Contains major spoilers.
I’ve never been a fan of comic books, and rarely get to the movies because we have Netflix and popcorn at home (though I’m tempted to go more often now that theaters make their “butter” pumps available to the public). “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2,” however, seemed like a good opportunity to go back. I liked the first film because it had engaging action scenes, cultivated a sympathetic attachment to a trash-talking raccoon and a stout-hearted tree, and made me laugh out loud. Good entertainment.
The second film produced the same results, with one addition: it got me thinking about God. Engaging in theological reflection that involves “Star Lord” may sound hazardous to both theology and filmmaking, but hear me out. Whether or not the film intends to, its portrayal of the divine provides a backhanded response to one of atheists’ greatest complaints about “religion”: to believe in a God is, by definition, to believe in something that works against humanity.
This sentiment appears in everything from Karl Marx’s claim that religion is the “opium of the people,” to Jean-Paul Sartre’s belief that God and human freedom are mutually exclusive, to Christopher Hitchens’s insistence that God is a celestial North Korea. Whatever the iteration, the relationship between God and humanity is understood as a zero-sum game: if God exists, humans must lose. Therefore, the only way for humans to flourish is to reject God’s existence, or, as Nietzsche suggested, to kill him.
Over To You, Kurt Russell
At first blush, the plot of “Guardians” seems to confirm this conflictual human-divine relationship. The character of Ego, played by Kurt Russel, describes himself as a “celestial,” which takes the form of an immortal, immaterial consciousness that can create and manipulate matter according to its own will. Ego is not, the character qualifies, “the” God, but he is “a” god, and happens to be the father of the film’s protagonist, Peter Quill (also known as Star-Lord), played by Chris Pratt.
Ego rescues Quill and some of his galaxy co-defenders from a planet they’ve been marooned on, and brings them back to his own planet. He tells Quill that this planet is a material extension of his own immaterial existence. Ego’s goal is to convince his son to embrace his half-divine identity (Quill’s mother was fully human) and join him in using their combined “light” to parasitically transform the universe into an extension of their own being.
At first, Quill finds this proposal enticing as he experiences his own power to create and manipulate matter. Things abruptly change, however, when Quill learns that Ego implanted the brain tumor that killed his mother. A major battle commences, with the fate of the galaxy at stake.
Part of This Sounds Familiar
There are some unmistakable religious and, in particular, Christian elements in this fantastical tale: a divine, immaterial being who chooses to create matter out of “nothing”; the same being desiring to enter into relationship with the material universe out of a search for “love,”; seeking to consummate that relationship by bringing all reality into himself; a divine/human son, born of a fully human mother, who is different from the father but also shares the same nature as the father—all this sounds eerily familiar to Christian ears.
But keep the emphasis on “eerie” here—for, notwithstanding these theological currents, Christians might also note a few rather serious unorthodoxies, chief among them the movie’s climax, in which Quill must choose between his divinity and his humanity. It’s a choice the protagonist makes with ease: “Listen to me!,” Ego thunders to Quill. “You are a god. If you kill me, you’ll be just like everybody else!”
“What’s so wrong with that?” Quill replies without hesitation.
Killing god in order to be embrace one’s authentic humanity. Nietzsche may have found the art a bit lowbrow, but he certainly would have approved of the message. So how could this movie advance any kind of religious or Christian argument?
Ego in the Sky with Lightning
It is precisely in the contrast between Ego and the Christian conception of God that the response to the atheist’s “humanistic” argument emerges. It is important, if obvious, to note that Ego’s name is the same word Sigmund Freud uses to describe the part of the human psyche that represents the subjective “I,” that which mediates the animalistic appetites of the “id” and the social-consciousness of the “super-ego”.
Ego’s ultimate concern, he repeatedly tells the audience, is precisely this “I,” a concern that drives him to consume the rest of the universe, including a poor town in Missouri. The result is a divinity of mythical proportions: a lightening-casting, orgiastic (Ego shows Quill a 3-D mural of all the life forms he’s impregnated), puppet-mastering, cosmically self-regarding deity that sees the cosmos as a tool for satisfying his overweening desire for power.
The 19th century German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach famously declared, “What man calls Absolute Being, his God, is his own being.” He couldn’t be more right about Hollywood’s god: Ego is nothing less (and nothing more) than the projection of humanity’s consolidated infantile desires onto the ether. He is an artistic rendering of what happens when you turn the dial on human nature up to 11, and throw in some immortality for good measure. Consult a panel of six-year-old boys on the coolest superpowers, and then combine those with the secret thoughts of those boys 10 years later, and you get Ego. This is, indeed, a God to fear: one that should evoke the rebel spirit in all of us to rise up and strip him of his celestial throne—with lasers and jerry-rigged atomic bombs, if available—in the name of freeing humanity from the yoke of divine bondage.
Meanwhile, Back on Planet Earth…
But that comical deity is not, and never has been, the God that Christians worship. Yes, Christianity affirms the existence of a purely immaterial, non-contingent being Who creates material reality out of nothing (Gen. 1:1). It also affirms that God enters into a constitutive and loving relationship with all reality, and particularly with humanity, which bears a unique similarity to God (Gen.1:26). And yes, Christians confess that God became incarnate as human, while remaining fully divine, in and through a human mother who freely accepted God’s invitation (Luke: 26-36). Christians also believe that the whole purpose of creation is to return to its Creator in and through the incarnate Son of God (Rom. 8: 20-23).
But you know what else Christians believe about God? They believe He heals, feeds, brings back from the dead, is willingly chained and tortured, and bleeds out on a cross while asking for the forgiveness of his executioners—all for a very unexpected reason, as we see in the Gospel of Luke’s depiction of the Last Supper: “[Jesus] took bread, and when he had given thanks, gave it to [His disciples], saying ‘This is my body which is given for you…And likewise the cup after supper saying, “’This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22: 19-20).
In short, whatever else the Christian God may be, He is not Ego. The Christ is a God of existential attraction, not seduction or coercion. A God who enters into temporal reality not to compete with human beings but to invite all humanity, as a human, to eternal life. A God who, in the words of St. Paul, “emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant… [humbling] himself and [becoming] obedient unto death, even death on a cross” (Philippians: 2:7-8).
Presence in the Absence
While Nietzsche, Sartre, Hitchens, and 75 percent of the YouTube comment boards rail smugly against the great Ego in the sky, Christians can point out, calmly, that the reason the god they are fighting is so terrifying and must be destroyed at all costs is because he has been fashioned by human hands in the image of human beings.
When God becomes the standard for measuring humanity, however, the zero-sum game paradigm shifts to a new existential point of reference, one in which the divine does not vie against human life, but, rather delights in it. As St. Irenaeus put it more than 1800 years ago: “The glory of God is a human being fully alive!”
In defining the divine as Ego, ‘Guardians’ provides a poignant (and very fun) exercise in what theologians call apophatic theology: coming to know God by encountering what God is not. Atheists may still insist that the Christian God is a fantasy, in the end. But they should drop the superstitious belief—that is, a belief based on ignorance and irrationality—that a God defined by sacrificial love for humanity could be construed as a threat.