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Supernatural University: Justice, Mercy, Retribution, Redemption -- Expressions of the Divine

Supernatural University: Justice, Mercy, Retribution, Redemption – Expressions of the Divine in Supernatural

Last week’s episode of Supernatural, Houses of the Holy, has prompted a great deal of metaphysical thought and discussion on the existence and nature of God, the potential existence of angels as a counterbalancing force to demons, and the extent to which the divine, assuming it exists, may take an active role in the lives of human beings. The thesis of this seminar at Supernatural University is that the series does aver the existence of God and hews to generally Judeo-Christian principles, but presents the divine as more subtle and less direct than the forces of evil. I would posit that the divine is expressed in the show most often simply through the core values and moral choices of the Winchester brothers themselves, as well as through the words and actions of other humans. Included in this postulate is the assumption that we are unlikely to see direct non-human agents of the divine (for example, angels), even though we have seen direct action by non-human agents of evil (for example, demons possessing humans), but that we may also discern the divine within events if we are willing not to look for it, but simply to accept that it is there.


An earlier Supernatural University seminar (“The Personification of Good and Evil”) explored some of this territory, with a basic thesis that the world creation and the natural order of things are intrinsically good, while evil lies in the attempt to pervert or disrupt that order. I posited then that we were unlikely to see angels in Supernatural as direct agents of good because ordinary humans were themselves already the natural agents of good, and part of what made them so was their free will choice to do right things. Actions taken directly or forced on humans by non-human agents would contravene free will and the natural order of things, and would thus not be used by anything truly “good” or inspired by the divine in order to achieve its end. That premise continues in the current class.


All of this speculation was brought to the fore by the events of Houses of the Holy, and specifically by how those events were perceived by Sam and Dean Winchester. A priest, Father Thomas Gregory – a young man of faith – was senselessly murdered, and rather than passing on to the afterlife he had been taught to expect, found himself a spirit still bound to Earth. Whether through the deceptive blandishments of an outside agency or through his own inner confusion, he believed himself transformed into an angel with a mission to answer the prayers of his colleague Father Reynolds by countering the evil prevalent in the neighborhood of his parish church. He realized that he knew the evil secrets within people’s hearts, whether because they had confessed to him or because, as a spirit, he could read minds. He found that he could appear as an angel to some in the community – people in depressed circumstances who felt a personal need for redemption – and inspire them to kill those who had committed or planned to commit evil acts. The agents he inspired, in turn, believed that they opened the door to their personal redemption by becoming the instruments of justice, of divine retribution for evil, and by accepting in peace the consequences of their actions. In return for their trust and acceptance, they experienced a lasting bliss and peace approximating grace.


Sam and Dean perceived the situation they confronted very differently, because of their diametrically opposing views on faith. Dean, who rejected faith in any higher power as a consequence of what had happened to his mother when he was a child, saw Father Gregory as simply another unquiet spirit causing more evil to happen; after all, people died, and the agents he used to cause those deaths knowingly committed murder and would spend years, if not the rest of their lives, confined to prison or a mental institution. Sam, who apparently has long been faithful, and who now has a desperate need to believe in the promise of salvation by a higher power to avoid what he sees as an evil destiny, was inclined to see the presence of the hand of God in the person of an avenging angel, who brought down justice upon the wicked and bestowed peace and redemption upon those who served him. In the end, Father Gregory was revealed as only a spirit, not an angel, bringing Sam to despair and doubt, while the freak death of the would-be rapist prompted Dean to consider whether God was indeed manifesting his justice and his will in the way events unfolded.


There has been much discussion in the fan community about whether or not all these events might indeed have been part of a deliberate divine plan, perhaps one intended ultimately to strengthen the brothers by inspiring Dean to faith that could support Sam in his need. At the risk of trespassing on ground belonging to theologians, I would submit that is not the case, because I am not inclined to believe in a Machiavellian God who would manipulate and even destroy multiple lives – including Father Gregory, the killers, and the victims – in a convoluted pattern simply in order to make a point. That said, however, I would not dismiss the potential presence of God in events; I would simply seek the presence of God in much more subtle things.


