For All Time, Always: Of Gods, Demiurges, Tricksters, and Creaturely Freedom

David Armstrong

Caveat Lector:Spoilers follow below for Marvel’s Loki.

As a show, Loki represents how far the Marvel Cinematic Universe has come on several metrics. One of them is surely the freedom with which the MCU can now approach its comic-book source material: when Iron Man first came out in 2009, probably no one expected to eventually see the Time Variance Authority onscreen, much less with Richard E. Grant and a CGI alligator as Loki Variants (long live Croki) or a retconned Immortus as He Who Remains (or maybe he wasn’t Immortus. Who knows?). And almost certainly, no one—other than maybe Kevin Feige—could have guessed that this story would be told as a streaming show, in six episodes produced with every bit the budget of an MCU film

Another such metric Loki signals, though, internal to the storytelling world of the MCU, is how far up the ladder of divinity and cosmology the franchise has now ascended. First with The Falcon and the Winter Soldier in March, and now when Black Widow opened this past weekend to great revenue and good reviews, it was clear both that Marvel fans have not lost their appetite for Marvel in the wake of the pandemic, as well as that Marvel can still tell a compelling terrestrial story without the need for the “big three” of aliens, androids, or wizards. And yet scale is everything for Marvel: this is the multiverse in which everything from Natasha and Yelena to Tony Stark to the Punisher to Shang-Chi to Throg (Frog Thor) to Howard the Duck lives and moves and has its being; the multiplicity and overgrowth of narratives is part of Marvel’s glory. And in that vast cosmos, spatially, temporally, and materially complex as it is, divinity is a relative term, conditioned by the scale and contexts within which a god or goddess might be found.

Readers of Theology and the Marvel Universe will recognize that this is the thesis of Austin Freeman, who adeptly pointed out for his essay in that volume that the divine hierarchy of Marvel Comics is effectively that of Neoplatonism.[1] In antiquity generally, divinity existed on a gradient spectrum. In some general sense, everything was divine, or at least inhabited by the divine; humans were the most divine creatures on the earth, whether by virtue of their rational souls or by virtue of a greater tension of indwelling pneuma or both; numina, genii, spirits, and gods of nature and locale, of shrine and temple, and the deified bodies of demigods and heroes littered the landscape and the imagination of ancient religion; beyond them were the daimons and planetary gods of the heavenly spheres, arrayed in their hierarchical order, with what C.S. Lewis once called “earthly wraiths” to represent them in the ordinary religion of the people. These cosmic gods and their daimonic representatives were the ones thought, by many late antique pagan philosophers, to be personally present in and through ancestral myth and religion; but beyond them were the hypercosmic gods, of thinner corporeality and therefore less temporal, spatial, or material identification. Often, these were divinized abstractions, not unlike Marvel Comics’ use of Love, Hate, Chaos, and Order—all of which, by the way, are derived from Hellenic philosophy at some point or another, particularly the Empedoclean dichotomy of Eros and Eris, Love and Strife (see Empedocles, fr. B6). Behind these, as Freeman well describes, are the three hypostaseis of Neoplatonic theory, the World Soul, the Nous or Intellect which assumes the mantle of Plato’s Demiurge, and the One; and as Freeman argues, these correspond, in Marvel’s hierarchy, to Eternity, the Living Tribunal, and the One Above All, respectively.

By the logic of classical monotheism, of which Hellenic philosophy and Marvel Comics are both exemplifying species, only the One or the One Above All is properly speaking God in the absolute sense, in whom divinity is in an ultimate, infinite, and unconditioned reality, absolutely incorporeal and without any limitation. But it is for this very reason that, in ancient religion and philosophy, the One is a metaphysical telos for spiritual ascent, not a divine assistant in that ascent who can be supplicated by sacrifice, prayer, or other kinds of communion, and that, in Marvel, the One Above All rarely appears and, as a rule, never interferes in the secondary causality of lesser reality. The One is the transcendent source of the Vedantic triad of Being (sat), Consciousness (citta), and Bliss (ananda), with which he/she/they/it is interchangeable, as the infinite ground of existence and awareness from which all finite acts of existence and awareness derive and to which they return in the exitus and reditus of all things from and to God.[2] God does not interfere; that’s a god’s game. And metaphysically speaking, the simplicity, infinity, and pure actuality of the One God ensures that there will indeed be an infinite multitude of gods to choose from for those sorts of activities, each in their cosmic or hypercosmic taxis; as St. Boethius puts it in Book III of De Consolatione Philosophiae, God is one by nature, but once this has been established, there can be as many gods as possible by participation; and logically, the possible number of gods is infinite.

Anyway, this is all just good metaphysics, and insofar as Early Judaism and Christianity conflated and equated the God of their Scriptures with the God of Middle and Neoplatonic thought, it is essential to any definition of God that a traditional Christian would hold. Marvel, in increasing the scale of their cosmology once again with Loki, has not quite gotten to Eternity, the Living Tribunal, or the One Above All, nor even to the hypercosmic divinities themselves, but it has reached the “threshold point” (to quote Immortus) at which audiences may begin to contemplate the metacosmic and what it does to our notion of divinity. Loki follows the Loki Variant created by Avengers Endgame as he is picked up by the TVA—effectively the DMV on steroids, tasked with eliminating divergences from the “Sacred Timeline”—and processed for “pruning” from reality, until he is saved by Mobius (Owen Wilson), who enlists him in hunting down another Loki Variant. That Variant—Sylvie, a female Loki—convinces our Loki of the righteousness of her quest, the two fall in love, and they go on a journey through the Void to which pruned timelines are sent to find the true creator of the TVA and bring his imperium over time to a close. That true creator turns out to be He Who Remains, an unnamed Immortus, a Kang the Conqueror Variant who, it turns out, has manipulated events to ensure that Loki and Sylvie end up in his citadel in order to take his place. 

