Friday, August 16, 2002

"Religion in Farscape," Part Third and Final

Even I'm starting to get tired of this topic, so let's go ahead and finish it up, shall we? Note that this is, indeed, Part 3, so that if you want to read the whole thing, you'll need to scroll down to Aug. 14 for Part 1, and then scroll up to the next day for Part 2. Not my fault, that's just how Blogger does things.

Once again, this thing is chock full o' SPOILERS, so if you don't want to know, say, that Character X dies in Episode Y, don't read it.

We'll continue by addressing the topics I promised to cover last time out, starting with:

Evidence for an afterlife in the Farscape universe:

OK, so Stark claims that he helps people "cross to the Other Side," and occasionally seems to hear voices from beyond the grave. But, one has to admit, Stark is scarcely the most sane and reliable of observers. When he claims to have seen Zhaan in "Relativity," Rygel accuses him of hallucinating, and for all we know, he might very well be right. So before we go taking his word for things, it's good to go looking for evidence to back him up.

We might, first of all, point to Sierjna, the ghost from "Meltdown." Rygel dismisses her, too, as a hallucination, but it's quite clear that she actually does exist. Mu-Quillis, like Stark, is able to see and interact with her, and she imparts information to Stark that he would otherwise have had no way of knowing. The fact that her existence is real, however, doesn't neccasarily indicate that she is exactly what Stark says she is. We have only his word that she is, indeed, dead, and that when he makes her disappear he is actually sending her on to an afterlife. So the evidence there is suggestive, but hardly definitive.

"The Choice," however, does appear to offer us something in the way of genuine, solid evidence. Yes, it's extremely difficult to tell which of Aeryn's visions of the dead John Crichton are real, which are fake, and which are merely her imagination. And, yes, the seer does admit that "Most of the time. . . what we do is a distortion, a hoax." But he goes on to say that he believes that this time it may have been real, and the facts would seem to support him. Because Aeryn sees not simply the John she knew, but also the elderly, alternate-universe John from "The Locket." Aeryn has no memories of those alternate events, because she did not live them. Thus, the images from "The Locket" could not have been taken from her mind. Only Zhaan and Stark were even aware of the alternate timeline's existence at all. One would need a genuine spirit channeler to get the information from Zhaan at this point, and it seems unlikely in the extreme that Stark would have imparted this information to the seer. Even if he did, some of the visions Aeryn sees are events that we saw happening in "The Locket," but which Stark could have had no knowledge of, because he wasn't on the planet. Given, then, that no living person could have so accurately produced those particular visions, the reasonable conclusion would seem to be that they are genuine.

The fact that Aeryn does see the alternate-timeline John, and that he appears to be conflated with Talyn-John in her visions, raises some interesting questions that we'll get to in the next section.

Just how many John Crichtons are there in the afterlife, anyway?:

So, in Farscape, there does seem to be evidence for the existence of a soul which survives after death. That soul, presumably, is something non-material (an idea we'll expand on in the next section). This immdediately runs into an interesting problem, because, as we've seen, it is quite possible in the Farscape universe to duplicate people. When Kaarvok splits John into two people -- each of them "equal and original" -- in "Eat Me," has he also duplicated John's soul? Do the resulting Johns possess two souls, or one? When the remaining John dies and passes on to the afterlife, will there be two of them there? Or will they in some way rejoin and become one?

It is arguable (though far from clear) that this is exactly what happened with Talyn-John and the alternate-universe John in "The Choice." When Aeryn attempts to contact the former, she gets both, and it's not clear just how much distinction exists between them. "I remember it all now," says John's image, seeming to indicate that he remembers the events of the alternate universe even though, technically speaking, they never happened (or, more accurately, they un-happened). In any case, whether as part of the soul of Talyn-John or as an independent entity, the alternate-universe John does seem to have found his way into the afterlife. Apparently souls split off into an alternate timeline do not simply cease to exist when that timeline is erased. Which would seem to indicate that there must also be an alternate-universe Aeryn out there in the spiritual realm somewhere, together with people, like Aeryn's grand-daughter, who never even existed in the primary reality. Metaphysically, this all seems to get very complicated, very quickly.

