Interstellar: Beyond Scientific and Everyday Positivism


Interstellar deals with real science. See the following clips, which address the scientific claims and musings that pertain to this science fiction movie: Discovery Channel: The Science of Interstellar; Science of Interstellar—Interstellar Explained; Movie vs. Science: Neil deGrasse Tyson on “Interstellar”; Bill Nye’s Problem with ‘Interstellar’; Exclusive: The Science of Interstellar—Wired; and Movie Science: Interstellar.[1] For all the science behind the movie, Interstellar does not fall prey to scientific positivism. For scientific positivism, as I define it, only the observable materials of such entities as space-time and gravity have meaning and alone are ultimately real, as do the things we create; such positivism reduces significance to a very quantifiable and measurable number of things. But as the movie portrays, love—which we cannot create (and cannot ultimately define but describe[2])—transcends all such phenomena (See my blog post titled, “Interstellar and Entangled Ethics”).

Many will claim that the emphasis in the movie on love and relationships that defy gravity is where fiction takes over and science recedes to the background in this science fiction film. Some will even argue that love is simply a biological, evolutionary process. I wonder what these individuals would make of self-sacrificial love for one’s enemies. How does such love function within their survival of the fittest framework? The movie does not explore in depth sacrificial love for one’s enemies, but it does explore the theme of love that includes not simply one’s family, but all families on earth, and not simply one’s own generation, but also generations to come. While one might be able to speak to some degree of biological altruism bound up with the evolution of one’s species (including the possibility of laying down one’s life and the lives of those presently on earth for one’s progeny preserved and secured in embryonic state, as the movie explores), love of one’s enemies as portrayed by Jesus and his servant Martin Luther King, Jr. does not fit positivistic accounts of the survival of the biological fittest, or economic fittest, for that matter. Nor, as King notes in his sermon, “Why I Am Opposed to the War in Vietnam,” does it come off well to the Nietzsches of the world, who view such love as weak. King declares:

A genuine revolution of values means in the final analysis that our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Every nation must now develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in their individual societies. This call for a worldwide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one’s tribe, race, class, and nation is in reality a call for an all-embracing, unconditional love for all men. This oft misunderstood and misinterpreted concept, so readily dismissed by the Nietzsches of the world as a weak and cowardly force, has now become an absolute necessity for the survival of mankind.

Love involving “an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole” is present in Interstellar. Still, Jesus’ and King’s love of one’s enemies as developed in King’s stance on the Vietnam War and in his response to his racist oppressors defies gravity and transcends time and space in ways that the movie does not explore. In his address titled “A Christmas Sermon on Peace,” King declares that his community will defeat their white oppressors’ hate with tenacious love:

I’ve seen too much hate to want to hate, myself, and I’ve seen hate on the faces of too many sheriffs, too many white citizens’ councilors, and too many Klansmen of the South to want to hate, myself; and every time I see it, I say to myself, hate is too great a burden to bear. Somehow we must be able to stand up before our most bitter opponents and say: “We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We will meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will and we will still love you. We cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws and abide by the unjust system, because non-cooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good, and so throw us in jail and we will still love you. Bomb our homes and threaten our children, and, as difficult as it is, we will still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our communities at the midnight hour and drag us out on some wayside road and leave us half-dead as you beat us, and we will still love you. Send your propaganda agents around the country, and make it appear that we are not fit, culturally and otherwise, for integration, and we’ll still love you. But be assured that we’ll wear you down by our capacity to suffer, and one day we will win our freedom. We will not only win freedom for ourselves; we will so appeal to your heart and conscience that we will win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory.”

In this Christmas sermon presented just a few months before his assassination, King grounds his redemptive approach to his oppressors in his belief in “the ultimate morality of the universe” and “that all reality hinges on moral foundations.” Easter makes it possible for us to have confident assurance for peace on earth and “cosmic companionship” in the face of injustice committed against Jesus on Good Friday and against humanity every day of the week. In view of Easter, “the truth-crushed earth will rise again.”

While Interstellar does not explore in depth the cosmic significance of enemy love, King does. It is as if he was ahead of his time and saw the fundamental connection between metaphysical and physical reality suggested by Interstellar. Perhaps King experienced the fifth dimension the movie portrays (See Neil deGrasse Tyson’s helpful explanation of the fifth dimension presented in the film); perhaps he saw the trailer for the movie.

