The Problem is Choice, Mr. Anderson…

It is probably premature of me to write a response before the argument is finished, but this morning I saw a post on TWWK’s blog about how Alex of Ashita no Anime is writing a series of posts on why Madoka is better than Jesus as a savior. Needless to say, I knew I would bite before even finishing the first sentence.

Alex begins his argument as such:

Madoka started as a humble human who transcended existence.  Jesus was always a god, which calls into question the logic of his methodology and thereby also the validity of said godhood.

Now, many would point out that Madoka’s very humanity is a metaphysical impediment to salvation to begin with: how can a mere man save mankind? If one is of the same ontological essence as their savior with no difference, then on what grounds can one human be lifted up as savior over the entire race? Any moral, spiritual, ethical, etc., advancement would have nothing to do with ones ontology, but rather how far one progressed upon a path of those categories, which means the locus of salvation still lies outside of the person. Indeed, Madoka’s own transformation is because of the karmic power of the universe, something that while humans interact with, ultimately lays external to them, and as such it is that karmic power that is the actual saving factor and not Madoka. While Madoka interacted with it on an unprecedented level, metaphysically speaking that could have been granted to whomever since no humans are ontologically different from one another in the Puella universe. This is why Madoka is far more akin to a Bodhisattva than Christ since she herself is not the locus of salvation. While she may certainly help man with their enlightenment (just as the saints help us with deification), she is not the savior. If this debate sounds familiar, its because its what the Catholic missionaries and the Buddhists argued about when Roman Catholicism was introduced to Japan in the 16th century.

Alex continues:

Madoka is a wonderful example of a humanistic hero because if anything in humanism can be called a “commandment” it is the willingness of people to give of themselves for the sake of others.  Although she was just a person, Madoka realized that she possessed the potential to save many.  She gave all of herself willingly and completely for the sake of others with no thought of reciprocation. In a twist of logic that I like to think of as a natural kind of altruistic karma, she received a reward of sorts—a change in her very nature that is at least equivalent to what most people could consider a demigod.

There are multiple ideas going on in this paragraph, some that I even agree with. First, I want to speak on humanism, but specifically from the point of naturalism1 (since humanists are not committed to naturalism, and my critique only affects the latter). I will be using naturalism here as synonymous with physicalism, the philosophical position that only physical objects and systems exist. The logical implication is that metaphysics thus do not exist, and that as such metaphysical claims – most pertinently those of religions – are false. Of course, if one is both a naturalist and a humanist, then the teleological and moral values of humanism seem to be undermined by naturalism since such values are not in and of themselves part of nature. Let me explain.

Since the naturalist is committed to a stance of rejecting metaphysics, it means that all values must have an ontological root within the fabric of nature. In other words, they must exist intrinsically within nature. If not, then moral values are just as illusory as the other metaphysical concepts (i.e., God) that are rejected by the naturalist. Now, there is a distinction I need to make here: the difference between the concept of morality or teleology and the content of those concepts. There is no doubt that the concept of morality can be seen in nature: humans have written countless works on ethics and teleology just as they have about supernatural phenomenon, myths, theology, etc. We can measure the neuron and brain patters that fire off via fMRI scans when we deliberate about such concepts, and we can view the innumerable amount of spiritual artifacts left behind by almost every human civilization. The concept of morality and teleology, just as the concept of God, can no doubt to be said to exist within nature.

But what about the content of those concepts? After all, evolutionary psychology touts that many of our altruistic behaviors and intention-seeking patterns are part of our genetic makeup, things we have inherited from the long history of evolution. We tend to group together and act altruistically because pack-mentality was an aid to our survival and thus the propagation of our genes. Our ancestors sought out purpose and meaning because its what helped them to make sense of their chaotic surroundings and thus survive, or perhaps because its a by-product of consciousness. Hence, we see such moral and teleological values inherit within our species, and have no need to fear of any kind of ‘metaphysical boogiemen’ to force us to face nihilism. To be good is in our genes.

Then again, so is to rape, to steal, to murder, to cheat, to lie, to deceive, to commit infidelity, to do all the common actions that blind us or others from that which is good or beneficiary for the ‘well-being of conscious creatures’.2 Not to mention, our propensity for religious belief and other concepts (i.e., free will) also likely have evolutionary roots (which no Christian would even feel bothered by), but the naturalist rejects these as illusory. Morality and teleology are no different, as evolution does not provide us with ontological truths, but merely survival mechanisms, regardless of their falsity or validity. In order for morality and teleology to exist rationally they have to have a root within nature. Nature mustNietzche say ‘man ought to survive’, ‘man ought to have value’, but of course nature does no such thing. Nature simply is. Values of these sorts are human constructions, but they do not have any actual reality to them, any kind of substance. They are just as fictitious as the metaphysical gods rejected by the naturalist.

