You Humans Love Your Symbolism, Chapter 10:

The Soul in Powers of X #5

Chapter 10: The Soul in Powers of X #5 – For the Children

Writer: Jonathan Hickman
Penciler: R.B. Silva
Inker: R.B. Silva
Color Artist: Marte Gracia
Cover Art: R.B. Silva and Marte Gracia

One theory of religion postulates that such belief systems arise out of questions that remain (as of yet) beyond our ability to answer. Wondering, “Where did everything ultimately come from?” leads to creation myths and the belief in an omnipotent Creator. At the other end of existence, various answers to the question “What happens after death?” have been addressed in different chapters of this series. A person of faith would probably argue that these questions do not cause religious beliefs but are simply the subject matter of religion. The opening and closing scenes of Powers of X #5 focus on an equally existential question: “What makes you who you are… who you really are? What is the essence of your being?” The middle section, meanwhile, illustrates the difficult process of making a decision based on faith; committing oneself, even when some questions remain unanswered and the outcome cannot be completely known.

The issue opens with Prof. X in the X0 era asking, “Can it be done?” He has approached the mutant engineer Forge with the idea of upgrading the capabilities of Cerebro to allow him to copy a mutant’s mind; as Forge puts it, “To make a backup of a sentient being.” A more thorough description on the next data page tells us, “These backups are the essence of each mutant. How they think, how they feel, their memories – their very being.” An analogous section on a data page in the previous chapter, House of X #5, goes on to call this backup of the mind, “WHO THEY ARE”. Hickman includes this current scene to give us readers supplementary background details into one of the major revelations of Chapter 9: House of X #5; that Xavier can use the backups created with Cerebro to return the soul of a deceased mutant into their resurrected body.

Hickman’s handling of the topic forces one to contemplate: What makes a person who he or she is? What is the fundamental essence of who we are? Is it, as Hickman suggests, the mind? How one thinks, feels, their intelligence and memories?

Nearly all major religions and philosophies profess to a similar belief; that there exists an immaterial aspect of each individual which comprises their actual essence, most often called the soul.  A complete overview of all the differing theories of the soul would completely overreach the purpose of this essay. Still, the connection between or even the equivalence of the mind and soul, as presented in the House of X / Powers of X series, must be addressed.

Interestingly, in almost all of the various cultural traditions, the word for “soul” derives from the word for “breath” and was originally believed to reside in the lungs. A clear example of this etymology can be found in the Judaic creation story: “Then the LORD God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath [soul] of life, and the man became a living being” (Genesis 2:7). In fact, early Judaism had a concept of the soul that didn’t necessarily separate it from the body. Hickman, at least, also suggests an intimate connection between the soul (or mind) and the body, stating on a data page that “it’s likely to be harmful and possibly fatal” to “combine a mutant MIND with a HUSK that is not their own.”

Over time, the concept of the soul has evolved, most strongly influenced in the western world by the ancient Greek philosophies of (among others) Plato and Aristotle, as well as early Christian theologians. In this era, one finds the now normal belief in a dichotomy of body and soul, also found in this issue; the body being the “HUSK” in which the soul resides. This body-soul dualism can, for example, be interpreted in the words of Jesus: “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul” (Matthew 10:28).

These philosophies also draw a stronger connection between the soul and the mind, seeing in the consciousness, the free will and the intelligence the seat of one’s self. After centuries of further development in this direction, Rene Descartes most famously and persuasively argued that the mind itself is the soul, which can exist immortal and independent from the body, but resides during life in the brain. Modern neuroscience would almost support this claim, with growing scientific research showing how the brain controls (paralleling Hickman’s words) how one thinks, how one feels, one’s memories. Of course, atheists see in the science of neurology an argument against traditional religious beliefs, reasoning that the functions of the brain, and therefore the mind, permanently end with death. Still, the question remains, “Is the mind one’s very being; one’s soul?”

