Battlestar Galactica and the Quest for Authentic Spirituality

As regular readers know, I’m a huge fan of the re-vamped Battlestar Galactica, which is currently airing on Sci-Fi.

At its heart, the new BSG is about faith and politics and – to some extent – the relationship between the two. Since the show is about a small remnant of humans on the run from an enemy that seeks to annihilate them, it provides the perfect backdrop for questions about what it means to be human, and how civilization and government serve (or even interfere with) our ability to function and survive. The stark survival scenario also forces the characters to confront their beliefs about spirituality and the nature of the universe.

Fans of the series know that it is in its last season, and we are now presumably less than 17 episodes away from the end, when the Galactica will inevitably find the reported home of its long lost brothers and sisters on Earth.

In episodes that are currently airing, the writers and producers are exploring a plotline relating to spirituality that I find incredibly fascinating, not only because it is intriguing in and of itself, but because of how accurately it reflects the tensions and struggles that are present in our own world.

At this point, there are three theologies at play in the story. To make this post readable for those who aren’t familiar with the minutiae of the BSG universe, I’ll keep things general.

The first theology is a classic polytheism. The followers of this religion believe that there are gods that are supposed to protect them. However, this religion seems very hollow, since the gods have (obviously) failed to provide much help at all in the face of annihilation. They seem empty and distant, and they are silent and powerless, if not non-existent.

The second theology is a form of monotheism that in some ways is similar to early Christian Gnosticism. It is a theology which says that God is love, and that a spark of the divine love is in all of us (Gnostics would probably say it only exists in a select few). We need only to accept ourselves as we really are (rather than live in guilt for what we are or what we’ve done) to embrace that love. This belief seems dangerous, because it is a denial of the dangers of human lust, violence, greed, etc.

The third theology really isn’t a theology at all. It is atheism. Those who embrace atheism either never believed in the gods or God, or they have come to a point of skepticism because of their experiences during the purging of humanity.

What is interesting to me is the way that the writers have carefully presented these options so that none of them are satisfying. They are all, so to speak “pseudo-spiritualities.” To the viewer, they feel inauthentic. Even atheism fails, because there is just enough of a “hint” of a transcendent spiritual force at work in the plot that it just doesn’t seem plausible.

Now, here is what fascinates me about the currently developing plot lines. I’m convinced that, at their heart, none of these theologies “work” because they aren’t ultimately redemptive in nature.

Polytheism relies on the gods for protection, but the gods are powerless to provide protection, particularly from things that humanity has brought on itself.

A monotheism that merely urges us to accept our flaws is dangerous because it leads to arrogance. We think we are perfect, but we are not. The results in the past have been just that ugly – humanity itself has nearly been destroyed because of an enemy that was convinced of their superiority.

Atheism, likewise, ultimately leads one to a point of despair. Can we hope in our own power to make things better? Retaliation and violence only result in more death and pain. Governments and judicial systems are weak and corrupt. Revolutionary subversion of the current order only leads to chaos, followed by a new “order” that is also weak and corrupt. Humanity, left to its own devices, seems powerless to avoid annihilation.

Whether the story will go this route or not, I don’t know, but what this story is begging for is the emergence of an authentic spirituality – one which, when embraced begins to move things along a redemptive path.

As is the case with most good writing (even on TV), I think the tension between the three theologies of BSG, and the portrayal of a need for a new, more authentic spirituality – mirrors our own world. People are disturbed, frightened even, by the seemingly certain and arrogant attitudes of fundamentalists (Christian, Islamic, or otherwise), yet they also find the more liberalized versions of the various faith to be hollow and irrelevant. Atheism, on the other hand, with its nihilistic view of the universe is equally uninviting. Like the characters in the universe of BSG, we long for the emergence of a spirituality that feels authentic within the context the universe that we inhabit; one which gives us hope that there is a redemptive path out of the mess that we’ve created for ourselves. Yet a spirituality of that nature seems elusive.

In the end, I am certain that one of two things will happen in BSG: either the characters will discover that there is no hope for humanity, or they will discover hope that things can be different – that we can be different. I’m waiting on the edge of my seat, because I want to to see whether a redemptive element, possibly even a redemptive spirituality, will find its way into the plot. And…most interestingly, if that discovery comes – we can expect it to happen at about the same time the world of BSG collides with our own.