Even though Interstellar does not explore in depth the love of enemies, as modeled by Jesus and King, it does explore values and drives that go beyond the fields of natural science (biological altruism does not account for intentionality, whereas the altruism found in Interstellar on the part of the spaceship crew certainly does). Life is about more than matter and machines—and money, for that matter.

In the movie, physics meets metaphysics. Interstellar moves us beyond a (Newtonian-like?) reductionistic view of reality. A reductionistic view of reality entails not simply valuing only measurable phenomena of space-time and gravity and failing to account for the unquantifiable mystery of love that is the ground of deep relationships. A reductionistic view of reality also fails to account for the deeply relational nature of all reality, including quantifiable forces in the natural realm. Such reduction involves conceiving life as the sum of various parts made up of individual cogs that we can insert, remove, discard and replace in a massive machine without any sense of loss or gain to the whole enterprise. In contrast to this reductionistic perspective, life is a complex web of particles and waves in a vast ecosystem. The universe is in every atom and the universe is more than simply the sum of its parts; everything and everyone matters and makes an indelible impact on everything and everyone else.

If Interstellar is right, not only must we move beyond scientific positivism. We must also move beyond everyday positivism. Everyday positivism involves the reduction of the vast ecosystem involving a complex web of vitally connected particles and waves in our various spheres of life, work and leisure to a massive machine of easily replaceable parts where everything is separate and all that matters is material. In his Vietnam War address, King called on America and the American church to move from a culture of things to persons; we must replace the reduction of human life with expansion—an expansive moral universe.

The problem was not isolated to King’s day. We find such reduction present in certain economic perspectives in recent times, as Gordon Bigelow points out in the following statement at Harper’s Magazine in his article on Evangelical Christianity and economics:

Economics, as channeled by its popular avatars in media and politics, is the cosmology and the theodicy of our contemporary culture. More than religion itself, more than literature, more than cable television, it is economics that offers the dominant creation narrative of our society, depicting the relation of each of us to the universe we inhabit, the relation of human beings to God. And the story it tells is a marvelous one. In it an enormous multitude of strangers, all individuals, all striving alone, are nevertheless all bound together in a beautiful and natural pattern of existence: the market. This understanding of markets-not as artifacts of human civilization but as phenomena of nature-now serves as the unquestioned foundation of nearly all political and social debate.[3]

This particular economic mindset separates people from one another; everyone is ultimately separate and alone; it also reduces people to materialistic worth and economic vitality. This reduction impacts such domains as the church. In what follows, I will note a few examples where such reduction occurs.

Having replaced the creation narrative (in which everyone is created in the image of God and has intrinsic worth and value) in certain Christian contexts, free market spirituality reduces people in churches and other religious institutions to “giving units.” As long as people give, they have value; otherwise, they are dispensable in this contractual system. The same goes for the pastoral leadership who deliver the goods; if they fail to deliver satisfactorily religious goods and services to those purchasing them, they, too, are dispensable.[4]

A compartmentalized or positivistic-reductionistic framework shows up in other areas of religious life. Mothership churches with satellite campuses can easily resort to beaming in programs and events rather than make sure their pastoral teams work closely in relational ways with the people to foster an ecosystem that is habitable in that context. The same kind of compartmentalization occurs when churches reach out to communities in need, but are not embodied in those communities, or are not sensitive to the sociological dynamics in those spheres. Perhaps you have heard of instances where suburban megachurches do great good in inner city communities, but not in partnership with local churches in those neighborhoods. It’s not that those neighborhood churches in the inner cities don’t care to effect change; in fact, those churches have been vital, preserving influences in the midst of hardship, which is sometimes the result of forces bound up with the very churches and communities coming to effect change (such as historic white flight to the suburbs and particular economic policies affirmed by Christians in dominant culture churches that impact negatively minority communities)! In other situations, churches might establish programs, where they give gifts to the children of poor families; in those cases where they come in the front door and give gifts apart from the parents, they push the parents right out the back door.[5]

The aim of these remarks is not to discourage churches from being engaged in communities, but to be deeply aware of the complex dynamics in any given sociological ecosystem. The flipside of insensitive engagement is disengagement, where churches are not immersed in communities. Such churches need to take to heart what one of my pastor friends often says, “Would this community miss us, if our church were to cease to exist?” Jesus calls us to be preserving and penetrating influences in our society, like those universal forces of nature—salt and light (Matthew 5:13-16). My friend’s church, and many others like it, are vitally connected to their communities; they take seriously that the communities in which they exist are complex webs of particles and waves like a vast ecosystem. The church is not a private club divorced from the public domain, nor a subset of the state; rather, the church is a public engaging other public spheres constructively and critically such as the state and market as salt and light under the overarching and intimately involved lordship of Jesus Christ.

