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Scanning the X-files for God.

Claudia Sommers, a Catholic Insight board member and frequent contributor, here asks whether the "religion" underlying popular television series like The X-Files is based on the concept of a God-created universe or not. What does the creator of this series, Chris Carter, mean by "religion with a lower case `r' . . ."?

"The development of our cerebral cortex has been the greatest achievement of the evolutionary processes. Big deal... Maybe we have gone as far as we can go, and the next advance...will be made by beings we create ourselves...Or perhaps that step forward has already been achieved on another planet by organisms that have a billion years head start on us. If these beings ever visited us...would they react in anything but horror at seeing such mindless, primitive, hideous creatures?"

This piece of pseudo-scientific puffery served as the anti-climactic epilogue to an otherwise clever episode of the Fox television network's hit series, The X-Files. Focusing on a pair of dissimilar FBI agents who specialize in "unexplained phenomena", the show has its inane and grisly moments, but at its best it is home to original writing and under-rated acting that far outshine a lot of other prime-time fare. X-Files is most easily categorized as science fiction, though the mantle is not a perfect fit. What it does share with more typical examples of the sci-fi genre, however, is a cosmogony which rejects the Judeo-Christian understanding of the universe, if not the very existence of God.

Religon with a lower "r"

X-Files creator Chris Carter might argue with this, convinced as he is that ". . . it's all about religion, really, . . . about beliefs, and meaning and truth...It's religion with a lower case `r'." Of course, Carter does not actually mean "religion", by any coherent definition of it. The distinction between a system of doctrine and worship binding a community of believers, and some vague sense of the supernatural which might be called faith or spirituality, is a distinction much larger than the size of an initial letter. The difference between religion and faith can be the difference between a joyful sense of belonging and participating in the design of the universe, and an uneasy sense of being inquisitive and reflective, but alone.

"Religion with a lower case `r"' is a foggy expression for the more epidemic "truth with a small `t"': the notion that Truth is relative and personal rather than absolute. This kind of thinking is integral to the atheistic underpinnings of science fiction. These reveal themselves primarily in a confused understanding of the nature of man and the universe, the peculiar effect of which is to create illogical differences between man and "extra-terrestrial", while blurring the genuine distinctions between man and the lower animals, or even man and machine. This fundamental confusion, in turn, generates an overpowering sense of fear and impotence.

Chris Carter is the first to identify his own motive in producing his television program as nothing more than the desire to "scare the pants off" his audience-- a desire that has a long tradition in all sorts of entertainment, from schlock comics to sacred drama. Most of us enjoy a good scare now and then, and it would be a mistake to overplay the sinister intent of frightening fantasies. But it is worth examining the larger messages of the entertainment through which we seek to give ourselves a scare. Just because we call a genre "fiction" doesn't mean that it stints at presenting certain distortions as fact.

Prime Directive

The core material of The X-Files, like much of science fiction, is a belief in the existence of sentient beings from other worlds. To those of us who believe that with God all things are possible, this idea is not disturbing. But to most of the inhabitants of "planet Sci-Fi" it seems terrifying.

The panic reflex derives from the automatic assumption that alien beings are interested only in conquest at any cost, based on the related assumption that whatever universe these extra-terrestrials may hail from, it is somehow morally separate from our own; that "natural law" has no meaning for beings from other worlds whose cosmos is, by nature, different from ours.

In other words, the wrinkly, gray, big-eyed figure seeking to colonize our home and enslave our human race (one Arizona desert-dweller at a time!) is almost certain to prevail because he does not answer to our God, and we can never appeal to his conscience on the basis of the Ten Commandments.

This is at the root of the famous "Prime Directive", the professional ethic governing the voyages of Star Trek. It dictates that the crew must not interfere with the natural unfolding of events within any newly encountered race or civilization, even if that interference might appear (by their "Federation" standards) to be for the greater good of the alien community.

The meaning of the Prime Directive is all too clear: no species or civilization has a right to impose its notion of a "greater good" on another, because, at bottom, there is no such thing as "the Good"-- no universal standard of absolute right. Under these circumstances the only true natural law becomes the conviction that it is morally wrong to believe in natural law. No wonder people are afraid.

To hold to a vision of the universe in which this Prime Directive is logical and moral, and fear of the alien is automatic, one cannot possibly believe in God-- not in the God of Abraham and Moses, incarnate in Jesus Christ, and eternally present to us through the Holy Spirit. To believe in God, and in the "Godness" of God who created the universe out of nothing, is to believe that all creation, in every place and in all conceivable forms, must be governed by the inviolable consistency of Divine Nature which is Truth. If God is God then there is no momentary creative lapse where God is less than God; He is not capable of dabbling on the side in creatures who are not bound by the Truth.

Free will

The internal logic of a God-created universe precludes the existence of degrees of free will and of its incumbent responsibility. Any sentient being which has made the decision to explore the universe has thereby demonstrated its possession of free will, a gift having no other source but God. And it would be self-contradictory for God to create a being with the will to explore, or conquer, and then exempt that being from answering to the Decalogue.

