Posted by: Ken Brown | March 30, 2009

God and Battlestar Galactica

Major Spoiler Warning–don’t read on if you haven’t seen the Finale.

One of the best things about Battlestar Galactica has always been the questions it raises but leaves to the audience to answer, and from the beginning, one of the central questions was the nature of God. Perhaps better than anything else on television, Battlestar allowed for the possibility of a genuine divine interaction with the world, and constantly stressed the tensions between the monotheistic Cylons, the polytheistic Colonials, the former atheist Gaius Baltar and the former theist Cavil.

Nor did the show leave these questions in the abstract. As I’ve noted before, there were too many “coincidences” to be explained without some sort of extraordinary intervention, the only question was what kind?  When Kara wrecked her Viper on a dead planet, prayed for help and immediately found a working Raider; when Gaius “guessed” at the correct place to attack  a key Cylon outpost; when Roslin saw her friend pass to “the other side of the river” and woke up to find that she had died; when Kara returned from the dead; and especially when a series of prophecies and visions led the fleet to Kobal, old Earth and new Earth–something was clearly leading them, but who or what? Despite the frequency of such events, that question was always left debatable, which makes it more than a little surprising that BSG’s controversial finale came down firmly on the side of theism. In the climactic scene, Baltar makes it explicit:

Baltar: Its undeniable. We have all experienced it–Everyone in this room has witnessed events that they can’t fathom, let alone explain by rational means. Puzzles deciphered in prophecy; dreams given to a chosen few; our loved ones–dead–risen. Whether we want to call that god or gods, or some sublime inspiration, or a divine force we can’t know or understand–It doesn’t matter… It doesn’t matter. It’s here; it exists, and our two destinies are entwined in its force.

Cavil responds: If that were true, and that’s a big if. How do I know this force has our best interests in mind, how do you know God is on your side, Doctor?

Baltar: I don’t. God’s not on any one side. God is a force of nature. Beyond good and evil. Good and evil–we created those. Want to break the cycle? Break the cycle of birth, death, rebirth, destruction, escape, death? That’s in our hands, in our hands only. It requires a leap of faith. It requires that we live in hope, not fear.

Even here, there are questions left unresolved–is there one God or many, and what is that god like?–but as the rest of the scene plays out, Gaius is proven right on at least one point. Fear (and anger) leads to death for Tory, Cavil and many others, but when Kara trusts her visions and types “the music” it into the navigation computer, she takes a leap of faith (remember how dangerous blind jumps were said to be?), and it leads to Earth and hope and salvation. God (or the gods) did have a plan, after all, and it was for their good, not their harm.

So despite all my questions, I can’t complain about the way the story ended. I don’t think the world the series had created would have allowed them to deny that there was something more going on than mere coincidence. But if that is true, how are we to understand such a God? A God who never intervenes makes sense, but a God who sometimes does, but not others? A God who takes the trouble to save a single Viper pilot, or lead a remnant to Earth, but cannot be bothered to stop the annihilation of billions in a nuclear holocaust? Or worse, a God who even commands such things, a God who sent the flood? How can we understand a God like that?

Perhaps that is why Gaius does not picture God in that way, at least in this speech. Instead, he calls God “a force of nature.” It is not the first time he has used that expression. In the episode “The Hub” (one of the best of the series), he described the Cylon holocaust the same way, and did indeed compare it to the Flood:

Pythia talks about a Flood that wiped out most of humanity. Nobody blames the Flood. The Flood is a force of nature. Through the Flood mankind is rejuvenated, born again. I was another flood, you see. I blamed myself. I blamed myself. But God made the man that made that choice. God made us all perfect. And in that thought, all my guilt flies away. Flies away like a bird.

Here we have a curious picture: the Flood is a force of nature, unconscious, unchoosing. It does not decide whether to wipe out this home and leave that one, whether to rise five feet or twenty, and so it cannot be blamed for the harm it does. When the Persian King Xerxies gave the sea 300 lashes, we all know he was being absurd, for the sea can neither deserve nor feel punishment. But what about a man? Is it true that Gaius bears no guilt for what he did, that his choices were predestined for him and so blameless? And what of God? If God made him what he is, then even if no one else can deserve blame (or praise, for that matter), God does. And that’s why Gaius’ claim that God is a force of nature doesn’t really work. In fact, he was probably closer to the mark, though considerably less charitable,  in the episode “A Disquiet Follows My Soul”:

Baltar: Is this really our lot? To have been lead, by a father, to the promised land? To paradise? Only to have paradise cruelly smashed to bits before our very eyes? Are these the actions of a father towards his children?… What have you done to deserve this punishment? What sins have you committed to condemn you–condemn you!–to wander through the universe, without hope, without light? So you have to ask yourselves, what kind of a father abandons his own children to despair and loneliness? Perhaps we are not the ones in need of forgiveness! Perhaps we are not. Perhaps we have been wronged! Perhaps it is God who should come down here and beg for our forgiveness!

