An early week in June I spent reading, thinking, and discussing. Education at its finest. I spent the week with the Year 2s in their discussions along the theme “Power and People.”
Normally seminal readings involve 5 days of intense events of erudition. Mornings contain a mandatory two-hour reading period, then a two-hour discussion period. Break for lunch. Afternoon involves the same thing, on a new piece within the same theme. This go-round, we only had four days, and each was only half as intense – morning only. The afternoons instead were spent work-shopping and critiquing college essays with Year 1s – a task which I would not have considered myself truly qualified to do, but as the week wore on I kinda hit my stride. Nonetheless, the whole week was exciting and interesting. Particularly through the essay reading – from reading Yassine’s piece about watching the city around him burn in the Tunisian revolution, as he stood guard over his home, ready to protect his bureaucrat aunt who had sought (unwelcome) refuge in his home (trust me – it was an awesome essay!), to learning that the “I learned maturity and gained perseverance through my failure in (insert sport here)” essay is just as pervasive in Ghana as it is in Nashville, TN – I saw this community and continent again from a fresh, new angle.
But yeah, seminal readings was really cool. The Prince and Rules for Radicals started off the week, followed by a collection of short essays, and then we wrapped up with an ALA first, a Seminal Viewing – The Matrix. I had never before seen so much humor in that movie as I did while watching it with a room full of 100 Africans, many of whom had never seen it before. The super awesome graphics of the late 90s have not exactly stood the test of a decade’s time, which added to the slight humor of the sometimes-overly-dramatic, but always interesting, dialogue. The discussion raised questions on reality, desires, reason, and happiness, which I’d like to expound upon. By the way, discussions of happiness are much richer and interesting when you have people like these ALA students involved. Not only for their intellect and fresh perspective, but for the backstories to their opinions, some of which I have been fortunate enough to learn, while many remain unsaid or undiscovered. Take Emmanuel for example. While it may sound melodramatic or cliché coming from a middle-class, white American to say, “Happiness is a state – in my experience, it is one that we can choose to be in.” I was captivated when Emmanuel said just that. Because I know that mere comment is indicative of a greater perseverance, evenhandedness, and power of will than I will ever understand.
As I said, the week’s discussions raised some cool questions about happiness and significance. If you have not seen the Matrix, you may want to read a thorough plot summary before venturing further, because things may get confusing quickly.
In the following continuation of my thoughts from the week, I’ll mainly point out parallels that I find interesting and offer what I hope are slightly thought provoking observations. What I won’t do is venture to provide any real answers – I’ll leave that to the people who have answers, like my much wiser older brother! You can find some excellent thought provoking articles that actually answer some questions too here at my favorite blog, http://ponderanew.tumblr.com/.
CS Lewis and The Matrix
The Matrix, at its core, is a thought experiment displaying the troubling possibility that everything we perceive may be an illusion. In the movie, the world that people ‘live’ in – called the Matrix – is a computer program that provides streaming electrical signals to each person’s brain. In ‘reality,’ the humans are confined in prison cells through which the ruling force of machines extracts energy from the biological battery of each human body – a system of control devised by the artificially intelligent machines as a way to keep the humans at bay. Some humans were never captured and are still free from the matrix, and they are working to free other humans from the matrix as well.
When Morpheus is preparing to free Neo from the Matrix, he offers him a choice: to take the red pill or the blue pill, to “continue down the Rabbit Hole” or merely to wake up back in his bed. The blue pill represents a mechanism by which Neo will remain in the illusory world, while the red pill serves to enable an exit to the real world.
The intriguing aspect of the Red Pill vs. Blue Pill scene, to me, goes beyond the ever-popular Alice in Wonderland allusion. This scene occurs while they are in the Matrix – therefore, the pills themselves are illusions. Has anyone else found this troubling? How can a mere illusion, as part of an entirely illusory world, enable a trapped being to escape from the confinement of the illusions themselves?
The plight of the Christian is similar (not in the sense that our faith is a bunch of illusions, definitely do not hear that I am saying that!) – in some senses, we are in a world full of lies and deceit, which could be called illusions, pulling our eyes away from the eternal truth. And while mired in that world, “fooling about with drink and sex and ambition” to use Lewis’ words, we attempt to walk towards that truth, relying largely on our own flawed perceptions, inconsistent rationality, and ever-wavering devotion.
