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Excursus: The Scope of Salvation and the Value of a Medium

12 September 2011

In a not-total divergence from the usual topics here addressed The Molinist brings you a reflection one a recent experience of mine which has brought to my attention an important and oft-overlooked (or, even more sadly, ridiculed) avenue of theological reflection. A very close friend of mine has recently had me sit down and play a video game. I had previously expressed some interest in this particular game, as he spoke quite highly of it, and even downloaded a demo (a free, cut-down preview version) which did not work on my computer but I’ll admit to going into the activity with more than a little dubium in my heart: my long-past experiences with the medium had inculcated in me a fairly unreasonable prejudice that it is incapable of higher thought and is mostly a vehicle for increasingly well-rendered violence. Nonetheless I looked forward to the experience as a chance to try something new and because I respect his intelligence enough that I think that something he thinks is good is probably good, despite what I think of the medium in which it is presented.[1] I am also a fan of science fiction, regarding it as a genre uniquely qualified to explore the human condition, and since this a science fiction game I thought that perhaps the genre had potential in the video game medium. The game in question is Mass Effect 2.[2]

In preparation for playing what it is fact a sequel I did some reading (everything has its own wiki these days) and found myself pleasantly surprised at the depth and well-thought out nature of the universe in which the game is set. Not only is the Mass Effect universe complete on a scale comparable to Star Trek (everything) without requiring decades of piling and internally-conflicting storylines but the writers have played with science fiction topoi in fun and interesting ways. My personal favourite such instance is the Asari, who conflate the ‘wise long-lived elder race’ topos with the ‘sexy green-skinned woman’ topos. Equally impressive is how reasonable the universe is, avoiding the trap of relying upon layers of impossible technologies and preferring instead to invent a single variety of unobtainium (a science fiction idiom referring to fictitious materials which make the fiction’s advanced technology work) and employ it in remarkably realistic ways (particularly in the universe’s background material, such as the treatment of faster-than-light travel).

Another interesting point about the afore-mentioned Asari is their religious beliefs. Heavily influenced by their once un-guessed-at ability to reproduce with member’s of other species (if the whys and wherefores of that bizarre-sounding statement really matter to you I suggest you scroll up and hit the link) the Asari developed a now-mainstream pantheistic religious philosophy called Siari, which holds that all life in the universe is essentially one, its spiritual energy returning to the universal consciousness in death. The Drell, another (somewhat less well-developed) race of humanoid reptiles have historically been devout polytheists praying to a pantheon of gods and angelic beings. The conversation options (a key feature and my favourite element of the game is the complex, branching conversation trees with non-player characters which have profound ramifications for the rest of gameplay and are the medium for making extremely important decisions) with a Drell member of the player character’s squad provide fascinating information not only on the particular deities of the Drell pantheon but on the fact they are increasingly unpopular among Drell youth who feel that the old ways cannot help them in the present age. Thus, many Drell youth have adopted the Asari religious philosophies or the religion of their benefactor species, the aquatic, non-humanoid Hanar, who worship a now-extinct space-faring species called the Protheans as civilising gods called the Enkindlers.

All this talk about ficticious alien religions in a game you have not played is meant to add a note of starkness to the following contrasting reality: human religion goes almost entirely uncommented-upon. In the entire game I encountered a single human character displaying any religious beliefs: a woman (supposedly with whom my character was romantically involved in the previous game) who mentions praying in an e-mail and is apparently a devout Christian. The only other mention of human religion is in background information on the Turians, a militaristic and vaguely fascistic race, some of whom have adopted Confucianism and Zen Buddhism, two real human religions generally seen as non-threatening. The reason for this is likely the same reason as always: real human religions are mostly universalistic and difficult to address without generating controversy so it’s easier just to skim over them.[3] Disappointing though this may be it gave me the opportunity to reflect for a moment upon what being a Christian in the Mass Effect universe would mean and here, at long last, we get to my theological point.

A Christian living on the Citadel (an ancient and highly advanced space station serving as the political hug of the galaxy, believed to have been built by the afore-mentioned Protheans) is a member of a religion claiming to know the truth of the salvation of all creation amongst numerous races of aliens whose belief systems simply do not allow for that idea. The Christian is, as a human, the new kid on the block and the locals likely do not take kindly to being told by this new arrival that he or she has brought to them the truth of their own existence in the form of a religion that post-dates existing political institutions and fashion trends. This is a situation not dissimilar to that of a Christian living in Rome in the 2nd century AD. It is also, and now thing get really relevant, the situation in which many Protestants understood themselves to be living during and immediately following the Reformation.

