Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Gospel According to the TARDIS

When someone asked Gene Roddenberry where he got the brilliant idea for having the crew teleport, he explained that he couldn't afford to film a scene showing the Starship Enterprise land on a new planet every week. Hence they put the actors on a set, filmed them, removed them, filmed the set empty, and in editing, overlaid the two, faded the image of the actors in or out, and added sparkling colors and voila: a science fictional way to solve a budgetary problem.

The producers at the BBC had a similar problem with Doctor Who's transport. The Doctor's time machine is central to the series. It can travel anywhere not only in time but in space. Of course a race as advanced as the Time Lords would not want the TARDIS, which stands for Time And Relative Dimensions In Space, to stick out in each era or world, so it is equipped with a chameleon circuit. But that would mean that a new version of the TARDIS exterior would have to be designed and built for every time the Doctor landed. Unlike Roddenberry, the BBC came up with a more low tech solution. On his first adventure, the Doctor notices that his TARDIS hasn't changed and deduces that the chameleon circuit is stuck. He never gets around to fixing it. And so in a series in which everything else changes--the time, the planets and dimensions visited, the human companions and even the Doctor's appearance, due to his ability to regenerate--the one thing that doesn't is the TARDIS, which is still in the form of a blue 1960's Police box.

It makes sense, though. After all, the Doctor is a renegade Time Lord who stole an old TARDIS which was in for repairs. Or that's what we thought until the recent episode entitled "The Doctor's Wife." When an evil entity removes the TARDIS' sentience and deposits it in the body of a madwoman in order to hijack the vehicle, the Doctor finds himself able to speak directly with his time machine's essence. She reveals that it was she who stole him, the Time Lord, wishing to travel the universe as much as he. Soon they are squabbling like an old married couple. She chides him for not following the directions on her doors. He accuses her of not always taking him where he wanted to be. "But I always took you where you needed to be," she retorts. And he realizes it is she who makes sure that the Doctor is always there to save planets and protect the oppressed and make people better.

Of course, a human body is not an appropriate vessel for something so vast, that experiences past, present and future all at once. They must restore her soul, so to speak, to her more expansive form of her machine. You see, the TARDIS contains a pocket dimension that gives the Doctor, his companions and all his equipment a spacious place in which to dwell, while outwardly looking not much bigger than a phone booth. The first thing most humans mention upon entering the TARDIS is that it is bigger on the inside. And during her brief incarnation, the TARDIS discovers to her surprise that the same is true about people--they are bigger on the inside. And in this, the time machine agrees with the timeless truth of the Bible.

Physically humans are animals. We are similar enough to other mammals that we can learn things by studying the bodies and behaviors of pigs, chimps and mice. Animals can make and use tools like us. Ants and beavers build and transform their environments. They can communicate. They can learn things and pass them on. Some even seem to have individual self-awareness. So in what way are we different? While we do things that fall in the same categories as other animals, our results are more sophisticated and nuanced. We don't just use sticks and rocks; we make Swiss Army Knifes and Gamma knives and computers. We even create substances that didn't previously exist to make our tools out of. We create environments that allow us to live well outside our habitats, such as undersea laboratories and space stations. We don't just communicate warnings and enticements to mate and locations of food. We communicate abstract ideas and fictional stories about aliens who travel in time and space. The differences between our abilities and those of other animals are so great in degree that they might as well be differences in kind. Both a mechanical adding machine and a computer can be used to do basic math and one evolved from the other but, though broadly in the same category of machines, they are now more different than alike.

But there is something else about human beings that sets us aside from the other animals and that is spirit. Animals spend their days eating, drinking, mating and sleeping. Everything they do is to further these basic activities. But as Jesus points out, humans do not live by bread alone. Even when human beings lived as animals, hunting and gathering their food, they took time to create art and to practice religious rituals. This need to create beauty and to relate to forces greater than ourselves springs from our being bigger on the inside. As Psalm 42 says, "deep calls unto deep." From the depths of our being we call to the depth of all being which is God.

The reason for this, according to the Bible, is that we are created in God's image. What does that mean? When the phrase is first used, in Genesis 1, what we know about God is that he is creative, intelligent, organized, purposeful, communicative, giving and good. We also see that he loves life in all its diversity. In 1st John we are told that God is love. We find these reflected in humanity to various degrees. Some people are more creative, others more intelligent, some more organized, others more purposeful, some more communicative, others more giving, and some are very good. No one human being reflects every one of these qualities to the same degree. Not every person finds delight in all forms of life. But taken together, all of humanity should be a very good composite reflection of the image of God.

