This is an article I wrote that was originally published on The Ontological Geek.
Steven Universe follows Steven and his caretakers Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl as they chill in Beach City, saving the world from monsters and aliens who want to destroy Earth. Steven’s guardians are “gems,” an all-female alien race from a planet called Homeworld, who not only wield their own magical weapons, but can also combine themselves through a process called fusion. Each new presentation of fusion in Steven Universe reveals yet another layer of this complex, intimate phenomenon that not even the gems who experience it seem to fully understand. Whatever language audiences or characters in the show use to explain fusion, a complete definition never quite materializes. We become much like Meno–giving examples of fusion (calling it love, intimacy, or power), but not fully grasping what fusion is in its entirety. Fusion can be consensual or forced, stable or unstable, beautiful or terrifying. Some fusions, like Stevonnie (a fusion between Steven and his friend Connie) and Garnet, break the perceived barriers of fusion. The former shows that fusion with organic material (humans) is possible and the latter introduced the notion of fusion between two different kinds of gems. Once it seems like fusion is completely understood, some new form of it appears as a reminder that it exists just beyond the bounds of logic.
On the surface, it’s easy to explain what happens when gems fuse. They dance to get in sync with each other and that energy lets them combine to form a new gem. Garnet and Pearl create Sardonyx. Pearl and Amethyst create Opal. Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl create Alexandrite (which they can’t keep stable for very long). There are five different fusion possibilities just within the main characters.
Fusions are more powerful than the individual gems themselves. This makes fusing ideal for battles or accomplishing great feats of strength. In this sense, fusing is practical and tactical. It’s done to achieve specific goals and nothing more. At least, that’s what some gems believe fusion should be.
The Homeworld gems — referring to the antagonists hailing from the planet where gems come from — have strict, well-defined classes among them and equally rigid ideas about fusion.
- It can only occur between two or more of the same gem (e.g., Rubies can only fuse with other Rubies).
- It should be done for the sake of excelling in battle.
- It should be temporary.
- It’s just a cheap tactic to make weak gems stronger
(sorry not sorry).
These rules are so fundamental to Homeworld’s social structure that any deviance from them is considered offensive or even disgusting. In fact, until Ruby and Sapphire accidentally fused, most gems didn’t consider fusion between two different kinds of gems to be possible. This, among many other reasons, caused Ruby and Sapphire to defect from Homeworld. In the present, however, any judgement that Garnet experiences isn’t from the fact that she is two different gems that fused, but that she stays fused all the time. That first rule, however permanent it seemed in the past, has become obsolete. It’s the same with that memetic fourth rule. Jasper spouts it off as a solid fact and then coerces Lapis Lazuli into fusing just a few minutes later. Homeworld gems thought they knew everything there was to know about fusion, but it remains partially in this unknowable realm and that mystery about it occasionally breaks these notions that seem so strong.
Ruby and Sapphire’s decision to stay permanently fused is a metaphor for a committed and intimate relationship. They’re queer in both the literal and academic sense (the latter of which I have mixed feelings about given the tendency of some to claim any sort of minor “differentness” as “queering”). Gems are a female alien race, so there probably isn’t any concept of heterosexuality or homosexuality, but from a reader-response perspective, Ruby and Sapphire are one of many examples in Steven Universe of transgressing boundaries we find in the real world. Fusion overtly speaks to the audience as examples of healthy relationships (Garnet) and abusive ones (coerced fusions such as Jasper and Lapis Lazuli), allowing the series as a whole to safely explore multi-faceted, difficult, and taboo topics.
Analyzing Ruby and Sapphire just within their own universe, we see their relationship breaks a seemingly immutable law of fusion; however, they further disturb the status quo by remaining fused even when they’re not doing anything of perceived value. Peridot, who begins as an enemy and becomes an ally, makes this objection, as Garnet’s existence challenges her Homeworld-based understanding of fusion:
Garnet’s deliberate refusal to fit herself back into comfortable notions of fusion is a stark reminder that fusion stretches beyond any imposed limitations or understandings of what it’s supposed to be. For Peridot specifically, fusion is uncharted territory, and beneath her disgust for Garnet is a fear of the incomprehensible. What really happens when two gems fuse? Are Ruby and Sapphire still conscious, still present as Garnet, or do they cease to exist in some way? Will Peridot still be Peridot if she fuses with another gem?
Even Garnet, for as long as she’s been permanently fused, can only describe her state using figurative language that would make sense to Peridot or Steven or whoever she’s explaining herself to. Peridot only begins to understand Garnet when Garnet says that she’s “like Percy and Pierre,” Peridot’s #1 ship from a TV show she watches obsessively. But to get a little Socratic for a moment, Garnet is still only saying what she — what fusion — is like, not what it actually is. No metaphor can perfectly or completely capture the nature of fusion relationships.
Similarly, metaphors cannot perfectly or completely capture mysteries of faith. So far, Steven Universe has not been particularly religious or spiritual. Perhaps the closest it comes to this is in Rose’s “death” and transformation into Steven. Fusion is not quite representative of any Western understandings of the Trinity. Fusion itself, or the mixing of two natures, actually goes against typical interpretations of the hypostatic union (the understanding of Christ’s nature as both fully God and fully human). However, what fusion and the Trinity do have in common is that they’re both mysterious unities.
