ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED 11/10/09 On Republibot, previously published in book form.
This article previously appeared in Benbella Books
Battlestar Galactica Anthology
Galactica’s Gods Or:
How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Cylon God
More than anything it’s blurry. The new Battlestar Galactica (BSG) blurs the lines between right and wrong, good and evil, loyalty and betrayal. Context and subtlety keep the viewer in a delightful world of new perspective. Among the blurs: polytheistic humans worshipping pagan gods who were human-like themselves on the one hand, and monotheistic Cylons whose God is loving and wrathful, foreknowing and mysterious, predestinating and ominously distant on the other. It is to this God of the enemies of man that I find myself strangely attracted. BSG is blurry, a mystical quality permeates its universe from episode to episode, especially regarding its approach to divine things. Answers are not clear. There are but hints of terrible wonders, frightening possibilities. Is the Cylon God the God of the universe? What connection might there be between the Destroyer of the Twelve Colonies and the Law Giver of Sinai and Suffering Savior of the Earth?
Those 70’s Gods
The gods of the original BSG are straightforward, fairly easy to understand. The most telling revelation of the original series’ cosmology comes in the two part episode, “War of the Gods.”
The Galactica crew comes across the mysterious Count Iblis. At the same time, Galactica’s fighters are disappearing, plagued by the appearance of a spaceship of dazzling light reminiscent of the mother ship in Close Encounters—Iblis’s enemies. Iblis promises that he can lead humanity to Earth but emphasizes that they must choose to follow him freely. His ability to work apparent miracles convinces many. As the plot progresses we learn that Iblis comes from powers greater than the Cylon empire, and that he is a being “far advanced” of humanity.
It is suggested that the Lords of Kobol, the founders of the human race, might have come from a race like Iblis’s. Stories from Kobol describe visitations by “angels…custodians of the universe…advanced beings.” Iblis is ultimately revealed for the demonic figure he is when Apollo names him from the “ancient records” of humanity: “Mephistopholes” and Diaboles.”
Encountering the white ship, Starbuck and Sheba are taken in by its white robed, angelic looking inhabitants—incorporeal creatures appearing in a form for human senses to assimilate, whose ship exists in a dimension apart from normal space/time. Starbuck wonders if he’s seeing angels. “Oddly enough,” says one, “there is some truth to your speculation.”
The cosmology is interesting but basic: Count Iblis is the devil, the beings of light are angels watching over the lesser evolved creatures of the universe in the hopes that they too may some day evolve into godlike creatures. Good and evil are obvious in the original BSG, the moral universe clearly defined. No such clarity exists, however, in the new, postmodern BSG.
Two notes: whenever the white ship appears and overtakes a human ship, it is accompanied by a loud noise which causes pain and blackout. Though benevolent, the very presence of the beings of light is enough to cause pain and overwhelm people. Keep that in mind. Also, Baltar (whom the Count has captured as proof of his abilities) recognizes Iblis’s voice as the voice of the Cylon Imperius Leader. But the only way that could be possible is if Iblis had been present at the creation of the Cylon Leader a thousand yahrens (years) ago for Iblis’s voice to be inscribed onto the computer mind— roughly at the same time the Cylons began attacking humanity. Iblis seems the one responsible for the creation of the Cylon machine race, for making them evil xenophobes. This point is significant.
There’s a New Myth in Town
The Cylon God enters the story in the first twenty minutes of the new series. The Cylon femme-fatalé, Number Six explains to Gaius Baltar that she’s been helping him advance his career for the last two years because “God wanted me to do it” (Pilot). Disbelieving, Baltar asks if God spoke to her. “He didn’t speak to me in a literal voice. And you don’t have to mock my faith,” she replies. Baltar says that he’s not very religious to which Six responds, “Does it bother you that I am?” And Baltar: “It puzzles me that you’d be taken in by all that mysticism and superstition.”
