Caveat: Mild spoilers ahead for the February 16 episode (but only in the first paragraph)!
The next episode of House, MD, airing Monday night on FOX, features a priest embroiled in controversy. Seeing visions of Jesus, he comes to the ER, where his dismissed by Cameron as an alcoholic or drug abuser. House takes the (non) case primarily as a diversion for Taub and Kutner while he concentrates on issues between 13 and Foreman, which have, in House’s words “broken the department.” I’m not revealing anything else about the episode (not that I know much more; and certainly no more than is available in the four episode clips available at the Official Fox site), so “spoilerphobes” are safe to read on.
House has tackled the issues of faith, belief, and religion several times during the show’s four-and-a-half-year run, and this new episode, titled “Unfaithful,” is certain to hit on those themes once again — in one way or another. House is a self-described atheist, loudly decrying religion as nonsense, its adherents as fools. He’s a scientist, rational to the core; to House, science is almost a religion itself. House is quick to mock and ridicule religious hypocrisy (“House vs. God,” season two) and blind faith (his rants to Cole in season four about the Mormon faith).
But that is not to say House isn’t curious about God, our place here on Earth, or even what the world’s religions teach us about human nature. He has clearly studied the world’s religions and is reasonably knowledgeable about several.
For a medical mystery series, one that isn’t about religion or faith, we know quite a bit about the religious attitudes of most main characters in one way or another. Chase is a Catholic, having studied for the priesthood before becoming a doctor. He clearly is influenced by his beliefs, connecting strongly with the nun in season one’s “Damned if You Do;” giving communion to a dead newborn in “Forever” (season two).
Cameron describes herself as an atheist, yet House calls her “the most naïve atheist ever” in the season one episode “Role Model,” as she explains to him why people “thank God.” Foreman is the product of a home in which everything was about God. He resents his father’s God-centeredness, yet when he is on the brink of death in season two (“Euphoria I”), Foreman agrees to pray with the equally religiously disengaged, but also-dying cop.
Of the new team, we know little about their religious beliefs, except for Taub, who is Jewish. Taub is portrayed as a secular Jew who is at first embarrassed by the Orthodox Jewish couple in season four’s “Don’t Ever Change.” He views their strict adherence to their faith and observances as misguided, quaint, and out-of-place in 21st century American life. But as the episode goes on, Taub is drawn to them, questioning his own preconceptions about the validity of their practices and beliefs. By the end of the episode has a greater understanding of them… and perhaps himself.
Wilson and Cuddy are, like Taub, both Jewish — and apparently — secular. Wilson’s Judaism is made explicit in the very first episode as it figures into the diagnosis. Finding the decidedly NOT Kosher ham in the refrigerator Rebecca Adler (who is supposedly Wilson’s cousin); Foreman proclaims that Adler couldn’t possibly be Wilson’s cousin as she clearly eats religiously-forbidden meats. Wilson laughs at Foreman, telling him that “keeping Kosher” is not necessarily true of all Jews — and that Jews often have non-Jewish relatives.
Cuddy’s Jewishness has come out via oblique quips from House about J-Date (a Jewish adult dating service) and her artifacts (which I find endlessly fascinating about all of the House characters). She keeps a chanukia (a nine-branched candleholder used during the Jewish festival of lights) on her office shelf. It’s there all year-round, not just at Chanukah. Her living room (which seems to have been re-designed for this year) did contain items of Judaic art, although they seem to have gone missing this season. And Monday night’s episode may explore one facet of Cuddy’s religious practices.
So those are the nuts and bolts of the characters’ overt religious attitudes. But for a character (and for a series focused on a character) so adamantly an atheist, House knows a great deal about religion and the Bible — and is ever-exploring, testing, and trying to understand the universe. Some of the most intriguing House episodes explore that intersection between House’s cynicism, his intellectual curiosity and religious belief.