One of course could shift into subjectivity: so there is no moral objectivity, so what? I can still choose my own moral system. The problem of determinism aside, subjective ethics suffer from the same problems as objective ethics, or at least if one wants to remain rational (which is the whole drive of the New Atheist movement, after all). We can choose criterion to base our subjective ethics off of: happiness, liberty, well-being, safety, etc., but these suffer from the same critique as above as there is no inherent reason to pick any of these values as they have no ontological root. Thus, even if one builds such a subjective (really, consequentialist) moral system, it could be perfectly consistent, it could even achieve the goals it wishes, but it most certainly is not rational for there is no rational reason to pick any value over another. In fact, one could very well take the most caricatured depiction of hell, (or while I’m at it, the non-caricature of double-predestination!) and say that this is the reason they think Jesus is a better savior than Madoka, or is a better God than any god, and there could be no rational response from the naturalist as all these values are not only subjective, but are just down-right fables.

I know this has been a large tangent for just one sentence, but it is of key importance: if indeed naturalism leads, as I have been hinting, to both moral and teleological (and epistemic) nihlism, then any rational critique given can only be that God is inconsistent with His own system, and nothing more. The real problem for anyone holding this philosophical position is that if values indeed do not have any ontological grounding, then on what grounds do we even value rationality?

Although she was just a person, Madoka realized that she possessed the potential to save many.  She gave all of herself willingly and completely for the sake of others with no thought of reciprocation. In a twist of logic that I like to think of as a natural kind of altruistic karma, she received a reward of sorts—a change in her very nature that is at least equivalent to what most people could consider a demigod.

As I pointed out above it is the karmic power laden within the universe, and not Madoka, that is the locus of salvation. That said, Alex’s statement is still correct since he’s only talking about potential – I’m just reiterating my point. I agree with his next two sentences as the show leaves little room to argue: Madoka’s decision was based upon her love for others and her empathy with their suffering, and her accepting the contract turned into a demigod (Bodhisattva, really). Christians could have recourse to the problem of change and that if one changes it means they are inherently not perfect, but I have a feeling that would mean little to most reading.

Alex then begins his critique of Christ:

Jesus on the other hand started as god and was always a god.  Even having taken human form he was still a god, omniscient and omnipotent.  The incomprehensible process of having to sacrifice himself and come right back begs the question of why he didn’t just set up the system the right way to begin with.  Why create everything just to change it a few thousand years after the beginning of recorded history?  Why have any old testament at all if the current status quo was always going to be the end result?

Alex, of course, is correct in that Christ was still fully divine even after His incarnation. To answer his question as to “Why create everything just to change it a few thousand years after the beginning of recorded history,” one needs recourse to Genesis and the fall of man. It was not God’s intention that man is in the current state he is – broken, fallen, and sick, enslaved to the powers of sin and death – but Adam, so to speak, broke the fast and partook of the knowledge of good and evil before he was ready to. Wait — what?

More than one Church Father has explained Genesis in this light: Adam and Eve, while not fallen, were still child-like in that they were to continue to grow with God, even before the fall (in fact we never stop growing and communing deeper with God since He is by nature infinite). It is not that they were so oblivious as to know not to disobey God (after all, Eve’s first response to the serpent was the recollection of God’s commandment), but rather they were in a constant processes growing with God by participating in God’s grace. Certain Church Fathers even saw that outside of Paradise was chaos. Perhaps this is because God’s plan was that Adam and Eve were to bring those areas into paradise as part of their synergy in working with God, and thereby drawing closer to Him (such a view lends itself nicely to Theistic Evolutionists). Yet, they disobeyed, and when they did such they decided to commune with death rather than Life, non-existence rather than the Source of existence, and thus an ontological rift was made that would affect themselves and the rest of mankind to come. Yet God let this happen since He bestowed man with free-will since love must be given freely for it to be love. If Adam and Eve had no free will, indeed if none of us had free-will, then Christianity would be utterly incomprehensible.

Thus the incarnation of Jesus Christ to heal this rift, to destroy this barrier. One must understand that living in a traditionally Protestant nation, there seems to be a focus on solely Christ’s work on the Cross, with the Resurrection being proof of this work. But in Orthodoxy, Christ’s entire life is salvific, as the incarnation joins the human and divine natures without confusion (meaning the essences do not mix to create a synthesis) under the God-man Jesus Christ, allowing for the human nature to become deified. Christ lives out his life all the way up until adulthood (which encompasses all of adulthood regardless of age) so that he can sanctify each step, so that we may live each of those steps in Him and be healed. The same is true of His being tempted, of His baptism, of His death.

resurrection2Christ’s death sanctifies death so that it can be a gateway to life, so that by dying we can die within Christ. Furthermore, Christ’s death, since he is the Source of Life, destroys the very powers of sin and death, a reality represented in Orthodox icons of the Resurrection in which Christ stands on top of the gates of Hades themselves, lifting Adam and Eve out of their graves, while the saints of the Old Testament look on in awe and wonder. The incarnation then has further implications, as even if Adam and Eve had not fallen there still would have to of been a Theotokos, a God-bearer, as it is only by uniting the two natures that we could be deified.