Its going to be a great ride.

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17 Responses to Battlestar Galactica and the Quest for Authentic Spirituality

  1. Lea says:

    “It is a theology which says that God is love, and that a spark of the divine love is in all of us (Gnostics would probably say it only exists in a select few).”

    I don’t know what definition of Gnosticism you are using, but from everything I have gathered Gnostics believe we all have a spark of the divine.

  2. Steve says:

    The darkness of BSG this season is offputting, but I too have been riveted by the spiritual conundrums they are playing with. My hope, like yours, is that they are not JUST playing with them, that there is something real under the surface.

    The reverential tone with which the final unknown cylon was addressed leads me to believe there is something divine there. I’m enjoying the ride, just like you are.

    I am currently reading McLaren’s “The Story We Find Ourselves In” and working hard to wrap my brain around all of his figuative interpretations. I find when I am challenged this way that I actually write less about things of a spiritual nature. Maybe if I wrote more, it would speed the process of my understanding (or, at least, acceptance). But I hate writing about things of which I’m so unsure. Which is why most of my posts lately have been about Iron Man and American Idol.

    Yeesh.

  3. Gnostic is “pseudo-false-christianity”
    Christianity is about Jesus, God’s Word, 100% God Himself Who incarnated in 100% Human, to save human whi have faith in Him. If we have faith, th salvation is Grace 100%!! God love us, whatever we are..and in path following Jesus, we, Christian, learn to be more like HIM, to do good things…

    Gnostic is about holy human. That human have to reach God, with his goodness deed, with his knowledge of God..strugle to become sin-less!!

    Christianity is about Jesus is come to you.
    Gnostic is about you come to Jesus, with all of your good deed..

    Christianity is the Truth!

  4. Matt says:

    Lea-
    You may be right, but I seem to recall that some of the gnostics did not believe that EVERYONE “got it” – only some people have the divine spark. Nevertheless, I also think that Baltar’s form of this belief is probably more universal in its perspective.

    Steve-
    Nothin’ wrong with Iron Man and AI. I’m sure I’ll soon be swooning over Indiana Jones, Prince Caspian, and the X-Files!

    Yudhi-
    Your dedication to the truth of the gospel is inspiring to me. Thanks for the comment.

  5. Sam says:

    I think what’s disappointing about your analysis is that you seem to believe as if there was only one valid viewpoint: yours. There was a time when you were not a born-again evangelical Christian (I’m assuming you are given your language). That viewpoint is as valid then and now as the one you hold today (and perhaps not forever).

    What makes you think the Cylon God isn’t redemptive? What makes you think that that the Colonial Polytheism doesn’t have its roots in the Book of Revelation and the OT? It’s the height of arrogance to simply make a declaration about something else when you’re not a show writer, much less a cast member, much less a production assistant.

    I’m certain you walk around thinking what you believe is the absolute truth, immutable and immortal. What’s actually happening, phenomenologicaly speaking, is that you carry around an opinion about your belief (that happens to be shared by many others) in the redemptive nature of Yahweh that you in part assign veracity and authority to (1) your experience and (2) your unconsciously assigned belief in the Bible as being “the inerrant Word of God.”
    No matter how clever your arguments, all you hold is an opinion.

  6. Matt says:

    (For regulars on this blog – this post was recently linked by the Galactica Sitrep blog. I’ve been drawing lots of hits from that blog during the last few days, and we may get some comments from some of the people that follow the link… )

  7. Matt says:

    Sam-

    Thanks for stopping by. I don’t really think of myself as an evangelical/born-again Christian (at least not the sort that you describe in your comment), and I sure don’t think I’ve got the whole God thing nailed down. Far from it.

    If you’re monitoring the comments here, I hope you’ll take a minute to re-read this post, and maybe read a few other things I’ve posted over the last few months. In this post – and several others, I am critical of fundamentalists (Christian and otherwise), whose arrogant assertions that they (and they alone) possess the true “viewpoint” has led our planet to the brink of destruction.

    I AM convinced that there is potential for a redemptive spirituality in Christianity and in the way of Jesus. but – when I hear the frustrations of people such as yourself – it becomes clear that a lot of Christians are doing something very, very wrong in the way we approach and express our faith.