The sick nun in “Damned if You Do” really pegged House early-on when they debated the existence of God. Arguing that although she lives in the real world, she feels God’s love in her, and that God loves her no matter what she does. Wondering about the presence of God’s love in the suffering of crack babies and violence against innocents, House tells her that he has a problem with belief in general. But the patient, noting House’s anger and cynicism, counters that it’s impossible both to “be angry with God and not believe in Him.” I have always thought that House approaches belief in God and belief in humanity from the position of a “disillusioned idealist.” That is the place from which most cynics arise. Either his life in general or a series of blows has landed House in the realm of cynicism and non-belief in a “greater” power.
House has told patients that “this is it;” that there is no “better life” on the other side. Perhaps that is why he so tenaciously and consistently “chooses” life when his own life has hung in the balance. In the brilliant first season episode “Three Stories,” House describes to a packed auditorium the visions he experienced when hovering between life and death at the time of his infarction.
In a nearly courtroom-like exchange, Wilson, Foreman, and Cameron (who have been sitting in on the lecture) debate what those visions meant to him, and how they fit into his cynic’s worldview. Wilson wonders whether House thinks “those experiences were ‘real.’” House argues that while the experience itself was “real,” the term is subjective. House says that he chooses to “believe that the white light people see… are all just chemical reactions that take place when the brain shuts down,” and death approaches.
Arguing that although there is no conclusive science to what he believes, like everyone else, he chooses the explanation that is “more comforting.” Finally, an incredulous Cameron asks House how he can find it more comforting to believe that “this is it.” That there is no “better place,” no “world to come.” Simply and flatly, House confesses, “I find it more comforting to believe that this isn’t simply a test.”
House has suffered a great deal during his life: emotionally at the hands of his parents and Stacy (and her great betrayal of trust), and physically (the infarction, the shooting, the bus crash, etc.). Hugh Laurie, who plays House so meticulously as a complex blend of cynicism and vulnerability, has said that House is and “old soul” and someone “who has seen a great deal of human suffering in his life.” Does House mean by his assertion in “Three Stories” that suffering is not intended as a test of one’s mettle for some greater prize in the world to come? Or, that if a person somehow doesn’t measure up, the difficulties in this life will merely extend into the next. Either way, this point of view resonates strongly with his debate with the “Damned if You Do’s” nun about God’s love and how it manifests. In House’s view, God, if God does indeed exist, is a God disengaged with humanity.
Fundamentally a scientist, House observes life and relationships through a lens that demands proof. But you can’t prove or disprove the existence of God; people have been trying to do that unsuccessfully for millennia. That’s what faith is all about. However, the ever-curious House can’t resist testing whether there lies “something beyond.”
Whenever House revisits the idea of belief seriously, I’m always reminded of Fox Mulder’s poster in the classic 1990s television series The X-Files. It reads “I Want to Believe.” I think in House’s case, the poster might instead read “I Want NOT to Believe.” I do think that House the scientist keeps trying to prove to himself (at least) that there may be something greater “out there.” Or conversely, that there is nothing out there.
In season four, (“97 Seconds”), House can’t resist testing (and trying to prove to Wilson) that only nothingness awaits us on the “other side.” I think he is also trying to prove to his patient (too late) that he shouldn’t try to continue “almost killing himself” to experience some sort of Nirvana-like near-death ecstasy. Risking his own life to do it, House clearly experiences nothing in this experiment. However, in the season finale, “Wilson’s Heart” House submits himself to a risky experimental treatment to recover memories lost in the “House’s Head” bus crash. Again nearly dying (the man certainly has enough lives, doesn’t he?), he slips into a coma where he ponders giving up and following Amber into that white light. “I can stay here with you…,” suggests the dying House to the dead Amber. The setting is certainly inviting. “I’m not in pain here,” House tentatively suggests, pleading his case for not “going back” to the land of the living.
Would House still argue after this most recent experience that the “white light and visions people see” are simply misfired synapses as the brain stops functioning? Or would the inquisitive, curious scientist pause to wonder if there may indeed be a beyond. And a greater power? Perhaps Monday’s episode will shed some light.