Saturday, December 13, 2014

The theology of Blade Runner: death, the meaning of life, and autonomy

I recently had the distinct pleasure of rewatching one of my favorite movies, Ridley Scott's Blade Runner (1982). It really is one of the best movies, in my mind, and it is especially appropriate to watch in this advent season for its meditations on death and the meaning of life. One of the central lessons of Blade Runner, as far as I understand it, is this: death puts into question the meaningfulness of our lives and everything we do. How great to meditate on this, then, precisely during the time of year where we consider the incarnation of Christ -- that union of the human and the divine which forever defeats death.

I want to write a few brief meditations on the topics of death, the meaning of life, and autonomy as they are developed in Blade Runner.


"What. . . what seems to be the problem?"
"Death."

That brilliant little exchange succinctly summarizes the central philosophical problem of Blade Runner. The story takes place in a highly dystopian future, where the human population on earth has grown apparently beyond what the planet can handle. Humans have extended their dominion even into deep space, and to assist with their colonization and exploration they have developed impressive specimens of biological engineers. They are called replicants: they are biologically engineered entities which are like humans in every way except emotions, and they have super human strength. They are created for the purpose of doing dirty work that humans don't want to do themselves because of the dangers involved; some of them are created for purposes of prostitution, others for purposes of police work, etc.

Now the replicants only live for about four years, even though they are brought into existence at a fully mature adult state. Some of the replicants are created with false memories implanted into their brains, so they have the conviction that they have been living for a long time, that they have natural parents and enjoyed a normal childhood, when the truth is the opposite. The replicants are like humans in every respect, of course -- they have the same drive to live, the same capacity to make choices and choose a future for themselves; in other words, they are fully autonomous. What they lack is the lifespan and opportunity to make choices for themselves with regard to their future: they are forced to work, many of them not even knowing that they are replicants at all,

At some point some of the replicants became aware of all this. Knowing that they were inching closer and closer to inevitable death with every passing moment, they decide to come to earth (though it is illegal for replicants to be on earth) and to seek out the head of the Tyrell Corporation, who creates the replicants. He is the one who would know how to increase their lifespan. They search him out, leaving a trail of bodies behind them, When they finally meet their maker, however, they find there is nothing he can do to increase their lifespan; death is inescapable.

The complaint of the replicants is one we can all relate with: death stands in the way of our living meaningful lives. We are thrown into a world we didn't choose, guided until adulthood in directions we would not necessarily have chosen for ourselves, and by the time we can make a choice about how we are to live, we may lack the opportunities and abilities to realize those choices. Worse than that, we don't even know what to choose or what would be good for us. As one of the final and most memorable lines of the movie has it, No one ever really does live.

The replicants' lives are meaningless, and they feel a special resentment towards the Tyrell Corporation who brought them into the world to be used as means to an end that doesn't concern them or benefit them in any way. Therefore they kill Tyrell, since this is the only way to express the rage they feel at their creator.

There are obviously theological corollaries to be appreciated here. It is fascinating to note first the parallels between the story of the humans and the replicants in Blade Runner, on the one hand, and the creation of humanity by the Babylonian gods in the Atrahasis myth, on the other. In the latter story, humanity is created because the Igigi, the worker class of gods, decided they no longer wanted to do the hard menial labor to which they had been condemned. They start rioting and disrupt the sleep of the celestial bourgeoisie. The solution is the creation of mankind: "Let mankind bear the burden of the gods." Humans are created in order to do the stuff the gods didn't want to do themselves -- tilling the ground, working the soil, etc. The same is true for the replicants: they do the hard work to be done at off-planet sites, while humans enjoy their long lifespans in relative relaxation.

Of course, as I've noted many times before, the Israelite creation mythology in Genesis paints a vastly different picture of divine-human relations than does Atrahasis. There we see that God creates out of his own word and without any need to do so; he simply speaks and things come into being. Moreover, he evidently creates everything for its own sake, that it enjoy life and flourish and be well. He doesn't create because he wants to relax and needs someone else to do all the hard work. He creates out of love and grace, with no ulterior motives in mind; the purpose is only to see that what he has created do well and flourish and enjoy a life in fellowship with him. Human beings are created in the image and likeness of God, the crown of creation in a way, for the purpose of ruling over the earth -- not despotically, tyrannically, but with the same love, the same disinterested, unconditional benevolence that God himself displayed in the creative act.

Humans in Blade Runner resemble the Babylonian gods more than they do YHWH. The replicants sense the injustice in creatures being brought into life with the capacities and desires that they do -- the capacity to sense injustice; the desire for freedom and a life well lived; the desire to enjoy the world in a way they can appreciate; etc. -- whose lives are perpetual frustrations of these desires terminated only in irreversible death. The replicants sense the grave injustice and abhorrent immorality of their creation under such conditions, and so rebel. We would feel the same way, if we found out that were actually created by the Babylonian gods and not by YHWH; we would feel cheated, abused, used, worthless. What is left except to rebel and hate the gods, if that it is the way things stand?

If we can sympathize with the replicants, however, and if we feel the injustice of their situation also, then we cannot but make similar complaints and objections to theological systems which paint God in more or less the same way. On some views, God creates a portion of humanity with no ultimately realized intention to see them flourish and enjoy a life freely lived in fellowship with God in conditions of flourishing. Some persons are created to be destroyed, to be persisting examples of the divine justice as they are punished for their sins in hell.

These persons suffer a fate like Rachel Tyrell in Blade Runner. She is a replicant with implanted false memories. When she discovers that she is a replicant, that her memories are false and that the pictures of her supposed childhood are not even pictures of her (they're pictures of Tyrell's niece), she is absolutely devastated. She is not who she thought she was. She doesn't have the life she thought she had. She won't have the life she thought she would have -- before long she'll be dead and there's no helping that.

These persons created by God for the purpose of being damned are the same way. They may have grown up thinking they were a certain way, convinced that they had a particular identity. At some point, however, they will find themselves confronted with an ugly reality: the truth is they are something far worse than they thought they were; their own constructed identities are false misrepresentations and exercises in the idolatry of the self. Really, they are miserable sinners who will now be rightly punished for their sins without end in hell. God himself will give them no other chance, because this is what he's made them for -- to be vessels of wrath fit unto destruction.

My argument is this: if we see the case of Rachel Tyrell and think that the Tyrell Corporation is cruel and unjust in creating her, allowing her to live her miserably short lifespan under the illusion that she is someone when she is no one at all, bringing her into the world with a desire to live and enjoy life and yet guaranteeing that this will never actually happen -- if the Tyrell Corporation is wicked for doing such a thing, then we have to part ways with that predestinarian picture of God that amounts to the same thing.

Blade Runner makes a very deep point about the value of life, the meaningfulness of life, and the evil of death. If we sympathize with the replicants even a bit -- and we should, since they are obviously a symbolization of the human condition -- then we must incorporate these insights and realizations into our theologizing as well. Does God have a respect for human life and autonomy? The Bible tells us that the last enemy to be destroyed is death (1 Cor 15.26). When God himself sees death as the ultimate enemy to be destroyed, and when we see that YHWH creates for the creation's sake and not for his own, in contradistinction to the Babylonian gods, it would seem we are not doing wrong in speaking a convinced "Amen" to the anti-death, pro-life message of Blade Runner.

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