    Toward that end, can I ask you a question? You have indicated that you reject a born again/evangelical approach to spirituality because of its (wrongful) certainty that it possesses the right “viewpoint.” What would a more balanced, generous spirituality look like? How would it be different from what you know of the born again/evangelical approach?

  8. Ivana says:

    You haven’t really described ALL the spiritual viewpoints in BSG. Your description of monotheism on the show is confined to Baltar’s views, which he developed from the Cylon monotheism he was converted to, but which is very different from the beliefs of the Cylons we have encountered so far.

    There are even differences between the Cylons in regards to how they see God and interpret his will. Six says “God is LOVE”, while the practical, calculating Cavil/Number One, who I assumed to be anm atheist in the past (or maybe just some of the copies were, not the entire model?), talks of God as “the Allmighty God, the Voice of REASON”. The views of Leoben/Number Two (or at least the copy who interacted with Starbuck in “Flesh and Bone” ) sound more like pantheism: God is in everyone, in everything.

    But, one thing is certain: even though Head Six says “God is love”, the God that Cylons believed in is a very judgemental and intolerant God. Or at least it was the case at the beginning of the show. Remember, the Cylons were either motivated by religious reasons, or used religious reasons to justify their genocide of the Human race. Their belief – as explained by Leoben (in the Miniseries) and Athena (in “Resurrection Ship II” ) – was that God loved Humans above all other beings, but they disappointed him, they proved to be a flawed, sinful race, who “murder each other out of petty jealousy and greed”; so God decided to give souls to another race of beings, the Cylons. The Cylons official religious viewpoint was that they were doing God’s work by destroying the Human race. It’s hard not to think of the parallels with the instances in the Old Testament where God ‘purges’ the human race through the destruction of the sinful people: the Flood, Sodom and Gomorah… It’s also hard not to think of all the people who have, throughout history, justified wars, murders and genocide by religious reasons.

    Later on, (2nd season episode “Downloaded” ) Caprica Six arrives at the conclusion that genocide and murder are sins in God’s eyes, and that the will of God was wrongly interpreted. She convinces the Cylons to change their attitude to the humans. But, this time, instead of killing Humans, they decide to try to “live with them” and save them by “bringing the word of God” to them, which results in the New Caprica occupation. (Although, to be fair, the Cylons did show a degree of religious tolerance and allowed the Colonials to retain their religion, and, at first, their police respected human polytheistic temples as sacred ground.) Even later, some Cylons (D’Anna/Number 3) start to show curiosity and attempt to reveal the secrets of the Cylon religion.

    However, when it was more and it was less tolerant, the Cylon monotheism has always been based on the idea of sin, and God’s commandments, such as to be fruitful and multiply (which has lead to the Cylon obsession with procreation and their desperate attempts to conceive babies with Humans, since they can’t do it with each other) and prohibitions (suicide is a sin). The idea of a loving, non-judgmental God who loves and accepts everybody (Humans, Cylons) the way they are, is the new, Baltar’s version of monotheism. (Although his view of divine spart reminds me of Leoben’s views of God in “Flesh and Bone”.)

  9. Ivana says:

    Sorry for all the wink smileys in the above post, it wasn’t my intention. I shouldn’t have out the “;” right after the brackets…and I can’t edit the post.

  10. Sam says:

    Matt-

    First, let me apologize for my tone. I get in re-reading my post that I forgot to use the word “seems” before expressing my perception of your spiritual views. I apologize. If it appeared that I was assigning bad motive or bad faith to your arguments, it was not my intention.

    Second, to begin to answer the first of your two questions:

    “What would a more balanced, generous spirituality look like?”

    (1) From the Christian POV, I believe the most important thing we could actually do is acknowledge that neither God nor culture were isolated products. Yahweh was/is a product of the OT Jewish exodus culture and the NT Greek culture under Roman occupation. The culture had a very definite and real *VOTE* in the interpretation and explanation of Yahweh/Kyrios.

    We need to stop pretending that God is a frozen-in-time deity that is immutable and impervious to cultural influence. I assert that Yahweh very much was the product of OT Israel and Kyrios was the product of NT Roman-occupied Israel as well. It occurs to me that a lot of what passes for modern theology is basically retroactive justification for tactical choices made in the moment by the religious leaders of the day, who were very much products of their biographies, their families, and the cultural conversations they engaged in.

