Torchwood: Something Borrowed

Torchwood: Something Borrowed January 23, 2013

The Torchwood episode “Something Borrowed” connects with religion in two very direct ways, both related to conception.

The story focuses on Gwen getting bitten by an alien not long before the day of her wedding. Unfortunately, the alien is one that inseminates the one bitten with its offspring through its bite, and as a result, Gwen ends up being pregnant on her wedding day.

As she begins to freak out about it, Jack tries to reassure her. When Gwen asks if this sort of thing has happened before, Jack says “Sure” and adds “You’ve heard of the immaculate conception, right?” to which Gwen responds by emphasizing “I’m not carrying the baby Jesus in there.”

The use of the term “immaculate conception” is a misnomer. That term reflects the Catholic view that Mary was conceived without sin. It is a different doctrine than the view that Jesus was conceived virginally, without a human father.

Leaving such errors to one side, was Jack – and was the writer of the episode, Phil Ford – really seriously suggesting that Jesus was a shapeshifting alien?

Whatever one’s answer to that question – it may be that Jack was joking – the scenario depicted in the episode also connects with other major topics of religious interest, namely rape and abortion.

The episode depicts Gwen’s mother as emphasizing that, even if conceived before her wedding, “It’s a baby. It’s God’s blessing.” Another way of putting it would be to say that any baby is a “gift from God.”

That is precisely the sort of language that was used by several politicians not long ago in relation to rape, sparking a significant amount of deserved controversy. If we think about it, Gwen was essentially raped by an alien organism in the episode. Because of the way the alien reproduces, it did not involve precisely the same things that are involved in a human raping another human being. But she was a victim of violence, and her reproductive system was violated and invaded.

It is worth reflecting on the question quite seriously. From a religious standpoint, was Gwen’s pregnancy a “gift from God“? After all, the “monster” that impregnated her was a sentient being, and so presumably a creation of God every bit as much as a human rapist. And the human rapist is arguably every bit as much a monster.

And so it is worth asking yourself: Do you consider it immoral to abort the alien child within Gwen – at a stage when it was not merely an alien fetus, but an alien baby nearly to term? If not, then would the same not apply in the case of human rape? If you distinguish the two cases, on what basis do you do so?

As with all good science fiction, Torchwood, in this one episode, provides great opportunity for discussion of ethical, philosophical, and religious topics. It is fictional, but by treating the story seriously, and using it as a starting point for discussion and reflection, it can get at a number of important contemporary issues.

Let me conclude with one more quote from the episode, which illustrates that it connects with many broad and serious questions, and not just the specific ethical ones that are the focus of this blog post. At one point in the episode, Jack Harkness asks the poignant question, “If life always went according to plan, what would be the point of living?” The show explores not just specific questions – whether about rape and abortion, death and mortality, or anything else – but general questions about the nature of human existence, and what it is that makes it meaningful and worthwhile.

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  • Something to consider about the rape-baby comment by Richard
    Mourdock is that there were at least two potentially offensive parts. One was
    that all life (and hence the baby) is a gift from God. This was also a sentiment
    previously expressed by former Senator and candidate for the 2012 GOP
    Presidential nominee Rick Santorum, who prior to Mourdock had said, “I
    believe and I think that the right approach is to accept this horribly created,
    in the sense of rape, but nevertheless, in a very broken way, a gift of human
    life, and accept what God is giving to you.”

    The issue here is the view of God’s will. If the will of God is something
    decided by a personified, anthropomorphic being in our sense of time, then the
    horrific implication is that God is endorsing the rape, either directly or by
    endorsing its consequences. God wishes it, and poof, it happens. Thus either
    God approves of what humans (with certain views of women) consider to be evil, or God is not omnipotent. There are longstanding theological debates underpinning the “gift of rape-babies” argument. That is where the other offensive part implied by Santorum but made explicit by Mourdock comes in: “[I]t is something that God intended to happen.”

    If God(‘s will) is more like a stream, then it will inexorably wear down
    resistance and will accomplish its goal. There is no sense of immediacy implied
    in its eventual fulfillment. Nor does every minor thing have to be something
    specifically intended by God. Sentient beings such as humans, as self-aware
    aspects of the stream, could facilitate or hinder the (direction of) the flow
    in a limited way for a brief time but even then stream would find ways around
    the obstruction. The incidentals of the flow not influenced by sentient beings,
    such as natural disasters, parasites, etc, would not require direct and
    specific intention by God. The danger, risk, and impermanence of the phenomenal world, and with such qualities its fragility, potential and poignancy, at least from a human perspective, would just be part of the process.