God remains a permanent character in the series ever after—the God who tells the Cylons to obliterate mankind. And my first thought in those first moments: Is this the new version of the Imperius Leader of the old series? Or even of Count Iblis (the Satan-god) himself? Most hints about the Cylon God that follow suggest that I shouldn’t let my thinking be colored by the original series, though there are some intriguing moments to the contrary. One is when Baltar’s Six (the one inside his head) tells him that he must freely choose to follow God (“Six Degrees of Separation”). Another is in the Cylon emphasis on unity over individuality (suggesting their God may be created in their own image) (“War Heroes”). Finally, in a deleted scene from the season one finale, “Kobol’s Last Gleaming,” a priestess explains that the reason humanity left Kobol is because one of the gods wanted to elevate himself above all the others, thus beginning the wars of Kobol that led to the exodus of humanity. Could this one god be the Iblis character who then left the other gods (the original series’ creatures of light) behind to convince the Cylons that he was the only God of the universe? A God who orders the slaughter of humanity hardly seems what Baltar’s Six describes Him later in the Pilot: “Don’t you understand? God is love.” But if such is the case, the BSG writers are doing a very good job obscuring the truth.
The new series does not approach divinity with the black and white clarity of the original series. It is a truly postmodern sci-fi show. Right and wrong are not clear forces. Cylons speak truths as well as lies. They are machines but have desires. That the most prominent Cylons in the story are women plays on our sympathies (whether our sympathy as desire in the case of Six or our compassion for the Sharons, one a victim of her own programming, the other a mother-to-be trying to protect her baby). Cylons have murdered humanity en masse but seldom do we see them torture individual humans like we see the torture of human looking Cylons, especially Sharon and Six—beaten, shot and sexually abused. In season two’s mid-season cliff hanger, “Pegasus,” Adama takes actions which in his own logs (as Admiral Cain constantly points out) he decries, saying that these moral choices are a matter of context. In the episode, “Captain’s Hand,” Roslin changes her stance on abortion in the same way—working from the context of the survival of the human race. Our culture thrives on the moral and spiritual ambiguity the likes of which are represented in BSG, an ambiguity which we would not have tolerated in a 70’s sci-fi morality tale.
If context, ambiguity and complexity are at the heart of the new series, then I cannot simply dismiss the gods, either human or Cylon, as mere invention, or as clearly good vs. evil. So I remain attracted to the Cylon God, and much more so than the human gods. It may be that I’m being taken in by the clever deceits of the Cylons. Or it may be that Six’s God of love, a reference culled from the New Testament (I John 4:8), is in fact a God capable of wiping out a race of people because He is the very essence of Goodness and Love.
The Human Gods
The human gods of BSG are based on the gods of Greek mythology. Zeus is their leader (as suggested by Zarek’s use of the name in describing Adama [“Bastille Day”; “The Farm”]). Starbuck prays to icons of Artemis and Aphrodite (“Flesh and Bone”) and fetches the real arrow of Apollo from the Delphi Museum on Caprica (“Kobol’s Last Gleaming”). Athena and Hera are also named in the series among the gods, or Lords of Kobol (“Home”).
Of their mythic history we know fragments. Thought by humanity to be the stuff of legend, planet Kobol, the birthplace of humanity (“Flesh and bone”), truly exists. Kobol is “where the gods and man lived in paradise until the exodus of the thirteen tribes” at the time of the wars of the gods some 2000 years ago (“Kobol’s Last Gleaming”). Baltar’s Six offers the slightly contradictory story that the wars were the result of human wickedness, including human sacrifice (“Valley of Darkness”). Up into the mountains, several days walk from the City of the Gods, are two peaks known as the “Gates of Hera” from which Athena leaped to her death in despair of the flight of humanity from Kobol to the colonies. Athena’s tomb is nearby (“Home”).
