Saint Batman?

Father Raymond J. de Souza, National Post
Published: Thursday, July 31, 2008

SYDNEY, Australia -Heath Ledger is mesmerizing in The Dark Knight, the latest Batman film. Here in his Australian homeland, his posthumous appearance as the Joker has been a major news story for two weeks.

It's an extraordinary film, even if you are, inexplicably, unmoved by the addition of futuristic gadgets to the most reliable blockbuster combination in cinema: explosions, firearms, car chases and more explosions. This Batman comes with the bonus of some of the more combustible questions in philosophy. What is evil? Is there a moral order built into our world, or is to speak of such a moral design delusional?

This Joker does not permit us to dismiss him as delusional; he comes with an argument. This is not the maniacal buffoon of Jack Nicholson's star turn nearly 20 years ago. This Joker is diabolical.

"I choose chaos," the Joker confesses. There is no order built into human nature, no moral law written on the heart. There are rules of common agreement. But they are only manufactured rules, entirely arbitrary, without enduring value. They do not correspond to any truth--and they cannot, for there is no order or design at the heart of reality. There is only chaos, and the Joker embraces it. In an act of perverse integrity, he sets a mountain of cash alight, lest the impurity of his motives be corrupted by some logic or reason.

"Some men aren't looking for anything logical," explains Alfred, played by Michael Caine. "Some men just want to watch the world burn."

Classical philosophy defined evil as not being real in itself, but the lack of something real -- just as darkness is not real in itself, but rather the lack of light. If evil is a privation, as this view suggests, then what is real has some order and goodness to it: Light is good, and it is possible to conclude that it is better than darkness.

The conflict in this Batman film surrounds the truth of this idea. The fight between Batman and the Joker is not a fight between good and evil, but about something more fundamental than that: the question of whether good and evil exist at all. Is there order, including moral order, or chaos?

"You thought we could be decent men in an indecent world," summarizes the hero-cum-villain Two-Face. "But you were wrong; the world is cruel, and the only morality in a cruel world is chance."
Richard Dawkins, call your agent: As a sworn enemy of Godly design, you should be getting royalties on that one. If reality has no order to it, if there is only chaos and chance producing what we experience, then against what criterion of reality will good and evil be measured? Everything retreats into relativism and meaninglessness. Thus, the Joker describes himself as a dog who chases the car without reason or purpose. It would have no idea what to do if it ever caught it.

Chasing the car, catching the car, driving the car, blowing the car up--all of it is equally meaningless.

"You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain," the script replays as a sort of refrain. It is a deeply cynical view of human potential, namely that goodness cannot endure. Yet cynicism is the proper response if there is no possibility of choosing the good but only surviving the chaos.

The answer to the lethal relativism of the Joker is the witness of the one who testifies to the reality of the moral order by his own willingness to sacrifice for it. Batman tries to do that, but his witness is incomplete for he himself dwells in the shadows, behind a mask.

"Gotham needs a hero with a face," we are told. Yes, the world needs a witness to the truth, the goodness and the beauty of reality; a witness to the order of creation; a witness to the enduring reason through which all things were made; a witness with a human face.

We don't call those people superheroes. We call them saints.

Saint Batman?