But how can anything of this world help free us from its illusions? In the Matrix, Morpheus mentions some mumbo-jumbo about a trace program that is “designed to disrupt your input/output carrier signal so we can pinpoint your location.” The pill disrupts Neo’s perceptions and causes him to see things that lead him to question the reality of the illusions around him, and simultaneously enables Morpheus to locate him among the masses of plugged in individuals. The Gospel ought to have a similarly disruptive effect on our lives; it’s essential, not for God to find us, but for us to realize our own true state. Just as Neo began to doubt the absolute reality of the world around him, Christ’s victorious resurrection turns a secular, humanistic worldview on its head. A believer, through the means of grace, begins to question the finality of the material world, challenge the power of sin over us, and let the inexplicable, unfathomable joy of the Lord be our strength (Ne 8:10). Furthermore, I see a parallel to prayer here: “I pray because I can’t help myself. I pray because I’m helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time- waking and sleeping. It doesn’t change God- it changes me” – CS Lewis (FYI it’s safe to assume anything in here is either a Matrix quotation or CS Lewis. If you are ever unable to tell which.. then I proved my point that there are parallels 😉 ).
Once Neo is out in the real world (interestingly looking exactly like he looked in the Matrix – did he necessarily have to look in real life like he did in the program? Hmm…) Morpheus gives him a tidy lecture on reality and the origin of the Matrix: “What is real. How do you define real? If you’re talking about what you can feel, what you can smell, what you can taste and see, then real is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain. This is the world that you know. The world as it was at the end of the twentieth century. It exists now only as part of a neural-interactive simulation that we call the Matrix. You’ve been living in a dream world, Neo. This is the world as it exists today…. Welcome to the Desert of the Real. We have only bits and pieces of information but what we know for certain is that at some point in the early twenty-first century all of mankind was united in celebration. We marveled at our own magnificence as we gave birth to AI.”
I’ve sometimes tussled with the issue of certain things ‘feeling’ more real – or true – to me than what I believe to be the ultimate truths of the Bible. For example, Plato’s Republic resonated with me as a work that is credibly reflective of reality more so than any book of the Bible, perhaps with part of Romans giving it a run for it’s money. Or I wonder why Jesus would say to give money to the poor if economics leads me to believe that handouts are counter-productive to the mission of actually helping those in need. Perhaps neither example is particularly troubling or salient, but I imagine anyone can see places where reason – what we usually rely on to define, quantify, and qualify ‘reality’ – seems to contradict his or her beliefs. However, we can all acknowledge the limitations of our feeble, mortal capacity to reason, such that we are wary to trust it entirely. What’s true, then? Particularly in regards to how we should conduct ourselves in this life. And how ought we decide? CS Lewis offers a thought I find pleasing, along the lines of using faith to justify reason rather than vice versa: “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”
The more I have gotten to know David Scudder over the past two months, the more I believe he understands and applies what Lewis is getting at here. David spent a year at the Trinity Forum Academy doing research under the direction of Francis Collins on the integration of faith and science. Some of the products of his work can be found here and here. I strive to find the areas and to arrive at the time in my own studies where the complexities and contradictions that my feeble mind attempts to untangle begin to reveal, not contradictions, but glorious demonstrations of divine genius.
Continuing on the theme of reality and how we may or may not derive happiness, the sinister character of Cypher has a few words on the legitimacy (or at least, legitimate appeal) of ultimately fictitious but oh-so-tantalizing sources of joy. In a dinner date in the Matrix with archetypal bad guy Agent Smith, Cypher remarks about his entrée: “You know, I know this steak doesn’t exist. I know that when I put it in my mouth, the Matrix is telling my brain that it is juicy and delicious. After nine years, you know what I realize? Ignorance is bliss.” Cypher voices an opinion that I believe instills fear in modern people. If the truth is painful, do we want it? Could living a lie be better if we are happier, or is that somehow categorically worse than the alternative?
In the seminal reading discussion, a Nigerian student named Dimeji said that he would do anything (see “Rules for Radicals” for more context on the underlying discussion of ends justifying means) to create a happy virus of sorts – that would provide everyone with a sense of self-actualization, such that they no longer felt a need for greater happiness, as it had already been satisfied. Many students objected to his idea. They said it would either not work, or create a worthless world, devoid of advancement and accomplishment and therefore, meaning. Perhaps an inherent contradiction would arise, but I couldn’t decide whose side I was on. Dimeji argued that the happy virus would rid humans of our insatiable desire for gain that has caused so much harm in the name of pursuing power, money, and sex, all in the name of finding greater happiness. If that were covered, Dimeji said, then humans could make real progress, unsullied by our insatiable and selfish pursuit of self-actualization. CS Lewis seems to support a modified Christian version of this theory, albeit with an omnipotent creator replacing a miracle of science as the source of this happiness: “If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were precisely those who thought most of the next. It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this.”
The other students seemed to picture a “happy virus” world of druggies, high on happiness, who never got anything done. They believed there was intrinsically less value in that world than our world in its current state – with ambition, competition, and disappointment. Much of the discussion boiled down to semantics, but there were some interesting nuggets in there, as you may imagine.
