Religious and Theological Themes in The Matrix

In an attempt to decipher the meaning of contemporary movies and their relationship to archaic religious symbology, I will discuss here the movie The Matrix, made by the Wachowskis. There is no need to introduce the movie to the reader, given its success and the broad range of studies and articles that were published once the movie released. The Matrix is a science fiction movie released in 1999, written and directed by The Wachowskis. The film depicts a dystopian world in which reality is a computer simulation, the Matrix, created by machines to control the human population. The movie belongs to the “cyberpunk” genre, and incorporates many cinematographic, literary, philosophical, religious, and mythological references. This includes ideas and concepts from Christianity, Gnostic theology, Buddhism, and Hinduism. The movie is considered to be a science fiction classic, and became a worldwide success right after its release, thanks to the quality of the narration, its visual effects, as well as the depth of the themes discussed in the movie.

The complexity of the religious and philosophical motifs found in this movie therefore requires several readings. The creative genius is attested on several levels, as shown by the plethora of interpretations that have been published, all in an attempt to unravel the nested mysteries of the movie’s storytelling qualities. While some literary critics proposed a socio-theoretical perspective on the phenomenon of alienation, others saw in it a profound criticism of the industrial development and its harmful consequences, that is, the subordination of humanity to submission1. The various interpretations confound each other, yet never fail to describe the complexity of the movie and the genius of The Wachowsksi. For the sake of my study, I will limit myself to a summary description of the narrative and articulate my analysis around a set of motifs found in orthodox Christianity and Gnostic theology. I will then propose a second reading, axed on Buddhism. This will hopefully allow me to decipher the religious themes contained in the movie, which includes awakening and knowledge as salutary undertakings in the face of ignorance in an illusory world, as well as the presence of a redemptive figure that embodies such undertaking.

The blend of technology and religious themes puts forward two perspectives that sparkled my curiosity: the first one, of a metaphysical nature, pushes the audience to question the nature of reality; whereas the second aims to question the relationship between technology and the human species.

Let’s review the synopsis: the world as we conceive it is not an objective reality, but a computer simulation that machines control and operate. Thomas Anderson, a young computer programmer by day and a computer hacker by night, operating under the name of Neo, learns about the (material) reality before being enrolled in an army of rebels, who managed to get out of The Matrix, or “world of dreams”, as created by the cyber-species. Of human origin, this species forms a unified consciousness and is the product of human modern technological know-how. At the end of a generation-long war between humans and the cyber-species, the latter emerged victorious from the conflict. It then enslaved its domination over the world. In this post-apocalyptic world, humans are held captive in a virtual simulation, and are used as batteries to power The Matrix, a world in which humans flourish without realizing the world outside the simulation.

Yet, a group of dissidents manages to escape the grip of this artificial race, and now occupies the city of Sion, an underground hidden territory. The rebels prophesied the arrival of the messiah, a savior whose arrival will put an end to The Matrix, and who will reestablish the human kingdom. Morpheus, the leader of the rebellion, is characterized by a disproportionate faith in the prophecy, and sees Thomas as the One, who will put an end to the ruling of the cyber-species and will liberate the human race.

I cannot list all references that have influenced the movies, which extend way beyond the parallels that we see with certain current themes of religious nature, and which here hold my interest. The film is punctuated by a set of references, whether implicit or explicit, among them, let me quote the book of Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation2, the book in which Neo conceals a floppy disk, and on which many interpreters saw in The Matrix the allegory of capitalist societies in developed countries. I can also mention the writings of the intellectual Bracha Ettinger, published in the 1980s3. One of the first scene introduces the main character, Neo, starring a screen that reads the message “Wake up, Neo…”. This is a first clue as to the nature of the world Neo is in, a material reality built from scratch by an artificial intelligence. This first injunction encapsulates a fundamental concept found in many religions, that of the humans prisoner of their own ignorance, an seeking the awakening salvation. I discussed this idea when I wrote on Buddhism and Gnostic Christianity. These two traditions discuss the same fundamental problem: ignorance can be overcome through an internal reform, that allows the emergence of a new perspective on the material reality. These traditions also discuss the advent of a guide, or anointed, whose task is to guide the spiritual seeker (Gnostic pierce the veil of illusions by the gnósis, so the Buddha), and accompany the seeker in a liberating process.

