The Divine Doctor

For the last few years, some of the world’s most interesting Mormon theology has been playing out in front of sci-fi geeks on laptops and television screens. Unbeknownst to nearly everyone, the writers and actors of one of my favorite shows have created a touching and compelling but still critical portrayal of Mormonism’s distinctive understanding of God.

I’m referring, of course, to Doctor Who.

For those of you who don’t share my love of fantasy, the BBC’s Doctor Who is among the longest-running programs on television, having aired its first episode the day after President Kennedy was assassinated. Fantasy author Neil Gaiman sums up its basic premise like this:

[T]here’s a blue box. It’s bigger on the inside than it is on the outside. It can go anywhere in time and space and sometimes even where it’s meant to go. And when it turns up, there’s a bloke in it called The Doctor and there will be stuff wrong and he will do his best to sort it out and he will probably succeed ’cause he’s awesome.

But Gaiman’s “awesome” doesn’t do the Doctor justice. Really, he’s divine, a demigod at least. He speaks every language of every species (even “baby”),[1] understands every technology, human or alien, and can often invent his own on the spot. He has been present at every important moment of human history, from the Stone Age to the eruption of Mount Vesuvius; from the London Blitz, repeatedly, to humanity’s last futile struggle to survive the heat death of the universe. From the perspective of the characters he meets, he simply pops up out of nowhere to save the day, and since the science behind his tricks and gizmos is rarely coherent enough to explain with a straight face,[2] his intervention remains simply miraculous. Nearly every Doctor Who plot is just a long deus ex machina—or more precisely, a god from the time machine.

The Doctor’s godlike nature has not been lost on the series’ writers, who have occasionally flirted with theology for years. But when head writer Steven Moffat took the helm in 2010, flirtation became marriage, or at least cohabitation.

Moffat announced his theological intentions with the beginning of his very first episode in charge. As the Doctor hurtles through the sky in a time machine out of control, a little girl kneels by her bedside. She’s scared of a crack in her wall—she hears voices through it—so she prays. To Santa Claus. “Dear Santa, thank you for the dolls and pencils and the fish. It’s Easter now, so I hope I didn’t wake you . . . .” She asks him to send someone to fix the crack, and at that moment the Doctor crash lands in her front yard. One brilliant hour of television later, Santa is forgotten, the crack is fixed, the world is saved from aliens, and Amy Pond has a new God to pray to.

But what kind of God is the Doctor?

The most common Christian understanding of God insists that God is “that being, greater than which cannot be conceived.”[3] He must therefore be omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent, all-loving and perfectly good. He is immutable, since (the Platonic argument goes) being is greater than becoming. He exists necessarily—that is, it is impossible for him not to exist—while everything else exists contingently, dependent on his will. He must therefore be perfectly simple, without parts, since if he were made of parts God’s parts would be prior to God, which is impossible if God is the root of all being. From perfect simplicity it follows that God must be incorporeal, since a body has parts; from immutability it follows that God must be impassible. “Impassibility” means he must be unaffected by our joys and sorrows, since to be affected is to change.[4]

Perhaps most importantly, traditional Christian theologians insist that God is so great as to be beyond human comprehension, such that it is impossible to know him directly. When we call God father or creator or savior or friend, we do not actually speak of God as he is but of his effects on the world. In this view, the only things theology can say about God directly are negative, telling us what God is not, cutting down idols so that we can bask in the unknowable mystery of what God really is.

It would be difficult for a monotheistic religion to reject this theology more radically than Mormonism does. To Mormons, God exists necessarily, but so does the universe and in some sense so do we. Mormons call God all-powerful, but we cannot mean “omnipotent” in the traditional sense, as our scripture explicitly names things that God cannot do. He cannot create out of nothing, and he cannot make people truly happy without allowing them to choose evil and misery instead. Whereas traditional Christianity insists that God cannot change, traditional Mormonism teaches that “as man is, God once was” (though that idea plays little role in the religion today). And whereas traditional Christianity worships God’s impassibility, Mormons worship a “weeping God,” one deeply hurt by our sins and moved by our joys and sorrows.

