The lines blur between good and evil in Alan Moore’s Watchmen as each hero characterizes a slightly different philosophy. While differing, they share the same mission—salvation, or in secular terms, self-actualization. Through these savior figures, Watchmen allows us to dive into modern interpretations of how we can transcend evil. This becomes evident in the similarities found when comparing the life, death, and resurrection of Christ to the life, death, and (the usual) resurrection of comic heroes. What makes Watchmen theologically relevant is not only that it puts you in the point of view of the hero, but that it also provides the viewpoint of how society reacts to the hero. This does three things for the reader: first, we gain insight on the flaws in our current salvation symbols. Second, It provides a context as to how the interpretation of those symbols change overtime. And third, by gaining the first two insights we can then place a personal value on the effectiveness of those symbols to create a less violent, more connected, society.
To demonstrate these points I’m going to look at Alan Moore’s character, Dr. Manhattan, who is a savior archetype as well as a nihilist. Moore switches p.o.v. between Dr. Manhattan, Laurie (his girlfriend), and society. This creates a clearer picture of how society sees God and how God might think of humanity.
1. Problem with Current Symbols.
In response to Jon’s newly gained perfection, society wants to use him as a weapon of war. Moore refers to this sentiment as ‘omnipotence by association’ (Dr. Manhattan: Superpowers and the superpowers, p. III). Perhaps out of a desire to help society, he does as the government asks. As the clock ticks towards nuclear war, society increasingly relies on the idea that Dr. Manhattan will save them. He becomes a crutch so that society no longer feels the need to take any real action towards peace or saving themselves because God is on their side. Instead, from their faulty ‘omnipotence by association’ reasoning, society gets cocky and partakes in risky behavior that puts the world on the brink of nuclear destruction. Moore is portraying that because of our pride, we’ve created God in our image—one that will naturally be interested in our interests. This isn’t inherently a bad thing, except that within ‘omnipotence by association’ the person, or society, assumes that their agenda or goals are more important, or better, than that of others both between different cultures or societies and between humanity and other species and creations.
In the Christian tradition God loves humanity more than itself so that the one and only son of that deity was sacrificed for our benefit. There are many theories on how Jesus saves our soul including, but not limited to, ransom and substitutionary model. In Atonement and Violence, those arguing for variations on these models show that each theory has it’s own benefits in creating a moral society with varying levels of commitment from it’s subscribers. Many interpretations tend to be relaxed on personal involvement which is criticized as causing social conflicts. Jesus also played the role of scapegoat for our sins in order for us to achieve salvation. In order to appease the ‘lack of participation’ criticism there needs to be a call to action. The issue we are looking at is a reactionary phase of salvation. Daniels points out that in the substitutionary model, taking up the cross doesn’t make sense
“If the role of the cross in atonement was to appease the wrath of God, then taking up our cross as disciples would imply that we are to daily take up the instrument through which god’s wrath is nullified. That would make little or no sense because substitutionary atonement is dependent first up on the purity of Christ as a worthy sacrifice or substitution for the sins of humankind, and second the theory implies that the death of Christ has finally appeased God’s wrath and thus no further satisfaction is necessary.” (Atonement and Violence p.127).
In this atonement theory that forms a lot of the beliefs of American Christians, no further action is needed to achieve salvation (Ibid). We can dust off our hands after saying, ‘Jesus is the one, baby’. This neglects His good works that we are supposed to mimic. After sacrificing Jesus, a predominant lesson was lost—what are we supposed to do afterwards? Without changing after the sacrifice we are still the same people acting in sin (acting against God). Dr. Manhattan broke this cycle. He understood that being a sacrifice wouldn’t change anything, or would only be a temporary fix. Moore acknowledged this commonly articulated flaw and demonstrates the existential transition from believing in a personal God that saves us into the idea of having to save ourselves. This is why Dr. Manhattan leaves the world. Instead of being a symbol of self-actualization, humanity used him as a scapegoat for inaction. By leaving he removes that temptation so that people will create their own fate and morality.
