Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The Matrix Reevaluated

I’m one of those people who thinks the first Matrix movie was really good, but the sequels pretty much sucked (although I have to admit that the burly brawl and the car and motorcycle chases in Matrix Reloaded were pretty cool). But these movies contain some interesting religious allusions, and a lot of people think they are specifically Christian themes (such as naming the ships the Nebuchadnezzar and the Logos).

For example, "Neo" is supposed to represent the "new covenant" mentioned by Jeremiah in the Old Testament, and which is fulfilled (according to Christians) by Jesus and the New Testament. However there is another element to this: in the movie, the "old" system is the Matrix and its agents, which are clearly evil. This obviously does not parallel the Bible, which asserts that the old covenant came from God and is good. Rather, the Matrix's idea here seems to parallel that of some Gnostic sects (like Marcionism), which argued that the God of the Old Testament was an inferior and lower god than the God of the New Testament.

Another allegedly Christian allegory in the Matrix is the whole idea that the world is largely illusory, and that the real world is very different from it. Again, this might fit in well with some religious views, but I do not think it does so with Judaism and Christianity. The idea that the world is deceptive and unreal sounds very much like some of the great Oriental religions like Hinduism and Buddhism. In these religions, the world is the veil that hides reality. The spiritual quest, then, is to divorce oneself from the physical world, because in doing so one is opened up to the real world.

This kind of concept is not particular to religions. It has played a part in some philosophical systems as well. Kant made a distinction between the phenomenal and the noumenal. The phenomenal is the world as it appears to us, and the noumenal is the world as it actually is. We can never uncover the noumenal, because by definition we can only uncover the phenomenal. We can never get outside ourselves to see what things are independently of how they appear to us.

Now Kant’s philosophy doesn’t necessarily lead to the same conclusions as Hinduism or Buddhism; just because we can't know what the noumena is, it doesn't follow that it is completely discontinuous from the phenomena. But some certainly took it this way. Schopenhauer wrote extensively about Kant's philosophy, and tied it together with "the veil of Maya". He thought that the world was just a manifestation of the will to live, and that one should try to escape, at least temporarily, from its enslavement.

Compare these ideas with the Matrix: "The matrix is everywhere, it is all around is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth”.

But I don’t think this idea fits well with the great Occidental religions, namely Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. In these religions the world isn’t an illusion: it’s just not all that there is. The world is as real as it seems to be, but there is a higher level of reality, a spiritual level. In fact, the physical world reflects the spiritual world. Perhaps one could say that in comparison to the spiritual world, the physical world is just its shadow. But this shouldn’t be understood as a denial of the reality of the physical world.

In fact, this imagery is behind the movie Shadowlands about C. S. Lewis. Lewis once wrote "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." Incidentally, I’m also one of those people who thinks the original BBC version of Shadowlands was really good, but the Hollywood version pretty much sucked.

(reposted from OregonLive)

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