In the movie, Neo embodies this role (Neo the anagram of the One, the elected). His real name, Mr. Thomas Anderson, is of a Greek etymology, Andrō(s), (“Man”) and “son”, which makes Neo the “Son of Men”. As for his first name, it seems to be similar to that of Thomas the Apostle, who wrote The Secret Words of Jesus, an Apocryphon that contains the words of Jesus, in the form of logias (communications of divine origin, adages, or maxims). In The Gospel According St. Thomas, it is said that Thomas is the twin brother of Christ. In The Matrix, Thomas appears to me as imperfect and unrealized form of Neo: whereas Thomas doubts his role in liberating the human race, Neo is the absolute redeemer. This gives the protagonist a dual role, defined as both the doubting Thomas, and the realized version as the incarnation of Neo. Neo is the Chosen One, whose coming is prophesized, and who possesses the power to put an end to the domination of the Evil (the cyber-species). He, the prophecy announces, possesses a set of supernatural abilities, and true miracles, that will allow him to face the forces of evil, as he returns to Life.

Neo, as a figure of Jesus, is a predominant theme, reinforced by a set of messages: During one of the first scenes, a computer hacker (Choi) thus addresses Neo:

Hallelujah. You’re my savior. My own personal Jesus Christ.

When Neo enters the ship Nebuchadnezzar for the first time, one reads on one of the panels of the main bridge Mark III №11. In The Gospel According to St. Mark, the eleventh verse of the third chapter reads:

Whenever the impure spirits saw Him, they fell down before Him and cried out, ‘You are the Son of God!’.

As for the name of the ship, Nebuchadnezzar, it seems to be a direct allusion to the Neo-Babylonian king, who besieged the city of Jerusalem in 587 BC. Nebuchadnezzar is a character of the Hebrew Bible, and is mentioned in the Book of Daniel, in which we find a set of stories announcing the coming of the Messiah by Daniel (who interpreted one of Nebuchadnezzar’s dreams).

If the presence of a Christian themes seems obvious to us, those themes however seem to be closer to Gnostic mysticism, more than orthodox Christianity. Although the Christian Gnostic thought had many flavors, Gnosticism as a whole is concerned with understanding and explaining the true nature of the Universe and the role of humans on earth4. Gnostic literature describes the existence of a perfect and fully realized supreme God, which John mentions in his Apocrypha5:

He (God) is illimitable, since there is no one prior to Him to set limits to Him. He is unsearchable, since there exists no one prior to Him to examine Him. He is immeasurable, since there was no one prior to him to measure Him. He is invisible, since no one saw Him. He is eternal, since he exists eternally. He is ineffable, since no one was able to comprehend him to speak about Him. He is unnameable, since there is no one prior to Him to give him a name.

In the gnostic Pleroma, the divine and immaterial plenitude, there is a set of androgynous divinities from which emanate the Form (Being, although, hard to translate), full, complete and perfect. One day, Sophia (Greek Σοφíα, wisdom, Coptic τcοφια, tsophiain), one of the lesser æons, and a female born from the mating of two of these deities, decided to emanate without her counterpart (Christ)6:

[I want you to know that] Sophia of the Epinoia, being an aeon, conceived a thought from herself and the conception of the invisible Spirit and foreknowledge. She wanted to bring forth a likeness out of herself without the consent of the Spirit, – He had not approved – and without Her consort, and without His consideration.

And though the person of Her maleness had not approved, and she had not found her agreement, and she had thought without the consent of the Spirit and the knowledge of her agreement, (yet) she brought forth.

And because of the invincible power which is in her, her thought did not remain idle, and something came out of her which was imperfect and different from her appearance, because she had created It without her consort. And it was dissimilar to the likeness of its mother. [BG 118:]

Whereas women are responsible for reproduction, men tend to the form, explain the Gnostics. Thus, Sophia gave birth to an imperfect and ill-formed offspring, whom she named Yaltabaôth, the First Archon; helpless and desperate, she decided to reject her creation in the Pleroma, far away from the perfect deities.

And when the mother recognized that the garment of darkness was imperfect, then she knew that her consort had not agreed with her. She repented with much weeping. And the whole Pleroma heard the prayer of her repentance, and They praised on her behalf the invisible, virginal Spirit. And He consented; and when the invisible Spirit had consented, the holy Spirit poured over her from their whole pleroma.

For it was not her consort who came to Her, but he came to her through the Pleroma in order that He might correct her deficiency. And she was taken up not to her own aeon but above her Son, that she might be in the ninth until she has corrected her deficiency.

Isolated and in despair, Yaltabaôth mistakenly believed that he was the only God to exist7:

This is the first Archon who took a great power from his mother. And He removed himself from her and moved away from the places in which He was born. He became strong and created for himself other aeons with a flame of luminous fire which (still) exists now. And He joined with his arrogance which is in Him and begot authorities for himself.