Many Christian denominations believe in one God in three persons who are typically labeled “Father,” “Son,” and “Holy Spirit.” Of course, they can just as easily be labeled “Creator,” “Christ,” and “Spirit” or any similar titles because the goal is to express a relationship. The Bible itself doesn’t actually spell out any doctrine of the Trinity, but rather this doctrine was formulated through the work of early theologians in the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th centuries. Lesser known Christian denominations are nontrinitarian and this along with other doctrinal differences causes some to say that they aren’t really Christians. I’m not interested in delving into those arguments, but I will say that grasping the Trinity and articulating it well without describing a heresy (if you’re an orthodox Christian) is exceedingly difficult.
“Heresy” is a strong word with negative connotations of witch hunting and paranoia, but the term at its root basically refers to beliefs about the nature of Jesus, God, and Christian practice that have been rejected as falsehoods. For example, around 318 A.D., two dudes named Alexander and Arius had a huge disagreement about the role of Christ in relation to God. They both believed that God is perfect and therefore cannot change. Arius’s issue was that in order to truly say that God can’t change, then you can’t also say that Christ is divine the same way God is divine because incarnating and experiencing human life through Christ would change God’s nature. Since Arius held that God cannot change, he concluded that Christ isn’t fully divine, but instead is an exalted human. This means that Christ isn’t equal with God and is in fact subordinate to God.
Alexander disagreed with Arius and maintained that God and Christ were equal and of the same substance, even though this idea is hard to wrap our heads around and neatly fit within our human logic. This argument ultimately led to the Council of Nicea where all the church leaders gathered to figure out what they believed. Alexander’s view gained the most support. He ensured that the Nicene Creed –– which became the basis of Christian doctrine –– included language that disproved Arius’s views and stated that such views were heretical. In other words, Arianism was rejected as incorrect. The church leaders held that God and Christ don’t exist as a hierarchy and are made of the same “stuff,” so to speak, even though this declaration raises more questions than it answers. “The bishops gathered at Nicea recognized that they were willing to affirm mystery rather than allow heresy” (Olson & English, Pocket History of Theology, 32).
That’s exactly what the Trinity is: a mystery. Any explanation of it will fall short of fully capturing God as one-in-three-persons, just as any explanation of fusion will fall short of capturing everything it can mean and be.
To keep things simple, I’m going to present two broad interpretations of the Trinity: one from the Latin Orthodox Church (which became Catholicism, Protestantism, and most of the other forms of Christianity seen in the West) and one from the Eastern Orthodox Church. I’m drawing from a book called Christian Doctrine by Shirley Guthrie.
When Western Christianity talks about the Trinity, what we mean in spirit is a relationship of equals in which the standard descriptors — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — are metaphorical rather than strict indicators of gender and authority. So we intend, in our heart of hearts, to depict the Trinity like so:
Our favorite Space Dorito has the perfect head shape to borrow for some basic diagrams.
What’s important here is that the persons of the Trinity are labeled on the lines of the triangle rather than the points. This depicts an equality between them where neither one appears to be above the other two. This is the reality of how many Christians experience the Trinity, but when we attempt to explain it, we end up presenting something like this:
This layout depicts a hierarchy like what Arius believed.
Guthrie states, “When we Western monotheists say ‘God,’ we do not in practice think of three equal persons; we tend to think of one ‘top’ God, the Father, and two subordinate and somehow lesser divine beings, the Son and the Spirit.” In other words, we’re used to thinking about God as a hierarchy — like a boss of a huge corporation overseeing and directing two employees. Father, Son, and Spirit become strict identities (that are often gendered) with specific tasks. For example, we may say that the Father creates, the Son redeems, and the Spirit guides as if they are all completely separate from each other. However, all the persons of the Trinity are on the same level, acting as one expressed as three.
Depicting this with a triangle, as Western Christians tend to do, can make it difficult to see that egalitarian unity, and certainly some traditions may posit an all powerful male Father, a graceful and subordinate Son, and a guiding Holy Spirit (who perhaps is female).
Eastern Orthodoxy gives us another way to look at the Trinity with a term that immediately made me picture fusion when I learned it: perichoresis. Guthrie writes, “Peri (as in perimeter) means ‘around.’ Choresis means literally ‘dancing’ (as in choreography of a ballet). Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are like three dancers holding hands, dancing around together in harmonious, joyful freedom.”
Other than “Peri” also being Amethyst’s cute nickname for Peridot, this description is basically what gems do to fuse. The main difference is that the persons of the Trinity aren’t creating a brand new entity with their unity. Also, fusion tends to have romantic/sexual/intimate undertones whereas understandings of the Trinity don’t.
But at the end of the day, what’s most compelling about both fusion and the Trinity is not figuring out how, exactly, they work, but rather experiencing them in all their mystery. Upon meeting Stevonnie for the first time, Garnet says, “You are not two people. You are not one person. You are an experience.”
And near the end of the episode “Log Date 7 15 2,” Peridot reflects on her experience of attempting to fuse with Garnet. “I have attempted a fusion with the fusion Garnet. I had hoped to gain a better understanding of fusion. Instead, I gained a better understanding of Garnet.”
The phenomena will always be a mystery, but the persons involved in the phenomena are knowable and it’s possible to experience them. Guthrie says, “The Trinity is a mystery to be confessed, not a mathematical problem to be solved.”
For some, that may not be good enough. Why believe in something you can’t fully explain? But for others, faith and experience aren’t always about explaining every facet of a mystery. Even when trying to explain the mystery is our starting point, we may find ourselves like Peridot who demands a complete explanation of a mystery and instead comes away with a better understanding of her fellow gem.