Feuerbach, Kierkegaard, and the Divine in FX’s Legion
First introduced in March 1985, David Haller, son of the X-Men’s Charles Xavier, has always been depicted as a troubled soul. As a child, his telepathic powers were triggered by a terrorist attack upon his home, obliterating the minds of the attackers and pushing David himself into a coma. The healing process fractured his psyche, and has since led to the emergence of hundreds of alternate personalities with unique mutations of their own. Coupled with his innate ability to alter the fabric of reality, the manifestation of these personalities often poses a threat to not only those around him, but also the very existence of the universe, as a whole.
FX’s Legion pushes the ontological underpinnings of the original comics to their furthest extreme. In the first season of the series, David quickly comes to represent both a synthesis and extension of Ludwig Feuerbach’s conception of divinity and Søren Kierkegaard’s emphasis on subjectivity. His perception of reality, and ability to shape it, forces us to reconsider the limits of the divine. Whether the auditory and visual hallucinations around him are a product of his own mind or Amahl Farouk, the Shadow King dwelling therein, the fact remains that he possesses qualities (i.e., omniscience and omnipotence) otherwise attributed only to “the gods” themselves. The matter of David’s sanity, in turn, highlights the subjectivity of individual existence, not least because it illustrates the constant qualitative leaps necessary to accept the “truth” of the perceptual world and its potential rejection by those around him.
Misrecognizing the Divine
Before dealing with David in earnest, we need to take a closer look at The Essence of Christianity and Ludwig Feuerbach’s “projection theory” of the divine. According to Feuerbach, human nature is uniquely characterized by three faculties — of reason, will, and love — as well as a need for an object, something toward which we can direct our attention(s) (Feuerbach, p. 3-5). This object is vital, he says, because it’s “nothing else than [a] subject’s own […] nature,” albeit a subject’s own nature objectified (p. 5). As a result, individual “consciousness of the objective is [identical to] the self-consciousness” of the individual (p. 5).
The same conflation of subject and object, self and other, guides Feuerbach’s approach to religion. Rephrasing his earlier statement, he claims that “the [religious] object of any subject is nothing else [other] than the subject’s own nature taken objectively” (p. 12). That is to say, God — the Christian God, for Feuerbach — embodies only and entirely the innermost nature of a given individual. God is the outwardly-expressed self (p. 12-13). Its attributes are ultimately human attributes, but human attributes that have been taken to the extreme as a result of our own mis-recognition. We’re simply incapable of seeing ourselves in God, despite the fact that God is said to represent the height of human conceptions of love, wisdom, benevolence, and goodness in every sense of the word (p. 16-18). Put differently, Feuerbach writes that “if God were an object to the bird, he would be a winged being: the bird knows nothing higher, nothing more blissful, than the winged condition” (p. 17). And the same holds true for us. We can only define God in terms of qualities that we deem relevant and intrinsic to the human experience.
When it comes to David Haller, we see the blurring of the boundary between divinity and humanity in action. But keep in mind that Feuerbach didn’t have a godlike human in mind in his work. He wasn’t trying to say that humans are divine, but rather that we fail to recognize that the divine is us. At the same time, he was limited in his focus: Feuerbach was concerned with Christianity. David, however, isn’t meant to be read as the Christian God, and he isn’t meant to be read as Christ himself.
So, we’re not dealing with a one-to-one match here. Instead, David simultaneously represents both the fullest extent of the oneness of human and divine and a necessary extension of the same. FX’s Legion consequently raises a series of questions, each of which corresponds to one element of its deliberate construction of David as divine: What does it mean to act infinite? What does it mean to feel infinite? And what does it mean to be infinite?
The first of these points toward some of the most obvious attributes of popular ideas of divinity. “Even in the language of ordinary life,” Feuerbach admits, when one speaks of the divine, “one speaks of the divine […] in terms of [the divine] attributes — providence, omniscience, omnipotence” — that can’t be applied to humans themselves (p. 19). And this extends beyond the Christian context. In the case of supernormal powers, such as yogic or Buddhist siddhis or the sacred abilities attributed to the imāms of early Shī‘ism, the power or potential of the divine, broadly construed, is something more than the power or potential of the human (Mallinson and Singleton, p. 358-393; Amir-Moezzi, p. 91-97). In fact, the possession of a physical body itself limits our capacity for action by binding us to certain physical laws. I can’t occupy the same space as another physical object, for example, or simply disregard the force of gravity. I might resist these laws in some ways, perhaps by booking a flight to Tahiti and spending roughly twenty hours in the air, but I’m never truly free to break them.
