By Will Griggs
This is the continuation of a five-part series analyzing the films of the Matrix universe to understand the cultural relevance of this pop culture behemoth. Part 2 unpacks which religions are evident in the Matrix universe.
Coexistence of Religions in the Matrix Universe
The important distinction, or debate, about religion within the Matrix storyline is not whether or not God is present at all, but how many gods are present and which faiths do they represent. Fontana and Jones disagree on the appearance of the Christian God. Although Fontana’s essay is based solely on the original film he still claims, “[t]he God figure in The Matrix is somewhat akin to the Judeo-Christian notion of an intangible God, who, though transcendent, is active in the affairs of human history and the economy of salvation.”[i] To prove his point, Fontana equates seeing God in The Matrix to scientists’ inability to see a black hole: ”…scientists have detected about a dozen black holes in space by charting the movements of the stellar bodies that orbit these black holes.”[ii] The questions of faith and religion swirl about The Matrix just as the “stellar bodies that orbit these black holes.” Once the following two films are considered it is much easier to see God in the form of two different characters—the Architect and Deux ex Machina. The Architect, as Neo sees him, looks like the western tradition of God—older, grey beard, omniscient—and he even refers to himself as The Creator.[iii] Deux ex Machina, on the other hand, is the god Neo approaches and to whom Neo offers to sacrifice himself for the protection of the human city of Zion. Neo allows Deux ex Machina to connect to his body to see what Neo knows about Agent Smith. Surrounded by the machines that make up Deux ex Machina Neo can be killed at practically any time. Neo then prostrates himself, in the form of a cross, before Deux ex Machina as a symbol of Neo’s submission to the power of this god. Both characters offer symbolism of interpretations of the Christian God.
Jones directly contradicts Fontana’s viewpoint by arguing “Religious people in the Western world, especially Christians, perceive God as close and personal. However, in The Matrix, the rebels must necessarily perceive God as remote or non-existent, so that no direct references or appeals to God occur.”[iv] As stated earlier, Neo does make a direct appeal to Deux ex Machina in the third film. But, many characters in the first film make direct appeals to the Oracle for guidance or understanding. While she may not be the typical characterization of the Christian God she does exhibit certain aspects of what Christians expect from their God: loving, as she refers to the potentials in her waiting room as “her kids;” kind, even with something simple like offering Neo a cookie or a piece of candy; patient, by waiting through the many incarnations of the “One” in order to establish a peace between man and machine; and wise, seen in her many suggestions that guide many characters to their destiny.
Now we must look at Neo, himself. The Neo character has many characteristics from a few different religious icons, namely Jesus Christ and Buddha. The first connection is the character’s name change from Thomas Anderson to Neo. While he walked in the matrix Neo was known as Thomas. Once Thomas has been re-awakened in the real world he officially takes the name Neo and is referred to as the “One.” This is very similar to both Jesus Christ and Buddha, who walked as mortals with the names Joshua and Siddhartha.[v] The titles Jesus Christ and Buddha refer to their awakened, or enlightened, selves.[vi] To be considered a messiah, or compared to specific messiahs, it is important to look beyond a name. The title of messiah can be applied to an individual by how they are perceived by others. Beginning with Morpheus, numerous characters believe Neo to be the ”One.” This not only compares Neo to Jesus Christ, but when Morpheus first explains the concept of the “One” to Neo he says, “when the matrix was first built there was a man born inside who had the ability to change whatever he wanted; to remake the matrix as he saw fit. . . After he died, the Oracle prophesized his return... there are those of us who have spent our entire lives searching the matrix, looking for him. . . I believe that search is over.”[vii] I agree with James L. Ford when he says this is a “suggestion of reincarnation.”[viii] It is an easy way to incorporate the reincarnation ideas of Buddhism and Hinduism into the Christian idea of a resurrected Christ.