2. Evolution of Symbols
In order for symbols of salvation to be effective in their current culture they must evolve naturally. Moore’s interpretation of salvation starts with the familiar substitutionary model of atonement where the savior dies in order to cleanse us of our sins for nothing in return. He demonstrates how transferring this same system of reasoning to politics leads to social violence. Then he offers a different look at the same symbols that includes what a lot of contemporary theologians are tasking for—more participation. In Atonement and Violence, T. Scott Daniels argues that “humans are competitive rivals who mimetically imitate one another because we seek the same object, goal, or agenda. We do not know what to desire, so to find out we watch the people we admire and imitate their desires.” (Daniels p.130). Both Jesus and Dr. Manhattan are not meant to be scapegoats but models of perfection that can be learned from.
Daniels keeps God present but asks that people emphasize the meaning behind Jesus’ life rather than having a theology that focuses on His death and resurrection. Moore demonstrates the same shift in atonement theology by having Dr. Manhattan physically remove himself so that people have to act for themselves. Laurie comes to the realization that humanity is going to end itself because it puts its trust in a god that doesn’t care. And humanity has no one to blame but themselves. Moore is making a nihilistic claim for god. He toys with humanities pride at being special or chosen by writing a myth that portrays the idea that the life force that drives us all–call it God, Allah, or Sally–does not care about humanity any more than it does dinosaurs or polar ice caps. It’s all equally important and not important. According to Dr. Manhattan, the universe is simply acting and reacting. He questions the logic that imposing a conscious favoritism for humanity on God makes it true. But does that make religion not important? Is God dead? Not in the slightest.
J: “Thermo-Dynamic miracles…events with odds against so astronomical they’re effectively impossible…and yet, in each human coupling, a thousand sperm vie for a single egg. Multiply those odds by countless generations, against the odds of your ancestors being alive; meeting; siring this precise son; that exact daughter… until your mother loves a man she has every reason to hate, and of that union, of the thousand million children competing for fertilization, it was you, only you, that emerged. To distill so specific a form from that chaos of improbability, like turning air to gold…that is the crowning unlikelihood.”
L: “My birth, if that’s a thermodynamic miracle…you could say that about anybody in the world!”
J: “Yes. Anybody in the world. But the world is so full of people, so crowded with these miracles that they become commonplace and we forget…I forget. We gaze continually at the world and it grows dull in our perceptions. Yet seen from another’s vantage point, as if new, it may still take the breath away. Come… dry your eyes, for you are life, rarer than a quark and unpredictable beyond the dreams of Heisenberg; the clay in which the forces that shape all things leave their fingerprints most clearly.” (Ch. IX p. 26-28)
Moore tears down the concept of a personal God, but he doesn’t leave the reader in a state of deflated existential isolation. Instead he provides small adjustments in our generally accepted theology to call into question why we aren’t more peaceful. Instead, he demonstrates that nihilism is not a curse word; it can be a call to action. We could view everything as meaningless, just like atoms bouncing off one another in mere chemical reactions. Or we can do as both Daniels and Moore propose: Rather than relying on God to do the work for us, we should use them as an example of how to mimic their good actions to become self-actualized humans.
3. Determining Value
Every atonement theory has it’s own strengths and weaknesses. Moore dives head first into humanities fear of ontological estrangement, by asking the audience what is worse: having no God at all, or a God that doesn’t care about us?
This is not a matter of destroying God, rather than the idea that no one can tell you how to be saved. It is ultimately up to the individual to determine their own salvation by interpreting those life, death, and resurrection stories that are heavily imbedded in western culture. You have to push to become the hero (take up your cross) by understanding what you believe is good and evil and then acting on those beliefs. If we look at prophets or heroes as symbols to model to reach salvation, it becomes an action word that doesn’t necessarily require us to believe in any one over another. Instead, we open them up for interpretation so that someone who has an issue with the mythology in the Bible is still able to find moral value within it. While Daniels is using Christianity and Moore, Nihilism, they both come to the same conclusion, acting on behalf of your own salvation will lead to a more peaceful, or at least more responsible, society.