Yaltabaôth bore seven Archons, who in their turn created angels and many demons. They then created the first man in his image, Adam, who received his spirit from the Pleroma. Jealous and resentful, the archons decided to cast him to the lowest regions8:

And in that moment the rest of the powers became jealous, because He had come into being through all of them and they had given their power to the Man, and his intelligence was greater than that of those who had made him, and greater than that of the chief Archon.

And when they recognized that He was luminous, and that He could think better than they, and that he was free from wickedness, they took him and threw Him into the lowest region of all matter.

We have here the dilemma of the human condition: trapped on earth in a prison of flesh, humans are asleep and ignorant as to their divine nature. Salvation is the gnósis —or knowledge — announced on earth by a Gnostic redeemer, Christ. Christ is no one else than the figure sent by the Supreme God to free humanity from the grip of Yaltabaôth.

The Gnostic pierced the mysteries of their spiritual beings, of divine nature, yet held captive in a cast of flesh. True gnosis involves a work of understanding and reflection on the true nature of existence and its metaphysics, made impenetrable by the veil of illusion. The gnosis allows humans to escape their predicament they day they die, as they abandon the material prison enslaving them into this world. Free, they can return to the upper regions of the Pleroma, through a spiritual rebirth.

The Gnostic theology that I presented here seems to contain a set of parallels with the movie The Matrix. Indeed, Morpheus describes the cyber-species as follows9:

We have only bits and pieces of information. But what we know for certain is that in the early 21st century…all of mankind was united in celebration.

We marveled at our own magnificence as we gave birth to AI.

This Artificial Intelligence is thus for Neo a “prison that [you] cannot smell or taste or touch. A prison…for your mind.” The same way Sophia did, humans proudly spawned a creation that has moved away from its creator and ends up imprisoning humans in a material prison, veiling the ultimate reality. Agent Smith justifies the creation of the Matrix as follows:

…human beings define their reality through misery…and suffering. So the perfect world was a dream…that your primitive cerebrum kept trying to wake up from. Which is why the Matrix was redesigned to this.

The Matrix thus constitutes paradoxically the fundamental problem, as well as the solution for humans, because its existence is the very obstacle to human liberation. Notice the language that Morpheus uses when he addresses the nature of the Matrix to Neo, he makes repeated use of the metaphorical language used in Buddhist and Gnostic literature: ignorance (1 occurrence), blind or blindness (2 occurrences)10, dream (9 occurrences), sleep (3 occurrences), forgetfulness, night, or darkness…all of which represent the problem of the human. On the other hand, he uses the terms awakening, knowledge, vision, or knowing (gnosis) when describing the liberation process: “Welcome…to the real world” “They’ll reinsert my body. I go back to sleep. When I wake up, I won’t remember a thing” “You’re in control of your own life. Remember?” “Have you ever had a dream, Neo, that you were so sure was real? What if you were unable to wake from that dream? How would you know the difference between the dream world……and the real world?”

Such language is similar to Gnostic literature, which uses the symbols of linking, captivity, or oblivion to signify the human condition, and, on the opposites, we find themes like the tearing of the veil, the awakening, or of the anamnesis to express the transcendence of the human condition, that is, ultimate freedom. The dichotomy between the material prison and paradise (Pleroma) is all the more evident when Neo awakes for the first time in a white and luminous space, welcomed by Morpheus. The latter, like a Gnostic teacher, explains the nature of material reality to Neo:

You’ve been living in a dream world, Neo. This is the world…as it exists today. Welcome to ‘the desert … of the real’

Neo discovers that the material world is illusory, a pure product of the collective human illusion, and that this is a point of no return: “[I can’t go back, can I?] No. But if you could…would you really want to?” If the Gnostic thought identifies deliverance with an awareness, the plot of the film aligns itself with such a theme: the understanding the situation that existed from the beginning (the material reality) allows Thomas Anderson to fully realize himself. Having reached the status of the Chosen, Neo can now fully embody the figure of the savior, as announced by the Prophesy. As a Gnostic redeemer, he descends from the Pleroma to the lowest regions. True figure from another world, he is now the awaken one par excellence.

The Oracle scene sums up perfectly the gnostic teachings as follows:

Do not try and bend the spoon. That’s impossible. Instead, only try to realize the truth […] There is no spoon […] you’ll see that it is not the spoon that bends. It is only yourself.

