Looking for God in The Matrix
In her recent Christianity Today piece on The Matrix, Frederica Mathewes-Green pointed out a heresy at the heart of the movie. The choice being posed in the movie, she noted, is between a worthless physical world and a worth-filled spiritual realm, a world of the real. I think theologically Frederica and I are in agreement: The Matrix doesn't reflect the fact that the earth is full of God's glory, and that we are to glory in it.
But as one of the hyperventilating postmodern Christians looking for meaning in the Matrix films, I can imagine some reasons that author/directors Andy and Larry Wachowski pose the false dilemma they seem to give us.
We should note first that the worlds of the Matrix films—the computer-generated matrix that humans are a part of and the "desert of the real" that we see after the destruction of most of the human race—are actually both human creations, not God's creation. Except for a scene in Reloaded where Neo discovers himself to be sequestered five hundred miles away from the main action at a villain's chateau in the mountains—which strikes me mostly as a plot device to make it harder for Neo to save the day—the matrix we see is strictly urban, a megalopolis of gray concrete based on the so-called height of human civilization.
If there is a flower, a rainbow, or a smidgen of God's creation to be found within the program, I don't recall it. Likewise the "real" world is the ultimate devastated product of human civilization, and unless you find majesty in blasted rock and nuclear winter, I can't see much of an opportunity for the characters in the films to find beauty in much of anything except each other.
In the Matrix movies, we don't really have the chance to see God's world and it's majesty, which works, I think, to the Wachowski Brothers' dramatic purpose: They are streamlining the possibilities of grace and spiritual connection to better fit their story and their messages. Through the symbol of the matrix they encourage us to question our beliefs and to seek enlightenment in a world where too many are willing to accept the world as it seems. At the same time, they also seem to believe that the world as it seems is still very much worth saving. For people of faith, their story covers familiar sacred ground.
The matrix of the films is a world that devours the soul and controls the mind; it literally consumes the human beings in it. The images of people being consumed in order to power that world are among the most powerful and disturbing scenes of the original Matrix. The world of sensation seems so true that most people in that world are unable to break away, to see beyond it to what is real and lasting. They are lost in sleep, in a destructive dreamland that will destroy them. Clearly the idea of the matrix allows for some important spiritual lessons: We take our reality for granted. We tend not to question what we see, hear, and feel. We toil away for purposes that sometimes are counter to our truest selves.
The cosmology the Wachowski Brothers are using here seems to be drawn from Christian Gnostic thought—that the world we know (the matrix, if you will) is fallen and unredeemable, with no spiritual value, while the spiritual world is the sole realm of light and life. There aren't so many Gnostic Christians around these days.
All the same, this is an idea that has plenty of currency in the world—many Hindus, Buddhists, and contemporary Christians see this world as merely an annoying stage to be passed through, of no importance except in a negative sense. And many people—of all faiths and no faith—tend to accept that the world as it is either isn't worth changing or can't be changed, tend to accept the beliefs they're given without challenging them. That's what the character of Neo, played by Keanu Reeves, has done up until the beginning of the first Matrix film. He has been our representative, stranded like us in the web of the world we perceive.