Humanity left Kobol and founded colonies on thirteen planets; twelve are known, the other is Earth. As season one progresses, what was thought to be the legend of Earth turns out to be real. Prophecies in the scroll of Pythia begin to come true: humanity finds Kobol, then the tomb of Athena, then the general location of Earth (“The Hand of God”; “Fragged”; “Kobol’s Last Gleaming”; “Home”). One of the most interesting insights into the human religion occurs during the search for Athena’s tomb:
Starbuck: Cylons believe in the “one true God.”
Pregnant Sharon: “We don’t worship false idols.”
Apollo: But it’s strange that you’re willing to lead us to the tomb according to our so-called “false” scriptures.
Sharon: “We know more about your religion than you do.” Athena was real, just not a god (“Home”).
This is everything we know about the religious history of humanity whether myth, truth or lies. Apart from this, what we know of the religion is that it is not unlike human religion in our own culture.
The religion of man in BSG is one that believes in an afterlife (Pilot; “Fragged”). It is a religion that hopes for divine guidance and protection (“Valley of Darkness”; “Fragged”). It is a religion of prayer (I counted nine instances in episodes myself). Sometimes the prayers are casual, almost flippant: “Lords, it’s Kara Thrace.” She says she’s running out of oxygen and “could use a break” (“You Can’t Go Home Again”). Sometimes the prayer is desperately sincere as when Starbuck finds herself trapped in a Cylon pregnancy lab and prays in tears, “Lords of Kobol, please help me” (“The Farm”). And the “amen” to these prayers is the regularly repeated, “So say we all.”
As with our own culture, the human world of BSG is one in which the divine is the stuff of skepticism, ridicule, argument, politics and casual disregard. Religion serves for public ceremony (Pilot; “Lay Down Your Burdens”), but it also serves as a tool for political exploitation (by Adama in the Pilot, by Roslin in “The Farm,” and by Zarek who doesn’t believe in religion but believes in the “power of myth” for its political uses [“Home”]). The human culture in BSG also contains a varied spectrum of belief as in our own culture. There are the religious fundamentalists who hail from Geminon—they believe in the “literal truth of the scriptures” (“Fragged”). At the other end of the spectrum are the total skeptics like Zarek and Baltar before his conversion (“33”; “Fragged”; “Six Degrees of Separation”). In between these extremes is everyone else: people who are essentially secular but believe in the gods; that is, religion is for them a sidebar to life, a last resort when doom appears imminent, and an occasion for casual oath making (“Bastille Day”; “Six Degrees of Separation”; “Valley of Darkness”; “Lay Down Your Burdens”; and the ubiquitous use of the expletives “Oh my gods!” and “Gods damn it!” throughout the series).
In the end, I find the content of the human religion in BSG less important than the attitudes people have toward it. The people in BSG are a microcosm of religious attitudes in our contemporary culture. That they take religion seriously at all (excepting the Geminese) is primarily because they’re seeing prophecies come true with their own eyes. For this reason I find the sincerity behind the Cylon religion far more interesting.
The Cylon God
The Cylon God inspires passionate faith in His people, commands monotheistic belief, is numinous and predestinating, and has the power of Sinai (like the blast of atomic fire in the initial Cylon attacks). He is fearful and transcendent but is intimately involved in the affairs of ma(n)chine. He has a plan, and that plan brings about suffering—but it also brings resurrection. His parallels to the Judeo-Christian God are striking despite the possibility that He may have ordered the eradication of the human race (and maybe because of it).
The biggest problem we face in understanding the Cylon God is whether or not we can trust anything the Cylons say. As Adama puts it, they mix truth with lies (“Flesh and Bone”). This is doubly compounded with anything Baltar’s Six says since she is not merely a Cylon but the Cylon in Baltar’s head who, though not a chip planted in his brain (“Home”), is in part (if not whole) a projection of his own self-centered psyche.? And so I have made a choice: in this exploration of religion in BSG I’ve decided to step out in faith. Right or wrong, truth or lies, I’m going to present what the Cylons say about their God (including their contradictions) and take it at face value.
