The Political Fallout of Cheating Death

Fallout

The following is a reprint from Volume 4, Issue 7 of Christ and Pop Culture Magazine: “For the Humans and Transhumans Among Us.” You can subscribe to Christ and Pop Culture Magazine by becoming a member and you’ll receive a host of other benefits as well.

***The following contains possible spoilers for Fallout 4.***

Since the beginning of time, death has served as a feared, common human experience. Its consequences have driven humans to find ways to avoid it and to possibly overcome it by becoming immortal. The Ancient Egyptians tried mummification in the hopes of preserving their bodies eternally for the afterlife. The Ancient Greeks hoped for leaving unforgettable, eternal legends by accomplishing great, epic feats such as conquering Troy. During the early days of exploring America, the Spanish looked for the Fountain of Youth. Practically every human tradition has produced some conception of immortality.

Death and immortality are also key elements within Judeo-Christian history. Death is one of the cruelest blows from the Fall, which has fueled every heart’s desire to escape it ever since. But through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, Christianity gives humanity access to eternal life. This development had political significance in Israel at the time of Jesus’ life. The Roman Empire dominated Israel by its threat of death through violence. With the arrival of Jesus’ Kingdom of Heaven, the fear of death no longer applied in the same way. Instead, early Christians bore witness to the power of God by bravely facing martyrdom at the hands of their persecutors. Their reaction in the face of death declared the virtues of love for fellow man to be greater than the greed for power and control over others.

Fallout 4 can serve as a commentary about the ability of technology to enhance or destroy human flourishing

Although Christianity declares victory over the power of death, death still remains endemic to the human condition, and those who do not adhere to the faith are left seeking a solution. Scientific progress in medical technology has greatly extended human life over the past century, leading some to speculate about the possibilities of technology to extend life indefinitely. While this achievement remains out of reach, interactive mediums—such as the video game Fallout 4—can serve as a commentary about the ability of technology to enhance or destroy human flourishing. In particular, it can help frame Christian political witness in the face of death—reflecting a long tradition of resistance, starting with Rome’s conception of immortality.

‘Fallout 4’ and Technology as the Savior from Death

The world of Fallout 4 takes place in post-nuclear war Massachusetts, known colloquially as “the Commonwealth.” The player’s character begins the game with an awakening from 200 years of cryogenic sleep as the “Sole Survivor” of Vault 111. The quest to find the character’s kidnapped son, Shaun, serves as the catalyst for venturing into the irradiated wasteland. As players traverse the landscape, they encounter a ghostly, abandoned land filled with material echoes of 1950s, nuclear age optimism. In exploring, they also meet the descendants of survivors and hear of their looming fear: the machinations of a secretive, technologically advanced faction simply called “the Institute.”

People in the Commonwealth fear the Institute because of rumors that they are kidnapping humans and replacing them with cyborgs known as “Synths,” which can be undistinguishable from humans. In the communities of Diamond City and Bunker Hill, players will hear stories from settlers of hidden Synths violently terrorizing the populace. These stories fuel the palpable paranoia among people of the Commonwealth, forcing players to decide early on if such fear is justified. Under an overpass in an urban area, for instance, players will encounter a standoff between two men, one with a gun to the head of the other who is tied up on the ground. The man with the gun declares the other to be a Synth. His captive denies it and pleads with the player to free him quickly before he is shot.

Another scenario asks the player to investigate the mysterious disappearance of someone’s daughter from the village of Covenant. You find her locked in an underground interrogation chamber designed to discover Synths among the townspeople. Depending on your choices, you either free her or you agree with her captors as to her threat to the community (and so you leave her there).

These choices become more difficult if players experience a different side of the Synth paranoia. In Diamond City, you’ll meet a Synth detective named Nick Valentine. Nick struggles with his identity, haunted by the memories of the “real” human gumshoe downloaded into his mind. He’ll help you with finding Shaun. If you feel grateful to him, he’ll convince you to help him kill the man who killed his fiancé in a previous life. In Vault 81, you’ll find a similar story in a science-savvy, French-accented robot named Curie. She wants to experience the world after being trapped for 200 years in Vault 81. If you spend enough time with her as a companion, Curie asks for your assistance in transplanting her software into a Synth body. These experiences create a dynamic for players to reckon with the possibility of free will in Synths, which also engenders empathy.

