Next year the 1999 film The Matrix turns twenty. As I told my students on Friday, it ranks as one of my all-time favorite films. Since its release, much has been written about its intellectual and creative genius, its supposed hidden meanings, and its pioneering “bullet time” special effects. But beyond all this, for me The Matrix has been a regular teaching tool for helping students understand the thought of Mary Baker Eddie, the founder of Christian Science (not to be confused with Scientology). For the last 10 years, I have routinely carved out time to show this film in my Religion in American History class.
Mary Baker was born and raised in New England, where upstanding Congregationalists took pride in their Puritan heritage and still preached Calvinist doctrines. But in 1866, while convalescing after a severe fall on some ice, Eddie said she discovered the “science” that under-girded the truths of the universe. She came to reject her Protestant heritage and became one of the few women in American history to begin a new religious movement. Building on her new-found philosophy, she began to teach that human beings lived in a dream world of which they are unaware where they are governed by matter and the so-called laws of the physical world. But in reality, none of that actually exists. What we see and interact with in the physical world are merely mental projections that are created by our minds to clothe “ideas.” The ideas, as extensions of God, or “divine Mind,” are real, but the projections are not. We exist in this dream world as a result of the fall (which she does not define), and it was Jesus, who understood the truth about the illusion of matter, who broke into the dream to show us the way to true reality, health, and well-being.
One thing Eddy was best known for was the rejection of medical treatment, which she described in her primary work, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures. The logic for this is simple: if the material world (including our bodies) are not real, then neither do bodily ailments, diseases, broken bones or even psychological illnesses exist. These ailments are just more mental projections and if we can come to a full realization of this, they will disappear. This should not be confused with “faith healing” because to be healed of something requires one to be sick in the first place. Faith healing is a cheap imitation of the truth because if the illness never actually existed, then one cannot be healed of it. Rather, we transcend “illness” through the knowledge of truth, reality, and illusion. According to Wikipedia, in the 1990s the religion she began had just over 100,000 members in the U.S. The first church building was constructed in Boston and is known as the “mother church.”
I found all this pretty darn confusing when I first encountered it in a grad school school seminar, and most undergraduates do as well. But let’s look for a minute at The Matrix.
If you’ve seen the film, the parallels with Eddy’s thought become pretty clear. It is set in a future dystopia, years after a battle between humans and intelligent machines. Once the machines won, the human species was preserved, but only so that their bodies could serve as a source of bio-electric power. Their minds were pacified by being plugged into a computer generated world (the Matrix). Generations of humans have been born and then died inside this world without ever knowing that the reality they knew was an illusion. A remnant of “free” humans who live in the real world remained, however, and they make up the resistance force against the machines. They have figured out a way to move in and out of the Matrix, freeing select individuals and unplugging them from the machines. One of these select individuals is a hacker named Neo, who happens to have a higher level of consciousness than most. After he is freed and becomes enlightened about the real world, he is able to defy the laws of the computer generated world and turn the Matrix on its head. At the end, we see him literally flying like superman. (OK, I admit this is the one cheesy part of the film.)
Viewers are introduced to the computer-generated illusory world first and we learn about the true nature of reality along with Neo, who is instructed by Morpheus, the resistance leader who has chosen to free him. As far as I know, the film was made without any intentional link with Christian Science. But the parallels are uncanny. Morpheus repeatedly refers to the Matrix as a dream world. To be free from the illusion, one must come to understand the difference between reality and unreality. As Morpheus defeats Neo in a martial arts training exercise, he says to the winded Neo, “You think that’s air you’re breathing?” Like the Christian Science version of Jesus, Morpheus, provides this enlightenment and thus a way to freedom. When one discovers that the material world is not real, the “laws” of that world can be routinely broken — thus the classic line, “there is no spoon.”
The film even helps students to understand the strength that the illusion has over our minds as understood by Christian Science teachings. Even those who know the physical worlds does not exist still have a hard time living according to that truth. Not all of those within Christian Science are able to embrace the truth completely. They might still see doctors or use medical treatment. I remember when one student returned from a visit to a Christian Science church and found it ironic that one of the church members was in a wheel chair. “I thought they believed physical disability was part of the illusion” he said. “They do,” I said, “but we are only able to overcome the illusion in part.” The illusion is strong, even for those who have been freed. Not all can transcend it like Neo, and in the film, at least one member of the resistance attempts to return to a permanent life in the Matrix.
After twenty years, The Matrix remains a film that brings up all sorts of interesting religious and philosophical questions. And it continues to be an effective way to make sense of the thought of Mary Baker Eddy.