Another issue Cypher’s comments raise is the question of our faith perhaps being a lie. If it were, would you want to know? 1 Cor 15:19 says, “If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men” but the common American Christian perspective seems to be that a “Christian” life on this earth is definitively better and more fulfilling than a non-Christian life (although it’s not to be mistaken for being easy). Even if God were dead, I bet many Christians would still want to live the way they have, believing the things they have. Ought this be troubling for us? Maybe. Maybe not. CS seems to say that he would hypothetically prefer to “live the lie” so to speak in The Silver Chair, through the words of Puddleglum: “I’m going to stand by the play-world. I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can, even if there isn’t any Narnia.”
I remember mentioning to my friend David last year that I think I would make many of the same life choices even if I were not a Christian, simply because I believed they created a favorable life to live (although, I concede, I doubt I would have the inner strength or devotion to follow-through, which I credit to the work of the Spirit in me… all the while recognizing the presence of sin and my own frailty, yet realizing through his grace that, “God knows our situation; He will not judge us as if we had no difficulties to overcome. What matters is the sincerity and perseverance of our will to overcome them.”) The motivation might still be present in the non-Christian version of myself, but I doubt the resilience would. David liked that I felt this way; I think he viewed it as a reverse Pascal’s wager of sorts.
This sort of tension – over the applicability of Christian principles if it turns out Christ were a fraud – lends itself to the common luke-warm critique of Christianity – asserting the ‘goodness’ but not divinity of Christ. This argument has always irked me as an unreasonable assertion. CS comes through with a great response to this view: “I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: ‘I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.’ That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic-on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg-or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”
The Matrix offers its own form of answer to these questions regarding happiness and reality. When Morpheus is trapped in the Matrix, being held hostage and tortured as the Agents attempt to get him to betray his fellow rebels, Smith serves up perhaps the most interesting tidbit on human nature in the movie. As Smith and Morpheus look over the city, Smith presents the following harrowing account of human happiness: “Have you ever stood and stared at it, marveled at its beauty, its genius? Billions of people just living out their lives, oblivious. Did you know that the first Matrix was designed to be a perfect human world. Where none suffered. Where everyone would be happy. It was a disaster. No one would accept the program. Entire crops were lost. Some believed that we lacked the programming language to describe your perfect world. But I believe that as a species, human beings define their reality through misery and suffering. The perfect world would dream that your primitive cerebrum kept trying to wake up from. Which is why the Matrix was redesigned to this, the peak of your civilization. I say your civilization because as soon as we started thinking for you it really became our civilization which is of course what this is all about. Evolution, Morpheus, evolution, like the dinosaur. Look out that window. You had your time. The future is our world, Morpheus. The future is our time.”
Are we to accept that this is the peak of our civilization? Are we to set our sights that low? The original matrix was a disaster because, according to the Wachowskis, humans were born into a real world full of suffering, and then transplanted into a perfect dream world. The redesigned matrix, the edition Neo always lived in, sought to mimic ‘reality’ closely enough that only a select few would be able to escape the illusion by perceiving its falsehood. Here I draw the line, ending the parallels and creating the pivotal contrast.
Where the original matrix was too good to be true, I think this world we live in is too bad to be true. The potential and appetite we have for greatness, even perfection, is far too palpable and enduring for it to be entirely a figment of our flawed perceptions – I believe we, reflecting our divine model, have residual desires from our un-fallen selves (as a species that is, not individuals) that, inasmuch as they are ultimately unsatisfied on this Earth, reflect the reality of a realm where they may and will be satisfied. While the Wachowski brothers assert that “as a species, human beings define their reality through misery and suffering,” CS Lewis serves up a humbling analysis of our desires: “It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered to us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”
I’ve come to believe in the past year or so that the modern church, particularly in America but I’ve found the same in Africa, too, is fundamentally focused on pursuing pleasure. We may deny it, but our narcissistic, therapeutic, deist modus operandi belies our true desires. Hear me, though, because they may actually be onto something, even if unintentionally (and improperly). In fact, part of me thinks this is exactly how it should be – Christianity is about pursuing pleasure. I am not speaking of Epicureanism, nor stoicism. I believe that a state of perfect union with Christ – flawless alignment of virtues, goals, and desires, and eternal rightness of thoughts, actions, and even capacities, is the greatest of pleasures – furthermore, the only true pleasure, being perfect and unchanging and un-afflicted by reciprocal pains. I believe that we can have small tastes of this pleasure on this Earth, but the ultimate realization of its perfection is only to be grasped in Heaven. I am inclined to agree with the genius of CS in that, “If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.”
I said I was not going to give any answers, and I am still not going to. But, I can pass along a couple things that have given me answers of sorts … or, more accurately, contented reprieve from nagging questions, and occasional waves of inexplicable peace. Also, as great as CS Lewis is, I must let the Word of God have the final say in this piece. So as we ponder these questions of happiness, reality, and significance (and gravity defying kung-fu) let us consider also Psalm 16:11: “You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.” And, Joshua 1: 8-9, “This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success. Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.”
Soli Deo Gloria.