Sunday, August 30, 2009

Good Deeds and Their Rewards

The YouTube video up above (h/t to Friendly Atheists) shows Joss Whedon's wonderful acceptance speech that he made at Harvard University in April of this year when he accepted the Outstanding Lifetime Achievement Award in Cultural Humanism from the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard University.

Much has been made about Joss Whedon's atheism. One can't help but wonder if ratings for his shows are noticeably lower in large swaths of the Bible Belt and other highly religious regions of the world.

I admit that I didn't spend a lot of time researching this, but I was rather surprised that in the few minutes I spent on Google, I didn't find any good fundamentalist rants about the anti-Christian nature of the Buffyverse. If anyone has a good link, by all means, send it to me. I did manage to find this piece (written by a devout Christian Whedon fan) that I thought was even-handed and well thought out. The author didn't exactly let Whedon off the hook for being an atheist, but also didn't strongly condemn him either.

Regardless, I'm betting that a lot of Christians are somewhat upset that Whedon tends to lump Christianity together with all other major religions and belief systems of the world. One piece of dialogue that sticks out for me is Wesley's reply to Lilah, when she claimed that a child born to two vampires was without precedence:

"You're wrong. Mesopotamian, Greek, Hindi, Celtic myth, the Bible, even Darwin, all support the coming of something that wasn't possible before."
Although Whedon is unabashedly a non-believer in organized religion, I've never felt that he has been in any way disrespectful of Christianity itself. He's made it quite clear a number of times that he has more problems with Christians who denounce him specifically (and who also denounce atheists in general) than with the Christian faith itself, as this YouTube video posted in December 2008 shows. (I previously quoted a portion of this excerpt in my previous post here.)

At 2:36 minutes into the video, Joss stated, in response to an audience member who asked what he has against Christians,

"I don't actually have anything against anybody unless their belief precludes everybody else's. I am an atheist and an absurdist and have been for many, many years. I've actually taken a huge amount of flack for that. People who have faith tend to think that people who don't, don't have a belief system and they don't care if they make fun of them. It's actually very difficult. a group, are not really recognized by the American public as people to be taken seriously. This does not mean that I rail against religion. However, the meaning of life and the meaning of what we do with our lives is something that's extremely important to me. I have included characters from many different religions, particularly in this show [Firefly], but also in the other shows as well because I'm interested in the concept. I think faith is an extraordinary thing. I'd like to have some, but I don't, and that's just how that works......


You know there's one other thing I would mention, which is from Angel, actually. One of the few times that I really got to sort of say exactly what I think about the world was in the second season of Angel, Episode 16 ['Epiphany'] when he'd gone all dark, because he does that, and that he was getting better, and he basically decided -- he'd been told: 'The world is meaningless, nothing matters.' And he said: 'Well then, this is my statement: Nothing matters, so the only thing that matters is what we do.' Which is what I believe: I believe that the only reality is how we treat each other. The morality comes from the absence of any grander scheme, not from the presence of any grander scheme.

But then the next thing that somebody says to him is....'you burst into my apartment without being invited, which a vampire can't do, which is like a little miracle', and I just sort of let that hang. I said, the thing I believed in most, and then I contradicted it right away, because, ultimately its the confluence, or the conflict, of those ideas that's actually really interesting. So the answer is nothing [does he have anything against Christians?] unless you've got something against me."

The Buffyverse is awash in religious symbolism, as Whedon recognizes the power behind the rich metaphors and allegories of the major religions. (Think of Lilah's Christ-like abdominal wound in Season 4's "Calvary".) Without this intense imagery, all narratives would be reduced to dry recitations of the facts, with all of the emotional impact of bullet-pointed budget reports.

In the YouTube video of his Harvard appearance up at the top of this post, Joss Whedon stated that:

"The enemy of humanism is not faith. The enemy of humanism is hate, is fear, is ignorance, is the darker part of man that is in every humanist, every person in the world. That is what we have to fight. Faith is something we have to embrace. Faith in god means believing absolutely in something with no proof whatsoever. Faith in humanity means believing absolutely in something with a huge amount of proof to the contrary. We are the true believers."
Although, judging from comments on various boards, his statement appears to many as bordering on the dogmatic, I believe that Joss is saying that it's OK for atheists/humanists to still have strong belief systems. Indeed, I can't imagine how anyone can adequately function without a core set of values. Just because a person's values aren't guided by a religious entity doesn't mean that he or she doesn't operate within some sort of a moral framework. It only means that the person isn't afraid to venture outside of their safety zone and explore other avenues of morality.

There are Christians of certain denominations who pretend to speak on behalf of all Christians, or who believe that their brand of Christianity is the only brand that will bring true salvation. I would imagine that certain believers would find Whedon's message rather alarming, that according to Angel, "In the greater scheme or the big picture, nothing we do matters. There's no grand plan, no big win."

I'm far from being an expert on world religions or even on all of the differences within the Christian faith. However, I'm convinced that no religion truly preaches a pure, unadulterated carrot-and-stick approach to salvation. There's a certain unsophisticated Sunday School approach to morality where if you do good deeds now, you'll go to Heaven, and if you do bad things, you'll go to Hell. I suspect that most religions take a more subtle approach, that God (or your deity of choice) does not want you to act purely out of fear of being sent to Hell. God wants you to approach your life with joy and to derive satisfaction (as opposed to the feeling of prideful arrogance) from the good deeds you perform. Angel's contention that "..all that matters is what we do" is hardly inconsistent with that point of view.

In other words, just about everyone who has a personal belief system recognizes the need to perform good deeds. If anything, it should take a much stronger person to perform good deeds just for their own rewards, since that person is not expecting any greater glory in the end. The motivation behind the performance of good deeds, either for eternal salvation or for the satisfaction derived from the performance alone, shouldn't matter to the outside observer.