Can we then accuse Gene Roddenberry (the man behind Star Trek), or Chris Carter, or any of their peers, of sitting at their desks cooking up ways to proclaim the non-existence of God through a television show? Possible, but not likely. However, they may still be disseminating points of view which require Judeo-Christian counter-witness.

While philosophical questions of free will and natural law may not have consciously inspired the "Prime Directive", this particular plot device certainly derives from the kind of New Age historical revisionism which has popularized the repudiation of "Euro-centrism" and the European colonization of the Americas. This is part of a larger trend widespread in our culture, and especially pervasive in science fiction, whether futuristic or, like The X-Files, rooted in the present. It is the repudiation of the unique worth and dignity of the human being.

Man seen as harmful

Working from the same confused vision of the universe which encourages a fear of extra-terrestrial life, it is easy to dismiss the Judeo-Christian belief in the exalted nature of man. Not only is the human being no longer the "crown of creation" in this context, but he is increasingly portrayed as a poisonous presence on the earth, actively harmful and inherently less noble than almost any other creature. Particularly where science fiction deals with futuristic visions of environmental disaster, the exaggerated deference toward animals, and toward animistic spiritualism, can get almost comic.

The physical landscape of the future is often a bleak and barren post-nuclear wasteland. Pop-scientific prognosticators like Paul Ehrlich have already embarrassed themselves by predicting that this doomed landscape would be our reality by the end of the 1980's, the inevitable result of an "epidemic" of toxic human life.

Of course, to deny the unique status of human nature is to deny the evidence before one's own eyes. Darwinians are quick to point to the persistent survival of some species (like cockroaches), which predate homo sapiens by eons. Would it not then seem all the more obvious that a Johnny-come-lately like man must be the most profoundly gifted creature that ever lived?

If not, where may we find the palaces, bridges, and cathedrals; the murals, sculptures, and metalwork; the poems, plays, and philosophy; the songs, symphonies, and joyful noise unto the Lord created by countless generations of gazelles, bears, tigers, horses, geese, spiders, and gila monsters which supposedly rule and glorify this planet? Which furry quadruped left behind its equivalent of Machu Picchu or Beijing's Forbidden City? Where are the Pieta and the Sistine ceiling of the flamingo kingdom? How did we manage to miss the chimpanzee version of Chartres? What water buffalo produced a King Lear, and which muskrat wrote a Magic Flute?

Human machines

At least one science fiction program flirted with a sensible definition of what it means to be a higher order being. On an episode of The Outer Limits a scientist cultivated a tank full of scorpion-like critters (called "sandkings"), brought from the surface of Mars. He was convinced that they were creatures of high intelligence.

As it happened, he was right. While they did exhibit primal self-defense instincts (by consuming a few people and a dog), they at least gave plausible evidence of intelligent life: they began to construct elaborate castle-like structures (ones they did not require to sustain life); most tellingly, they sculpted the face of their keeper in the castle walls. If he knocked one down, they built it again from memory, with increasing skill and complexity. Imagination, memory, abstract thought, creativity, a sense of purpose not related to utility: signs that the writer of this story had some sense of what so obviously separates us from the animals.

Perhaps more common than the lowering of human status to that of animals is science fiction's elevation of the machine to the status of human. The more sophisticated actual computer technology becomes, the more the atheist feels the hot breath of the android on his neck.

From its earliest examples, the universe of science fiction has always been inhabited by threatening creatures who are in some way wedded to the machine. It is the ultimate monster: the essence of soullessness, of unresponsiveness, of incapacity to adjust. Where recent science fiction has crossed a dangerous line is in the portrayal of androids, which are used to convince us that human nature can be reproduced by programming carefully analyzed psychology into a facsimile of organic material.

The popular, and admittedly charming, Mr. Data on Star Trek is a prime example. A mass of electronic circuitry, he has nevertheless "evolved" rudimentary emotions, as if human nature can be gradually acquired through accumulated information.

This is a flat denial that man was deliberately created in God's image, the sole recipient of the immortal soul. But it fits very neatly into the Darwinist creed, which would have us believe that human nature is defined by the physical mass of the brain and the complexity of its nerve synapses and electrical impulses. The transformation from ape to human, therefore, occurred at a random moment in evolutionary time, not through the direct intervention of a creative God. It is thus an easy step to the belief that a transformation from machine to human could proceed along similar lines.

Deus ex machina ("a god from a machine") is a term from ancient Greek tragedy referring to the sudden descent of a god (literally, by means of a crane) into the midst of the action in order to unravel a knot of plot complications too numerous to be resolved by anything short of divine intervention. The term is now used to describe a literary device employed when an author has written himself into a corner.

The day may come, however (whether the dictionaries acknowledge it or not), when Deus ex machina becomes a loaded phrase reflecting the way in which society's fascination with technology, combined with its increasingly damning opinion of itself, has obscured the Divine source of human genius--when the mind, functioning at peak performance, is regarded as nothing more than a self-generating well-oiled machine, not qualitatively different from a network of silicon circuits.

Part II: next issue

Claudia Sommers, a contributing editor, lives in Toronto with her husband and three children. A freelance writer, her interests are in art history, entertainment and education.
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Copyright 1997, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Sommers, Claudia
Publication:Catholic Insight
Date:Mar 1, 1997
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