Friday, April 4, 2014

The X-Files: a postmodern apologia religionis

I recently completed the entire series of The X-Files, and I must say that it quickly became my favorite television series ever. I've seen at least a few of the "greats", such as Breaking Bad, but I think X-Files is superior in a few respects. In the first place, I don't know if I ever have witnessed two co-stars with as much on-screen chemistry as Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny have as Scully and Mulder. They are the two principal characters with whom one really identifies, if only because they are embodiments of two basic impulses of the human race -- skepticism and belief. The viewer really begins to love the two and their interactions with one another, so much so that the absence of one in an episode (or season) is an automatic point against. I really began to care about the two characters, and I wanted to see them advance, move forward in life and love, more so than in the case of any character on any other show. Moreover X-Files has a certain quality of entertainment that Breaking Bad lacks: I feel no desire or urge to rewatch Breaking Bad, seeing a man compromise himself to the breaking point once is enough; but The X-Files is eminently rewatchable from the beginning or any point thereafter.

Importantly, I enjoy The X-Files because of the ubiquitous postmodernist epistemological stance taken throughout the course of each episode as well as the greater narrative arc of the series as a whole. For every significant event which obtains along the way, there are always competing counternarratives proffered by equally convinced believers: Mulder may posit that some occurrences are paranormal, while Scully insists that they are explainable by natural means, and as the story goes along, it becomes apparent that it is very possible either (or neither) is right. The world they confront day-in, day-out is mysterious and compels them to make sense of it, though there are always critical and decisive facts ("the truth") which are just beyond their reach ("out there"). For this reason their situation is one of pervasive interpretive pluralism: they both offer views of the world, interpretations of the things that happen to them, which compete with one another, are both relatively empirically adequate (or inadequate), and about which neither can be certain. This thrusts upon them a certain choice and responsibility -- they must choose what they will believe, and how they will live their lives accordingly.

One critical flaw in the writing of the series is that Mulder too often permits Scully the use of a language of "rationality" and "reasonableness" when insisting on her scientific naturalist worldview. When Mulder suggests that what they are investigating is a genuinely paranormal phenomenon, Scully responds, No, there must be a reasonable, rational explanation for the facts. In the face of the critical ambiguity and ultimate unknowability of the world they live in, the use of such language is inappropriate. It is not obvious that Scully's approach is "rational" while Mulder's is "irrational". Mulder, in fact, could fairly and justly insist that he is not unreasonable or irrational in refusing to believe what is presented before his eyes, as Scully so often does, simply because it is not easy explained in terms of the familiar and easily cataloged.

In light of this I think The X-Files can be understood as offering a critical and compelling postmodernist defense of religious belief, one which shatters modernist, Enlightenment pretensions to rationality and knowledge. In fact The X-Files provides a nice apologetic against the (admittedly naive and unsophisticated) polemics of the so-called New Atheism that is so common among hoi polloi both on the web and on the streets.

In the first place, the series demonstrates that non-rational factors influence the beliefs and approach of the "rationalists" like Scully, Doggett, and others as much as believers like Mulder and Reyes. Scully so often simply refuses to believe what Mulder puts forth, refuses to believe what she sees before her very eyes, because it doesn't fit nicely with the "scientific" worldview she has adopted. Sometimes she will offer less than completely adequate interpretations of the fact that don't posit a paranormal element, satisfying herself but rather dishonestly and uncritically. For instance, in one episode her father appears to her one night as she is sleeping on a couch, struggling to utter some words but getting nothing out. She later learns that at that precise moment, her father was dying, at some far off location. But instead of believing that her father's spirit appeared to her, she instead was satisfied with the alternative explanation that, in her desperation, she projected a vision of him, wishing and hoping that death might not be the end after all. Of course this explanation doesn't work because she didn't know he was dying at the time of the vision, but since it is nice and neat and safe, she has no problem accepting it. She doesn't want to believe in the paranormal, Mulder would suggest, because such would be something over which she has no control, and Scully's personality is control-driven: she wants to be in control of herself, of her destiny, of her emotional life, of the life of her child later on, etc. In this way, The X-Files demonstrates critical "irrationality" in even the most hardened rationalist types.

