As I believe you know, for me comic book superheroes and
their adventures have taken the place of the gods and scriptures of religion.
That is not my only canon, for let me never leave out Robert E. Howard and H.P.
Lovecraft from my personal pantheon. All these fire and inspire my imagination,
valorize the world I live in. It is a world of gods and monsters, all right,
and this very talk is momentarily going to get into the question of how one
tells the difference between gods on the one hand and monsters on the other.
Bible, too, as all the heritage of the world religions, is never far from my
mind. And just tonight I think of a passage from the Moses epic that has
rightly served the dramatic, homiletical needs of preachers for centuries. It
is the story of Kadesh-Barnea, the town marking the threshold of the Promised
Land. Moses had sent out a reconnaisance team led by Joshua and Caleb to spy
out the land with a view toward conquest. Joshua and Caleb agreed that the
prospect was daunting, but especially with the help of God, they ought to be
able to take the Canaanites in battle. The rest of the spies, however, were of
a more pessimistic turn of mind. They reported on the heavy armor and the great
stature and might of the Canaanite warriors, who seemed so gigantic that the
Israelites forever after imagined them to be the descendant of primordial
Titans, the Nephilim. A future haunted by such mighty man-monsters, supermen,
did not look particuilarly bright. Why pick a fight with them? Best to let well
enough alone and find some other, easier future than the Land of Promise.
decision was not Moses’ to make, unless he wanted to enter Canaan by himself.
It was up to the people, and they were a skittish lot. Sure, they had seen the
miraculous deliverance of their god in the past. Remember how he had dealt with
Yul Brynner and his hosts? But that was in the past. Who knew if their luck
would hold? So at Kadesh Barnea the people turned back. Later they would come
to regret it, as they wandered helplessly through the monotonous wilderness for
forty years. But the decision was never available to them again. They could
only look back at the lost prospect of promise with bittersweet longing and
think of what might have been.
Tillich’s terms, they faced a crucial
moment, a kairos, a strategic moment of opportunity, a pivot point in
destiny that rarely lingers or presents itself a second time, and they failed.
They allowed it to pass. It was a tragedy.
keep the scorecard straight, let me note that the whole thing is unhistorical.
There never was an exodus of the twelve tribes from Egypt, nor a grand
genocidal conquest of Canaan. It is all part of the fanciful Heilsgeschichte
of an ancient people. The point of such a sacred saga has never been to tell us
what happened in the past but rather to tell us what is happening right now, or
may be, in our own day, if we can only discern the signs of the present time.
books may do the same. Last week I saw the comic-based movie X-Men. In
1963 Stan Lee created the X-Men to put a new spin on the current Marvel version
of the super-hero. Just about all Stan’s creations owed their powers to the
beneficial influence of atomic radiation! The Fantastic Four were transformed
by Cosmic rays in outer space. Bruce Banner became the Incredible Hulk when
bombarded by Gamma rays.Matt Murdock lost his sight when run over by a truck,
but it was carrying radioactive material, and the result was to heighten all
his remaining senses to a fantastic degree. And you know about Spider-Man:
bitten by a radiation-poisoned spider in a science lab, Peter Parker took on
the proportionate strength and agility of a spider.
X-Men were different. They were children of people who had been exposed to
radiation with no spectacular results. They inherited their powers via
classical genetic mutation. As they reached puberty their extraordinary powers
began to manifest, to the fear and horror of those around them. Professor
Charles Xavier recruited them and trained them to use their powers in service
to the very humanity that scorned and feared them. He trained them, as it were,
for the role of Bodhisattvas, who did not scorn their inferiors, mere Homo
Sapiens, but bent down from a superior height to lift them up.
was not the only approach the mutants took. Xavier’s counterpart, Magneto, had
lost his parents to Auschwitz. He knew what humanity was capable of, especially
when faced with a gifted group it envied. Jews had become pariahs and
scapegoats, and now mutants, Homo Superior, faced the same prospect. But
whereas Professor X, Charles Xavier, strove to demonstrate that mutants could
be the protectors of the human race, Magneto decided that Homo Sapiens’s time
in the sun was over. Ironically, he formed a Brotherhood of Mutants with a
super-race ideology not unrelated to that of the very Nazis whose cruelties
soured him on humanity to begin with! But he saw no inconsistency. The trouble
with the Nazis was only that they were wrong: they weren’t the
super-race. But that didn’t mean there wouldn’t be one, and that when it
arose, it shouldn’t rule.
us who embrace the propeht-cry of Brother Nietzsche are used to being blamed
for Nazism. I said, in an adddress to the national Mensa two weeks ago, that,
though considering myself a Nietzschean, and no mere atheist, I did not
slavishly accept every idea of Nietzsche. I had in mind, for instance, his view
of women. But someone in the audience asked if I were referring to the doctrine
of the Superman, that a new ideal of humanity is on its way, once we sweep the
rotting corpse of God out of his path. This audience member supposed that I
would want to distance myself from a doctrine tarnished by Hitler’s
misappropriation of it.
If I were
a theist, I wouldn’t, as some have suggested, observe a moritorium on the use
of the word “God” because of the way it has been used as an excuse for evil.
