Humans typically situate their divinities at the border of the cosmos. The Israelites and Babylonians understood the solid sky to represent the edge of the created order and placed gods there accordingly. Whether YHWH or Marduk, deities reside at the farthest limit of the world. Modern science has expanded the cosmos so far beyond the ancient imagination that not only do we now find the idea of divinities living in the sky absurd, but we cannot even place new gods at the edge. There is neither absolute space nor privileged location in the new, constantly expanding universe.
This has not stopped the modern imagination from finding a realm for the transcendent. In Christopher Nolan’s film Interstellar, the “fifth dimension” plays the same role formerly played by the heavens. The boundary between the finite and perfected is no longer a location in space but the limitations of four-dimensional spacetime itself. We discover this when Cooper travels into the Black Hole and discovers that “they” are really “us” only now perfected such that we are no longer bound by space and time. In the future, we ascend to the fifth dimension, freeing ourselves from finitude.
This modern apotheosis closely follows a path laid down long ago by the ancient Gnostics. The Gnostics recognized a sharp contrast between the inferior and finite world of matter and the transcendent spiritual realm of the divine. They understood humans to represent sparks of the divine imprisoned in material bodies. Gnostics did not look forward to improving finite human lifea vulgar life of scratching a living from the dirt, a reminder of one’s fundamental dependence upon nature. Rather, they repudiated their material bodies claiming not to belong to this world but to a higher realm free from all the limitations. They sought a hidden gnosis by which to shed creatureliness altogether and leave this world behind.
This story should sound familiar to those who have seen Interstellar. It is no accident that the action begins in a world where most human effort has been reduced to farmingthe symbol of humanity’s dependence upon nature for life. The constant dust storms are telling. They represent humanity’s frailty in the face of time and change. In the film, we learn all plants are doomed to die out and humans will starve and suffocate as a result. Life on Earth is temporary and time is running out: “Dust thou art and to dust thou shalt return.”
Cooper has no appetite for farming but dreams of using his knowledge and training to ascend into the heavens. Cooper gets the opportunity to break his chains when he learns of a mission to save humanity and volunteers to travel into the wormhole that “they” made for humans. Cooper hatches a plot to save humanity by entering the Black Holewhich we discover leads not to obliteration but is a gateway to a higher dimension transcending space and time.
Inside the black hole Cooper acquires the secret gnosis (some data about gravity) that holds the key to humanity’s triumph over time and liberation from the changing and imperfect world. Time is not merely an accidental antagonist but represents the fundamental obstacle to humanity’s glorification. Humans do not belong to the dirty and limited world of time and change, but find completion only in a higher realm.
Interstellar’s scientific pretensions capture the religious spirit of our times. What should we make of all the talk of the incompatibility of science and religion? Nothing: Longing for future glory is alive and well among the scientifically literate. Some of their own apparently comprise the most fervent devotees of future hope, displaying the same desire for human transcendence as the ancients but clothing it in modern science. Interstellar is worth reflecting on, not for any dubious relation it may bear to our future, but because of its indebtedness to the past: It is an ancient myth retold and centuries of scientific progress have diminished none of its appeal.
Robert Reed is a doctoral student in philosophy at Texas A&M University.