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, and anyone who dwells in it must learn
to distinguish the gods from the monsters.
too, is never far from my mind. 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 reconnaissance team led by Joshua and Caleb to spy
out the land with a view toward conquest. Joshua and Caleb, on their return,
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 particularly bright. Why pick a fight with them? Best
to let well enough alone and find some other, easier future than the Land of
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. In Tillich’s terms, they had 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. 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 immediate effects. Their offspring 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
us who embrace the prophet-cry of Nietzsche are used to being blamed for Nazism.
Though I consider myself a Nietzschean, and no mere atheist, I do not slavishly
accept every idea that floated through Nietzsche’s skull. I have in mind,
for instance, his view of women. But what about 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? One might expect I would want to distance myself from
a doctrine tarnished by Hitler’s misappropriation of it. But no. If I
were a theist, I wouldn’t, as some have suggested, observe a moratorium
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. But I will defend the
doctrine of the Superman.
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 radiation-induced mutations such as the comics describe. 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 is among the chief of these. But he
and his ilk are like the faithless, fearful multitude that advised the disastrous
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 deepening groove.
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 the Ubermensch. 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!
great Star Trek episode, “Where No Man Has Gone Before” 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.
we see in all these TV shows and films provides a surprising analogy to the
progress of science as Thomas S. Kuhn described it. He saw the evolution of
science as a succession of competing paradigms, different theoretical models.
Everyone believed, with Ptolemy, that the planets orbit the earth. But then
an upstart like Copernicus comes along with a different blueprint: if you assume
the planets, including ours, all orbit the sun, it makes 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 first sight!
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? Khan and 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 seventy-sevenfold.”
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. Likewise, Kirk demonstrates that Homo
Superior is the one with the resources to increase life for all, not death for
all, to find a solution where 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 saber-tooth tiger: an obstacle against which
Homo Sapiens will prove his evolutionary superiority by devising a way to beat
If we proceed
with the wonders of genetic engineering, there is no guarantee there will not
be Nephilim, giants, Evil Mutants to fight. The way forward has never been without
unforeseen 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!