The most puzzling quality of the Cylon God is that He is a God of love. He is the “love that binds all living things together” who loved humanity “more than all other living creatures” (though man “repaid His divine love with sin, with hate, corruption, evil”) (“Flesh and Bone”). Cylons constantly say they love one another (“Kobol’s Last Gleaming”; War Heroes”), and just as frequently say human beings don’t know how to love (“Fragged”; “War Heroes”). Love is also integral in the Cylon plan as it is a necessary component in the creation of the messianic child to come (“The Farm”). Yet the Cylon vision of love may have its limitations, even contradictions. In “War Heroes,” Baltar’s Real Six who comes to be known as Caprica Six is reborn after dying in the Cylon atomic attack. She is in love with Gaius Baltar. When Sleeper Sharon is reborn on Caprica months later she rejects the so called love of the Cylon God for love she had for her human friends, a love she betrayed because she’s a “frackin Cylon!” These two begin to doubt the Cylon understanding of love. Six concludes, “We’re two heroes of the Cylon, right? Two heroes with different perspectives on the war. Perspectives based on our love for human beings.” Six and Sharon decide they will change things for the better: “Our people need a new beginning, a new way to live in God’s love. Without hate. Without all the lies.”
While humans seem often to act in a contradictory manner toward their religion, in the Cylon religion it is God Himself who seems contradictory. Though he has loved both humans and Cylons alike (as Baltar’s Six puts it in “The Hand of God: “God doesn’t take sides”), this God of love and salvation is also a God of destruction. A theme from the beginning of the series is the question of whether or not God thinks humanity deserves to live:
Adama: “We fought the Cylons to save ourselves from extinction. But we never Asked ourselves the question, why? Why are we as a people worth saving? We still commit murder. We still visit all our sins upon our children. We don’t accept responsibility for the things we’ve done….You cannot play God and then wash your hands of the thing you’ve created” (Pilot).
Days later the first Leovan tells Adama that the Cylons may be God’s retribution for man’s many sins: “What if God decided He made a mistake, and He decided to give souls to another creature, the Cylons?” In “Flesh and Bone,” the second Leovan makes the same claim: God loved humanity but all man did in return was sin, “so He decided to build the Cylons.” When Adama asks pregnant Sharon why the Cylons hate humanity, she reminds him of his speech (above), that mankind did not ask themselves if they deserved to live. Says Sharon: “Maybe you don’t” (Ref.).
Baltar learns of the Destroyer God from his Six. She tells him that he has a destiny and will be spared humanity’s fate. All he has to do is let “destiny take its course” (“Home”). He asks his Six who she is and she replies, “I’m an angel of God sent here to protect you—to love you.”
Baltar: “To what end?”
Six: “To the end of the human race” (“Home”).
When they learn, mistakenly, that Sharon’s baby is dead, Six tells Baltar he has “committed a monstrous and unforgiveable sin. And you and your entire wretched race are going to suffer God’s vengeance” (“War Heroes”).
A God of love who orders the massacre of a race? Caprica six and Sleeper Sharon see the contradiction:
Six: “Genocide, murder, vengeance—they’re all sins in the eyes of God; that’s what you and I know. That’s what they don’t want to hear.”
Sharon: “Because then they’d have to rethink what they’re doing. They’d have to consider that maybe the slaughter of mankind was a mistake” (“War Heroes”).
Out of this conversation even greater contradiction in the Cylon religion will come.