No, I would, like Martin Buber, insist on using the word and being aggressive
in making clear what I did and did not mean. Of course, I’m not a theist, so
that’s not my fight.
ought to be obvious that the coming of the X-Men is a mythical exploration of
the coming of the Nietzschean Superman. It reflects with only slight distortion
a very real choice we now face. As far as we know, there are no spontaneous or
radiaion-induced mutations such as the movie describes. So we don’t have to
decide how we will react to them. But we do face the acquisition of a power
undreamt of since Dr. Frankenstein, the Modern Prometheus, uttered the
declaration, “Now I know how it feels to be God!” We have mapped the human
genome, and soon the power will be ours to tamper and tinker, to edit and
revise the human structure, even the human nature!
are voices who cry out at this juncture, on the threshold of this
Kadesh-Barnea, that we must not! They see lurking in the future a host of
genetically-engineered Canaanite giants and Nephilim, so they do not view the
future as a promised land at all. The miserable Jeremy Rifkin, aptly named for
his jeremiads, is among the chief of these. But he and his ilk are like the
faithless and fearful multitude that advised the diasastrous course of turning
away from the future, of embracing the prospect, which is not a pro-spect
at all, of circling and circling like a donkey tied to a post, treading a
that the mapping of the human genome is a gauntlet cast down. Or to put it
another way, it is the much-anticipated dropping of the other shoe. The first
shoe was the moon-landing in 1969, a deed which I do not hesitate to call the
greatest event in the history of the human race. As of that moment, the fears
of Jehovah in the Tower of Babel became palpable: “Now nothing they propose to
do will be impossible for them.” Amen to that! That was the first light of the
dawning of the Superman. But the bright disk is beginning to clear the horizon
with the mapping of the human genome. It is the fallen second shoe. And it is
the cast gauntlet.
It is a
challenge we must either accept or decline. And in so doing we will show our
true colors. We will declare our membership in the cringing herd who seek
security in numbers, failing to see that a sum of however many zeroes never
exceeds zero. Or we will declare our allegiance to Zarathustra and his
Superman. We will be taking the seal of that Coming One, even as those did who
were immersed by John the Baptist: “One greater than I is coming, whose
sandal-thong I am unworthy to stoop and fasten.” And that is the Superman.
It is not
precisely that the result of genetic engineering will himself be the
superman, don’t you see that? Nay, rather, it is we who will qualify for
that honor if we will but recognize our destiny and seize it! The power of the
gods is ours! Homo Superior is not the test tube baby so much as the one who
creates him in the test tube!
I saw a
great Star Trek episode the other day, “Where No Man Has Gone Before.”
In it, crewman Gary Mitchell gets exposed to a comet’s radiation and begins to
mutate into a being with limitless mind-over-matter powers. In an
unguarded moment he compares the crew
with a bunch of insects. Kirk and Spock are persuaded that they must act
swiftly to destroy him. It’s either Homo Sapiens or Homo Superior. Star Trek
dealt with this theme again in “Space Seed,” where we learn that earth had a
century or so before been swept by a war between battling genetic supermen.
Khan Noonian Singh had been the greatest of these genetically enhanced beings,
and again, mere humanity decided to act for self-preservation. They turned back
the blitzkrieg of the “Young Supermen” and sent the remnant of them into space,
where Kirk and crew were to discover them many years later. Once freed, the
mutants gave the humans a run for their money. And again in the Star Trek
movie The Wrath of Khan.
conflict we see in all these TV shows and films provides a surprising analogy
to the progress of science as Thomas V. Kuhn described it. He saw the evolution
of science as a succession of competing paradigms, different theoretical
models. Everyone believes, with Ptolemy, that the planets orbit the earth. But
then an upstart like Copernicus comes along with a different blueprint: if you
assumed the planets, including ours, all orbited the sun, it would make a lot
of things a lot easier to figure out! At first Copernicus’ paradigm faces a lot
of opposition. But that’s good! It doesn’t mean his opponents are all stubborn
mossbacks. No, the new paradigm needs to prove its superiority to the old
precisely by running the gauntlet, winning the battle of argument and evidence.
It would be risky, arbitrary, if scientists all just signed on from love at
Kuhn, so with Khan! Khan Noonian Singh
ultimately fails to prove his superiority. Kirk says, “I’m laughing
at the ‘superior intellect.’” And so whose is the superior intellect?
Magneto fail to prove their point that they are Homo Superior simply because
they cannot see a way superior to the race of trolls they seek to supplant.
Suppose they can kill masses of people in new, more dramatic ways? Is this
qualitative superiority, or only quantitative? Like giving a savage gunpowder?
“If Cain be avenged sevenfold, surely Lamech will be avenged
Professor X shows the way of Homo Superior precisely by his apprehension of the
truth that “the greatest among you shall be your servant.” The Superman
persuades, and so defeats his enemy, his rival, in the most genuine manner: by
converting his enmity to friendship.
Kirk demonstrates that Homo Superior is the one with the resources to increase
life for all, not death for all, to find a solution when none existed. In the
species conflict typified by “Kirk vs. Khan”, it is important to see what is at
stake. Is Khan, the genetically enhanced specimen, the Man of Tomorrow (one of
Superman’s titles, by the way), the path down which our evolutionary future
lies? Or is Khan merely like the Ice Age or the Sabretooth tiger: an obstacle
against which Kirk will prove his evolutionary superiority by devising a way to
proceed with the wonders of genetic engineering, there is no guarantee there
will not be Nephilim, giants, Evil Mutants to fight. Tne way forward has never
been without unforseen troubles, battles against adversaries, including our own
blunders. And, just as surely, the way forward has never been found by
surrender and turning aside, by fleeing from phantoms dimly glimpsed in the
mirror of our own unworthiness.
To the Superman!
Robert M. Price
July 18, 2000