    I say this b/c it seems to me that the Christian church is very much in danger of simply making itself irrelevant, regardless of how much it politically organizes itself or how many works of charity it engages in. It seems to me that once a person stops looking backward into the theological past for answers to what is happening in their life today, right now, a lot of the suffering and the self-denial simply vanish. And with those twin-vanishings, so-called Christian leaders of every stripe, whether pastors or televangelists, lose their power as people give up on “waiting on the Lord” and create their own answers.”

    Said another way: modern Evangelical Christianity is a way of driving a car. Imagine the car is your life. Imagine that practicing Modern Evangelical Christianity is like driving your car by holding your hands on the steering wheel and exclusively navigating every single moment by looking in the rear-view mirror. No matter what was in front of you, you were guaranteed to crash often and repeatedly b/c you only looked one way: backwards.

  11. Matt says:

    Ivana-

    I edited your original comment so that the various smiley-faces no longer translate through… 🙂

    Sam-

    Very insightful comments in both cases. I wish I had time right now to continue the conversation in more detail. I do agree that Jesus must be read and understood as a first century Jew in Roman-occupied Israel, and that the OT must be read as ancient literature that is grasping (often imperfectly) at who God is. I ALSO agree that evangelicals don’t get this right, but instead often seem to use the text to justify their own pre-determined viewpoints.

    Where we MIGHT differ is here: I think once we read scripture in the way you suggest, it can be seen as placing the cosmos on a redemptive path – and it tells us a lot about our present and our future.

  12. Sam says:

    Matt-

    Giving up exclusively looking backwards to the immutable past for answers to the life we are living now, we can actually begin to attempt an answer to your first question: (these all are answers that seem authentic to me-you be the judge if they work for you)

    “What would a more balanced, generous spirituality look like?”

    As a Christian, I’ve had to give up the idea that I actually knew better than God (or the Universe-I’ll use both terms interchangeably here) what I needed, how to fulfill my intentions (that thing we call prayer), or that I knew better than someone else what was best for their life. You could call it a theology of surrender: surrendering of arrogance, surrendering of self-righteousness, and surrendering of inaction.

    Next, one of the things that would make the biggest improvement besides living in the present is giving up the idea that any man-made religion will win out against biology. It’s just not going to happen. Evangelicalism is in a losing argument with biology. Biology doesn’t care what Evangelicals think: biology will still cause people to have sex, whether they are married or not, “living in sin” or not, heterosexual or not, etc. Biology’s sole job is to reproduce and all the Christian judgmental morality in the world will not stop it. Judgement lives in the past, hence its attractiveness to evangelicalism, which loves to drive the car backwards!

    I speak as a former Evangelical who has spent over a decade in judgment about this, both on the bench and in the dock. It occurred to me as a loser’s game, and having given up the Evangelical moral argument against biology, I can actually say I’ve experienced a freedom from judgment that was revolutionary for me and for everyone around me.

    Next, let people live their lives. My parents are Hindu and for them, right now, following the teachings of the Bhagvad Gita and the Upanishads are a much better fit for them than any kind of time spent in a Christian church hearing the gospel. I’ve come to the conclusion that “Hell”, whatever we think of it as, is simply the suffering that occurs as we attempt to live an inauthentic life and forcing others to live inauthentically as well. We are products of our cultures, our families, and all the conversations we participate in. Why are we trying to cause others to live a life that has a very high probability of being inauthentic and alien to everything they’ve ever known, to put them under the yoke of sleepwalking pastors and politicians who exploit God as a political tool? That is Hell, both for the evangelical and the converted.

  13. Sam says:

    Matt-

    To answer your final question:

    “How would it be different from what you know of the born again/evangelical approach?”