Central to the Cylon religion is a strong sense of predestined purpose. As BSG’s opening titles say, the Cylons “have a plan.” It is a “destiny” that Sleeper Sharon is told she cannot escape (“Kobol’s Last Gleaming”), and though the plan may begin with the annihilation of man, it does not exclude humanity from its designs. Starbuck is told by both Leovan and Pregnant Sharon that she has a destiny (“Flesh and Bone”; “The Farm”). Chief among Cylon plans seems to be the conversion of Baltar from atheism to belief in God. He is called to repentance in “33.” He is called to faith in “Six Degrees of Separation.” He begins this episode saying that “no rational, free thinking, intelligent human being” believes in God. By the episode’s end, as he faces charges of treason, he’s on his knees in prayer: “I now acknowledge that you are the one true God. Deliver me from this evil, and I will devote the rest of what is left of my wretched life to doing good—to carrying out your divine will....Grant me grace. Grant me forgiveness.” He next moves beyond simply believing in God to believing that he is “an instrument of God” (“The Hand of God”).
A critical part of the Cylon plan and religion is their vision of a messianic child, a vision which enacts itself along two paths: a Baltar and his Six path, and a Sharon and Helo path. Baltar learns that his Six wants them to have a child together in the season one opener since “Procreation is one of God’s commandments” (“33”). At the end of season one, once Baltar has come to believe he is God’s instrument, Six shows him why he’s been chosen by God to fulfill his purpose (“Kobol’s Last Gleaming”). In a vision, she takes him into the opera house of the City of the Gods, saying, “It’s time to do your part and realize your destiny….You are the guardian and protector of the next generation of God’s children.” Six shows Baltar a girl baby, her crib shining with holy light like a Christmas manger scene. The child is, of course, a human/Cylon hybrid.
The child is not Baltar’s, not literally. It belongs to Sharon and Helo. Sharon says that what they’ve had together is important as a “next step,” one that will bring them “closer to God” (“Kobol’s Last Gleaming”). In season two Baltar has a vision of Adama drowning the baby in a kind of reversal of the story of Moses’ salvation at birth on the waters of the Nile in Exodus (“Valley of Darkness”). Baltar wonders why God would want a baby brought into the world of murderous men. His Six answers, “Because despite everything, despite all of it, He still wants to offer you salvation. Our child will bring that salvation….” (“Fragged”).
In “The Farm,” Cylons are trying to turn human women into baby production machines through horrid experimentation. The only success at Cylon reproduction has been Sharon whose love for Helo allows her to become pregnant with the messianic child. When Baltar first sees pregnant Sharon aboard Galactica, he learns from his Six that hers is the baby he is meant to care for (“Home”). And when the Cylons learn of Sharon’s pregnancy, they note that the “child’s life must be protected at all costs” and that it “truly is a miracle from God” (“Final Cut”). When the child, Hera, is born, Roslin works quickly to fake its death and adopt it out to a woman who doesn’t know its importance. Baltar’s Six goes ballistic: “You let them murder our child….God’s will was that our child should survive. His will was that she would lead the next generation of God’s children. His will was that you would protect her” (“War Heroes”).
A Change of Plans
Everything changes in the last two episodes of season two. In “War Heroes,” Sleeper Sharon is now completely awake and having an identity crisis. Her mission, her entire life, has been a lie and she refuses to be a Cylon. Caprica Six responds, “Following God’s plan is never easy.” And Sharon: “Do you think I care about your God?” But as their relationship develops, Six realizes that she and Sharon are in danger of being “boxed”: “We’re celebrities in a culture based on unity. Our voices count. More than…others.” They have learned the value of humanity, that the Cylons’ vision of God may be flawed, and it’s up to them to show the Cylons the way.
Perhaps the Cylons are creations of God (even through man), sent to awaken humanity to the truth of His existence. Rather than demons, perhaps they are angels, but ones who don’t know what God wants them to do and are struggling to piece His plan together. Whatever the case, the Cylon plan has changed radically by the season two finale.
