Thanos and the God of the Right

July 25th, 2018

Like millions of other movie goers around the globe, I recently took in the latest saga in the Marvel Comics Universe, Avengers: Infinity War. Ok…I saw it twice. And I’m sure that I left the theater with many of the same impressions that millions of other viewers had. I was drawn in by the attention to character development and the personality dynamics. I was kept surprised by some of the plot developments (I’ll try to keep spoilers to a minimum), but I also came away with some thoughts about how we often distort the conception of God in ways that reflect our own insecurities and fears.

That last sentence might have graced your eyes, dear reader, in a manner similar to how a hard record needle scratch is received by the ears. You might have clamored back to the opening sentence. Didn’t he say he watched a comic book movie? Let me attempt to explain. Comics, like other forms of literature, can offer an insight into ourselves. “We live in the stories we tell ourselves.” Prominent Scottish comic writer Grant Morrison put it this way in his book, Supergods: Our World in an Age of the Superhero. He claims our increasingly secular culture often lacks any convincing spiritual leadership and that superhero stories can be a window into our greatest fears, desperate longings, and even highest aspirations.

Perhaps what sparked this recognition for me was the apocalyptic scene with driverless cars careening and crashing throughout Manhattan reminiscent of the rapture movies of the 1970’s or their Left Behind successors of the 21st century. Perhaps it was the plot point of the antagonist’s quest to collect the “infinity stones” in order to obtain infinite power that would allow the possessor to bring any act of will to reality. In any case, I came away considering Thanos as a stand in for a certain view of God that often seems prevalent in the American fundamentalist/evangelical cultural imagination.

Without going too far down the rabbit hole of comic book lore, let me start with a brief description of Thanos, the antagonist in the movie and within the Marvel Universe. In the Marvel mythos, Thanos is a son of an Eternal born on Saturn’s moon, Titan. He gains enormous strength and unsurpassed knowledge, and because of a quite literal fascination with Death (personified in the comics), he seeks the Infinity Stones, six gems of cosmic power scattered throughout the universe. If collected together, the bearer of those stones would possess infinite power.

While Marvel makes clear that the possession of such infinite, coercive power in the hands of Thanos is wrong — he’s the bad guy after all — there is often a way of presenting the God of Christianity in such terms. It emerges when religious leaders blame natural disasters or widespread poverty, famine or disease as God’s judgment of a particular group or nation. Hints of it occur when concern for the climate that requires decisive action and changed lifestyles is rejected because “God is in control.”

Maybe I wonder too much about the these issues today because of the growing American cultural slide towards authoritarianism. In a climate of fear and uncertainty, the promise of an individual power strong enough to make right what seems wrong by fiat can be compelling. After all, if we think we are under threat, isn’t the most logical solution the exercise of a force powerful enough to eliminate or to defeat that threat?

In some ways the cruelty that emerges from such a theology is natural. At a gut level, we know that the all-powerful god who bends reality to will fails to show up in the ways in which we would desire. The absence does not deter; instead, it spurs the creation of a religion that substitutes this absence with a religious structure that incarnates coercive power into its worldview. Rather than let this absence spur one to theological reflection — a consideration of whether this is indeed the God-given expression by the witness of Jesus of Nazareth — we take this god formed in the image of our insecurities and fears as a divine warrant to exercise our “compassion” for others in coercive terms. In this case, punitive measures are preferred over restorative care. Retribution becomes the face of justice as we express our implicit assumptions that the world is divided in a binary of the pure and impure, rendering the necessity of two different modes of dealing with others. How did we get here?

Fr. Richard Rohr points out that the deformation of Christianity into a religion primarily concerned with providing an evacuation plan for the next world might have something to do with the aggressive resistance to the vulnerability embedded in the call to lose one's self. This denial that Jesus hints at is too radical for us. In its stead, we invent a self-denial that is only delayed gratification.

Part of the narrative appeal of Thanos in Infinity War is precisely his apparent struggle to achieve the infinite power by which he will save us by destroying half of us. His portrayed anguish is sublimated by his sheer will to save us. This is so often the god who was presented to me in church. When we are stripped of any agency or ability to participate in the divine will, the result is a theological outlook in which arbitrary, coercive power must be exercised on our behalf. We lack the necessary ability to cooperate in our own redemption.

Thanos’ plan works within an economy of a grand scale. It is audacious, bold, and inspires shock and awe. Only those with the requisite will to carry it out are to be counted on. He is the one with the will carry it out. His faithful disciples, the children of Thanos, present this powerful reckoning as a cause for joy, even and especially for those who suffer and are destroyed in its wake. They are to rejoice, for their heretofore insignificant life is taken up into the grander plan.

This is the logic of sovereign power. The grand scale economy is the story because utility is the goal and the good. A power that solves things by coercion cannot but disempower those affected. Their worth is only measured in this grand economy of scale by their participation in it, whether they chose to thrive or to suffer annihilation as collateral damage. Thanos cannot give without taking away. As one of Thanos’ agents tells the suffering remnants of Asgard, “Hear me and rejoice! You are about to die at the hands of the children of Thanos. Be thankful that your meaningless lives are now contributing to the balance.”

An illuminating detail which appears in the Infinity Gauntlet, the comic series which inspired the story of the movie, is that Thanos comes to believe that divinity as he understands it (ultimate, coercive power) calls for clear thinking unburdened from the chaos of emotion. He then uses his infinite power at one point to rid himself of flesh and vulnerability. It proves to be his downfall. The power to bend reality to one’s will and to control all that goes on may seem attractive, but does it square with the faith claim that the divine is revealed in a peasant carpenter from Palestine?

In Christianity, as seen through the lens of the Incarnation, we experience another economy: an economy of grace and love, an economy of the small scale. It appears wasteful as it tosses aside concerns of utility; it encourages the paradoxical practices of emptying oneself and finding the face of God in the suffering other. It leaves the ninety-nine to pursue the one. It is foolishness. It offers no guarantees. It invites us to an emptying of pretensions to power because it is a power that is empty, powerless, and foolish to the children of Titan.

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