And then there's the issue of neural clones. We've seen that it is possible to copy a living person's mind and personality onto a chip, and that the copy is then quite capable of independent thought and action. What happens to the soul in that process? And, as the chip-copy of John asks in "Incubator," do neural clones go to heaven? Is that copy of John now sharing an afterlife with Talyn-John and the version from "The Locket?" If so, have they all blended together into one person, or do they remain distinct? And what of Harvey? Does he have a soul, independent of Scorpius'? Does the version on the chip have a different soul than the version that remained behind in John's mind? (This is a particularly interesting question, because the "neural spillover" version of Harvey that remains in John's mind after the chip is removed quickly becomes an extremely different entity from his original template, and, if he has to share with anyone, seems much more likely to be sharing a soul with Crichton than with Scorpius. After all, he is thinking with John's brain.) And do the two Harveys that exist after "Eat Me" possess one soul or two (assuming they possess any at all)?

I do not know the answers to these questions, but they're certainly interesting to think about.

General Observations, Tentative Conclusions, and Wild-Ass Speculations:

All right. Let's back up for a moment, leave the specific (and largely unanswerable) questions behind, and take a more general look at the way religion and spirituality are portrayed in Farscape.

First of all, most of what we see "holy" people doing in Farscape tends more towards what I'd be inclinced to label "magic" than towards anything traditionally associated with religion (at least, according to traditional Western notions of religion). These mystical or magical abilities may be associated with the worship of a deity and the practice of specific religious tradition (as with Zhaan), or they may be the object of reverance on their own (as seems to be the case with the Orican). Interestingly, the only time I can think of when we see the practice of religion without the display of genuine mystical abilities is in "Jermiah Crichton," where the corrupt priesthood of the Aquarans has erroneously elevated a mortal king to the status of godhood. Genuine religion, in Farscape, seems to be intimately tied up with the ability to attune oneself to, and make use of, mystical energies.

Which begs the question: just what is this mystical energy stuff? Interestingly enough, there does seem to be a fairly obvious (if frustratingly vague) answer, and that answer is that it is some sort of "life force" which exists in sentient beings (and possibly in other forms of life as well). This is actually quite consistent across a variety of mystical practices and practitioners. The Orican "transfers energy" from D'Argo to perform her death ritual, and then steals larger quantities from Moya to perform her re-youthening one. Zhaan offers up her own "spritual energies" to resurrect Aeryn, fatally weakening herself in the process. Maldis sustains himself on the life energies of others. And so on. I would hesitate to say that these "life energies" and the soul are the same thing, because it's clear that the "energy" of a given being can be used up or weakened, where the soul appears to be immortal. But, in the metaphysics of Farscape, it would seem reasonable that the two are intimately related. It is probably not insignficant that Stark, the person with the special affinity for the souls of the dead and dying, is himself in some obscure fashion, partially composed of such energy.

OK. So, to recap, the metaphysics of the Farscape universe seem to work like this: there are mystical energies associated with life forms (or at the very least with sentient life forms). These energies are non-material, and are often represented as belonging to a spiritual "realm," whatever that might actually mean. These energies can be used and manipulated by those who naturally possess the ability, or who have achieved the necessary spiritual discipline, and this manipulation is often associated with a sense of reverence and holiness. The soul appears to be similar in nature to these other energies, but, unlike them, it is indestructable (presumably), and it moves on into the spiritual realm after death (unless something prevents it).

Given this metaphyical background, then, what are we to make of the Delvian religion? The priests of the Delvian Seek seem to have a very good handle on all of this stuff, and since, in the Farscape universe, things really do appear to work the way the Delvian religion suggests that they work, we might, with some trepidation, label the Delvian Seek as a "true religion" (again, in the context of this particular fictional universe). But where does the Delvian Goddess come into all this? This particular metaphysics doesn't seem to require a deity, and certainly not any one specific deity. So, does the Delvian Goddess actually exist?

