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I saw the SF movie Prometheus last week. I won’t review it or summarize it here except to note that it featured a creature far rarer than aliens in Hollywood’s universe: a practicing Christian. She is even portrayed in a positive light, and is, in fact, something of the heroine of the story.
Not that this is in any sense a movie advocating Christianity or even religion. Indeed, we never see Elizabeth Shaw engaged in prayer, worship, seeking guidance from scripture or really anything that could be described as spiritual. How do we know she is a Christian at all? First, because of the cross she wears around her neck; It is so symbolic that at the end of the movie she even pointedly demands it back from the robot who took it from her (long story). Secondly because when challenged how she can still believe in spite of all the…mess…that has hit the fan, she says explicitly, “It’s what I choose to believe”.
There is a bit of backstory to that statement. Earlier we see a dream sequence flashing back to Shaw’s childhood, where she is sitting with her father (who appears to be a missionary, if I am not mistaken). Some of the local people are waking in a funeral procession, grieving their dead, and the girl asks her father, “Can’t you help them?”
“They wouldn’t want help from me”
“They believe different things.”
“Well, how do we know they are wrong and we are right?”
The father answers, “It’s what I choose to believe”.
The adult Shaw, then, has learned this lesson well, and repeats the type of faith she inherited from her father. This is the extent of her Christian belief portrayed in the film: wearing a cross, and clinging stubbornly to a faith that she simply chooses to believe.
What do we make of this? Are Christians (or religious adherents more broadly) simply those who “choose to believe?” Or, as I have seen in put in more insulting terms, do religious people simply believe without reason or evidence? An atheist columnist in my local paper put it this way: “Christians don’t need reason. They take everything by faith”. It seems the writers of Prometheus, in spite of their good intentions perhaps, have pretty much the same view. Are they right?
I think they are very much in the wrong. The error, however, is rather easily understandable. Did not Kierkegaard speak of a great leap of faith? And was it not the mighty Augustine who set the course for medieval thought with these words, “Understanding is the reward of faith. Therefore seek not to understand that thou may believe, but believe that thou may understand”? Yes and yes, but also no. Let me explain.
The view that we must simply choose what to believe, and that reason and evidence form no part of this choice, is called fideism (from the Latin word for faith, fides). Philosopher Alvin Plantiga defines it this way: “exclusive or basic reliance upon faith alone, accompanied by a consequent disparagement of reason and utilized especially in the pursuit of philosophical or religious truth”. I would only add to this definition that technically perhaps it is better to speak of a fideistic viewpoint as one that pits faith against evidence rather than reason (since reason is utilized even in choosing to go against reason).
Let us begin by noting that fideism has never been in the mainstream of Christian thought. Indeed, it is difficult to even find Christian thinkers of the past or present who would claim the label. At the same time, two related themes have indeed been present in Christian thought from Tertullian in the second century to thinkers like C. Stephen Evans in ours. The first theme is the idea that reason (or evidence) by itself cannot prove the claims of Christianity. The second theme is that certain Christian doctrines go beyond reason in some sense.
It is important to realize that affirming both these ideas (as I do) does not make one a fideist, nor does it make faith “something I simply choose to believe”. An analogy comes to mind.
A young woman falls in love and becomes engaged. She eagerly begins planning the wedding (the groom being “not into details”) and her subsequent life joined to the man of her dreams. All is well until a week before the wedding. She receives an anonymous note, claiming that her fiancé has been cheating on her this past year. No proof is given, but its tone seems convincing. She shows it to her fiancé, who denies the charge with indignation.
Question: does she call the wedding off?
Well, if she believes her fiancé really has been cheating on her this last year she certainly will. But does she now believe in her the man’s faithfulness? That is the question. One the one hand, she has evidence, in the form of the note, that would argue against his faithfulness. And she cannot prove his faithfulness (for that would have required 24 hour video surveillance). It is certainly rationally possible that he is a cheater and deceiver. But on the other hand, she knows the man. She has been close to him and observed him in a number of situations over the course of several years. She has found him honest in other areas without fail. And his response to the charge was not the sheepish look of a boy caught with his hand in the cookie jar, but something like the anger and indignation she herself would feel if she were the subject of the accusation.
Again, the wedding is a week away. The invitations mailed; all the preparations made. Does she call it off?
What would you do? If you, in her situation, went ahead with the wedding, then in some sense you have made a decision that goes beyond evidence. You are making the decision to believe in something that goes beyond what you can know.
I have a friend who is getting her Ph.D. in epidemiology. She also has a two-year old son. What happens when she takes him to get vaccinated, and he sees the fearsome needle approach? Does she explain all the facts of the immune system to the child, hoping he will make a rational decision based on those facts? A child that age would not understand. It is not that he has no reason, but his reason has limits. The reason he does have, however, has shown him that his mother loves him and can be trusted.
This, I believe, is the essence of Augustine’s famous quote cited above. As he says elsewhere, “God does not expect us to submit our faith to him without reason, but the very limits of our reason make faith a necessity”. Even Kierkegaard, I believe, should be understood this way: the step of faith is not a call for rejecting reason in favor of faith, but rather a call to radically live out the implications of our faith, even when the choices go beyond our ability to see outcomes.
This type of faith, I believe, is what the best Christian thinkers have always tried to model, and that most believers I know seem to have (though most could not articulate it as well as Augustine). They have many questions. Some things may not make sense. But they have also experienced the goodness of God, and learned to trust his words. Their faith is without reason, but it may believe things reason cannot prove, just as the non-religious person believes many things he cannot prove either.
So I was happy to Elizabeth Shaw, a Christian alien in the universe Hollywood has constructed. May her tribe increase. At the same time, the type of faith portrayed is the shallow, easy to dismiss kind that ultimately is not reflected in Christian teaching or practice.
But then again, perhaps that is not the final word.
The name Prometheus became associated with human striving. This could be striving against ignorance, tradition, or (originally) the gods of the Greek world. The movie’s title, then, reflects not just the name of the space ship, but the attitude of the lone human who survives, and who, as the movie ends, plans to seek out and question those “gods” responsible for her life and her great pain. When David, the robot, asks her why, she seems confused by the question. To be human is to seek understanding, whatever the cost. Her stubborn faith that there is an answer to why, and that the answer matters, is contrasted with David’s cold and limited rationality; and it is this that makes her human.
Here we come, it seems to me, to the heart of true religion: To not be content with the facts, but to use the facts to ask the one question whose answer we can never prove, but can perhaps know: why?
Ultimately, the universe (including human life) either exists as a bare fact, requiring no explanation, or it exists as a thing with meaning. It is the stubborn, promethean faith of Elizabeth Shaw, clinging to her cross as she boards a new ship to search for the gods, to search for meaning, that we can both celebrate and emulate.