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 Wikimedia.com This file is in the public domain because it was created by NASA.