In “Lay Down Your Burdens,” the Cylons withdraw from the colonial worlds. A new Cylon character, played by Dean Stockwell, offers the most contradictory Cylon view of the cosmos we’ve yet seen. “The occupation of the colonies was an error,” he says, as was the pursuit of the survivors’ fleet. Caprica Six and Sleeper Sharon convinced the Cylons they’d made a mistake. Instead of trying to find their own way to enlightenment, they hijacked humanity’s. But now they intend to go elsewhere to become perfect machines, not people. Someone asks if this change is at the order of the one true Cylon God. Most surprisingly, the Cylon replies that there is no God. That is just a primitive’s way of explaining why the sun goes down, at least that’s what this Cylon model has been trying to tell all the others for years—he admits, though, that it can’t be proven either way.
Inconsistency and delightful confusion abound for the show’s viewers. This becomes more so when the Cylons come back a year later and their plan has changed again. The humans of New Caprica City surrender to the Cylons under the promise that they will not be harmed so long as they don’t resist. As the camera fades on another season of BSG, the voice of Six rises, saying that now they will fulfill their destiny and take care of humanity and, like God, show that their infinite mercy is as complete as their infinite control.
Why I Love the Cylon God
In the end I find myself attracted to the Cylon God because, as compared to the human gods in BSG, He is so much like mine. He is a God who warns us not to play God ourselves. He is a God who promises resurrection. He is the God who is love, who offers salvation to those who believe Him. He told Adam “be fruitful” and Moses that the sins of the fathers would be visited upon their children. He is the God who made angels, some of which became demons, and He is the God who sent His Messiah child for those who are willing to believe. He defines sin and love, makes commandments and watches over us, gives and takes away. Baltar asks the Cylon God for grace and forgiveness as I do my own. The Cylon Leovan prays to his God, convinced—as I am of mine—that He answers all prayers (“Flesh and Bone”). Six teaches Baltar to open his heart to God so He can show him the way. She tells him to surrender his ego and remain humble, virtues celebrated by the Judeo-Christian God.
In “Six Degrees of Separation,” Baltar and his Six have a conversation that could happen today between an atheist and an evangelical Christian (granted a really hot one):
Six: “If you’d surrender yourself to God’s love, you’d find peace in that love as I have….He has a plan for us.”
Baltar: “How do you know He’s a He?”
Six: “There is only one true God….He’s everyone’s God….It’s important you form a personal relationship with God. Only you can turn yourself over to His eternal love….I’m trying to save your immortal soul, Gaius.”
What’s most frightening about this conversation is that it is one of those moments from the series that I said before hinted at the possibility that the Cylon God isn’t the one true God of the universe but an Iblis-like former Lord of Kobol who wanted to be greater than the others and started the ancient wars (the connection between the two being the issue of surrendering voluntarily). But here I am, about to make application to Him whom I think is the real God of the universe. As I see it, these are the options: The Cylon God is evil; the Cylons made up their God, or, at best, don’t truly know Him; or the Cylon God is real—the God of the universe—and the difficulty in comprehending Him, the confusions and contradictions that arise from any attempts to quantify or impose any patterns on Him are a telling metaphor (from an elaborate, mythic world) for true spiritual encounter.
If subsequent BSG episodes prove me dead wrong, I’ll happily eat whatever crow is set before me, but the spiritual symbolism works in understanding real divine encounter regardless of who or what the Cylon God turns out to be. Here, then, is the theory: Perhaps the Cylons cause pain and hardship because they are pain and hardship. That is to say, they are agents of God like angels of wrath. Where modern man put God on trial, demanding He prove His existence and answer for His crimes, postmodern man is coming back to an understanding that has been central to religions all around the world, be they monotheistic or polytheistic—that encounters with the Divine are encounters with the awesome power of the abyss, where darkness is not evil but palpable mystery, and encountering God is excruciating pain.
Be it in the rituals of dead pagan religions or according to the theologies of the world’s dominant religions today, divine encounter comes at a cost. Self-denying monks, self-mutilating priests, rituals of human sacrifice where the victim volunteers—in dark, holy places and mystical ways, men in the past sought their gods. Even the gods sacrificed themselves to themselves for greater knowledge and transcendence. Balder, Adonis, Osiris, Dionysus, Demeter, Persephone—dead, with or without hope of resurrection. Even mighty Odin of the Norsemen sacrifices an eye by his own hand for a greater revelation. Hinduism, one of today’s five most practiced religions in the world, boasts a massive pantheon, numerous gods. But of its primary three, one is the god Shiva, the Destroyer.
