Most of the time, geeky media does a pretty poor job of utilizing religious ideas. So I was shocked when I watched the fourth season premiere of The Flash and found that amid the somewhat clunky storytelling, there was actually a pretty decent portrayal of faith. This episode can show us a bit about how Christians understand how faith works, even though religion-flavored faith had almost no role to play in the episode.
Spoilers for The Flash below!
In the season premiere of The Flash, the team has to break Barry out of the Speed Force Prison so he can defeat a monster threatening to destroy Central City. While they’re able to pull Barry back into this world, the time he’s spent in the Prison (outside the normal flow of time and space) has given him severe neurological damage. Barry doesn’t seem to recognize anyone, he’s speaking nonsense, and writing in a strange invented language all over the walls. Iris has a heart-to-heart with her father, and her father shares that his girlfriend got him to go back to church for the first time in a long time. He explains to Iris that sometimes we just need to have faith. Iris, taking a leap of faith, allows herself to be captured by the monster in the hope that the news of her impending death will wake Barry up from his strange mental state and bring him back. And it does! Barry seems to be back to normal, more powerful than ever before. Not only does he not remember anything after entering the Speed Force and before he “woke up”, but all the grief, angst, and guilt he was carrying has magically vanished. It seems like Iris’s faith in Barry has transformed him into a brand new Flash.
This kind of faith seems like it works more like a feel-good magical plot device than a religious conviction. And on the surface, you’d be right. Religion turns up as the way to move the plot along, getting Iris to do the thing to get Barry to come back to us. But Iris’s display of faith actually reveals a lot about the way faith works in the minds of many believers. One of the problems with trying to talk about faith is the fact that there are so many different perspectives on what it really is. If you asked three different people to define faith, you’d get three different answers. So for my purposes, I’m pulling from some experts.
Richard Dawkins, the famed atheist, had his own definition of faith, from The Selfish Gene:
Faith is a state of mind that leads people to believe something—it doesn’t matter what—in the total absence of supporting evidence. If there were good supporting evidence then faith would be superfluous, for the evidence would compel us to believe it anyway.
For Dawkins, the connection between truth and belief is evidence. Truth is perceived through the physical world, and belief is our mind’s understanding of that truth. When there is no evidence, Dawkins posits that faith is the bridge between belief and truth. But because there is no evidence, Dawkins argues that there’s no way those truths can be, well, true. If they were true, there’d be evidence, making faith unnecessary. For him, faith is always something that contradicts reason. Faith is believing in Santa Claus, unicorns, and God.
But this isn’t the kind of faith that Iris and her father show us in The Flash. It would fit if Iris had never met Barry before, or didn’t know him personally, and put herself in danger anyway in the hope that it would heal Barry. In that scenario, Iris would have no evidence that her plan would actually work, just her own abstract ideas of how superheroes should generally act when innocent lives are in danger. Instead, Iris puts herself in danger because she knows that Barry has saved her before. The whole major plot arc last season was Barry and friends trying to find a way to prevent Iris’s (future) death at the hands of a villain; Iris knows that Barry will stop at nothing to try to save her life. She has lots of evidence, so by Dawkins’s perspective, Iris isn’t making a leap of faith, she’s choosing a calculated risk.
At the other end of the philosophical spectrum, John Calvin (a famed Protestant Reformation theologian) defined faith as:
…a firm and certain knowledge of God’s benevolence towards us, founded upon the truth of the freely given promise in Christ, both revealed to our minds and sealed upon our hearts through the Holy Spirit’ (John Calvin, Institutes III, ii, 7, 551)
Iris doesn’t seem to be a particularly religious person, and she’s certainly not displaying her faith in God. But what Calvin does describe here is the idea that faith is a kind of knowledge, and gives the faith-filled person a certainty about the object of faith’s benevolence. What this means is that Iris freely and certainly believes that Barry cares about her enough to save her. Calvin might argue that Iris has certain knowledge that Barry would save her. This might entirely be the case, because Iris seemed awfully relieved when Barry finally showed up. She didn’t seem to have the kind of knowledge about Barry as, for example, 2+2=4 or gravity pulls objects toward the center of the Earth.
Thomas Aquinas, a 13th century Roman Catholic theologian, is famous for his very rational philosophical arguments for Christian theology. He gives us a more nuanced view of faith:
Aquinas holds that faith is ‘midway between knowledge and opinion’ (Summa Theologiae 2a2ae 1, 2). Faith resembles knowledge, Aquinas thinks, in so far as faith carries conviction. But that conviction is not well described as ‘theoretical’, if that description suggests that faith has a solely propositional object. For Aquinas, faith denotes the believer’s fundamental orientation towards the divine. (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
Both Calvin and Dawkins paint faith as a kind of certain knowledge, while Aquinas tries to grapple with the fact that faith involves “truths” that can’t be proven by, for instance, the scientific method. Faith may have the same kinds of convictions as knowledge or scientific facts have. Iris certainly believes hard enough in Barry’s love for her that he will save her, but there’s still an element of hope within her faith.
This is where this episode shows us something about religious faith. Iris believes that Barry loves her, and she loves him. She knows that he will do everything in his power to save her life, and so she hopes that by putting her own life in danger, she can save him. Her faith is powered by her hope that she won’t be proven wrong. Ultimately she and Barry are both saved by the power of love. Barry has shown Iris how much he loves her, and Iris shows her love for Barry by risking her own life to save him. In placing herself in danger, Iris shows all of us that she loves Barry more than she fears for her own safety. While in one light, this plays into the damsel in distress trope, it also subverts it. Iris “damsels” herself freely, in the hopes of saving Barry. It would have been a different story had the monster captured Iris against her will. Instead, she walks right up to the monster and demands he take her, because if he does he can face off with the Flash. Her faith in Barry leads her to willingly put her own life at risk. Christianity (as well as many other religions) has a long history of people facing martyrdom, often of their own free will, as a testimony of their faith. It demonstrates the strength of their love, hope, and faith in God. Similarly, Iris demonstrates the strength of her love, hope, and faith in Barry when she tries to sacrifice herself.
This is the kind of faith and love story Christians believe their religion is based on. Christians have faith in God because God loved humanity so much that God (Jesus) died to save humanity from the permanence of death. Christians in turn love God and have faith that the kind of love God showed humanity in the past (at the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus) will come through for them in the future (at our deaths and/or the end of time). Like Iris, Christians have hope-filled faith that God (like Barry) will save them from death. This is a great example of faith. Not only does it show that faith is more than simple belief, or that faith is believing in things that aren’t reasonable, but it shows that faith is rooted in love. Barry’s love for Iris, and the ways he has demonstrated that love in the past, are what make her able to have faith in him. Similarly, for the believer, God’s actions in our past are what allow them to have faith in God in the present and in the future. It shows that true faith, especially religious faith, is about a relationship rooted in love.