There are also many Christians who have serious doubts about the literal interpretation of the Bible. One woman I know said she used to be really upset about all of the uncertainties of her faith. She said she finally reached a point (her own Epiphany) that she accepted the fact that she'll never know the answers to all of her questions, and she now devotes her life the best she can to doing God's work. She doesn't know exactly what her greater reward will be for doing these deeds, but she is doing the work for the intrinsic satisfaction that her actions bring to her. Another Christian I know is convinced that we create our own Hell on earth by the deeds we perform in life. According to him, the worst sinners have to continue on after their deaths with the hell of knowing the full realization of the consequences of their evil deeds.

Remarkably, in Season 5, Lindsey McDonald talked about his existence in the Wolfram & Hart "holding dimension", and explained that "Turns out they can only undo you as far as you think you deserve to be undone." Seeing as how it appeared Lindsey had his heart ripped out of him every single day he was in the "holding dimension", he must have had some issues he was working through. Which begs the larger question of, if you're a sociopath and feel no remorse for the evil acts you performed, will you ever go to Hell?

In my larger Joss Whedon quote above, he mentioned how, in Season 2's "Epiphany", the creators immediately contradicted Angel's "all that matters is what we do..." statement. Kate pointed out that she was starting to believe that "we're not alone in this", since she never invited him into her apartment to save her life. I've been reading many online articles lately that point out a lot of instances of how the creators and characters seem to continuously contradict themselves in Angel. Far from being continuity issues, these contradictions effectively add tension to the stories and bring a lot more layers of complexity. Angel's existential "epiphany" and Kate's simultaneous "epiphany" of faith brought together these two competing themes quite successfully.

In real life, humans are full of contradictions and individuals often act out of competing motivations. Joss Whedon and the other creators featured that theme front and center throughout Angel, which is one of the reasons it was such a great series. We are constantly having to search within ourselves and try to figure out the best way to solve our various crises and live our lives to the fullest. Angel gave up a lot when he decided that trying to gain his reward (a return to human form) as interpreted from the Shanshu prophecy was all just an illusion. Luckily for the world, he was able to work through his crisis and reach some sort of peace with himself. Perhaps his ultimate reward was being given the strength to help out those who were truly in need.

Idle Thought. The idea of the Shanshu Prophecy never went away for Angel, culminating in his Season 5 race against Spike to drink out of the Cup of Perpetual Torment. I hope to go through the series one more time and try to determine how Angel moves away from his Season 2 "Epiphany" to his realization that there seems to be some sort of greater purpose in life after all.


DJP said...

Whedon: "I don't actually have anything against anybody unless their belief precludes everybody else's."

Translation in context: "I don't actually have anything against Christians unless they really believe everything Jesus said."

Since "believing everything Jesus said" pretty well defines "Christian," this means Whedon only likes Christians who are hypocrites. Not real ones.

In other words, the questioner was right, and good on him for asking.

Whedon's answer was fun and revealing, if not enlightening; I'm grateful to you for pointing to it.

Miriam said...

Nice to hear from you, DJP! With religious and ethical beliefs, is it possible to stand up for one's beliefs without the other person thinking he or she is crossing the line over to intolerance? Two people engaging in the debate may have two very different opinions on how the debate is being conducted. One person may think he is engaging in a defense of his positions, while the other person may take it as a personal attack.

It certainly seems to create a vicious circle. One person thinks he's being attacked, he defends his beliefs (perhaps a little too strongly), the other person feels he's being attacked and defends himself in a way that makes the person feel like he's being insulted, etc. The two people can either at some point agree to disagree or just keep going.

I give Whedon a lot of credit for not shying away from these issues and discussing religious symbolism in his works. We may disagree with him, but it does allow us to discuss these things openly out in the public. I'd rather see Whedon's approach than someone who shies away from the issues for fear of offending someone. Whedon's shows would be a lot more bland if he avoided controversy altogether.

DJP said...

Thanks for the friendly greeting, Miriam.

To your first question, absolutely right. But in PC-world, "tolerance" often means "pretending there are no absolutes." That certainly isn't the historical meaning of the word.

Now, Whedon doesn't say "I don't actually have anything against anybody unless they go around personally attacking people with other beliefs." He says, "unless their belief precludes everybody else."

So here's Jesus saying, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me" (John 14:6), a verse that came to have quite an impact on me. Jesus is making a universal categorical absolute. It can't be "kinda" true; it's true, or it's false. And I can't "kinda" agree; I believe Him, or I disbelieve him.

All I'm saying is that believing Jesus necessarily involves being what Joss says he does have problems with.

And given the choice between Joss and Jesus, you know where I'm going to come down, every time.


Miriam said...

Thank you very much for generously sharing your story. I'm always interested in stories of spiritual journeys. I myself have had two "Epiphanies" of my own in the past: one came after much doubt and turmoil, and the other came from out of the blue.

Whenever two people are strongly attached to separate belief systems, it appears that if one person strongly professes their faith, it will necessarily rub the other person the wrong way. If I profess a certain belief system and 10 people tell me I'm not only wrong but I'm totally against them(which I have some experience in since I married into a different denomination), I might end up giving the same type of answers Joss did.

I can disagree with Joss, but I can still appreciate the challenges he throws at me.

DJP said...

Oh, I think he's brilliant. Well, brilliant at what he does (movies; TV); not so brilliant as he thinks he is (philosophizing).

You know, I think I may just have to do a post on that clip of yours. Now it's a matter of finding the time to develop it....

Thanks again!

Miriam said...

Good luck on your post, and let me know when it's published. Here's hoping you find time to do it. :-)