When that episode aired, I noted the irony of this claim, coming from the man most directly responsible for the very situation he is here decrying (though Carmen offered a more hopeful interpretation of the episode), and the final episode confirmed this, emphasizing in its closing frames that Gaius did willingly (though not quite knowingly) give the Cylons access to the Colonial defense system–the very action that led to the holocaust in the first place. In other words, we cannot so easily dump the blame in God’s lap, for it is our choirces as much as God’s that have led us where we are. Yet the question still remains: How can a God that lets our evil choices stand be good, or is God “beyond good and evil” after all?

Nor is this question merely academic, for it should be obvious that it applies to Christianity as well. As an interesting post at Mere Orthodoxy recently noted, we too often try hide this:

The politically correct God described by this age never chooses for anyone to die. He never chooses for people to lose their homes, or to get sick, or to read newspapers that are racially-tinged. He would stop all of this if he could, but he’s too weak (or he leaves it up to us, or he’s bashful, etc.).

But that is not the God of Christianity. The God of the Bible is not a principle, an unmoved mover, or even “a force of nature.” The God of the Bible is a judge, a king, a warrior, not to mention a lover, a father (and a mother), a friend–but in all ways a person. It is fundamental to biblical religion that God chooses, and not particularly fairly either. Of all the families of humanity, he choose only Abraham and Sarah to reveal himself to. Of all the enslaved peoples of the earth, he rescued only Israel (and at the expense of the Egyptians and the Canaanites). Of all the times and places he could have come in the flesh, he chose 1st century Palestine–and 1st century Palestine alone. The God of the Bible is a God who heals some diseases, but not others, who raises the dead on occasion, but (until kingdom come) not as a general rule. Even Jesus noted this particularity of God’s choice, though he did so precisely to turn it against “the chosen people”:

I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land. Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon. And there were many in Israel with leprosy in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed—only Naaman the Syrian. (Luke 4:25-27)

Apparently, even God’s own past choices are no guarantee–God will choose what God will choose, and more often than not, he chooses those who least deserve it. But however much we may stuggle to understand this, it is precisely the unfairness of God that offers hope. For whether God chooses or not, we do, and much of the time, we choose poorly. More like Gaius Baltar than we’d like to admit, we tend towards self-interest and narcisism. We ignore the pain of others and let ourselves be drawn into evils far beyond our control. Thus, a God who always gave everyone what they deserved would be a God who could never redeem us, for none of us deserve it. A God who remained eternally “beyond good and evil” would never lead a crew of misfit Colonials and Cylons to Earth, and he would certainly never take on flesh and die to bring us life. For that too is central to biblical religion, and–like the Colonials whose sordid lives were never whitewashed on BSG–we can only be thankful for that, even if we can never understand it.

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Responses

  1. Besides its pure worthiness as a well-written, well-directed, well-shot shocker of a great sci-fi (but so much MORE than sci-fi; sci-fi haters, PLEASE watch an episode and you’ll see!!!), BSG so amazingly did all the things you suggest, so well – and so RESPECTFULLY! I feel that, as a Christian, as a theist, as person who sees mystery and majesty in the universe, not to mention purpose, I am finally invited into the conversation of big questions! Thanks for writing such a neat post. When I’m not supposed to be preparing my lessons for school tomorrow, I’ll finish reading it (I’m a slow reader).

    In His Peace…

  2. great post, Ken! this is one of the hardest parts of faith to wrestle with and you have done it well and with great articulation. well spoken. blessings.

  3. Blendedworship,
    Thanks and I totally agree! My wife hates sci-fi, and after I cajoled her into watching the mini-series she was hooked. They almost lost her in season four, but even she liked how it all wrapped up.

    Carmen,
    I don’t know about anyone else, but this is certainly the aspect of faith that I find the hardest to understand!

  4. Well, that’s interesting.

    I have to admit, I gave up on the series in the first season; as a fan of the original BSG, I just couldn’t get into the edgy weirdness. Now, I sort of wish that I’d followed it.