David, on the other hand, faces none of these restrictions. Despite appearing visibly human, he wields a range of powers that effectively break or reimagine not only the laws of physics, but also the entire four-dimensional manifold of spacetime. He’s telepathic, telekinetic, and capable of levitation, teleportation, and reality manipulation. During his initial interrogation of David, Clark / The Interrogator informs his superior that David “may be the most powerful mutant that we’ve ever encountered” (Ep. 1×01). This same superior later admits that “he’s a god,” a sentiment that Melanie echoes in the final episode: “He’s a world-breaker” (Ep. 1×03, 1×08). And when he loses control, the consequences are proportionally greater. He destroys the kitchen in his apartment after an argument; knocks his captors unconscious after an extended interrogation; snaps the neck of a soldier trying to stop his escape; and teleports himself, Melanie, and the mutant Ptonomy “six hundred feet through two solid walls” when simply frightened (Ep. 1×01, 1×03). But it’s not until after David begins his training that we really begin to see the true extent of his power. With guidance from the mutants at Summerland, he proves capable of not only intentionally reconstructing reality, but also catching bullets with his bare hands and killing individual soldiers with little more than a look or a snap of his fingers. He becomes unstoppable, and he knows it.
That being said, David is driven by love. His early losses of control are a result of both inexperience and the influence of the parasitic Shadow King, Amahl Farouk, dwelling within his mind; even so, he never abandons those around him. And as Feuerbach admits, providence and divinity are inseparable in the eyes of religion. God, after all, “became [human] out of mercy” because “human want, human misery went to [its] heart” (Feuerbach, p. 51). The birth of Christ was a “tear of the divine compassion,” an act of “love to [humankind]” for the sake of humankind (p. 51-53; emphasis mine). Moreover, the emotional capacity of the divine doesn’t stop there. “Even anger,” he writes, “appears to [religion and the religious individual] an emotion not unworthy of God, provided only there be a religious motive” behind it (p. 25).
To feel divine is thus to feel love, and to feel compassion, and to simply feel for another. We see this in two ways. First, David is initially and consistently grounded by a romantic love for Syd, a mutant with the ability to swap minds through physical contact. More importantly, he does everything in his power to protect his family and friends. His decimation of Division Three, for instance, follows their abduction and torture of his sister, Amy (Ep. 1×05). Later, when the Summerland team is frozen in time and the Shadow King threatens their lives in the Astral Plane, David forcibly reasserts control over his own mind — and traps the parasite in a mental coffin — in order to ensure their physical safety (Ep. 1×07). Even after the dust has settled and Clark / The Interrogator personally confronts him with yet another company of soldiers, David offers a new option: Peace (Ep. 1×08). A way for humans and mutants to live together. Clark sees him as a god, and David lives up to it in order to build a new world.
Of course, the idea of a new world is superfluous at this point. The entire series hinges on David as an unreliable narrator, not least because of his demonic possession and its manifestation as paranoid schizophrenia. In the first episode, we experience the auditory and visual hallucinations with him; we hear the incessant whispering and we catch glimpses of the Devil with the Yellow Eyes at the edge of the screen (Ep. 1×01). At the same time, erratic flashbacks, fast cutting, and surreal dream sequences force us to question the “truth” at every turn. And we never really get any kind of answer. During his initial escape from Division Three, he stops Syd and expresses his frustration: “Is this real? I have to know. Are you real?” She answers in the affirmative, but we lack any proof other than her word (Ep. 1×01). We have to trust her — and David. The problem is that that trust is perpetually tenuous at best. We want to believe them, but we’ve also already seen by this point that David can reconfigure physical reality using only his mind. If he wants it to be real, it can be real.