The storyline of Fallout 4 encourages players to explore the Commonwealth for a good portion of the game before finally encountering the Institute for the first time. By then, players will likely have seen enough perspectives on Synths to feel uncertain about the Institute’s moral standing. Once the Sole Survivor enters the compound, he finds his presence is expected by the director of the Institute, who (major spoiler) turns out to be Shaun, grown old.

In the emotion of finally finding Shaun, you hear him reveal the Institute’s real political agenda. Nuclear war rendered the Commonwealth a hazardous environment to sustain human living, he says. To ensure mankind’s future in an irradiated world, Institute scientists melded organic and artificial materials to survive the harsh environment. Shaun leads the Sole Survivor through white halls of sterilized beauty. The Institute contains laboratories filled with green plants bearing genetically modified fruit and enclosed habitats where biologists are trying to bring back gorillas through mechanical means.

As players spend more time in the Institute, the value of their political agenda may seem more palatable. After all, knowing how bad things are on the surface—violent raider groups, giant mutated monsters roaming the countryside, radiation-soaked water—perhaps the Institute’s way of using technology represents the way forward. If players start doing missions for the Institute, their morals will be tested even further. You’ll be asked to retrieve rouge Synths who don’t want to be a part of the Institute so their memories can be erased and their minds safely re-programmed. If they don’t return willingly, you’ll destroy them. Of course, if you agree with the Institute’s ultimate goal—to create synthetic life, which can potentially live forever—you might be able to live with these decisions.

Christian Views on Technology to Extend Life

The prospect of utilizing scientific knowledge to extend human life has been an oft visited topic by philosophers and theologians over the years. In his thirteenth-century essay De Retardatione Accidentum Senectutis (Latin for “On Delaying the Misfortunes of Old Age”), Roger Bacon, a Franciscan monk, argued a scientific examination of aging could reveal nature’s hidden forces to avoid death. Bacon suggested habits of good hygiene focused on cleanliness, moderated food consumption, and ingested medicine.

Christian philosopher Rene’ Descartes also found great promise in the ability of science to extend human life, yet doubted physical death would ever be overcome. He once described preserving health as “undoubtedly the foremost good and the foundation for all the other goods of this life” in his Discourse on the Methods. Like Roger Bacon before him, Descartes hoped mankind’s increasing knowledge of creation could progress human longevity. Through knowledge, “we could avoid many infirmities, both of mind and body, and perhaps even the decline of old age, if we had enough knowledge of their causes and of all the remedies that nature has provided for us.” At the same time, Descartes doubted humans could ever achieve physical immortality. Rather, he found solace in the human soul, believing its incorruptibility separate from the body would continue.

Nikolai Fyodorovich Fyodorov, a Russian Orthodox philosopher, did not share Descartes’ doubt. He believed scientific methods would allow radical life extension, physical immortality, and even resurrection of the dead. According to Fyodorv’s eschatology, humans should not passively wait for God to bring the Kingdom of Heaven on earth. Instead, being a good Christian meant participating in the building of heaven on earth. Fyodorov viewed death as the one evil in the world which mattered most, and the common human mission must be the technological victory over death for all humans present, future, and even past. He thought true victory over death meant resurrection for all of humanity, citing the concept of “sonship” for why this included the resurrection of past dead as a matter of duty to our ancestors. Science and Christianity easily integrated for Fyodorov. For him, exploring the creative, radical possibilities of human technology was a duty for the Church to pursue.

‘Ars Moriendi’ and Christian Political Identity

As advances in medical technology continue, the possibility of Fyodorv’s radical vision may become more real in the future. For many people, especially in developed countries, death seems to be ever increasingly delayed. If people live longer, they spend more time on earth with their communities that can utilize the wisdom from their experiences and likely create a better quality of life.

