Throughout Man of Steel, Superman is consistently a symbol for the divine, though the divine characteristics that Superman exemplifies through the movie are always told through the lens of Superman’s growth as a “human” (in quotes because he is actually Kryptonian). He spends much of the movie learning to use his power, getting stronger and more confident, saving the woman he loves, and developing an attitude of obligaion to use his power to save the human race, despite not being known or trusted throughout most of the film.
At one point, not long after finding the Kryptonian ship and meeting the hologram of Jor El, his Kryptonian father, he is told to test his limits.
Earth’s sun is younger and brighter than Krypton’s was. Your cells have drunk in its radiation, strengthening your muscles, your skin, your senses. Earth’s gravity is weaker, yet its atmosphere is more nourishing. You’ve grown stronger here than I ever could have imagined. The only way to know how strong is to keep testing your limits.Jor-El, Man of Steel, 49:15
In religion, the question of the divinity within humanity and the humanity within divinity has been a perennial discussino that has been described in a variety of ways. In Judaism, specifically Kaballah, we have the Tree of Life, a set of ten spheres of divine attributes that are arranged in the form of a man in such a way as to draw many comparisons with the system of chakras that span the length of the human torso in Hinduism. Further, this tree of divine atributes is said to permeate the univere entire, and also, every human is said to contain not one, but two trees of life, one in his divine soul that lives in one half of a man’s heart, and another one in his animal soul that lives in the other half.
In Hinduism, specifically the philosophical school of vedanta, there is a debate between the dvaitists, who believe that the human soul is distinct from the divine soul of ultimate reality, while the advaitists believe that the human soul and divine soul that permeates the universe are exactly the same thing, with the distinction between the human and infinity being merely an illusion.
While never an issue in the New Testament itself, the question of Jesus’ humanity and divinity occupied the early part of the 5th century CE in what we call the Chalcedonian debates. They came up with the phrase, called the Chalcedonian formula, stating that Jesus had a human nature and a divine nature connected in “union of substance” without being mixed or fused into a single nature that would not be either human or divine. Nobody really knows what this “union of substance” means, however. It’s more of a phrase to say in order to avoid problems that come from saying the wrong thing, but there was never a clear, standard teaching developed to define what the phrase itself means.
This leaves us with a number of interesting points to consider when we contemplate Superman’s task of testing his limits. If Superman symbolizes God, well, God dosn’t need to test his limits. He himself has none, and he already knows what ours are. God is not some guy with a beard sitting on a could out there. So describing him as a human (or kryptonian) learning to use his superpowers can warrant a rather loosely constructed comparison. There are conceptions of God that are pantheistic, meaning that God is just what is. God is the universe or multiverse. Further, there is the panentheistic concept of God, that God is the universe or multiverse, yes, but that the universe is only the visible expression of God, with the rest being an incomprehensible infinity of which all of the created reality is just a part.
We see in religion the idea of the Messiah as a superbeing that represents God. The New Testament is the most commonly known and most widely propogated piece of literature that expresses this. However, the New Testament has many points in common with apocryphal Jewish literature such as the Book of Enoch and a variety of dead sea scrolls that describe the Messiah in much the same way, possessing power in a heavenly form.
The heavens and the earth will listen to the Messiah, and none will stray from the commandments of the holy ones…Over the poor his spirit will hover and will renew the faithful with his power…he who liberates the captives, restores sight to the blind…Dead Sea Scroll 4Q521
Finally, within Judaism there are examples of a supernatural Messiah as well. The Chabad organization believes that the seventh Lubaticher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, is the Messiah. He passed away in 1994, but many still believe that he is the Messiah, so he must come back from the dead with supernatural power if he is to make good on his messianic claim.
Further, within Judaism there is the concept of a king of the angels, Michael or Metatron, who exhibits divine characteritics and has much in common with the supernatural Messiah described by the New Testament and other Jewish literature. Could it be that this king of the angels, or this Messiah, actually hasn’t learned everything? Could he also be learning limits? There is an enigmatic verse about Jesus in the New Testament that speaks to this somewhat:
Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered.Hebrews 5:8
The operative term here is that this Son of God, as the New Testament describes him, learned something. Unlike God, who is beyond space and time and already knows everything, this superbeing has holes in his knowledge. There are other indicators of this as well.
And there was a woman who had had a discharge of blood for twelve years, and though she had spent all her living on physicians, she could not be healed by anyone. She came up behind him and touched the fringe of his garment, and immediately her discharge of blood ceased. And Jesus said, “Who was it that touched me?” When all denied it, Peter said, “Master, the crowds surround you and are pressing in on you!” But Jesus said, “Someone touched me, for I perceive that power has gone out from me.”Luke 8:43
Jesus did not know who touched him.
