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Indiana Jones and the Temple of Rationality

May 7, 2009

by Patrick Atwater
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Rationality

So I heard the other day that “Rational thought is the best/only way to find truth.”  For most college students, I’ll wager that statement is so uncontroversial as to almost be cliché.  We college students love the reasonable.  It’s the foundation of a liberal arts education.  What is critical inquiry but the act of exposing the logic of justification behind a particular statement?  Yet I think that our righteous love of logic and reason goes too far sometimes. That love – firmly ingrained in college culture – occasionally leads us to try and exorcise religion entirely. What else could you call Richard Dawkins’ crusade against religion (which of course is particularly ironic given his appeals to teleology)?  Usually, at best college culture views religion as a quaint anachronism and at worst as a perverted ideology, inextricably tied to hate.

It’s as if religion is a cancer that needs to be cured.  And the cure is simple.  All we have to do is take our scalpel of rationality, make a logical incision, and then reasonably pluck the religious beliefs out.  Presto!  Belief be gone!  So simple even the kids could use it.

I think this is wrong – both intellectually and morally.  Religion is an inescapable facet of human existence.  Consider an ATM, that magic moneybox we all know and love.  How does that thing actually work?  Anyone know precisely?  Yet we all entrust it with our most valuable possessions on the reg.  Sure I’m not an idiot, I could figure out how ATMs work.  Maybe I could even figure out how the financial system works so that my money is safe.  But I have only finite time and there are physical constraints to my intelligence.  There will always be another set of interactions that affect my life for me to understand – the political process, dating, the spirit of piracy – and yet I will only have a limited amount of intellectual resources with which to understand them.  So unless I want to live with my head in the sand, I have to take a few things on faith.

I think here Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is illustrative.  Besides being an all around badass film (and explicating the spirit of adventure so crucial to a worthwhile life), the film really gets at the core of the religious experience.  The film beautifully intertwines Indy’s tenuous relationship with his father, Henry Jones, with the search for the Holy Grail, skillfully creating an extended metaphor for the tribulations associated with faith.  In the opening scene, Indiana Jones’ father is so immersed in his Biblical exegesis that he doesn’t realize his son’s predicament; he even asks Indy to state his request in Greek.  Similarly, when his Dad goes missing, Indy is just as confused why his Dad sent his Grail Diary to him as by the search for the cup of Christ itself.

Indy’s relationship with his father and his skepticism toward the grail comes to a head after Indiana rescues his father.  As they sit at the fork in the road between Venice and Berlin, Indy – exasperated at his father’s academic obsession with the grail – says the Lord’s name in vain.  Sean Connery as Henry responds in typical badass fashion:

“That's for blasphemy. The quest for the Grail is not archaeology.  It's a race against evil.  If it is captured by the Nazis, the armies of darkness will march over the face of the earth.  Do you understand me?”

Indy replies that he never understood his Dad’s quest, and in his emotional rage, he says that his dead mother didn’t either.  Indy just can’t understand why his Dad would spend his entire life – at the detriment to his parenting – in the pursuit of the mere specter of an idea.

It takes the dramatic event of his father being shot for Indy to realize his unconditional love for his father and reexamine his faith.  He now is forced to get the grail in order to save his Dad’s life.  Indiana has to pass three tests, which cut to the heart of the religious experience, to fulfill the ultimate crusade.  First, he must prove his penitence and kneel before God.  That is he must his prove humility before God – accept the validity of appeals to the one, to objectivity, i.e. a religious framework.  Next he must pass “The word of God.”  He must walk across a floor of letters, of which only those in the name of God are safe.  Religion requires familiarity with the issues at hand, a certain amount of introspection.  Lastly, Indiana Jones is faced with a bottomless chasm, whose other side is way too far to jump.  The cries of his dying father in the background, Indy steps decidedly out to certain death.  Only by abandoning completely his rational hesitation does he take the leap faith and step on solid ground, the path to the Holy Grail.

This all may seem silly or trite to some – the intellectual whimsy of a guy with too much time on his hands. The question, though, is fundamental: “The quest for the Holy Grail is the search for the divine in all of us.”  So fundamental and so intractable in fact that it would be absurd not to ask it.  I think Marcus, the bumbling academic puts it best: “if you want facts, Indy, I have none to give you.  At my age, I’m prepared to take a few things on faith.”

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