Yet, as the progress of medical technology has extended life, debate has also sprung up over how this technology is resourced among many millions who need it. Theologian Stanley Hauerwas touched on this discussion in his article, “Finite Care in a World of Infinite Needs.” With limitations in the economy of health care, Hauerwas suggests Christians may have to consider a “Christian practice of medicine” by means of recovering and incorporating the Ars Moriendi (Latin for “the art of dying well”). He states, “The problem is quite simply that medicine has been put at the service of cheating death by a people who no longer believe our deaths have any meaning.” However, Hauerwas continues, Christians are supposed to be a particular community who know “their deaths are not an unmitigated disaster. Even more important, they are or should be a people who have learned that service to one another is more important than life itself.”

Immortality by technology may actually be its own kind of hell in a world of sin.

Hauerwas’s provocative statement becomes more intelligible in the context of another theologian: John Howard Yoder. In his book, Body Politics, Yoder argues for the particularity of the Church’s political witness through highlighting the meaning of the sacraments. For example, Yoder considers the practice of Christian Eucharist. Through the breaking of bread, the sharing of a common meal, Christians participate in an economic act that helps them look at other people beyond societal boundaries as members of God’s family. By doing so, Yoder says, Christians are encouraged to integrate virtues into their daily lives. “The Christian banker or financier will find realistic, technically not utopian ways of implementing jubilee amnesty… the Christian realtor or developer will find ways to house people according to need.” Therefore, when Hauerwas talks about a Christian practice of medical care, he echoes Yoder’s understanding of how Christian spiritual disciplines shape Christian political witness.

Like Eucharist, through practicing the Ars Moriendi Christians can demonstrate virtue in a suffering, fallen world. When the book was written in Medieval Europe, the Black Death brought unpreceded mortality rates. Death came more quickly to more people than ever seen before. This fragility of life, according to historian Philippe Ariès, shifted attention from humanity’s collective judgment at the end of time to individual judgment immediately after death. One’s own death and judgment thus became urgent issues that required preparation. The six chapters and associated images in Ars Moriendi provide a process the dying can follow to repent of their sins, care for their loved ones, and cleave to the imitation of Christ’s crucifixion before death occurs.

Embracing the reality of death in Ars Moriendi does not mean life is any less valued. Rather, it holds that the best preparation for a good death is a good life. It powerfully orients its practitioners toward the flourishing of others by acknowledging one’s limitations and dependence on God and His Church, practicing gratitude for the gift of life, and freely trusting their fate into the hands of Jesus Christ. Dying well symbolically embodies hope in the midst of suffering; hope which is not in mere human capacity to understand all aspects of life, but rather which exists outside of an individual and regenerates new life after death.

For our increasingly technologically advanced world, players of Fallout 4 can engage in discovering their own response to the role of technology in their lives. Some may see the vision of the Institute to create immortality through technology as compelling. After all, history can give us many examples of the positive effects of technological use in the pursuit of human flourishing. However, now seventy years after Hiroshima, history also cautions humanity in placing too much faith into technology. As much as immortality through technology would be a historically significant achievement, Christians know the problem of sin cannot be solved by it. Humanity, for all its creative genius, still would be subject to selfishness, greed, and violence. Immortality by technology may actually be its own kind of hell in a world of sin.

Christianity, by contrast, imagines an alternative eternal world, of which Jesus Christ is the first to have entered it. By His example on the cross, the Church understands what living in this fallen world looks like. It means living in right relationships with others. Jesus’ compassion in the face of death showed to the world the meaning of existence as service toward others. He accepted death as necessary for creating new life. In John 12:24, He said, “Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” For Christians today, this passage has often meant practicing selflessness in daily life. For His early followers, it meant facing certain death at the hands of the Roman Empire. By following Jesus’ example of how to die, Christians come to enter into His eternal life—free from sin’s bondage.

Death comes much later today for many than it did in the first century A.D., and the day may come when humans have the technological capability to extend their lives indefinitely as resources allow. At the same time, Christians must know where their hope for humanity comes from, and they will understand that an increase in knowledge does not necessarily create an increase in justice. Christians will once again have a unique opportunity to show the world what death means in creating life and hopefully expose the fallout of cheating death.

Illustration courtesy of Seth T. Hahne. Check out Seth’s graphic novel and comic review site, Good Ok Bad.


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