But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only.Matthew 24:36
In the verse above, Jesus doesn’t know the exact time of his return. The angels don’t know either, apparently. Only God knows. These limitations on the knowledge of a supernatural, divine Messiah could very easily be applied to other ideas of a king of the multiverse, such as Michael or Metatron, who represents God as fully as possible but who is not directly equivalent to God himself.
From this we can see that Man of Steel’s presentation of Superman as a superhero that represents a divine superbeing of the proportion of a king of angels or of a superpowerful Messiah who exhibits divine traits is not incompatible with the idea of learning things and testing things. From many images and scenes in Man of Steel, we see that Superman is compared to Jesus at a number of points, and this comparison only becomes clearer in subsequent movies. From the idea of Superman testing his limits, we may also just have seen that Zack Snyder and his filming team have produced a concept of a divine being who comports with the New Testament and other religious literature better than the picture of Jesus provided by the doctrines and dogmas of the Christian Church.
In addition to the above, however, there is another point that relates to what we have been saying from an additional, interesting perspective, while also doing much to answer the grand “why” of everything. We learn from the Torah that when Adam and Eve ate the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, this corrsponded to a heavenly event, as heaven had already been ripped asunder in the conflict between the angels, hence the verse:
Then the LORD God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil.”Genesis 3:22a
So if God is in fact omnipotent and omniscient and sovereign over time, space, and everything that takes place, why would this conflict be ordained to occur? Well, to have a full appreciation of perfection, perfect love and total harmony that had to exist before this great conflict, everyone who will live in such a world and in such a way must be aware of the limits of existence, and this can only be understood if we are aware of that which is beyond the limits. Things like murder, war, and rape are things that cannot happen in a perfect world, but we must be aware of their existence if we are to avoid them in heaven. Initially the denizens of heaven were unaware of the possibility of horrible things happening, until heaven was torn asunder with the fall of the angels. Likewise, Adam and Eve were unaware of the limits of a perfect existence until in ignorance they ate the fruit and walked right into them. We can say then that due to the phenomenon of ignorance, the eventual meeting and crossing of the limits of existence is inevitable. There is this thing called evil. It must be kept out of heaven. The way to be able to do this is to have stumbled upone evil, found out what it is, and acquired a desire to reject it.
There is yet another interesting verse from the New Testament that indicates that the ancients were aware of this.
so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.Ephesians 3:10
The term “church” here does not refer to any specific organization of Christians, nor does it refer too the church building with its inhabitants on the corner. The word here refers to the collected people of God, regardless of their specific religion. Further, the “rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” refers to the angels. That is, by creating this world and allowing it to fall into evil, the angels can watch and learn the effect of evil on humanity, so that in the next world, the angels and the humans who are there with them will know what evil was, and hate it, and have the experience necessary to avoid walking blindly into it in the future.
In essense, the above is saying that there is indeed a purpose to the evils that we experience in life: to test the limits of existence and to learn to love not to transgress them. We are also saying that not only humans have this mission to experience evil and learn to hate it, but the angels go through this as well, and have been doing so since before our world was created. If we look at things this way, we can see that Superman as a symbol for angels, or a king of the angels, or an angelic, divine superbeing type of Messiah actually fits very well with the idea of a superhero charged to test the limits of things in order to understand his own power.
Before closing, however, one observation about our human conduct must be made. Theologians often debate the merits of living a life of simple and pure virtue from childhood onward or going out and having done all sorts of crazy things and then calming down afterward. Now to be clear, nobody touts the virtues of getting into trouble. That can be dangerous and painful. However, most of us have gotten into ome kind of trouble in our lives, and all of us wrestle with some desree of failings and imperfection in ourselves and in our lives.
While falling short of actually recommending intentionally going off the deep end in order to test one’s limits, if the evil of the world and life does in fact constitute a test of the limits of existence, then having gotten into some trouble along the way cannot actually be that horribly bad of a condition. That is, a good judge of our character would know that we don’t quite have the power to be perfect and we don’t always have the knowledge to stay out of trouble, and would be willing to forgive us given our situation. The Devil, the Accuser and Prosecutor, is where the idea that our imperfection prevents our relationship with the divine. But from the perespective of the divine, this is all a demonstration of the testing of limits that is actually a part of the divine program that is a part of our creation. Of course anyone who loves the good is going to be forgiven.