Now, Feuerbach isn’t concerned with subjective reality in this way. Although he does make a point about the Sun and its “relationality” when viewed from Mercury or Saturn, he was much less of an Existentialist than a foundation for Existentialism. So it’s here that Søren Kierkegaard and his “qualitative leap” are particularly useful. In his Philosophical Fragments, Kierkegaard — as Johannes Climacus — speaks of the leap as part of the process of demonstrating and accepting the existence of God. That “existence itself emerges from the demonstration by a leap,” a “diminutive moment” conceptualized as a sort of “letting go” (Kierkegaard, p.42-43). As the name suggests, it’s not something that can be quantified in terms of “automatic” (i.e., passive) cumulative progress, but it’s not entirely an active and instant decision either (Ferreira, p. 210, 214-215, 219). In other words, an individual is free to make a qualitative leap in response to an external stimulus. It’s a matter of trust, and there’s both a build-up and “release” involved in deciding to trust. A “critical threshold” must be met (Ferreira, p. 217-221). The end result is a life-changing “transition to faith” (Kierkegaard, p. 59; Ferreira, p. 224-225).
Like Feuerbach, then, Kierkegaard was singularly focused upon Christianity. The qualitative leap is meant to be understood within the context of the Christian faith. But David once again embodies an extension of this concept beyond its original confines. In order to survive without proof of reality, David is forced to engage in a continuous series of qualitative leaps. He has to trust the words of others — Syd, Melanie, Clark — to accept that they are real, and he has to trust his own mind to accept that they can be trusted. There’s an intentionality here, but it’s a reactive intentionality. And the security that comes from the build-up and release in deciding to trust is fleeting. Every moment threatens to undo the world that David builds in relation to those around him. There’s no such thing as solid ground for someone with the ability to break reality, or render the fantastic tangible.
Which leaves us with one additional question: Why does any of this matter? Because in a fictional world of super-powered humans, anything is possible. Locating the mis-recognized divine — or the human-as-divine — is easy when the showrunners and screenwriters themselves acknowledge that the gods are here.
David does embody the Feuerbachian divine and Kierkegaardian leap to a certain extent, but not exactly. He transcends them. And as I see it, this isn’t a reflection upon Legion or David himself. It’s a reflection of the limits of Feuerbach and Kierkegaard. Neither went far enough in terms of their respective construction of the divine or emphasis on the primacy of the individual experience. In the case of Feuerbach, he fails to allow for the notion that the human actually can be divine. In the case of Kierkegaard, he prioritizes the religious leap at the expense of its non-religious, everyday counterpart.
David is therefore useful as both an extension and synthesis of these two philosophical constructs. At the same time, though, he isn’t unique. David’s powers make his divinity an unquestionable element of his existence, but his relationship with reality ultimately mirrors our own. Not the false diagnosis of schizophrenia, but the constant qualitative leaps necessary to engage with the objective world. Put differently, we as humans ourselves take the very same steps as David in order to come to terms with “the truth.” The only reason we accept that which is around us and that which we are told is because we choose to trust our own minds and the words of others. And if there’s a disconnect between the two, we have to make a decision. We have to ask ourselves: Which one is correct? In making that decision, and in making the next decision, and the one after that, we engage in a divine process of world-building. Like David, we construct and reconstruct the world around us on a moment-by-moment basis, and the only thing holding it together is trust. Reality is fragile, but we have the ability, the potential, the power to make it our own. The problem — and I believe Feuerbach had this part right — is that we fail to recognize it.
Darian Shump is a graduate student at Florida State University. He has contributed chapters to Deadpool and Philosophy and a forthcoming anthology on Theology and the DC Universe.
Amir-Moezzi, Mohammad Ali. The Divine Guide in Early Shi’ism: The Sources of Esotericism in Islam, trans. David Streight. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1994.
Ferreira, M. Jamie. “Faith and the Kierkegaardian Leap.” In The Cambridge Companion to Kierkegaard, ed. Alastair Hannay and Gordon D. Marino. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
Feuerbach, Ludwig. The Essence of Christianity, trans. George Eliot. New York, NY: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1957.
Kierkegaard, Søren. Philosophical Fragments, ed. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1985.
Mallinson, James, and Mark Singleton, trans. Roots of Yoga. New York, NY: Penguin Classics, 2017.