Further, we read so at the Oracle’s: “Temet Nosce” (Know Thyself), written in Latin. Teachings thus includes meditation on the idea of “ stillness”, that allows the mind to break free. In doing so, one overcomes their fear, as the movies attests several times, when Neo realizes that he has freed himself. His awakening allows him to think silently and calmly about the bullets he manages to stop, or the shots of Mr. Smith who no longer reach him11. Such wisdom ties to the leitmotiv of Gnostic thought, finding its raison d’êtrein universal suffering, and of value only to the extent that it delivers the humans from their “pain” and sufferings.

Parallels with the Gnostic doctrine do not stop there. Agent Smith, as a pure creation of the Matrix, assimilates to the archons created by Yaltabaôth, and which Morpheus calls “[…] guarding all the doors, and holding all the keys”. Like the archons, Mr. Smith’s mission is to prevent humans to escape The Matrix, that is to say, free oneself in order to reach the Pleroma. As predicted by Morpheus’s prediction, Neo manages to defeat Mr. Smith because he transcends a reality, whereas Mr. Smith is not able to do so.

The final confrontation between Mr. Smith and Neo illustrates the genius of the film: now liberated from the grip of The Matrix, Neo can break his codes. In doing so, he enters Mr. Smith’s body and bursts it into pieces thanks, to his divine light. Let us note here the parallel with Gnostic literature, assimilating the divine aspect of man to light12 13:

And when they (the Archontes) recognized that He was luminous, and that He could think better than They, and that He was free from wickedness […] And the man came forth because of the shadow of the light which is in him

Light is akin to the ecstasy of the Gnostic, the result of all efforts to achieve such liberation. Henceforth free, the gnostic pierces the veil of the illusion that kept him or her prisoner.

All this shows that there is no doubt that the film recycles themes from Christian Gnostic thought. If the fundamental problem, i.e. the illusory existence and the awakening, is posited, however, the movie slightly steers away from the Gnostic cosmogony. Indeed, who is the supreme God in the movie? Is there a transcendence above The Matrix and the humans? Is Neo the ultimate incarnation of the Gnostic redeemer, or the symbol of human potential? All these questions leave an open door to a set of speculations. If no divine figure is found in this first movie, notice the role played by the Oracle, who may as well be the intercessor between the Supreme God and Neo, or the very incarnation of God itself, as she can predict the future and knows everything that is, everything that ever came, and everything that is to come. It is also possible that humans, once released, will rise to the rank of divinities, as The Matrix is a human creation after all. Therefore, humans could be the architects who will be able to assimilate themselves as Gods.

However, such a perspective hardly changes Neo’s role, since his mission is to free humans from their own hold, more than from the grip of evil. Be that as it may, the divinity is not apparent. Invisible and discreet, it is manifested indirectly and immanently through the character of Neo. This could indicate, in contrast to the Gnostic mysticism, which identifies redemption against the purely divine creation of the world, that humans are the creators of the illusion that is the material world. This approach aligns with orthodox Christianity, that evacuates the divine fault by integrating it into beings. If the divine is not apparent, the awakening of the human, more than any ascension towards the divine, erects itself as an absolute. Such an eschatology thus departs from Gnosticism, for salvation is an individual process rather than a collective one; as for knowledge, it only allows us to transcend a purely human world rather than a divine one.

Buddhist philosophy, unlike Christian mysticism, frees itself from all divinity, which offers us here a new reading of the movie. Buddhism teaches us that the world we experience is only the product of the spirit, that is, the alteration of an absolute reality. Transcending this ignorance of existential reality is the basic problematic of Buddhism. The teachings of Morpheus seems to be close to such a philosophy, since Morpheus goal is clearly a maieutic leading to the questioning of what we call reality. In The Matrix, as well as in Buddhism, the same basic problem dominates human existence: suffering conditions individuals on a personal and collective level, conditioned by the Karma, which determines the quality of the next life.

In this sense, the Matrix is akin to Saṃsāra, and as a Buddha, Neo seeks spiritual awakening as the sole mean of breaking the karmic cycles that condition his existence. Armed with such a perspective, one understands why the members of the Nebuchadnezzar are themselves prisoners, and not free: The Karmic laws of existence affect every single member of the ship. And, ironically, if they think themselves to be free from the grip of The Matrix, they are condemned to reincarnate in the cycles of suffering (or delusion). From this standpoint, however, one would not see the necessity of Neo’s role in saving them, as understanding and realizing such Truth is not enough. On the contrary, spiritual awakening is only possible once one acquires the knowledge, as brought by the Buddha.