The God of the Bible, both for Jews and Christians, is a God of justice and mercy, light and truth. But even He draws us to painful encounters. Jacob wrestles with God throughout an entire night and God knocks his hip out of joint for it. But He also blesses him for having fought with God and having “prevailed.” He blesses him with a new name: “Israel”—“God Wrestler”—a name which becomes a people, a nation—as if God is saying, “This is the kind of people I want to call my own: those willing to fight with Me, to suffer to know me” (Genesis 32).
I’m working toward saying something about God that is not typical of today’s thinking about the Divine. Our dilemma with BSG is in our inclination to believe that the Cylons are wrong to say that a loving God would endorse the destruction of the human race. We might respond to this by saying that, in the Bible, the God of love wipes out nearly the entire human race in the flood (Genesis 6-8) and engages in the slaughter of nations many times thereafter (from Exodus through the books of Kings and Chronicles). Those of us who don’t dismiss this vision of God as untrue then face a problem. Christians and skeptics alike have struggled to reconcile what appear to be two biblical Gods: the God of the Hebrew Bible which both Jews and Christians believe in (we call it the Old Testament) and the God of the New Testament (which completes the Christian Bible). The Cylon God seems an Old Testament God whom the Cylons, nevertheless, describe with New Testament language. But I don’t think this approach at all gets us where we want to go for two reasons.
First, though there may be differences in emphasis, the loving/wrathful God appears in both testaments. The God who sends Joshua to destroy Jericho saves the pagan family of Rahab who happens to be a prostitute (Joshua 2-6). He establishes laws against murder and adultery, naming death the penalty. But when David takes to his bed Bathsheba, another man’s wife, and then has the man killed to cover up their adultery when she gets pregnant, God confronts David with honesty but does not call for the punishment required by law. David’s heart breaks, and he repents. And God forgives him (2 Samuel 11-12 Psalm 32, 51). God destroyed Sodom and Gemorrah for their sexual wickedness and cruelty, but before doing so He promised Abraham that, if He found only ten righteous men in those towns, He would spare everyone in them for the sake of those men (He only found one and sent him and his family to safety in the hills) (Genesis 18-19). Read the Psalms and God’s intimate affection for His people and theirs for Him become obvious.
In Christianity, conversely, the God of love who rejected human sacrifice with Abraham (Genesis 22), demands it for the salvation of the world. Thus He sacrifices Himself to Himself for the sake of His just wrath and then calls His disciples to eat His flesh and drink His blood and die themselves every day. And where God, in the Old Testament, never threatens people with hell, Jesus preaches eternal damnation (in fact most statements about hell in the New Testament are made by the Prince of peace who came to save the world). Christianity is the religion of grace and forgiveness, but two Christians in the first days of the Church, Ananias and Sapphira, having told a lie that was no where near as heinous as the one David lived with Bathsheba, drop dead at Peter’s feet (Acts 5).
The second reason that the wrath/love dichotomy won’t take us where we want to go is that God’s just wrath is seldom the cause of the painful encounters with the Divine that we see in BSG. Moses says to God, “Let me see your glory.” He’s asking God to let him see Him as He is—His full visible presence—rather than seeing a mere manifestation in fire or cloud (Exodus 33:18). But he’s asking for more than he can bear. There is a beauty so palpable, so concrete, that it can kill. Haven’t we all had the experience of it? Of something so beautiful it hurt to look at: autumn in New England, beautiful today, gone tomorrow; a first glimpse of the Grand Canyon at dawn’s early light; or that woman whose body flows like liquid grace, whose sight draws desire from a man’s pores like sweat and makes him believe that the phrase “drop dead gorgeous” is literally true. That’s because it is. There is a beauty that can kill. In the Bible it’s called glory. When Moses asks God to let him see His glory, God replies that if He lets him see His face, it’ll kill him. So God tells Moses to stand in the cleft of a rock, and God passes by, covering Moses so he can’t see. Then God uncovers him, and Moses catches a glimpse of God’s back—it’s almost more than he can bear (Exodus 33:19-23).