This concept of characters reflecting religious icons leads to the idea that there are many characters in the Matrix universe who can be considered as gods, or to be god-like. The audience is introduced through these god-like characters through Neo’s journey though the trilogy. Each new person Neo meets or comes in contact with has their own beliefs, ideals and thoughts on the existence of a supreme being and, in turn, can represent different religions. Before Neo even escapes the matrix he is searching for Morpheus. Morpheus represents two primary roles. The first is prophet, a forerunner for the savior, just as John the Baptist was for Jesus Christ. The second is teacher. This shows Confucian teachings in how Morpheus teaches Neo and guides him with the knowledge Morpheus has obtained from spiritual sources, most notably the Oracle. The Classic of Filial Piety, a sacred Confucian book speaks of the five bonds—ruler to ruled, father to son, husband to wife, older brother to younger brother, and friend to friend. [ix] I interpret the bond between Morpheus and Neo as one of teacher and student or older brother and younger brother. The Oracle, as stated earlier, represents certain aspects of the Christian God, but she can most notably be correlated to Greek mythology and the Oracle at Delphi. She is an other-worldly sooth whom the characters seek out to learn from her wisdom and knowledge of the future. She even has a priestess in robes who answers her door and allows admittance to her chamber, the kitchen in her apartment.[x]
The Oracle is not the only character representing Greek mythology. Throughout Reloaded and Revolutions Neo must encounter and deal with a seedy part of the matrix controlled by the Merovingian. Although his character name is a direct reference to the Merovingian line of French royalty, therefore a lineage claimed to be descended from a god, it is his representation of the Greek god Hades that is most easily seen. This is most transparent in that both the Merovingian and Hades reside in the “underworld” of their respective realities and both are married to women named Persephone. This use of a name from one faith and the representation of another is not unique to the Merovingian; it is also seen in Seraph. The name Seraph denotes a particular choir of angels in the Christian faith while the character himself is stylized more in the tradition of the Buddhist warrior monk. When Neo, and the audience, is first introduced to Seraph it is before another meeting with the Oracle. As Neo enters the door to the room where Seraph is he sees Seraph as a being of bright light within the matrix. Seraph is practically in lotus position, reinforcing his Buddhist ties. As a way of proving himself, Neo must face off with Seraph to prove he is worthy, similar to warrior monks requiring a confrontation with students after training.[xi]
While the use of character names and representations that cross religious boundaries can cause confusion upon first viewing, it is done with a specific purpose, to illustrate the interconnectedness and similarities between stories, parables and gospels of numerous faiths and religions. Larry Wachowski, one of the creators of The Matrix universe, has said, “the whole nature of the movie is… perspective and pursue [the meaning of the movie] yourself.”[xii] The coexistence of numerous religions within the Matrix universe can be seen as a parable itself for how faiths in our reality can join and interweave, even through turmoil. The use of these religions allows for multiple gods and god-like personages. Even within a particular part of the matrix, such as the Merovingian’s seedy underworld where he is seen as the god, another character in that context can declare himself God. The Trainman, a representation of the boatman who controls passage across the river Styx in Greek mythology, has his own corner of the matrix. The subway station the Trainman created is a limbo in which he keeps unwanted passengers. When Neo finds himself stranded in this subway station he tries to overpower the Trainman only to be thrown back into a wall and to hear him bellow, “Down here, I’m God!”[xiii] This exemplifies the ideal that, in the matrix, being a god is relative to one’s belief structure and perceived reality. This is necessary for the coexistence of so many faiths and beliefs, because it is not necessary for another’s beliefs to be adopted to recognize one’s own. This is beautifully simplified in an exchange between Commander Locke and Morpheus in Reloaded: “Dammit Morpheus! Not everyone believes what you believe.” “My beliefs do not require them to.”[xiv]
[i] Fontana, 177.
[ii] Fontana, 177.
[iii] Bakaitis, Helmut. The Matrix Reloaded. DVD. Directed by Andy and Larry Wachowski (Burbank, CA: Warner Bros. Pictures, 2003).
[iv] Jones, 54.
[v] Numerous religious and secular sources agree on these name changes.
[vi] Ford, James L., “Buddhism, Mythology, and The Matrix” in Taking the Red Pill: Science, Philosophy and Religion in The Matrix, ed. Glenn Yeffeth (Texas: Benbella Books, 2003), 127.
[vii] Fishburne, Laurence. The Matrix. DVD. Directed by Andy and Larry Wachowski (Burbank, CA: Warner Bros. Pictures, 1999).
[viii] Ford, 137.
[ix] The Classic of Filial Piety.
[x] The Matrix, 1999.
[xi] The Matrix Reloaded, 2003.
[xii] Larry Wachowski, interview by Ken Wilber, July 19, 2004, The Many Meanings of The Matrix, http://www.integralnaked.org
[xiii] Spence, Bruce. The Matrix Revolutions. DVD. Directed by Andy and Larry Wachowski (Burbank, CA: Warner Home Video, 2004).
[xiv] Fishburne, Laurence and Lennix, Harry. The Matrix Reloaded, 2003.