For inspiration, let me borrow from the first book of Kings:


And he [the Lord] said, Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the Lord. And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake:
And after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire: and after the fire, a still small voice.
(I Kings 19: 11-12 (KJV))


Where in Houses of the Holy was the “still, small voice,” the presence of God? I would submit, not in the random murder of Father Gregory, nor in Father Gregory losing his way and remaining as an earthbound spirit, nor in Father Gregory believing himself become an avenging angel. Even though the Bible maintains that “Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord,” I cannot not hear the still, small voice in the directed murders of those who had committed and hidden grave sins, or contemplated committing them; I would submit that the Lord’s vengeance would not be delivered through human hands sinning against the Commandment “Thou shalt not kill.” And while Dean may be shaken to his core, thinking that the very implausibility of the string of bizarre coincidences resulting in the would-be rapist’s death could argue that it was, in fact, an act of God, I would say that an act of God wasn’t necessary; that absurdist coincidence exists in nature, and needs no other explanation, and that flashy things that draw attraction to themselves – like the strong wind, the earthquake, and the fire – are distractions from, rather than evidence of, the presence of God.


But I do hear that still, small voice in this episode. I hear it in Dean’s willingness, when faced with his brother’s crisis of faith, to confess that he had seen something he could not explain except as the will of God, even though that admission contravened the rage and desperate denial of faith he had clung to ever since his mother died. I hear it in Father Reynold’s willingness to accept two young men whom he had clearly pegged as suspicious (he clearly knew they’d never belonged to that parish in Texas!), and to give them the benefit of the doubt. I hear it in Sam’s accepting gentleness with Gloria, the hooker killer, and in his awe at her peace. I hear its murmuring reassurance beneath Sam’s final look at Dean, the wonder and dawning rebirth of hope at hearing words of faith, however questioning, from confirmed unbeliever Dean’s lips.


And most of all, I hear it in what seems to me the genuine miracle in the episode, a miracle that Sam witnessed, if he would only think about it:  the peaceful, redemptive release of Father Gregory’s soul to the afterlife he had missed by becoming a vengeful spirit. Up until Houses of the Holy, we had seen only two instances that I can recall of an earthbound spirit choosing its own departure: demon-slain Mary Winchester, in Home, sacrificing herself to save her son from a poltergeist; and the death omen Claire in The Usual Suspects, who, with her remains found but still not destroyed, presumably found her rest once the just mission she had clung to – bearing witness to the guilt of Pete the crooked cop – was completed. Every other vengeful spirit the boys confronted directly was apparently truly destroyed, not released: we even saw the fire consume the spirit of the former preacher in Hookman and the little girl in Provenance when their remains were burned, and we saw the demon Cyrus truck dispersed to nothing crossing holy ground in Route 666.


What we saw with Father Gregory was entirely different. Granted last rites by Father Reynolds, we saw Father Gregory accept the truth, and be transfigured in light. This was not destruction; this was redemption. This was forgiveness for having gone astray. This was a second chance. And although Sam and Dean may not know for certain what we learned while watching Dean’s spirit with Tessa the Reaper in In My Time of Dying – that the decision to not move on through death is one that can’t be reconsidered – the boys’ own experience would indicate that, save in extraordinary circumstances, a restless spirit can only endure or be destroyed. I would maintain that the redemption of a troubled spirit – the demonstration of mercy and forgiveness even to one who had led others astray – is a truer expression of the divine than even evidence of implacable justice or inescapable retribution.


Are there miracles? Based on Houses of the Holy, I think that Supernatural would say, “Yes.”


[I apologize for my lateness in convening this class, and for having been absent from your blogs while I was preparing it. I fear I am often too much like Dean, if without the rage, and find the divine … elusive.]

Tags: meta, philosophy, supernatural, supernatural university, theology

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