To encounter the Numinous is to encounter pain but not because God is evil or necessarily even angry. Rather, it is because He is love. Poet-musician Rich Mullins called God’s love a “reckless, raging fury.” We tend to think of God’s love in terms of parenting—the watchful father. The Bible uses this father metaphor but also the stronger metaphor of romance. The Song of Solomon (or Song of Songs) is a book of passion, of romantic love. In ancient times, Jewish men were not allowed to read this highly erotic poem in the Bible until they were thirty years old! Solomon’s wife defines romance with the same reckless fury as Mullins: “For love is as strong as death, jealousy is as severe as Sheol [hell]; its flashes are flashes of fire, the very flame of the Lord” (Song of Solomon 8:6). God is a passionate, consuming fire—His love as poetic and ecstatic as it is paternal and moral. In Hosea, He is the God whose nation-wife is out whoring around, producing bastard children not His own (chapters 1-3). In Ezekiel, He is the lover whose nation-bride, He says, has “spread your legs to every passer-by” (Ezekiel 16:25). In BSG He manifests His intimate, passionate presence in the sensual loves of Baltar and his Six and Helo and Sharon. Some of God’s actions in BSG may be motivated by wrath (especially the initial destruction of humanity), but we can’t look at all of them that way, even though they’re painful. The otherness of divinity portrayed in the show is too mystical, too wondrous, even in the painful encounters. In such experiences, God’s presence is terrible because God is terribly transcendent.
In the 1950’s, C. S. Lewis created a metaphor for spiritual encounter in a story that predicts with stunning accuracy the themes of the BSG story line. Till We Have Faces is a retelling of the Greek myth of Cupid and Psyche. In it, the gods appear evil; they devour sacrifices, but they are not what they seem. Orual, Queen of Glome goes on a spiritual journey where she finds the home of the gods, is made beautiful by dying, finds truth in contradictions and sees the face of God. In one chapter, she has a vision of the rams of the gods. She thinks that, if she can just get some of the golden wool from their backs, she will then possess beauty (divine glory). But the rams charge her, trampling and breaking her body. Yet even in her pain she notices that they’re not doing it out of anger but out of joy:
“They butted and trampled me because their gladness led them on; the Divine Nature wounds and perhaps destroys us merely by being what it is. We call it the wrath of the gods; as if the great [river] were angry with every fly it sweeps down in its green thunder” (Lewis 284).
To encounter God is to encounter mystery, confusion, and pain. And so I posit a wild theory: that the Cylons, though man’s creation, are nevertheless made to put man in touch with a God he does not know—God become flesh via machine—an anti-messiah of humanity’s own creation, planned by God to bring mankind to its own pre-destined, but perhaps transcendent, end.
The world of BSG is one in which encountering the divine occurs in patterns and symbols that mimic such encounters in our own. Mystery, contradiction, suffering, pre-destined hope, promised land, a messianic child and sexual ecstasy merging into spiritual encounter—all of these elements in BSG draw me, a Christian, to the Cylon God. In “Flesh and Bone,” Leovan is as right for the real world as he is for the world of BSG: “To know the face of God is to know madness.”
Battlestar Galactica. Original Series.
Battlestar Galactica. New Series.
Holy Bible. New American Standard Version. Chicago: Moody Press, 1976.
Lewis, C. S. Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold. San Diego: Harcourt Brace, 1956.
Mullins, Rich. “The Love of God.” Never Picture Perfect. Edward Grant, Inc., 1989.