The pervasive interpretive pluralism also offers a different apologetic methodology to Christians and other religious believers. Mulder knows from first-hand experience that he cannot convince anyone of the truth of the paranormal, the parapsychological, and the extraterrestrial simply by recounting his experiences and talking about them. Scully rejects all such arguments, and she refuses to accept anything that isn't phrased in the accepted vernacular of the hard sciences. He can't convince her or anyone by rational argument. But what he can do is take them along with him, so that they may see what he has seen for themselves. This is not a sure process, since Scully so often sees the same things Mulder does (though at other points she is critically absent when important paranormal phenomena take place) and yet refuses to believe, offering other explanations even to the point of denying her own rationality and mental well-being at the respective time of encounter. Nevertheless, this what he has to do if ever he is to convince the other; and in the case of Scully, he eventually succeeds.

Likewise the religious believer may not be able to convince the nonbeliever or the skeptic of what she believes, what she has experienced, what she feels. Rational argumentation will not compel. But what she may do is invite the other to participate and be present in that context in which those experiences have presented themselves: reading the scriptures, praying and confessing sin, attending church, believing. Undergo these experiences, live these things, she may say, and perhaps you too will come to see what I see. Of course the nonbeliever doesn't approach these issues any more neutrally than does the believer, and so she may not feel anything, or else she may come to interpret her experiences in any other way than would require genuine religious belief and commitment. But at the very least, The X-Files suggests that neither party can claim the objective, neutral, rational perspective: both are influenced, both influence their interpretation of the data, both have commitments and convictions that go into conceptualizing the world they live in, a world the ultimate truth of which is always just "out there" beyond their reach and sight.

Interestingly, too, The X-Files shows how even the most convinced skeptic can be hopelessly wrong about what she believes. Various persons throughout the narrative of the series deny Mulder's allegation that there is a government conspiracy to cover-up the existence of extraterrestrial life, a conspiracy which may prove disastrous for humanity as a whole. According to Mulder there exists the possibility of an impending invasion which will prove fatal to all but a few select persons whom the government has chosen to survive as alien-human hybrids in slavery to the new alien overlords. The story is fantastic and so naturally they refuse to believe it. They may adduce any number of rational principles and counterexplanations to defend their skepticism. But the viewer knows that they are probably wrong, all their principles and counterexplanations notwithstanding, and it is to their demise that they refuse to believe. So often, too, these skeptics are themselves deceived by forces of evil who operate clandestinely behind the scenes.

If Christianity is true, it would seem likely that a similar situation obtains in our own lives. The fundamental disposition of the human heart, as things stand, is towards sin and rebellion against God. Persons may so often convince themselves that they are right to reject God, that this or that counterexplanation of the facts is more plausible or "rational", etc. But they may be woefully mistaken, even if their position is "rational", and they may be subject to influences that are less than benevolent. The believer whose eyes have been opened to a malevolent reality surrounding us all cries out and begs others to change their ways. It may be that so often the nonbeliever refuses to believe, even if rationally, to her own misfortune.

I find in The X-Files a postmodern apologia religionis, a defense of religion. The believer has come into contact with a reality that is not easily described or cashed out in the language of the hard sciences, neither is it subject to testing or verification in that way. It is not something of which I can necessarily convince you by rational argument. But it is no less real for those reasons; at least, there is no obvious rational motive for supposing that all reality must ultimately be capable of the description and conceptualization typical to the natural sciences. (Scully's desire for control provides one non-rational motive.) All this just means that such a reality must be approached and encountered by other means. At the very least what is required is a certain cognitive openness and willingness to be met by the Other if it should happen. An a priori refusal to believe will just result in expaining-away and hand-waving, and such is not "rational" even if it is white-washed as such by its perpetrator.

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