By Matt Boulter
Although I’m a mere adjunct at a little-known university, I love teaching in an academic setting. It is a deep joy and a formidable challenge to stand in front of 30 or 40 young adults between the ages of 17 and 22, attempting to focus and hold their attention on the history of ideas in the West: ideas about nature, God, morality, and much else besides.
One of my primary goals every semester is to help these students to identify and question their most deeply held assumptions. In my “Introduction to Philosophy” class, I begin the semester-long discussion with a clip from the 10th episode of season one of the 2016 American television series Preacher. In this clip, reminiscent of the “behind the curtain” scene in the Wizard of Oz, the protagonist of the series — the Preacher, Jesse Custer — subversively unmasks the fraudulence of an elderly man (long grey beard and all) who has been pretending to be God, seated on a lofty throne somewhere in the heavens, whose image is being projected through a live video feed onto an overhead screen in a church. In a crowded sanctuary full of duped, ecstatic worshipers, the following dialogue between the two characters ensues:
“Excuse me. I have one last question. You’re not God, are you?”
“I am the Alpha and the Omega!”
“No you’re not.”
“I am the Bright Morning Star!”
“I just saw you picking your nose.”
“No, my son, I was scratching it.”
“You’re an imposter!”
“I am the Lord, your God!”
“You’re not God.”
“Yes I am! Jesus!”
“Where is God?” …
“I don’t know. None of us do. He’s missing. God is missing! We don’t know where he is. Maybe he’s down there. We don’t know!”
As the crowd reels from the traumatic shock that “God is missing,” the Preacher triumphantly exits the church, leaving the viewer to wonder if and how the “real God” (if there is one) will be discovered, and this is presumably the fodder for season two.
Now why do I show this clip to my undergraduate philosophy students, near the beginning of the semester? By way of an often convoluted discussion, I try to help them see that the Preacher and, by extension, the filmmaker are surely correct. In the spirit of Xenophanes and Socrates, who mounted scathing critiques of the Olympian deities, I argue that a “being” who picks his nose is certainly not God. In fact, as Parmenides shows us, a being who has a nose — or any other kind of material composition or constitution is certainly not God.
For Parmenides, who laid the foundation for the orthodox Christian (and Jewish, and Muslim) understanding of God, ultimate being — whatever it is — must be simple (haplóos in Greek). That is, it must be non-spatial, non-material, non-temporal, non-composite, unbounded, all the while remaining fundamentally one: identical to itself, admitting no difference, diversity, or change whatsoever. With Parmenides, we encounter the first preliminary annunciation of the via negativa, the way of attempting to grasp something — even if dimly, indirectly, darkly — about God or the divine nature by considering what it is not. Thinkers from Aristotle to Pseudo-Dionysius to Thomas Aquinas agree, developing this line of thought that began with Parmenides.
The students mostly hold the typical assumptions of the Bible Belt South, and first regard this clip as a brazen affront to traditional religion. The conclusion to which I try to guide them is that, actually, the filmmaker is deftly implementing the vision of many premodern thinkers. If God is real, God is not and cannot be a big man in the sky, even if this big man is the most powerful thing around. If there is any such thing as God, he must be completely other than the world, completely transcendent to creation. God, if God there be, must be the ground, the condition of the possibility, of existence itself.
This brings me to a more current pop culture reference: Marvel Studios’ most recent cinematic iteration, Avengers: Infinity War, which I recently saw in the theater with my two daughters. (Major spoiler alert!) In this uber-sensationalistic, over the top epic — the CGI effects alone make 2008’s Iron Man look like a film from a bygone era — the antagonist Thanos mounts a gargantuan attempt to harness the ultimate power of the universe. He already seems to dwarfing the Incredible Hulk like an ordinary adult dwarfs a little baby. Yet this monster of a creature aspires to be nothing less than God. As he attains each additional “infinity gem,” eventually completing the all-powerful “infinity gauntlet,” he wields more and more power throughout the story.
By the time the film tragically concludes, Thanos has clearly become the most powerful being in the entire universe. Fulfilling an earlier prophecy he finally retires to rest in the film’s final scene, having finished his work. The message is clear: more than a god, Thanos is God.
For my future undergraduates who are yet to read Parmenides, there is no reason to doubt that he could be.
I don’t remember if at any point in the film Thanos picks his nose. It matters not. What matters is simply that he has one. And so he is truly no god at all.