As for God’s mystery, Mormons can hardly imagine it. To us, God is literally the father of each individual person’s spirit, and each person is spiritually a member of God’s species. Mormons read that humanity was created in the image of God, and we conclude that God has flesh and bones, hair, a mouth, ten fingers and ten toes. As Harold Bloom has written, the God of Joseph Smith is much like the God of the early Old Testament, “the Yahweh who closes Noah’s ark with his own hands, descends to make on-the-ground inspections of Babel and Sodom, and who picnics with two angels under Abram’s terebinth trees.” Or, I might add, like the Doctor, joking with Amy while he answers her prayer and puts his ear to the crack in her wall.

How thrilling it is to know such a God! And how terrifying. With the world saved, the Doctor whisks Amy away to explore the glories of the universe and help him answer other people’s prayers. The Doctor begins to rely on her, and her choices really begin to matter. Real triumph becomes possible, and real catastrophe. The Doctor saves her countless times, of course, but sometimes she saves him, and he often relies on her to save others. What if she fails? Again and again she faces a test: will she trust the Doctor?[5] Again and again she does, and it seems her trust is always rewarded. And as she trusts him more, she comes to know him, and it changes her forever. All of the Doctor’s companions leave after a time, but none of them I’ve seen ever lose their devotion to him.[6]

But is devotion to the Doctor justified?

I’ll drop the metaphor: is Mormons’ devotion to God justified?

We believe God is morally perfect. But our traditional Christian critics would ask, if he’s not immutable, how can we know he won’t stop being morally perfect? What’s to prevent him from growing proud, as the Doctor once did, and deciding in hubris to break his own laws?

We believe God is all-powerful. But our critics wonder, if we believe there are things even an all-powerful being may not do, how can we be sure God will be able to save us? When Amy’s fiancé dies and she begs the Doctor to save him, he tells her he can’t:

“Save him. You save everyone. You always do. That’s what you do.”

“Not always. I’m sorry.”

“Then what is the point of you?”

The Doctor has no answer. If we believe there are things God can’t do, how do Mormons know we won’t find ourselves having this conversation with him in our hour of need?

Perhaps the most frightening question is this: with the Mormon understanding of God, how do we know that life has meaning? The traditional Christian can point to God as the metaphysical foundation of all reality, the root of all meaning, and say that to commune with the divine cannot possibly be meaningless. But if God did not create the universe out of nothing, if he must cope with its limitations in some way like we do, can he be our metaphysical anchor? How do we know that he himself doesn’t sometimes doubt whether it all means anything? The Doctor does, in his darker moments, and when he tells a child that growing up will mean “mortgage repayments, the nine to five, a persistent nagging sense of spiritual emptiness,” we know the emptiness nags him, too. If even God can doubt whether it all means anything, how do we know that the whole of reality isn’t just a “tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”?

There are theological answers to these questions, and by and large I find them persuasive. We believe God is powerful enough to keep all his promises, that moral perfection is necessary to his omnipotence, and so on. But Doctor Who portrays Mormons’ better answer, an answer not theological but personal. By relying on God day by day and experiencing him in our lives, we come to know him, to “see him as he is.” And knowing God, we say with Amy:

I trust the Doctor.

[1] In one episode, he informs a father that his infant dislikes the name Alfie and prefers to be called “Stormageddon, Dark Lord of All.”

[2] The show regularly pokes fun at the holes in its science, as when the Doctor tries to explain time travel to an uninitiate:

DOCTOR: People don’t understand time. It’s not what you think it is.

SALLY: Then what is it?

DOCTOR: Complicated.

SALLY: Tell me.

. . .

DOCTOR: People assume that time is a strict progression of cause to effect, but actually from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint, it’s more like a big ball of wibbly-wobbly… timey-wimey… stuff.

Sally accepts this explanation because she’s not actually having the conversation with the Doctor but with an otherwise inexplicable thirty-eight-year-old recording of him on a portable DVD player. We in the audience merely laugh and suspend disbelief.

[3] In the discussion that follows, I paint with a very broad brush. The big picture I’m painting is accurate, but many mainstream Christians would disagree with some or all of my individual brushstrokes. Similar caveats apply to my discussion of Mormon theology in a few paragraphs.

[4] Divine impassibility has grown less popular in recent decades, and various theological writers have attempted to refute the idea, or at least to show that it is consistent with a belief that God sorrows and rejoices with us. My impression is that impassibility remains the mainstream position, but I lack the expertise to claim that with certainty.

