Sunday, December 03, 2006

Final Fantasy XII and providence

What's this? A post about a video game? Sadly yes. On occasion Squaresoft will release a new title that steals away hours of my life before I realize what's happened. The last two free-time bombs they sent my way were Final Fantasy X (which consumed much of the latter half of my first year in seminary) and the original Kingdom Hearts (which consumed the first half of my first year at Mundelein).

Well, they did it again. Or rather, I did it again. FFXII has been my poison for the last month, which is part of the reason why you haven't seen many Not Noteworthy posts. I'm not particularly proud of the fact. But when I finish a game, as I just have in this case, there's an immense sense of relief, as if I was finally free to put the thing away and not touch it again for years to come. Strange how a game can hold you captive like that, not letting go until you see the ending.

One of the special draws of Square games is that they can be unusually thought-provoking. The plot of their recent installment is no exception, and this (guilty confessions aside) is my main reason for posting.

In case any readers are playing themselves, it's a common courtesy that I warn that I will spoil the plot for you if you keep reading.

The central theme of the game's storyline appears to be a question of freedom; not merely freedom from a totalitarian regime or from an outdated social order, but freedom even from the providential guidance of (benevolent?) gods who call themselves the "undying".

As one discovers in the course of the game, the various threads of the plot are all ultimately chess-plays in a battle between these quasi-eternal beings--a "council" of gods, who see themselves as the authors of history and the preservers of order, and a rogue god who appears to wish that the "reigns of history be placed back in the hands of man". (Political note here: isn't it interesting that fantasy or science fiction always employs traditional 'sexist' English? Could it be that gender-neutral English is guilty of sucking the dramatic life out of English discourse? One wonders about the implications for liturgy...)

Now, the directors behind this game are not generally known for warm fuzzy feelings toward institutional religion, particularly Christianity. Two previous games by the same director - Yasumi Matsuno - are thinly veiled screeds against the corruption and violence implicit in hierarchical religion, though with the nuance at least of including sympathetic characters with strong faith in those very religions.

FFXII is significantly different. There is a complaint against religion, but unlike past games, the complaint is actually theological rather than political. There are no corrupt clergy; what few clergy/faithful there are are hospitable and warm-hearted, if slightly doe-eyed, devotees.

The problem resides in the nature of belief in a providential, personal deity.

"The humes ever skew hist'ry's weave. With hate they move through too-short lives. Driven to err by base desire, t'ward waste and wasting on they run. Undying, we Occuria light the path for wayward sons of man. Oft did we pass judgment on them so that Ivalice might endure. Eternal, we are hist'ry's stewards, to set the course and keep it true. The chosen is our hand, our fist, to let live some and crush the rest."

A slightly less artistic, if literal translation of the Japanese (done by "spookychee" in the GameFAQs forums), goes as follows...

"The children of man always upset history. Panicked by their short existences they chase meaningless desires and as their mistakes compound, run ever faster towards ruin. We, the immortal Oquelia, must, from time to time, lead an ignorant child to punish the others and bring ruin to Ivalice. We, as immortals, have a duty to determine the correct history. We have a duty to select the chosen one who will punish those who revolt against [the correct] history."

I added the words "the correct" based on another translation of the Japanese done by "sigel_x".

Here we have something like a very subtle, and very effective critique, on the part of secular-or-possibly-Buddhist minded authors, of a Christian notion of providence. Namely, they are bring up a very old question on how we reconcile two seemingly incompatible claims: the notion that God is the author of history, not only generally but even in its minutiae, and the belief that his human creation has a will that is free.

Continuing on...

Now granted, some Christians might be surprised at the whole providence thing. It seems like most apologetics these days tends to answer the Problem of Evil with a simple gesture to man's (heheh, "man's") freedom. In other words, the typical apologist is content to say, "Hey, it's not like it's God's fault." Yet left unchecked, this apologetic, while not precisely false, can lead too easily to deism. In fact, any implication that history chugs along, sinning on its own steam, independently of and contradictory to God's own will, is basically deistic at its core and does not do justice to the mysterious and often confounding doctrine of God's providence. The fact is that we as Christians must come to terms with the fact that, as one of my professors put it, God has said "yes" to a world in which the Holocaust happened. More to the point, if the world had not had the Holocaust in it, God would not have said "yes" to it. History as it has passed and the future as God's foreknowledge sees it is, exactly as it is, the unfolding of his singular Will. God is truly the Author of History, even in the strong sense of the word; there is, indeed, the "correct history", and it is always and everywhere none other than history as it has happened. He would not have it any other way.

I hope that the stress I lay on this point is at least a little disconcerting. It is important for us as Christians that the problem of evil, of theodicy, remain a difficult problem. If it gets too easy to answer, then we have gone astray. But even more at issue here than the question of the reconciliation of evil with a good and loving God, is the issue of human freedom, which beyond being simply another Christian doctrine, is an especially cherished Enlightenment ideal.

In the game, it is never quite answered whether the gods, the "undying" or "
Occuria" are benevolent or malevolent beings; none of them display many of the detestable qualities we expect from fictional villains. That question itself is disregarded. The real question is whether they, no matter their eternity of wisdom and infinite power, have any business defining what the "correct history" is. They make a very appealing case to one of your protagonists: wage war on our behalf and set history straight. She quite nearly does just that. But in the end she refuses--less because of her pacifistic nature (she has none) than because she is offended by the very idea of being an instrument of the gods.

Now, she certainly has my sympathies, for several reasons. First and most obvious among those is the relatively pathetic nature of the gods trying to boss her (and everybody else on the planet) around. Immortal, certainly, but not uncreated; plural, without even the ability to contain a dissenter in the ranks; petty, snide, and incorrigibly proud of their own omnipotence (in anyone else it would be a sign of insecurity). These gods should be feared in the sense that they could probably torture you for eternity because you sneezed in a way they didn't like (although not even then, as they require human agents to do their bidding). But there is nothing in them to inspire reverence or awe. They are human, all too human.

Of course this is an ancient critique of polytheistic religion. Xenophanes was the original thinker of "pink unicorns". He could not believe in the deities of the pantheon because of their sheer ridiculousness. "Homer and Hesiod have attributed to the gods everything that is a shame and reproach among men, stealing and committing adultery and deceiving each other," (fr. 11, Sextus, Adv. Math. IX, 193).

Even if one's concept of "god" or "gods" was improper and childish, it could still be a vast improvement over these historic and fictional polytheisms.

More later. Errands to run!


Matt of C G said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Jeff said...

Matt of CG said:

My father said during Mass at the Nicene Creed, he has heard the word "people" and "mankind" inserted in the verse, "for us "men" and for our salvation..."
by the mouths of women. How stupid is this! Pull your heads out of this temporal existence and know that during Mass you stand in the midst of the eternal! As such, the phrase 'for us men' takes on a much more inclusive meaning.

We have feet of clay. We are not God, we are man. He didn't come unto us to save himself!

Jeff said...

Sorry, I had to make some edits. We all make mistakes sometimes, don't worry about it.

Matt of C G said...

Word up, brotha. I guess my original post was a little too capricious. (Insane is more like it.)