Looking at Jesus from this perspective makes him seem rather callous for allowing people to suffer death for so long when he could have done something about it sooner and capricious as well for having to go through so many loops to achieve something that the all-powerful creator of the universe could have accomplished by snapping his fingers and being done with it.

The problem, of course, is free-will: it is not that God could not have saved man earlier (in fact he tells the Israel that the coming of the Messiah is delayed because of their sins, if I remember correctly), but it is that man himself is stubborn and resists God. Salvation takes place in time since man himself is a temporal creature, and as such it was not until the ‘coming of time’ (I forget the exact passage, may someone remind me of it?!) that Christ was to be incarnate. He waited until there was one who was the perfect icon of what the nation of Israel was supposed to be, the perfect icon of the Church: The Virgin Mary. It was precisely because the Virgin Mary was perfectly obedient in her entire life, and because she was to be the new Eve, that God chose her to be the Mother of God, the Theotokos. Had Mary declined, Christ would have not of been incarnate. Such a view may scandalize many, but for Orthodox Christians this only makes sense since God calls us to be co-workers in our salvation, taking the grace God gives us and working with Him – just as Adam and Eve were suppose to – and that Mary’s acceptance of her role was the ultimate act of synergy between God and man. Had she denied this role, then she would not have been the living Ark of the Covenant that she is, as her disobedience would be yet another example of the Garden, another example of what Israel constantly was doing: betraying God. Yet, it is precisely because she did accept that God used her to bear the Incarnation.

So the ‘many loops’ are largely set up by ourselves and because of our nature, and one can read more if they study the Patristic understanding of Christ’s life and work on the Cross. St. Athanasius does point out that while God could ‘nod His head’, man would simply continue to fall over and over again. This only makes sense as Adam and Eve now have the knowledge of good and evil, and since God won’t deprive them of their free will, we have a never ending cycle of falling from grace. Furthermore, it is by the incarnation that Christ finally ends this, as he accepts the Holy Spirit at His baptism so that in our baptism we receive the Spirit, our ability to once again not lose this grace since it is secure because of Christ in His human nature.

Alex then proceeds to argue why Madoka is better:

In short, Madoka saw suffering and injustice and upon realizing she had the capability to right this wrong, she was moved to action.  Jesus on the other hand sat on his butt for untold millennia watching the people he claims to love writhe in pain and die without salvation before finally getting around to doing something about it.

Madoka only acted upon this in the last time line, she had told Homura to prevent her from becoming a Magical Girl before (not to mention the multiple times she became a witch, even destroying the earth). This is because, unbeknownst to her, Madoka had to wait for karmic time lines to build up in order for her transformation to occur since it is karma and not herself that is the locus of salvation. Christ, on the other hand, had to deal with what humanity gave Him after humanity had first rejected Him (something that is completely absent in Madoka since it’s based upon Buddhism and not Christianity) and when the time came, He most certainly acted. Humans, unfortunately, tend to be a little recalcitrant.

Update: Cytrus of Yaranakya has made a reply from a Buddhist perspective.

Footnotes
1 I speak on naturalism specifically because of private e-mail exchanges that Alex and I have had in which he has claimed this philosophical position, though the term we used there was ‘physicalism’.
2 The term is from Sam Harris’s The Moral Landscape.

6 thoughts on “The Problem is Choice, Mr. Anderson…

  1. “…something that is completely absent in Madoka since it’s based upon Buddhism and not Christianity”

    I definitely appreciated that comment. Although I enjoy looking for and extracting biblical principles from the anime I watch (we are all made by the same creator, thus similarities will occur, or at least so I believe), I often must remind myself of the religious difference between what I am looking for and what influenced the writers.

    Anyway, wonderful piece. Much of what you said I have been studying over the past year as part of my university education. Can’t wait to see what else you write in the future.

    Also, you, good sir, make my writing look like toddler’s scribbles (LOL!). Consider yourself followed.

    • Many thanks. It’s true that we should look for the connections we can in differing theological traditions (both Christian and non-Christian), but like you said, we can only take it to a point. I remember how gung-ho I was about the potential Christian connection to Madoka, but the more I learned, the more it became obvious she was a Bodhisattva.

      As for writing, I’ve got a bit of an advantage since I’ve been out of college for about 2 years now. Either way, as we say in Greek, Δοχα σοι, ο Θεος! (Glory to you, O God!)

  2. Pingback: Madoka > Jesus – Human vs God | Ashita no Anime

  3. That’s perhaps the most perfect response anyone can make to Alex’s series of posts. The nice thing about reading yours and other people’s responses to this issue is that one day I’ll be able to watch Madoka Magica knowing the spectrum of religious and philosophical ideas at work.

    Of course, I think that many atheists simply deny the concept of freedom, which is perhaps why they cannot understand why God would have brought about the redemption of the world in such a manner.

  4. Pingback: Madoka As Savior – A Rather Silly Response (Part 1) | Yaranakya

  5. Thank you for your thoughtful anime analysis, which is always a pleasure to read.

    I’ve just posted my thoughts on some of the points you rise in this blog entry, so I thought I should drop you a line. Keep up the good work!

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