Further to the last point on being a distinct public engaging other publics in relation to Christ, churches and individuals should not seek to parrot successful churches and noted Christian leaders, but be themselves in union with Christ. Each part has a unique and invaluable role. The ecosystem suffers when we parrot others rather than express our distinctive functions in the circle of life. We are not ultimately alone and replaceable; everyone is indispensable.

King spoke of the “ultimate morality of the universe” and “cosmic companionship” in confronting hate with love. The Apostle Paul also connects physical and metaphysical dimensions when he draws from human anatomy to illustrate the fundamental relational connection of all people in Christ’s church. There is an anatomical dynamic to spiritual gifting; God graces or gifts us with one another in Christ’s body. Everyone is needed; everyone is indispensable:

The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together (1 Corinthians 12:21-26; ESV).

Paul will go on to speak of love as the ultimate gift (1 Corinthians 12:31; 1 Corinthians 13). True love is always expansive; it expands our moral universe and defies those negative gravitational forces of hate and indifference that reduce life and keep us from caring deeply for others on a daily basis. We don’t need to go to outer space to realize love’s compelling force, or even watch Interstellar; but like listening to King or reading Paul, watching the movie just might expand our thinking and our hearts.


[1]The physicist who served as the scientific advisor for the film has also written a volume on the science behind Interstellar: Kip Thorne, The Science of Interstellar, with a foreword by Christopher Nolan (W.W. Norton & Company, 2014).

[2]Jonathan Edwards spoke of love as something we cannot ultimately define, but only describe. See Jonathan Edwards, “Treatise on Grace,” in Treatise on Grace and Other Posthumously Published Writings, ed. Paul Helm (Cambridge: James Clarke, 1971), 48–49. It is also worth noting in view of this post’s overarching argument on a non-reductionistic and relational view of all reality that Jonathan Edwards sought to address materialist philosophy in his day in a relational manner. In my volume, Connecting Christ: How to Discuss Jesus in a World of Diverse Paths (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2012), page 320, note 24, I write the following concerning Edwards’s view of reality: “Jonathan Edwards also conceived of the world in relational terms in view of the trinitarian doctrine of God and his view of dynamic creation. God continues to create the universe out of nothing at every moment. Edwards would come to conceive the creation’s beginning and ongoing existence as the result of God’s continual conscious awareness of it, seeking to guard against materialist philosophy. Rather than viewing the creation as a copy of abstract and static ideals in the supra-sensible world, as in Platonism, the creation exists so that God can communicate his interpersonal, triune being of love and happiness and beauty to his creatures in a universe consisting of personal beings and also relationships. See George M. Marsden’s discussion of Edwards’s doctrine of creation in view of the Trinity and his engagement of materialist philosophy in Jonathan Edwards: A Life (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), 73–77.”

[3]Gordon Bigelow, “Let There Be Markets: The Evangelical Roots of Economics,” in Harper’s Magazine, v. 310, n. 1860, May 1, 2005.

[4]See my blog posts titled “Jesus, Darwin and Donald Trump” and “Jesus, Darwin and Donald Trump, Part II.” It should be noted that Darwin was no Social Darwinian and did not reduce all of reality to fit survival of the fittest categories. See my post titled “Social Darwinism, Richard Dawkins and Down syndrome.” Moreover, in view of such frameworks as quantum entanglement and relativity, which evolutionary thought did not have access to in Darwin’s day, it is important to view dynamics like predator and prey relationships against the larger relational backdrop of the web or circle of all life as vitally connected.

[5]See Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert’s work, When Helping Hurts: Alleviating Poverty Without Hurting the Poor. . .and Yourself (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2009). See my article on spirituality and economics that challenges economic positivism and the commodification of identity from a Trinitarian perspective and which applauds the community development work of John M. Perkins and Muhammad Yunus: “Downward Mobility and Trickle-Up Economics: A Trinitarian Reflection on Money and Power,” Carl F. H. Henry Center at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (online publication; December 2013;

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