The four noble Buddhist truths are revealed here as an escape from the illusory world created by The Matrix. Neo, as an ascetic, thus manages to realize himself by escaping the inevitability of the cyclical worlds that engender only misfortune and suffering. Buddhist philosophy offers a soteriology that allows human responsibility to rise to an absolute, and to evacuate the weight of a theological instinct that was thought to be irreducible. The fainting of any supreme being (God) facilitates a Buddhist appreciation of The Matrix, and a world free for any divinity to emerge. The Buddha, as well as Neo, reject the existence of a God, thus making the deliverance a purely spiritual act. If such a perspective confers on humans the responsibility for their own enslavement, it also allows a salutary optimism to transcend the cycles of Saṃsāra.

As for the affliction which hangs over the humans enslaved by The Matrix, it makes it possible to realize the suffering and the emergence of a new emanation, which raises beings captive of their illusion above the confines of said illusion. The Matrix presents a solution in accordance with Buddhist thought: suffering is not a fatality, for there is a a set of techniques and knowledge to overcome it: Neo, like a Jivanmukta 14 , acquires the techniques and the knowledge to manipulate physical reality and transcend its codes15. But some differences hold our attention, for example, the fact that the movies glorifies the usage of violence; if Buddhism condemns any violence, while it encourages the “inner struggles” and the “killing” of the ego, the film outsources the origin of suffering by supporting such violence16.

Let me also mention the possibility of a God creator in the movie (The Architect, that we meet in the second volume), elevated to the rank of “supreme” human. Buddhism in no way recognizes the existence of a God and traces the origin of all suffering to an internal process; on the contrary, in Matrix, there is a real enemy (Mr. Smith, or The Matrix itself, etc.), although it is possible that this apparent enemy is an archetypal representation of the internal struggles.

In conclusion, by integrating many elements from Christian and Buddhist philosophies, The Matrix offers a contemporary reading of the human existential weight that withstood the test of time and had transcended the ages. Through the appropriation of Christ as a mythological figure, or of the Buddhist symbolism, The Matrix radically and profoundly transforms our understanding of the human predicate. We can thus see in the movie a true a dialectic which allows the emergence of a contemporary understanding of the human existence which has been present since time immemorial.


References

  1. Harry F. Dahms, The Matrix Trilogy as Critical Theory of Alienation: Communicating a Message of Radical Transformation. Tennessee University n.d.
  2. Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation. University of Michigan Press, 1994.
  3. Ettinger’s theory describes a primary matrix, symbolized by the alliance between Neo, Trinity, and Morpheus, whose knowledge is akin to a uterus, present both in shared spatial and temporal dimensions. The link between these three characters and the Oracle in the film shows the possibility of a transconnection, linked to different processes that Ettinger has named metamorphosis (Morpheus represents the material and masculine world, and Trinity represents the maternal and feminine world). For more information about the influences of matrix theory by Bracha Ettinger, see The Matrixial Borderspace, published by the University of Minnesota in 2006.
  4. None of the Gnostic texts seem to describe the totality of the Gnostic creation myth. The texts presupposed a familiarity with the myth, it then needs to be reconstructed by the modern reader. The version of the myth presented here is based on a set of Gnostic extracts, such as the Gospel of Truth, the Apocryphon of John (Sethian Gnosticism), and the Gospel according to St. Thomas. For more information, refer to James M. Robison’s book, The Nag Hammadi Library. HarperOne, 1990.
  5. Translation of the treaties of the Coptic Library of Nag Hammadi. BCNH, Laval University., accessible at https://www.naghammadi.org (FR) and The Gnostic Society Library, accessible at http://gnosis.org/naghamm/apocjn.html
  6. The Secret Book of John (Apocryphon of John)
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid, II 9.
  9. All of the excerpts that follow are a direct extract from the subtitles The Matrix. Warner Bros Pictures, 1999.
  10. When Neo and Morpheus enter the building to go to visit the Oracle, a blind man is sitting. Later, the Oracle puts on her glasses to read Neo’s palm.
  11. Like Neo, the higher eons are equated with immobility and rest. “The soul in which the power will become stronger than the counterfeit spirit, is strong and it flees from evil and […] is taken up to the rest of the æons.” Ibid., II 21.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Ibid.
  14. In the Vedānta, this is someone who has liberated themselves through the acquisition and assimilation of self-knowledge.
  15. Neo’s mission is to bring gnosis to earth. In Buddhist terminology, one could say that Neo reveals to humanity their ignorance, and the means to escape it. Soteriology is not obvious in the movie, but notice the abundance of the Yogic symbolic, which refers to the focus and stillness of the mind, and of the martial arts in movie.
  16. Let’s not forget that glorifying violence is the prerogative of many American movies of commercial interest. This tells us a lot about the process of mythification, making the archaic symbolism the product of cultural institutions.

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