The thoughts that generated this came to me back a month ago.
I’m not sure what generated them–but I have a moment, so I’m going to try and get this written out.
It deals with the tension that exists between symbols–which exist most fully within the minds of human beings–although they have physical embodiments in material space–and the human beings themselves that generate/believe in/give power to these symbols.
Perhaps the best way to get directly to the meat of what I’m thinking is to go back to the quote from Batman Begins that came to mind and started off the whole NOM in my head.. The quote comes from relatively early in the movie, after Bruce Wayne has just rebelled against the League of Shadows and Alfred has picked him up in a jet. He tells Alfred,
Bruce: People need dramatic examples to shake them out of apathy and I can’t do that as Bruce Wayne. As a man, I’m flesh and blood, I can be ignored, I can be destroyed; but as a symbol… as a symbol I can be incorruptible, I can be everlasting.
Alfred: What symbol?
Bruce: Something elemental, something terrifying.
This is where batman literally begins. Batman begins as a symbol–a force of nature and something more than just a man. Bruce Wayne creates this symbol through a lot of mental and physical work–and a ton of material resources. In the process, Batman becomes something almost supernatural.
People begin to treat him as a demon–exactly the form that appears to the Dr. Jonathan Crane/Scarecrow–or to others as a protective, if dark, force for good.
This is all well and good.. but what made this thought interesting was that really, at least in my experience, the same kind of thing happens with various beliefs in the supernatural.
To cut to the chase, one way of saying this is, ”God is nothing more than Batman–but on a far grander scale and carried out in a more pure and powerful way.”
Let me admit upfront here, I don’t believe in the existence of God or god or any gods.. just as I don’t believe in the actual existence of a real, live, Batman in our world. But let’s not get side-tracked here on my atheism. I do not claim absolute certainty on this belief of mine–so believe in God or Batman if you like.. if it makes you a better person in this world.. so be it..
Back to the point, this comparison stuck because of how powerful the symbolism and the symbolic character of these identities was. In the batman story line–at least in that movie and leading into the next–Batman becomes successful in creating a symbolic force that people believe in. They begin to ascribe almost supernatural powers to it and it makes them change their behavior. Criminals fear. Good people feel stronger and safer.
This is a real change in human behavior in the film, and it’s not all that different from how many humans act in real life either.
Not everyone, of course, acts this way. Symbols are only powerful to the extent that people believe in them. If you don’t think the symbol has meaning, then it’s not going to affect you. In Batman, Ra’s Al-ghul knows Batman is just a man–and and he has no fears or compunctions about treating him as such.
Human belief in Deities strike me as being very much like this whole situation. Especially as time passes and any possibly original concrete manifestation of deities has been stripped away and abstraction takes over much more fully–something that is much more true historically in the monotheistic religions–you can see how the force, power, and abilities of the supernatural can become incredibly influential in people’s brains. God becomes omnipotent and omniscient and the only existing deity–something that doesn’t necessarily mesh up with what early Jews actually believed.
As this has happened, interesting things start to take place. God becomes all-loving, but sends people to hell. Or else he’s not like that at all. Different adherents of the current multitude of Christian sects disagree with each other about who this God character actually is–because they are all following different constructs based on particular interpretations of certain texts.
This is possible, because you cannot go and judge the information in these texts against an actual and concrete God. Unlike ancient biological texts that seem laughable today because of how wrong they are, many religious texts that are just as old are revered as truth still because they involve content that originates primarily in the symbolic and abstract. That makes it very powerful–because you can ascribe almost anything you want to it–things that are not physically possible and which don’t necessarily have to make logical sense–and people have a much harder time refuting something that cannot be seen, heard, touched, or tasted.
The lack of the physical makes the abstract strong for many–because it is so much harder to destroy.
Anyway.. this seems like an attempt to slam god or religion–but that is not my intent at all. If anything, I think Batman–especially Christopher Nolan’s whole vision of him–is awesome. While some may find comparing God to Batman to be a blasphemous diminishment of him, I would note that, for me, this is actually a very positive association that I don’t otherwise have for supernatural entities.
But I’m not done yet.
The symbolic world is not the only, or even primary part of our reality. Nor is it the entire story for Batman. As The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises make ever more clear as they progress, Bruce Wayne may want Batman to be a Symbol, but underneath the symbol is still a flesh and blood human.
And humans break and bleed. They are not all powerful. They have weaknesses and they make mistakes.
This is the human world.
This is also what seems to happen to God and other deities on a regular basis. While the abstract God can be everything, anything, and nothing–all at the same time–when human followers try to mimic this, they fail.
Often spectacularly and horribly at the same time.
You see this when humans abuse the power of belief in deities–to try and gain power for themselves. This is not hard to see–and many people see it. It is also NOT something that ALL believers do. Many of them never abuse the symbolic power of the abstract at all by trying to wrench it upon themselves. Instead, they remain conscious of the limited–if powerful–nature of humanity, while also using the abstract and limitless power of the symbolic to guide their actions in better ways.
This is where the tension is, where it can do amazing things, and where it can really show us a core aspect of our humanity.
Coming back to our caped crusader, the end of the Dark Knight embraces this tension fully when Batman does what he can to save the city by falling.. by becoming the hero that the city deserves.
To do this, he has to allow the symbolic meaning of Batman to change.. to become tarnished so that the city can keep another, a more shining and beloved symbolic hero–the Good Harvey Dent–as it’s guiding light.
Nevermind that the human version of Harvey Dent is really the failure. No–do mind that fact–because it shows the power in all of this tension between the symbolic and the concrete worlds… how belief really can make a difference in what people do in their lives… but also how that belief may not–and quite often–does not at all correspond to what is going on in concrete reality.
Harvey Dent’s Idealism was corrupted and twisted and he fell.
Harvey Dent the man had become a villain.
Harvey Dent, the Symbol, was kept alive by Batman’s sacrifice of his symbolic worth, and most likely by some real physical suffering.
In the end, I must acknowledge that I still felt bad for Batman–because I could have survived Harvey Dent’s fall (even if the plotline for the film makes clear why Batman does this..). I prefer the flawed, imperfect, and gray human world–where heroes are not perfect, but are just women and men like us striving to do good.
I also know that in my life, adhering to a prettier vision–a perfect symbolic vision that fails to correspond to the reality I perceive–that has never made me happy… and more often than not, has caused me pain. Living what I perceive to be a lie for the sake of some longer term project has always led to greater heartache in the end.. (something that does come up in the subsequent film near the end…)
I know this is not the case for everyone, however. I also know that imposing my version of reality on people can actually do them damage–in that some people need to retain these positive visions to give them the motivation to carry on. Thus, I try to be cognizant of this.
But I must also write about what I see.
And what I see is a serious tension in people, in society, and in our approaches to the world.
Which begs the question, of course….
Why so serious everyone?
Why so serious?