Biblically, although a deep connection between the mind and the soul most definitely exists, no scriptures directly define the soul as the mind. In fact, no passages of the Bible clearly define the soul at all, but rather only indicate that the soul encompasses the fundamental essence of who one is, for example, “Praise the LORD, my soul; all my inmost being, praise his holy name” (Psalm 103:1). Reading the Bible, one gets the feeling that there may be more to the soul than simply the mind. Christianity stresses the immortal and spiritual nature of the soul, that eternal or infinite aspect of someone, which will live on after the death of the body.

But, if truly eternal or infinite, can one really make a backup of the soul? Can a sentient being really be saved or copied like informational data? This is exactly what Prof. X asks for in the first scene of this issue. Conveniently, this is a work of science fiction, not bound by the rules of reality. At least Forge admits, “As far as I can see, all that’s stopping you is access to an unlimited power source and unlimited storage.” This question, “How much energy does it take to make a copy of a sentient being?” features prominently in both the opening and closing scenes of this issue.

The final scene returns to the X3 era. Although again strikingly illustrated and colored by Silva and Gracia, respectively, copious amounts of exposition both remind us readers of what has come before and explain the next step in the plot. As first revealed in Chapter 4: Powers of X #2, the post-humans seek Ascension, integration of their minds, and therefore their souls (who they are), into the advanced collective machine mind of the Phalanx; an idea similar to esoteric religions, which hope for transcendence into an eternal collective consciousness. In that essay, this striving to become godlike was compared to the biblical stories of the Tower of Babel and the Original Sin; both implying that the desire to become like god represents the original transgression of humanity and not the ultimate goal of evolution.

In Chapter 8: Powers of X #4, the petition of the post-humans for Ascension into the Phalanx was symbolically regarded as a deal with the devil. But all such deals have a cost: “We asked for sovereignty, but it came with an unexpected price.” In that issue, the cost seemed to be limited to the organic self; since the Phalanx can only assimilate machine intelligence, the post-humans must first copy their mind (or soul) into a technological vessel before ascending into the Phalanx.

But the current chapter discloses a much more drastic and horrific cost: “Tomorrow, they will absorb our collective intelligence into theirs…and the history and consciousness of this planet will live on forever. But in doing so, they will feed – consuming this entire planet…and leaving no living thing behind.” As mentioned in the opening scene, the process of copying the very essence of a sentient being requires a near unlimited power source; to absorb the entirety of humanity’s societal consciousness requires even more: “Converting matter to energy”.

In the midst of all the questions in this issue, this X3 scene actually begins with the Phalanx saying: “ANSWER-WE-[PHALANX]-HAVE”. And the post-humans will receive exactly what they asked for, Ascension. But, the descriptions of this ascended state bring up more questions: Is there a soul in the collective machine intelligence of the Phalanx? Is there individuality? Where is love and relationship? These troubling questions will finally be explored in the conclusion to the X3 era in Chapter 12: Powers of X #6.

Also in this scene, Hickman continues down, or rather up, his befuddling exploration of the question: “What is the apex of our potential; what can we ultimately become?”  In Chapter 4: Powers of X #2, he first suggested that humankind must turn to machines, which can copy and collect the mind (who we are, our essence) in order to evolve beyond our flawed and limited organic bodies. The opening scene of this issue, together with revelations from the previous chapter, implies that Cerebro is the precursor to the necessary technology. As these machines collect more and more minds, becoming more and more advanced, the intelligence becomes more and more dense. Hickman describes the most advanced forms of intelligence as “massively dense machine brains”, pure intelligence so dense that it collapses time and space into a black hole. As these “Societies” become more advanced, they also become more abstract and bewildering.

In the end, Hickman arrives at “One giant societal intelligence so far beyond us it might as well be that god mankind spent so much time looking for.” He names these universal societies “Dominions” and describes them on a data page, “…in terms of intellect and power, a Dominion is not colloquially ’godlike’ but categorically ‘godlike’ and indistinguishable from any and all mythic or religious comparisons.”