Sadly the writers of Mass Effect 2 (or the original Mass Effect, but fingers crossed for the trilogy’s up-coming final entry) did not explore the topic of evangelisation of other species by Christians. Evangelisation is touched upon briefly, the Citadel has designated non-evangelisation zones, but the often touchy subject of preaching the gospel (with words) is sidestepped. Christian have traditionally taken it as incumbent upon us to evangelise in accordance with Christ’s Great Commision.[4] It seems unlikely that anyone would choose to interpret “all (the) nations,” πάντα τὰ ἔθνη (panta ta ethne) in the original Greek, as excluding sapient non-human nations. Those who did would be unjustly and unjustifiably limiting God’s salvific activity to human beings.  Just as the promise of salvation for all creation was first born by the Jews and then offered to all humanity in Christ it can be understood as being born first by humanity and then being offered to all species. While this idea may sound initially far-fetched (if not simply preposterous for assuming the existence of sapient alien life) it in fact follows from the recently-rediscovered (or at least re-emphasised) Christian teaching that redemption is about all of God’s creation, not just humanity. Though we have historically anthropocentrised the fall and salvation narrative in reality is not just humanity that has fallen and needs to be redeemed but all of creation. Humanity is peculiar because of our role in the fall and salvation: it was we who brought about the fallenness of creation and it is through us that God brings about redemption.[5]

But of course the question is raised whether or not these other sapient lifeforms share humanity’s unique role in salvation and whether they are made in the image and likeness of God. That is a far harder question to answer. To assert that any sapient life is created in the image and likeness of God may be to associate the Imago Dei specifically, even exclusively, with sapience, a movement which cannot be defended by the biblical witness. On the other hand to deny such may be to anthropocentrise the biblical creation narratives in an equally unjustifiable way. Assuming for a moment the existence of sapient non-human life, is it justifiable to restrict the biblical creation narratives to accounts of the creation of humanity? After all the first creation narrative (Genesis 1.1-2.4a) opens with “[i]n the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” which, in the idiom of Classical Hebrew, means literally that in the beginning God created everything. The second creation narrative (Genesis 2.4b-3.24) focuses on the creation of ha-‘adam, a phrase today taken to mean “the human being” or “humanity” in a somewhat metaphorical sense.[6] But, continuing to assume that non-human sapient life does exist, why is it necessary to restrict the second creation narrative and the fall narrative (Genesis 3) to our own species? It is not a literal account of the creation of anything but a narrative of why the created order is fallen into sin. Alien life, sapient and non-sapient, is every bit as fallen as that found on earth. Would not sapient non-humans thus also be fallen into sin and would not the story of the creation ha-‘adam and the fall into sin apply to them? And if they are fallen, did Christ not die to redeem them as much as us?

That this in-depth reflection of the nature of redemption could be brought about by playing a video game is perhaps more surprising to me than anyone. Like many of the academic bent (except probably those in communications) I have not historically had much respect for video games as a medium of art, expression, or thought; I thought of them as an entertainment medium. Of course on reflection this makes no sense at all. Just because video games are interactive (which is truly their sole defining characteristic as a medium) doesn’t make them incapable of higher or more in-depth thought. Perhaps it makes it more difficult to communicate that thought in direct ways since so much room must be left in the design of the game for the multitude of possible actions by the player, unlike a book or film where an identical entirely pre-determined course is followed every time the object is consumed by anyone at all, but interactivity does not exclude intelligence. Mass Effect 2 is replete with complex reflections on cultural absolutism, inter-racial relationships, parenthood, racism, the nature of personhood, the nature and value of individuality, and collective moral responsibility. These are played out through conversations with non-player characters but also through the well thought-out universe in which the game is set. On the Asari world of Illium, for instance, there are numerous extremely interesting discussions taking place between non-player characters about the Asari’s unique and interesting racial politics. By simply walking past these characters you are invited to reflect upon the ups and downs of producing children in an inter-racial relationships.

Dismissing the video game medium simply will not do. A well-made video game is every bit as capable of deeper reflection as a well-written book or well-directed film. That there are seemingly so few such video games has more to do with their youth than any intrinsic qualities they possess a medium: the very earliest thing that can be called a video game dates from 1947, whereas film’s history goes back 151 years, literature’s at least 5,000. It may be the case that libraries can be filled with timeless, thoughtful works of literature and surely the same cannot be said of video games but imagine the warehouses that would be needed to store every cheap, exploitative, stilted, or pedantic work of fiction humanity has produced in the past 5,000 years. I’m looking forward to Mass Effect 3 and to the day when all video games are judged upon their individual merits and not upon unfounded stereotypes of the medium in which they are presented.

Notes and Bibliography

[1] Literature is an excellent medium for critical thought that gave the world not only Twilight but Oryx and Crake. Outliers are everywhere to be found.

[2] As it has never before come up for me I am unsure of the proper style for giving the title of a video game.

[3] Though why a game with awkwardly-animated love scenes fears a little more controversy is beyond me.

[4] Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had disposed himself. And when they saw him they prostrated, but some wavered. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Matthew 28.16-20, Original Translation

[5] The Eastern Orthodox tradition can be said to have always maintained this teaching that humanity’s peculiarity lies in our role in the fall and subsequently in salvation, not in it being exclusively about us, with it’s central anthropological teaching that human being are the microcosm of creation, bearing both body and nous, a concept roughly analogous to modern notions of the soul (in this paradigm other bodily creatures have no nous and angels are only a nous with no body) but the tradition has not historically been less anthropocentric than others.

