I'm totally down with Christians and crucifixes, but are we really still at a stage where Christianity is used in films as a proxy for all human religiousness? You'd think that in an increasingly pluralistic world we would mix things up a bit. How about sending a Rastafarian into space for a change? It could be a Bob Marley meets E.T. kind of thing. Or even better, how about an interfaith space odyssey? Imagine a Muslim, Christian, Jew, and Baha'i for instance engaged in inter-religious dialogue as they try to evade being impregnated by aliens with anger issues. There is definitely a movie in there and a few dissertations too, I'd imagine.

The second thing that made me want to pull my hair out (difficult with a crewcut I must say) was the old faith-vs.-reason/science debate. I understand that this remains a culture war issue for some folks, but quite a few of us have gotten over this. It is in fact possible to adhere to the rigors of reason and science and also believe in God. This is certainly how Baha'is approach the issue. 'Abdu'l-Baha (1844-1921), Head of the Baha'i Faith from 1892 to 1921, explained it this way:

Bahá'u'lláh declared that religion is in complete harmony with science and reason. If religious belief and doctrine is at variance with reason, it proceeds from the limited mind of man and not from God; therefore, it is unworthy of belief and not deserving of attention; the heart finds no rest in it, and real faith is impossible. How can man believe that which he knows to be opposed to reason? Is this possible? Can the heart accept that which reason denies? Reason is the first faculty of man, and the religion of God is in harmony with it.

I would hope that in the late 21st century when Prometheus takes place, humanity would be having a more sophisticated conversation about faith and science. Time will tell, I suppose.
Speaking of faith, this phenomenon is encapsulated in the oft repeated expression "I choose to believe it" whenever an assertion is challenged or questioned in the film. In this version, the touchstone of faith is adhering to belief in spite of the empirical evidence available. In its more extreme forms the strength of faith is measured by the distance between belief and reason. This understanding of faith is the seed of much faith-vs.-reason/science conflict. The Baha'i Faith offers an alternative understanding of faith. 'Abdu'l-Baha comments:

In divine questions we must not depend entirely upon the heritage of tradition and former human experience; nay, rather, we must exercise reason, analyze and logically examine the facts presented so that confidence will be inspired and faith attained. Then and then only the reality of things will be revealed to us...By faith is meant, first, conscious knowledge, and second, the practice of good deeds.

This conceptualization of faith is less about what we believe to be true, and more about we come to know to be true through reasoning and scientific investigation. The strength of this kind of faith is measured not by increasing the distance between belief and reason, but closing the distance between knowledge and action. If this way of understanding faith had been represented in the film, the dialogue would have sounded more like "I choose to act in accordance with what I have come to know to be true through reason and investigation." That's a movie moment that would make me stand up and cheer. Anybody out there want to make a new kind of faith-in-space movie?

Image courtesy of This file is in the public domain because it was created by NASA.