But, are “intellect and power” all that make God godlike?  In the Judeo-Christian Bible, the richest source of information about the character of God is the Psalms. And, of course, one does find praise of God’s infinite intellect and power: “Great is our Lord and mighty in power; his understanding has no limit” (Psalms 147:5). But, confining God’s character to these two attributes, as Hickman’s description of a “Dominion” does, misses out on other fundamental and potentially more important aspects like truth, righteousness, justice, faithfulness, and love: “For the word of the LORD is right and true; he is faithful in all he does. The LORD loves righteousness and justice; the earth is full of his unfailing love” (Psalms 33:4-5). Furthermore, none of the depictions of the Phalanx, the servants of Dominions, could be described as good or loving. Yet, exactly these two traits of God are praised again and again with the often repeated phrase: “Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; his love endures forever” (Psalms 106:1; 107:9; 118:1, and 136:1 among others).

Subtly, Hickman likens the post-humans’ courting of the Phalanx symbolically to a leap of faith, having Nimrod the Greater (the hovering robotic companion of the Librarian) state: “There’s really not enough data to make an error-free projection, Librarian.” As already discussed, the post-humans receive what they asked for, but with horrific consequences. Putting your faith in the wrong place or the wrong person can lead to devastating costs. But, is that reason to never take a risk?

What does one do when some existential questions remain unanswered? When the outcome isn’t 100% assured? Can you still make a binding commitment? At what point are you ready to take a leap of faith?

All religious beliefs require, at some point, a decision of faith. For example, the existence of God cannot be proven or disproven with absolute certainty either by science or any other means. If God exists, he exists (by definition) before the beginning, after the end, and outside the space of the natural universe. Anything we could use to try and prove (or disprove) his existence, including our own intelligence, is just too limited for the task. This is true of many religious questions. Of course, some answers sound more rational and plausible and agree more closely with the evidence we can and do experience. This evidence should definitely be taken into account before one decides on a set of beliefs. Faith doesn’t mean shutting off your brain. Faith must agree with the logical conclusions of our experience. But, none of the answers to these religious and existential questions will satisfy all doubts completely. So, at some point, one has to take a leap of faith.

The creative team creates a symbolic analogy of this process in a scene from the X1 era. Prof. X and Magneto approach Emma Frost, in order to recruit her into the inner circle of Krakoan leadership. Although sometimes bordering on over-exaggeration, Silva deftly conveys Emma’s range of emotions in her facial expressions and body language. She aggressively and angrily approaches Magneto – the agony of her trauma from experiencing the genocide on Genosha on full display – as she at first rebukes this potentially dangerous proposition. For the reader, it’s almost a relief that Hickman finally addresses the obvious parallels between Krakoa and Genosha.

Part of Prof. X’s and Magneto’s pitch to Emma reminds one of a call to faith. Xavier entreaties, “This is that day you’ve been waiting for.” Magneto adds, “To make right all the things that went wrong.” But, Emma responds with a good question: “What’s going to make it different this time?” Their simple response, coupled with Silva’s beautiful Krakoan flower, is an invitation, “Let us show you.” This exchange is reminiscent of the recruitment of Nathanael to become a disciple of Jesus. When Philip tells Nathanael that he believes Jesus to be the Messiah, Nathanael, like Emma, at first responds skeptically: “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” (John 1:46). Philip, just like Xavier and Magneto, simply says, “Come and see” (John 1:46).

What could persuade you to take a leap of faith? Often, one must first see at least a faint glimpse of what one is hoping for. As Emma stands on Krakoa, with a far-off expression on her face, she sighs and (as indicated by the lettering) whispers to herself, “One more time, then. For the children.” As with so many things, hope is a driving force of faith. For Emma, a character with a long past of mentoring students, it is the hope of a better future for the children. Even when some questions remain unanswered, let us hope for one more chance at a better tomorrow.

Note: All biblical quotes are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version NIV, Copyright 2011 by Biblica, Inc.

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David L Canham (@BBelafat) grew up in Arizona watching X-Men: the Animated Series and reading mostly X-Men and Spider-Man comics of the 90s. After a Bachelor’s Degree in Physics with Minors in Math and Religious Studies from the University of Arizona, he received a doctorate in Physics from the University of Bonn in Germany. He now teaches Physics and Math at the junior high and high school level in northern Germany, where he lives with his family. He still loves comics; especially the ones that make him ask deep questions.

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