By Matthew William Brake
In the episode “Get Shwifty” of Rick and Morty, the acclaimed Adult Swim show known for its sci-fi adventures and nihilistic brand of humor, a giant head (known as a “cromulon”) appears in the sky above Earth with one simple demand: “SHOW ME WHAT YOU GOT!” This challenge ultimately involves Earth being entered into a galactic reality show where different planets compete musically in order to avoid annihilation (again, sci-fi, nihilistic humor).
The cromulon’s arrival into Earth’s gravity causes numerous natural disasters, with a newscaster wryly noting that the head is “triggering climate change and natural disasters we thought were impossible for at least another eight years.”
The arrival of the cromulon also raises religious concerns for many of the characters, who all respond in different ways. For instance, as Rick and Morty go to investigate the giant head, their family argues about a possible divine cause:
Summer: Is it God? If it’s God, do we get out of school?
Beth: It’s not God, Summer.
Jerry: She’s allowed to think it’s God if she wants, honey!
Beth: Shut up, Jerry.
Short afterward, Morty’s math teacher, Mr. Goldenfold, arrives to invite the Smith family to church:
Mr. Goldenfold: Scary stuff, huh? Pretty freaky. Hi, I’m Morty’s math teacher. I’m also part of the street team inviting folks to the church downtown so we can pray together.
Beth: How is praying going to help?
Mr. Goldenfold: Ma’am, a giant head in the sky is controlling the weather. Did you wanna play checkers? Let’s be rational! I’ll see you at God’s house!
Thus, the apocalyptic upheaval caused by the cromulon raises the question of the divine and elicits a religious response from many people. However, the traditional appeal to religion exemplified by Mr. Goldenfold is soon undermined in “God’s house” itself:
Father Bob: People! Everyone! Remain calm! Every crisis of faith is an opportunity for more faith! When God deals you an 11, you don’t fold! You double down, and always hit on a soft 16.
Principal Vagina: Hi, Principal Vagina. The name’s real, possibly Scandinavian. I’m just gonna come out and make this pitch. The old gods are dead. F*** all previous existing religions. All hail the one true god, the giant head in the sky.
Principal Vagina: Ah, di di di di. Bob, Bob, I get it. But unless this (holds up a necklace with a cross) can beat that (points to giants heads)… what have you done for me lately? (tosses necklace to Bob) So if you wanna excuse me, I’m going out on the sidewalk and dropping to my knees and pledging my eternal soul to the thing that literally controls the f***ing weather! Outta my way!
We later see Principle Vagina outside, petitioning the cromulon, “Giant head in the sky, please forgive all that we’ve done. We’re sorry for increased levels of emissions and our racism. And of course, the amber alerts I keep ignoring on my phone.” He then goes on to start an entire religion around the giant head with its own slew of unique (and ridiculous) rituals, including sending so-called “un-wantables” (including a Thief, a Goth, and Movie-Talker) up into the sky (via balloon), to then be inhaled and sneezed back down by the giant heads.
We might understand Principal Vagina’s turn away from traditional religious systems and his creation of an entirely new tradition based on his first-hand experience of these seemingly omnipotent, mysterious, and other-worldly beings. For many, religious faith seems like a quaint artifact left over from a by-gone era. In the light of what we now know through science, many of the metaphysical claims of various faith traditions can seem silly and irrelevant by comparison.
Part of the problem stems from the fact that many in the modern world have inherited a faith tradition based on initial experiences from which they themselves are far removed. In his book, God, Guilt, and Death, Merold Westphal discusses the importance that the experience of the sacred. Westphal argues that it is the experience of the sacred that sparks the metaphysical speculations of the various world religions, whose initial adherents attempt to give (imperfect) descriptions to their experience. As Westphal notes, “Such a metaphysics can look like sterile speculation only when it becomes separated from the experience it seeks to express” (31).
This is a situation many in the world may find themselves. They are cultural inheritors of a tradition, but their own everyday experiences are divorced from the experience of the sacred that may have given rise to their tradition. A belief system means very little without an encounter with the sacred experience attached to it.
One of the prime examples of what many people consider a matter of meaningless religious speculation is Anselm’s ontological proof for the existence of God. Many different articulations of the argument exist, but the gist of it is as follows: God is a perfect being, so perfect that nothing greater can be imagined than God. But if this being only existed in the mind, then we could imagine a being that ALSO existed in reality. And a being that actually exists is more perfect than one that only exists in the mind. But a perfect being that we can conceive as being real but lacks reality is an incoherent idea. Therefore, God must exist in the mind AND in reality.
I know. I know. Don’t stop reading. You aren’t the first person to read the argument and go, “What was THAT? That’s a PROOF?”
And I agree with you. If the proof was all there was to Anselm’s argument, it would be downright silly, as philosopher Immanuel Kant pointed out centuries later.
But there is another layer to Anselm’s argument that makes it more than silly speculation, for the argument is grounded in prayer and is articulated in the midst of a prayer. This isn’t simply a silly speculation from someone with too much time on their hands, but it is grounded in a sacred experience that Anselm is attempting to find the words to articulate.
Of course, divorced from Anselm’s experience of the sacred, his proof borderlines on the nonsensical especially to our modern, scientific sensibilities (although interestingly, the famous atheist Bertrand Russell at one point found the argument quite compelling).
One can then appreciate Principal Vagina’s rejection of his Christian faith. Beliefs and metaphysical speculations mean very little in the face of one’s visceral, deeply felt experiences (like encountering a seemingly omnipotent giant head in the sky). For religion to mean anything, it must have an experiential element. Otherwise, maybe it makes more sense to pledge one’s allegiance to a giant head in the sky “that literally controls the f***ing weather!”
Merold Westphal. God, Guilt, and Death: An Existential Phenomenology of Religion. Bloomington, IN: Indian University Press. 1987.
Philip L. Quinn, “Philosophy of Religion,” The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, Second Edition, ed. Robert Audi. New York: Cambridge University Press. 1999.