It’s a twisted sort of Wizard of Oz meets Willy Wonka meets Looper, and it puts Loki (in both their Variants) into a difficult position. As the God of Mischief, or the God of Outcasts, Loki is by nature a trickster, distrustful of authority, and has an intrinsic affinity for the underdog. And make no mistake: Immortus and the TVA are, as Sylvie calls them, “fascists” whose exercise of unchecked authority over the whole of reality makes them sort of junior demiurges: they do not exist at the metaphysical level of Love, Hate, Chaos, or Order, still less at that of Eternity or the Living Tribunal, but these higher powers, apparently, tolerate their rule over lesser reality, insofar as no divine or magical intervention has interrupted the work of the TVA (that we know of). But as Immortus explains it, his is a benevolent dictatorship, and the best of all possible worlds: the alternative is a multiverse in which his more violent and power-hungry Variants will, inevitably, rise up to conquer alternative realities. Free will is the price of universal peace. Our Loki is torn by his deep intuition that Immortus, whatever else he has lied about, is not misleading on this, and his love for Sylvie, who cares about nothing other than completing the quest to kill Immortus and free reality.

Trickster gods perform an essential function in mythology, which is to keep the patriarchal, summodeistic gods of the pantheon on their toes. In Norse mythology, for instance, Loki exists as a perpetual challenge to the rule of the world by Odin and Thor, one that culminates in the Ragnarok. Other times, trickery is how gods, demigods, or heroes achieve their ascent to supremacy or at least high rank; the circumstances of Zeus’ birth and rise to power, for instance, are dependent on a fair bit of deceit. But in every case, the trickster signifies resistance to the demiurgic impulse to control and delimit the freedom of reality, imposing order upon chaos, whether for benevolent or for malevolent purposes. 

In the worldview of apocalyptic Judaism, though, as received and utilized in the earliest Jesus Movement, the divine trickery is reversed: rather than a rebellion from a lesser god against an older, higher tyrant, God deceives the “god of this aeon” (2 Cor 4:4) by sending Christ into the world and permitting him to die on the cross. The deception, which forms the bedrock for nearly all early Christian Paschal hymnography, is effectively that Satan and the demons, not realizing who Christ really is, mistake his death for their victory, when in fact what death does is enable Christ, as God, to descend into Hades, conquer the underworld, rise from the dead, and thereafter ascend into heaven with a glorified humanity, breaking through the demiurgic control of the aeonic god and his minions and reestablishing divine order in the universe. If there is a rebellion-from-below motif in this most basic vision of the gospel story, it is that humans, previously enslaved to the ignorance, incompetence, and/or malice of an evil god, now have a path of ascent to transcend his rule through the deification Christ offers.[3]

One might rightly ask how this does not amount to its own kind of demiurgic empire, simply at the highest possible metaphysical level. In what sense, really, is Christ’s imperium over the universe anything more than a benevolent dictatorship, replacing the rule of Satan as “best of all possible worlds” but still hampered by severe limitations on freedom of will? This was the question that Origen of Alexandria set out to answer in Book III of his De Principiis.[4] After establishing at length the true freedom of the will of rational beings in God’s created order (De Principiis3.1-4), he argues that, in imitation of Christ’s own voluntary kenosis and suffering, his submission of himself to vulnerability, so, too, the consummation of Christ’s Kingdom consists in the free consent of all rational beings to his rule (3.5-6). This may well take countless aeons, in which the administration and disposition of rational beings in terms of their rank on the cosmic scale shifts in accordance with their merits, until all come, whether through promise or punishment (2.9-11), to consent freely to God’s rule, and thus, in the superaeonic realm of the divine plenitude, God becomes “all in all” (1 Cor 15:28). Origen’s God, through Christ his vice-regent, does not coerce or compel: enjoying infinite time, space, and possibilities in which to dispense his salvation to rebellious creatures, he is neither beholden nor partial to a particular timeline of fulfillment, but permits creaturely reality, at every one of its cosmic and hypercosmic levels, to play out freely as it will. Because God is the ground of being, God is also the only possible end of being as well; but because God is infinite love, there is no need of God’s to impose a particular path from beginning to end for creatures.

In this sense, Christians should feel special discomfort with any image of God that remotely resembles Immortus, watching from his lonely citadel at the end of time as reality is carefully pruned to match the story he best knows—or likes. Christ is King, to be sure, but in the words of the Watcher, “his only weapon…is love!”[5]—for all time, always.

David Armstrong is an Eastern Christian who writes from the greater St. Louis region. He now writes regularly at A Perennial Digression(perennialdigression.substack.com), which also has an interview-based YouTube channel.

Notes


[1] See Austin M. Freeman, “Gods Upon Gods: Hierarchies of Divinity in the Marvel Universe,” in Theology and the Marvel Universe, ed. Gregory Stevenson (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2019), 157-172.

[2] See David Bentley Hart, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, and Bliss (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013).

[3] See also Freeman, “Gods Upon Gods,” 170 on the Incarnation.

[4] The only edition of Origen anyone should be consulting at this point is John Behr’s. See Origen of Alexandra, On First Principles, 2 vols., ed. and trans. John Behr, Oxford Early Christian Texts (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017).

[5] The quote is from Fantastic Four #72, and is quoted in Freeman, “Gods Upon Gods,” 166.

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