I'm inclined to think that the answer to that is "yes," though with a number of qualifiers. Once again, the key is Stark, and the fact that he takes up the practice of Zhaan's religion. Stark is certainly attuned to the metaphysical realities of the Farscape universe, in many ways probably more so than Zhaan (even if he lacks many of the abilities she possesses). He also, it seems, has direct, first-hand knowledge about the existence and nature of the afterlife. For Stark, this is not a matter of faith but a matter of fact. It therefore seems unlikely that he would be willing or able to convert to a religion which contradicts what he knows (not believes!) to be true. So the Delvian religion must be consistent with Stark's experience.

Now, I can see three possibilities here. One, which I mentioned previously, is that the Delvian Goddess really does exist, exactly as the Delvians claim, and that Stark didn't convert to the religion at all, because he already practiced it and knew it to be true. This seems intrinsically unlikely to me, and I don't think it's terribly well supported by the evidence. For one thing, the religion seems to be associated exclusively with the Delvians; we certainly never hear any mention of anyone else practicing it, including Stark's people, the Baniks. There is also the contradiction between "The goddess graciously receives to her bosom, all those who pass from this existence," and "Different beliefs, different destinations," which, if interpreted literally, would seem to indicate the perhaps Zhaan and Stark do not completely agree on such matters, after all.

The second possibility is that the Farscape universe is polytheistic: that multiple gods exist and that the Delvian goddess is one of them. Believers in specific gods would then go to the afterlives appropriate to them, and unbelievers (or believers in gods that don't actually exist) would presumably go, well, somewhere else. Stark, then, is merely shifting his allegiance, not changing his beliefs. The only possible canonical evidence for this, though, is him telling Crais in "The Choice": "If you've got a deity, you'd better make your peace with it now. Because I'm going to lead you to the other side real quick!" Which would seem to indicate that Stark accepts the possibility of multiple deities, and that he believes "making one's peace" with them before death will actually do some good. It would probably be silly to read too much into that, however, as it's mostly likely only Stark attempting to sound like a Tough Guy. One is almost inclined to think he must have gotten some Eastwood movies out of Talyn-John's memories while helping him cross over! In any case, the Delvian religion seems to be monotheistic, which would make it incompatible with a belief in multiple gods.

The third possibility, and the one I greatly prefer, is that the Goddess is actually a metaphor (albeit a powerful and important one, to be sure), that she is simply an anthropomorphised face given to the mystical and creative forces of the universe and is understood as such by both the Delvians and Stark. In that case, again, no actual changes of belief are necessary for Stark; all he does is to change the way in which he conceptualizes what he already knows to be true. One still has to reconcile this with the "different beliefs, different destinations" line, however. One possible way to do that might be to assume that one's beliefs affect not so much where one goes after death (since we all end up in the "spiritual realm" or on the "Other Side," wherever that might be), but one's perceptions of that realm. Delvians, who conceptualize the creative and mystical forces in the universe as a mother-goddess, will perceive the afterlife in terms of joining with their goddess. Those with other beliefs will perceive things differently... and those differing perceptions may be so large and so fundamental that those whose beliefs differ widely enough will find themselves unable to share the experience at all. Again, in this case, all Stark is doing is shifting his perspective, not altering his belief system in any fundamental way.

Of course, there is a fourth possibility, which is that Stark doesn't know or understand anywhere near as much as I'm giving him credit for, and/or he only adopted the Delvian religious practices to please Zhaan and doesn't particularly care about any possible contradictions. The former is certainly a distinct possibility, given how little we actually know about Stark's abilities. And I can't say with absolute certainly that the latter would be out of character for Stark, although it doesn't feel quite right to me for no reason I can firmly put my finger on.

So, until something better comes along (e.g. until Stark comes back and tells us, which seems rather unlikely), I believe I'm going to take possibility #3 as my tentative conclusion. It is, admittedly, a bit vague and a bit woo-woo for my tastes, being as I'm much, much more inclined to scientfic thinking than to mysticism. But, as I said starting out, the Farscape universe is not our universe. It's a fictional place, and it's perfectly free to follow fictional rules. And figuring out what the rules of the universe are (whatever universe it may be) is exactly what scientific thinking is all about. Even if the rules turn out to be woo-woo, after all.

And with that, I am, at last, done! I now return you to your regularly scheduled blog activity. But if you're really good, maybe sometime later I'll write you an essay on Star Trek...

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