[5] My favorite example comes in “Flesh and Stone,” the fifth episode of the 2010 season. Amy sits on a rock with her eyes tight shut, and she can’t open them or she’ll die. The Doctor takes her hands and tells her, “Amy, you need to start trusting me. It’s never been more important.” Almost sobbing, Amy responds, “But you don’t always tell me the truth.” “If I always told you the truth, I wouldn’t need you to trust me.” Amy trusts, and the Doctor saves.

[6] Excepting Donna, who had to have her memories wiped to save her from… oh, never mind. Just watch the show.

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  • Alan Hurst

    PS – Thanks to my wife for getting the footnote links to work. Take that, stereotypes of female technological helplessness!

  • RickH

    Just when I thought I couldn’t dig this blog more. This. Was. Awesome. Very cool. Like bow ties.

  • Michael H.

    Very awesome! Thank you for not *really* trying to stretch the metaphor too far into Series Six, too. Haha.

  • David T

    This is EXACTLY a blog post I’d considered writing for several weeks now. I completely agree. Love it!

  • Ben S

    This reminded me of a snippet of the long interview with Terryl Givens, when asked about naturalism and God, and he responds with Dawkins, which sounds like… The Doctor.-
    “What’s your opinion of the possibility of a naturalistic interpretation [of Mormon doctrine]?” Givens’s response was essentially that you don’t have to try very hard to make the connection. He said:

    “Well, I do think that Mormonism is never going to lose its emphasis on Christ as the portal through which all humans move upward into salvation. But having said that, I’ve always believed that Mormonism has, in some ways, more affinity with secular humanism than it does with Evangelical religion, in so far as, in Richard Dawkins, one of the arch-atheists of the day has purportedly said, “Now I could believe in God if by ‘God’ we meant some kind of a super advanced human, or intelligence.” And that’s effectively how Mormons are thinking about God through the King Follett heritage. And so in that sense, Mormons are thoroughgoing naturalists. One of Joseph Smith’s most radical pronouncements early in the 1830’s was that matter is eternal, matter can’t be created, and then later he said that there is no such thing as immaterial spirit, that all spirit is matter, it’s just more refined. Now there have been a number of monists throughout in history. William Blake would be another example of somebody who didn’t believe that the universe was divided into the spiritual and the physical, if by spiritual we mean non-physical. So what this means is that everything, everything in the universe, spirit and matter, is subject to the same set of natural laws. So that’s a pretty thoroughgoing naturalism, and their idea about what constitutes ‘God’ is somebody who has put himself into perfect alignment with the nature of those laws and wants to show to the human family the same path to progress and exaltation that he pioneered so to speak.”

    • Alan Hurst

      Yeah, that interpretation of Mormonism (depending on how you spin it) has always kind of creeped me out. Probably because I’ve got a lot of sympathy for C.S. Lewis’s “Abolition of Man,” and the like. As useful as it is to see the world through a physics-like lens–to assume it’s purely material and completely governed by natural physical laws–I think it’s reductionistic and would hate to believe that the roots of reality are no more personal than that, that the real difference between God and humanity is that he’s got bigger supercolliders. I just want him to be further up than that, and the real nature of reality to be more different from our current best theories. There just has to be some fundamental connection between God’s moral perfection and God’s power, and I don’t see how anything like a conventional materialism can get you there, unless you reinterpret materialism with, e.g., a process metaphysics, which I can’t imagine a Richard Dawkins ever being on board with.

      This distaste for a Dawkins-like interpretation of Mormonism, I might mention, is actually one of the reasons I was attracted to Doctor Who as a metaphor. Sure, the show pretends that scientific laws undergird everything that happens, but everyone knows that’s a joke. Doctor Who’s about wonder and miracles, not materialism. If you ignore the space trappings, it’s much more fantasy than sci-fi.

  • C.

    I feel a lot less geeky now at admitting that I had what I consider a profound spiritual insight into the nature of God watching DW once. So thanks for that!

  • David T

    I especially thought of this in connection with one particular self-sacrifice of the Doctor. He was frustrated – not over the decision whether or not to save the individual, but knowing that it is his nature to do so, and the loss that inevitable saving action on his part would bring him personally. He was frustrated that the person put himself in the position where he needed to be saved that way. But… there was never a doubt the Doctor would save him. He just really, really wished there had been another way, and things had turned out differently. The Doctor is… Good. But sometimes, being Good, and being a perpetual Savior takes a toll.