    Anyway, this post is a great read, and I wanted to thank you for taking part in the Christian Carnival this week!

  5. Interestingly, Wickle, most consider the first season the best of the series (so I don’t know what that says about the chances of you liking the rest of it!), but all in all, they wrapped things up pretty well. I have a few complaints, but fewer than I have with most shows!

  6. Well, my problems were more sentimental than anything else.

    Colonel Tigh, for example, was a great, by-the-book guy who would follow Adama into hell and back just because he’s totally loyal to Adama. Watching some guy called Colonel Tigh drink himself stupid and give bad orders was more than I could stand.

    I’ve remarked more than once that if the show had different names, I might have liked it more. I’m very hard on remakes.

  7. […] subtitle, speculating on what the “C” stands for, is great!) posts his thoughts about God and Battlestar Galactica, in which he “examines the portrayal of God in Battlestar Galactica and its connections with […]

  8. Well if that is your main complaint, you should definitely give it another go. Tigh starts out as a drunk, but he doesn’t end that way, and you don’t need to worry about his loyalty to Adama.

    Now Starbuck on the other hand… that might take you some getting used to.

  9. Well, if we’re working our way through the cast … the female Starbuck I could handle. Kara was still Starbuck-y enough for me, just about the only character who held to the original identity well. The female Cylon, kind-of wimpy Boomer was problematic, though.

    I actually liked what they did with Baltar.

    The characters had been paragons, and were made more human. Maybe that’s not such a bad thing … I suppose I’ll wind up checking it out on DVD sometime.

  10. Interesting take on my post. I’d say you were fair to my main point. I wasn’t really trying to say God was unfair, but certainly by the standards of the world He is exactly that (and by His perfect measure He is wonderful and good!). I should follow this blog.

  11. Matt,
    I suppose I could have made it clearer that the point about God’s fairness and election was my addition. Anyway, your post was very good and thought-provoking. To be honest, the sovereignty (and answers-to-nobodyness 😉 ) of God is something I do tend to downplay, and your post was a good reminder of it. As the above indicates, though, it’s not something I’m entirely comfortable with… but maybe that’s not a bad thing.

    As C.S. Lewis put it: “he’s not tame, but he is good.”

  12. Boomer was hardly wimpy. She was conflicted when she started to suspect she was a Cylon, and she almost wimped out by killing herself, but she didn’t go through with it. I don’t like where they took her character, having her turn against humanity because she lost hope that they’d accept her (it turned out in the end that they didn’t, but the good Cylons didn’t either, and that was her fault for supporting the bad Cylons). But she was hardly wimpy. A wimp doesn’t manipulate a former lover into beating up one of her own model of Cylon so she hcan take her place and put her in jail, then going on to beat up another one of her model, proceeding to seduce and have sex with him in view of his wife (tied up and gagged where she can’t be seen), then kidnap their child and almost get killed in escaping. A wimp also doesn’t later admit she was wrong and return the child when she realized how evil the other Cylons were being, even if it took too long for her to see that.

  13. […] Highlights include: A pretty good tale of a man in the midst of potential trouble; looking at the way God works above mere coincidental signs but actually carrying out his purposes in the most surprising ways (I especially liked the irony of Jeremy being accused of taking a shot at Calvinists while he is one…lol); an ehow article on studying the Bible (though I must admit that there’s plenty of ways to study) ; a look at the theistic universe of Battlestar Galactica […]

  14. […] Fiction, Fantasy and an Interventionist God One of the issues raised by my post on God and Battlestar Galactica is hod God can be just to intervene someof the time, but leave […]

  15. Oh, no … Now I’ve got Jeremy going!

    Since at least half of what you said about Boomer I never saw, I’ll defer. I gave up on the show too early, perhaps.

  16. Wickle,
    The reason you never saw half of that is because he just spoiled the last few episodes for you (or one of their plotlines, anyway)!

  17. […] Brown presents God and Battlestar Galactica posted at C. Orthodoxy, saying, “Explores the tensions and questions surrounding a God who […]

  18. […] all our problems. It was precisely its willingness to engage with such religious ideas that made Battlestar so interesting, and maddening, and continues to add depth to LOST and other recent science fiction. […]

  19. To say that a person deserves to be forgiven is to state a self-contradiction, for it is to state that the person has done nothing wrong and thus does not stand in need of forgiveness.


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