    As someone who has lived a over a third of my life as a conservative Christian evangelical (CCE) and knows that world very well, it seems to me that these are the critical differences from someone who practices a modern, generous spirituality (MGS):

    CCE: Lives in the past and steers their lives looking backwards. MGS: Lives their life in the present moment.
    CCE: Believes in a “one true God” model of the universe and desperately attempts to cling to (and force others around them to cling to) the Judeo-Christian Bible as the singular source of truth in their lives. CCEs also believe that their God is a “one-size-fits-all” God, regardless of circumstances, culture, or needs. MGS: Believes that each person must find their own spiritual self-expression, however it looks. MGSs practice a model of the universe that is “holographic” in nature, where each person’s POV simply exists by declaration alone, w/o some other cause or reason extrinsically supporting that POV.
    CCE: Practices a life of judgment of others and of themselves, esp. in regards to matters of sexuality and the expression of pleasure. MGS: Believes that sexual pleasure is a gift and a right and practices it responsibly and authentically w/o any judgment, deceit, or suffering.
    CCE: Practices a kind of conditional compassion on themselves and others. The conditional compassion requires them to believe in Christ as their singular Lord and Savior and that they get what they deserve because they were born in sin. MGS: Practices unconditional compassion for one’s self and others, regardless of circumstances or belief systems.
    CCE: Believes and practices a form of suffering as self-justification and purification for reaching heaven. MGS: Practices compassion and joy at all times w/o reason. MGSes believe Hell is living an inauthentic life and suffering for it. MGSes show compassion to themselves in all things and at all times.
    CCE: Uses God as a political weapon, striving to cause as many people as possible to live under a very narrow and very old interpretation of the Bible that has nothing to do with modern culture. MGS: Seeks to liberate each and every person to think and choose for themselves what kind of God they will responsibly serve.
    I know this was a long answer to a pair of very deep questions. Thank you for your generosity in asking and letting me answer them.

  14. […] So…All of this has happened before. Will all of this happen again? As I was hoping, it now seems inevitable that the final ten episodes will explore whether the redemption of humanity is possible. […]

  15. celticbreathe says:

    all your comments are very interesting, on BSG, gnosticism, and what you think you believe. I laughed when i read such a narrow view of Gnositicism at the first, and then your response. First of all I spent 20 years in various XiAN Denom’s and never found what the frack you all were talking about as to “relationship or God’s WOrd” it all seemed to depend on the primary personality of the pastorate and an arrogancy as to a single interp, that albeit maybe seemed to work for a few, didn’t seem to really work for the masses.. it all looked very much placebo.. and when I asked people and probed their experience, it confirmed it.. not to say how many like, probably you all are, very well intentioned. My love of BSG in the end was the “ghosts” of SIx and Baltar.. which reminded me of Hoffman’s Christ in The MEssenger.. how much “angels” can look like “demons”… the question though that was left in my mind at the end of the series was a very series one.. How much human frailty plays into things.. now someone said that we gnostics (of which I consider myself one of a particualr sect of because of certain taste or sectarian alliances, much like ya’alls denoms) believe ourselves holy, perfect and leave ourselves too open to the “seven deadly” and I would agree there are many out there that seem to deny as Matthew Fox most aptly put the flip side of the Original Blessing – however after loooking over the complete seasons of BSG now in my head I can see the message of Christ so clear.. that we in CHurchianity have fallin so easily into that most Catholic Malody of trying to bring God down from heaven and losing our humanity – when Christ is about the Divine is in the Details, as BArt Ehrman echoes the beautiful chauvanist albeit Hero (Apostle) Paul when he relates as Christ COmpletes all. We in our Western suposed Utopia heavy handedly rubber stamp our conceptual idealism wherever we can to feel secure i suppose, touting sanctification and salvation cure-alls and bandying them as Absolutes.. where the reminder of BSG here, and that many gnostics and new agers need to be reminded of, is the shadow side to the working out of our humanity within the Cosmic Christ spark, as Creation SPirituality authors put it. Now this can be a very active and breathing relationship with the Divine and personally through a very intuitive and wonderous understanding through the person of Christ in humanity and ourselves.. as long as we affirm the messiness of it all.. one image i saw in a little bookstore in Santa Cruz last year, that made me feel revulsed was that of an image of th Gay Christ.. but it’s that kind of image/icon that can make many of us XIan’s (who are homophobic or whatever) be mindful of God is in the process very much so, and like it or not the bottom line of the Cross can’t be as perfect as we want, but it can be so overwhelmingly mysterious that we feel grateful for God knowing th e extent and not us.. so in that I echoe one of the former comments I suppose, if in my own way

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