Alternate realities. The concept fits well with astrophysical views of the multiverse that posit undiscovered dimensions and all their implications. Last night my family finished its group reading of Philip Pullman’s The Subtle Knife, as alternate a reality as might be imagined. Plucking Lyra from the uncertain ending of The Golden Compass, Pullman draws his readers into alternate worlds where everything is tied together by the consequences of “the fall” in Eden and where a new battle against the divine is about to take place. In an ambitious attempt to shift perspectives, we are told that the forces against God are, in fact, good. The magisterium, as its uncompromising strength in Lyra’s world demonstrates, will always seek to rule the world. It is an unsettling picture that Pullman paints, a reality where what we thought was Ormazd turns out to be Ahriman.
At the same time, I have caved in and begun reading The Watchmen. Not a great fan of graphic novels, I have been faced with a mounting curiosity after watching the movie a few times. In this alternate reality, God is simply irrelevant. Doctor Manhattan elaborates on the nature of a universe without a deity more fully in the novel than audience forbearance would allow on the big screen. This is a world perpetually on the brink of self-destruction, where God is absent and human ambition becomes the driving force behind a petty, short-sighted reality. Despite the comic-book feel, the story is profound and the concepts disturbing. Alan Moore’s dark vision of other worlds allows unrestrained human desire free reign with no divine restraints.
Such alternate realities underscore just how much of our reality is structured by religious beliefs. They resemble our world in significant ways, but their lack of divinity forces a nascent nobility from human characters who are only too aware of their own weaknesses. Flawed people try to create a better world. Some theoretical physicists suggest that all imaginable realities likely exist in the infinitude of universes that crowd in on our limited view of the way the world actually is. The ideas are mind-bending since even the worlds imagined on our own limited universe have both created and destroyed concepts of God. What might God’s role be, should the multiverse (or even a Stephensonian metaverse) turn out to be the true reality?
When the local Blockbuster went belly-up a few months back, I was one of the vultures picking the bones. With new DVDs continually creeping up in cost, I look for bargains wherever they might exist. Occasionally I find something for just a couple of dollars that really makes me think. Although I don’t go to theaters often, a couple of years back the previews all featured The Watchmen. I’m not a graphic novel reader either, so it was doubly doubtful that I would ever gravitate to this film. But here it was on sale. Very cheap. The previews had shown Dark Knight-like action and despite my own declarations, I had to admit that I was curious. So I’ve watched it a couple of times and have been intrigued by what an (absentee) role God plays in the movie.
I won’t go into much detail since the story is complex and, to my surprise, sophisticated. Nevertheless, the Watchmen – retired crime-fighters both good and bad – forced out of practice by the government, fear the approach of nuclear war and try to fight back. At several junctures characters declare that there is no God or that they believe there is no God. The setting is an alternate reality in the 1980s, but the crossover between that world and this is evident. Godless heroes may save the day, but with a tremendous human sacrifice required. At first viewing, I was stunned. The message was so bleak and hopeful. The movie could have been made with no mention of God, yet, briefly, his absence was underscored. Strangely, the Bible features in a bedroom scene where a future hero is spending the night with his girlfriend. Why the Bible? Why here?
I would be the first to admit that I do not have the proper background to comprehend the plot. Generally I like to read the book before I see the movie. One of the recurring motifs in the movie version is the doomsday clock that moves dangerously close to atomic war. On top of the Bible is the hero’s watch, ticking inexorably down to midnight. Even I can figure out that the countdown to doomsday is based on the Bible. What the import of this is, however, I can only guess. What kind of world has no God but still has Bibles? A world where Watchmen aren’t wanted and yet are sorely needed. Who will save us now?