[6] The modern Israeli Hebrew phrase for “humanity” is actually “bnei ha-‘adam,” “the sons of Adam.”

4 Comments leave one →
  1. 18 September 2011 2:18 pm

    An interesting and novel reflection, although I think in trying to over-sell the possible virtues of video games (with which I do not disagree) you take an overly-reductionist line on film and literature. Your claim that, for film and literature, “an identical entirely pre-determined course is followed every time the object is consumed by anyone at all” seems extraordinarily naïve in comparison with the rest of your earnest thoughtful writing. Admittedly this is true on a very surface level, but while deconstructionist critical theory is far from being my gospel, the vital importance of the reader/viewer as a participant in the creation of the work of art should never be ignored. No matter how many times I watch a film or read a book, although the words on the page or the action on the screen is, as you rightly observe, always the same, my experience of those details, and the whole they make up, is never the same; it never can be the same. Beyond the scope of what you were trying to say, I am sure, but it is an important point, I feel, and should never be overlooked.

    • Matthew SG permalink*
      19 September 2011 1:57 pm

      If I might dare to contradict deconstructionist critical theory I would respond that the “identical entirely pre-determined course” to which I referred exists not a surface level but at the deepest level: it constitutes the very substance of the thing being consumed, the Ding as sich, do employ a Kantian category. Of course the Ding an sich is by its very nature unknowable and the book or film cannot be consumed on the level of the Ding an sich but on that level where the reader/viewer interaction constitutes an integral part of the creation of the work itself. However, despite the inaccessible character of the work in its own substance, the thing in itself, it is present every time the work in consumed and constitutes every bit as integral a part of the reality of the work as the reader/viewer interaction/creation, if not in fact a more integral one, since the Ding an sich exists so long as the work itself exists and the work as consumed exists only in the moment in which it is being consumed by a particular individual.

      In contrast the video game is different every time it is consumed on a far deeper level; its Ding an sich includes a extraordinarily large number of possible courses at a level preceding the interaction/creation/interpretation of the player. Because the player will never make the same set of choices and the video game will never make the same responses to player choices in two separate plays of the game (either by two different players or by the same player) the video game as it exists to be consumed will be different every time it is played. The player thus shapes the experience to be consumed in a far more fundamental way than does the reader or viewer. That is the key difference which I sought to describe.

      To use Mass Effect 2 as an example once again: there is nothing in the game that requires me to interact with Thane, the Drell squadmate whom I described. If an understanding of Drell religion is key to understanding some message of the game and I do not gain that understanding because I do not speak to Thane then my ability to grasp whatever message had Drell religion as its interpretive key is impaired. One need not speak to Thane in order to have ‘played’ Mass Effect 2 the way one must read Rebekah’s defense of her commitment to her faith in order to have truly ‘read’ Ivanhoe. This is, I think, the critical distinction between interactive and non-interactive media and at once a terrible weakness and yet-largely-untapped strength of interactive media of art and expression.

      • 20 September 2011 3:56 am

        Well, clearly we are far apart on this point, and I doubt we will get any closer on it. I would contend that what you are drawing out, while valid, is more a difference of degree rather than a “key difference” or “critical distinction” as you claim.

        And your example is less than compelling: if I skip over a passage in a work of literature, my experience of the work is diminished and likely even impaired, just as is, by your own admission, your game-play experience in the scenario you describe. But I have still “read” the book (why are we using scare quotes for this?), just as you have “played” the game: perhaps imperfectly, but we do so few things perfectly in this life.

  2. 18 September 2011 2:45 pm

    This reminds me of the curious evening my first year in college/seminary, when I wandered through the residential floors, dropping into rooms and causally raising the question: if we made contact with intelligent beings from another planet, could we extend to them the salvation of Jesus Christ? That say that it led to some fascinating conversations is probably an understatement.

    The general conclusion over the course of that long-ago evening was cautiously in the negative. So I find it interesting that your reasoning takes you so clearly to the affirmative answer to the same question. The fallenness of all Creation, both brought about and redressed through humanity, is an interesting point. But even given the clearly-mythical nature of the narrative of the Fall, it is hard to fathom why any events of soteriological significance here on this planet would have any bearing on the salvation-history of a completely alien world, even if indubitably part of the same overall creation. Conversely, how well would/could an alien culture embrace a faith centered on the One God becoming incarnate in a form that is not their own (which would seem to take a lot of the appeal out of the Incarnation)?

    Of course, these sort of entertaining but impractical flights of sophistry are a big part of what turned me off Scholasticism in particular and theology in general. It is hard not to think that God is having a bit of a chuckle now having guided me to canon law, where we debate endlessly over question that make salvation for E.T. seem almost fundamental.

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