A few nights ago I rewatched The Matrix for the first time in many years.
I was struck by how much it influenced my formative years: it planted seeds in my mind that flourished and changed the landscape of my beliefs. When Morpheus said, “You’ve felt it your entire life. That there’s something wrong with the world. You don’t know what it is, but it’s there - like a splinter in your mind.” I felt as if he were speaking directly to me. Morpheus then shows us that the world humanity inhabits was created as an intentional prison. For me, it wasn’t a big stretch to see my reality in that grey light, but looking back on the last twenty or so years, I am left questioning the wisdom and utility of this viewpoint. One might say that I shouldn’t put so much stock in a movie, but I would argue that powerful stories like The Matrix shape how we know the world whether we want them to or not. They tell us what we believe about the nature of reality and possess the ability to influence those beliefs - for better or worse.
The idea of the world being a prison is ancient, going back far beyond Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, and hundreds of years after Plato, the Gnostics continued the tradition with their intertwining of Pagan and Christian ideas (symbolically rich fantastical stories congruent with the plot of the Matrix). The movie is very consistent with Gnostic texts, in that, the only worthy goal in life is to escape the prison and subvert the sinister illusion created by our evil captors. Thus, the only worthy and altruistic deeds are to escape and help others escape. However, it is nearly impossible to escape without help from someone who has already escaped. Therefore, you have to find a Morpheus or a Socrates, or rather they have to find you, and decide you are worthy. In the meantime, nothing you know about the world is true, even the laws of nature, and thus the entire foundation of reality begins to shake, crack, and crumble. Your family isn’t really your family; they were chosen at random, or, by a disinterested bureaucrat from a higher realm. One is ultimately unshackled from the responsibility to family, community, nature, and God because all illusion must be abandoned in order to find the “truth.”
Initially the Gnostics were part of the early Christian church. One has to remember that many in the early church were raised as Pagans, and in those days people didn’t think of religion as we define it today. It wasn’t a separate thing that one attempted to believe, but the basis of reality. It was fully integrated into life. One saw the gods at work in everything. Moreover, thoughts did not originate in the human mind, but were understood to be the gods speaking to us, and the gods did not necessarily have man’s interests in mind. Another misconception is that people in those days only believed in their own gods. This is patently false. Deities were tethered to places and particular groups of people, thus if one went to a new place, there were new gods to deal with. Even the early Christians believed in the existence of Zeus, Hera, Athena (or whoever the local deity was). They also believed that their God created all the other gods, and that their God was omnipotent and inherently good, while the lower gods were thought to have rebelled. They were thought to be evil because they received worship meant for the Creator. When Christianity came on the scene, people didn’t just disregard everything they knew before - they couldn’t. Instead, they integrated the new information with rest - as we do now. The idea of the world being evil from the beginning wasn’t something that was easy to let go of for reasons that are obvious today. The Gnostics held on to this idea, which led to them being labeled as some of the first heretics. This was the source of the first schism in the church.
The Jews, and later, the Christians believed that God is inherently good. This is what demarcates them from other religions. God was, in fact, the primordial definition of good and imbued the world with this goodness. As the story goes, God made a walled garden within the world and placed man in it. Man’s purpose in life was to expand the garden and give names to everything. As I understand it (in broad terms) this means to bring order to chaos. Not “order” in the sense of cleaning your room or putting organizing your files, but “order” in the sense of knowing and participating in the patterns of reality set out by God. The chaos wasn’t evil, it was unknown, raw potential. Thus, they believed all of creation is good because God is good. Later, the world was corrupted due to the choices made by man and other infamous entities, and this led to the incarnation of God as man in the being of Christ. Christ was meant to be a path to the restoration of all creation. The attempt of living in alignment with Christ was a step towards the restoration of the garden, which was man’s responsibility. In contrast to the Pagans/Gnostics, the acceptance of this responsibility and participation in the redemption of the world was man’s destiny.
Both of these views of the origin of our world seem ludicrous to the modern mind because we rely on science to answer all of our questions about reality without actually understanding the science. Instead “they” understand it for us, and we believe. This leaves us in unaware of the limits of science and technique and without a cohesive view of reality. We have given science the status of a god and the faith that goes along with that status, but there are places where science cannot go, and it is dangerous and stupid to assume that if science cannot speak about a subject, it is either irrelevant or nonexistent. Neither the Judeo-Christian or the Gnostic/Pagan worldview is epistemologically provable. However, I argue that every human being alive right now is behaving as if either of them is true, and how one lives in relation to these ideals has the capacity to create ripples that span the globe and shape one’s life, as well as countless others. The idea of escape is seductive. It is very much alive in our current struggles with addiction, our obsession with technology, and even the modern Christian church’s doctrine of rapture to heaven as the world burns. It is all convoluted.
Is the world a prison or a garden overrun with weeds*? How one answers this question will shape their aspirations and determine how they deal with the inevitable suffering life will bring. I have tried the fruit of both trees, and I can tell you: the bitter fruit of responsibility imposed by the Judeo-Christian’s sits better in my stomach. It has begun to reconnect the pieces of my fragmented existence, it has shown me that the tyrant has invaded my heart and mind and must be evicted. It has shown me that my actions have power and meaning. Still, I have been wrong so many times and about so many things that I would not presume to tell anyone how to live or the what the “Truth” is. There is always a place we are compelled go that is beyond what we have the ability to know, and no one can go there for us. Courage and faith are necessities no matter what you believe. Maybe the important thing to realize is that you have to choose, and in the words of Neil Peart, “If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.”
* There is a third choice. Namely that good and evil are human constructs, but in my opinion that idea doesn’t bear up under scrutiny, explaining is beyond the scope of this essay, and it’s a boring, hubristic, and tedious idea.