    Of course, even this primitive version of a stream analogy needs to be modified
    (I am working on it in my spare time when inspirations strikes), and in my
    preferred version the term “will” and similar concepts are removed as
    being too anthropomorphic. But it does address some of the troubling aspects of
    combining omniscience, omnipotence, and omnipresence. In addition to the issues described above it suggests, for example, that while the general direction of the divine influence “flows” in a general direction or even towards some specific end, it isn’t constrained to one limited route. Nor does it impose itself by immediate brute force or displays of shock and awe, but rather by an inevitable and irresistible movement. 

    Moreover, it suggests that sentient beings particularly powerful conduits through
    which the unfolding or evolution of this divine flows is expressed or
    manifested. Not more or less important than other levels of organization,
    but as part of a larger process. The idea that the transcendent would or would not “need” human agents is recast. It also calls into question the degree to
    which relative human positions regarding morality can be applied outside of
    specifically human intention, behavior, and perception. In viewing God as
    transpersonal and choosing a stream rather than a King, Creator, or Father as
    the analogy of choice, the logic of applying human notions and judgments to God
    seems less sensible. In terms of God’s expression as and through human beings
    in human community, sure, those feelings and demands make sense, and other images and analogies may be useful.

    But if, as some suggest, God is indeed transpersonal, as some panentheistic
    views require, then being beyond the dichotomy of personal/impersonal or transcendent/immanent surely indicates being beyond notions of “good” and
    “evil” as well. If, as many of the contemplatives and mystics tell us,
    God simply “is”, that God is all in all, that God provides sunlight
    and rain for the just and the unjust, then we ought to recognize the different
    tiers of meaning and realization of “God” and not conflate or confuse
    concepts and systems of understanding intended for one level with those
    relevant at another. That then begs, of course, questions about what the
    highest human realization of the divine actually is and from a human
    perspective where the flow of the stream is heading. This is something each
    sacred tradition, each religious system within a tradition, each communion or
    school with each system, and each sect or congregation within each communion or school can attempt to answer.

    I find it interesting though, that there is often a convergence by those
    devoted in their practice to openness; equanimity; understanding;
    self-discipline; detachment from selfish habits of self-indulgence,
    defensiveness and controlling others; compassion, and so on. The Tao, Pure Mind, Atman, the Godhead, etc, are frequently experienced as perfect wholeness, boundless compassion and wisdom, and utter dependence and fulfillment leading to perfect freedom, wider and deeper than the sky. Or as Julian of Norwich wrote, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” This does not imply that all traditions lead to the exact same thing, at least in terms of its direct manifestation and experience by individuals, since each person, informed and shaped by their own lives, will have a unique relationship and sense of this ultimate reality.

    It is a shame, then, when people reduce God and religion to a set of mismatched and contradictory historical and social programs and find themselves unable to realize or to articulate a more mature, profound, and inspiring vision of life through their supposed faith. I have no doubt my own musings are wholly inadequate, but surely if an amateur like me can find a way to honor the received wisdom of multiple traditions while seeing a way to help move the debate over God past some of the same tired polemics (even if it just means offering a new translation and synthesis of older images and concepts), one
    would think there must be many such efforts by professionals, from the academically trained theologians to those schooled in constant and conscious service to God, other humans, and the larger web of life on Earth. Is it that these experts aren’t speaking or teaching enough, or that we just aren’t listening? Perhaps, as some have suggested, we lack the ears to hear; that is, perhaps the West has simply lost the art of (seeing and interpreting and following the signs and symbols of) the sacred.

    To bring this comment full circle then, Rick Santorum recently suggested that the system of higher education in the United States is promoting a “sea of antagonism toward Christianity.” Apparently the brands of theism and Christian witness that he and other public figures such as Richard Mourdock, Todd Akin, and Michele Bachmann are promoting have nothing to do with such antagonism, despite studies, commentaries, and polls showing that this antagonism is correlated to perceptions of intolerance toward LGBT people and minorities, hypocrisy regarding charity and caring for the weak, shallowness of theology, vapidity of doctrine, ignorance of science, and so on. So perhaps then this antagonism also explains the lack of of more widespread interest or access to more engaging and challenging ways of connecting religion to the existential questions of humanity. It would be nice to think that programs such as “Doctor Who” and its spin-offs promote such deep reflection more broadly, but as in many things regarding religion I am skeptical.