We should be but we aren't. For us to do so we would have to act in harmony. And we don't, fundamentally because we are so bad at the key element of the image of God: love. By love, we don't mean romantic love, brotherly love, or mere friendship. We mean divine love. As we mirror God, so should our love. But it also falls short. We love primarily out of need. As infants, we have no choice. We are helpless and the source of our nutrition and care becomes the object of our love and if we are fortunate, is the source of parental love as well. Such love is an actual need. Infants physically cared for but not given love can fail to thrive and die. Those that survive often have severe psychological problems to overcome.

As we grow, we usually find friendship and romantic love. While not as essential as parental love, they are necessary for good psychological health, which in turn affects our physical health. But any of these loves can be unhealthy as well. And the reason is often inadequacy.

Sometimes the problem is that the object of our loves are inadequate. The most obvious example is when we invest our love in things, rather than in people. The person who puts all of his time and effort into collecting cars or art or comic books or trophies can squeeze out all room for human affection. Sometimes such an activity can lead to friendships with others who share the same hobby, but if the relationship never goes beyond the mutual obsession, it can still be narrow and inadequate as a form of love.

And of course if the thing loved is money and its trappings, well, I needn't point out that scripture has a lot to say about that. So does science. A recent study of 1700 couples found that the higher the priority they give to money and material goods the less likely they are to be satisfied with their marriage. As for individuals, money increases happiness up until it reaches a level where all needs are met. After that, more money doesn't buy happiness.

This also applies if the object of love is an ideology or even religion. A system is not a person. There was a study that showed that if people were more attached to their religion, while they were altruistic towards other members of their faith, they tended to be less friendly towards those outside their belief system. People who were more focused on God were more benevolent towards all people. That's why Jesus stressed loving the God who loves us and sent him to save us. It is vital to go beyond giving intellectual assent to a series of statements about God and actually have a relationship with him.

Sometimes it is not the object but the quality of the love that is insufficient. If we love people merely for what they do for us, that love will founder when they can no longer fulfill our needs. The opposite is also a problem. If we try to be everything to someone, and never ask for or receive anything back, that relationship will be dysfunctional. It's true for couples, friendships and families. It's only real love if it is mutual and if each person is willing to put the other ahead of him- or herself. If one holds back or tries to do all of the sacrificing, the relationship is lopsided and will collapse.

Often we can trace these inadequate forms of love back to us as individuals. If we are primarily focused on ourselves, our pleasures, our sufferings, our resentments, our regrets, our injuries, real or perceived, we will find it hard to love anyone, much less God. C. S. Lewis said that a man all wrapped up in himself makes a very small package. We've all encountered people like that. Outwardly they may look like they have it altogether, like they are successful. But let them open their mouths and you realize they are petty and shallow and self-centered. They are smaller on the inside.

But how can that be? If we were created in the image of God how can we lose that? If we are to be temples of God's Holy Spirit how can we be so small and shabby? The image of God is still there but it is marred. The reflection of God's glory is dim and warped in most of us. We have filled most of the rooms in our temple with garbage and baggage from our lives and have so diminished our inner space that we can only imagine a smaller God, scaled down to fit the cramped places remaining.

That's not what we were intended to be. We were created to be bearers of God's image, and therefore bigger people on the inside. We were intended to love God with all our being and love other people as he loves us, which would make us more expansive, more forgiving, more generous. Sadly, too many Christians live narrow lives, with narrow minds and narrow hearts. Like people with body dysmorphic disorder and anorexia, we only think we are large, when actually we are shriveled and emaciated, starved for spiritual sustenance. We need him who is the Bread of Heaven to feed us, him who is the Living Water to slake our thirst, him who is the Life of the World to heal us and restore us to robust spiritual health.

If we love him and obey his words, Jesus promised that he and his Father would come and make their home in us. God in man--how could that be? We don't know but we know it happened before--in Jesus. Now we are called to emulate him, to embody his Spirit, to be his body on earth. And that can only happen if we open our hearts wide for the Love that created the universe and dare to live the paradox of being ordinary people carrying around in them an extraordinary God, souls who are bigger on the inside that we appear to be, ready to go not always where we wish to be but where we need to be, to save and to protect and to make people better.

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