Is it part of being a Christian to have a vision of the whole of things? Does faith give you a perspective on everything? Does it provide a unified story, a vision of how all things fit together—good and evil, creation and salvation, love and suffering and death, the smallest and the greatest, the best and the worst?
I tend to be wary of the idea. Thomas Aquinas, it is true, said that theology was the science of God and all things in relation to God, which might seem a license for thinking that the theologian should have a vision of everything. But Scripture is an unsynthesized, confusing, at times chaotic affair, and Thomas himself proceeded with great modesty and a constant sense of the overwhelming ungraspability of God. The best theology, in my view, has always been in large part about acknowledging intellectual brokenness, limits, defeat, incompleteness.
Against the background of my own instinctive wariness about supposing you can get a hold on everything at once, it was fascinating to watch Terrence Malick’s 2011 film The Tree of Life. It is an extraordinary film—too long, perhaps, but beautiful, baffling, strangely compelling. And one way of understanding it is as an attempt to present a vision of, precisely, everything.
Up to a point the film tells a concrete story. There is a family with three sons. The mother is loving and ethereal. The father, an engineer who would have liked to have been a musician, is somewhat domineering. We see bits of their lives, and we see the parents grief-stricken when they learn of the death of their second son at the age of nineteen.
But this story is told out of order, and incompletely, and jumbled up with other things. We hear whispered voice-overs addressing God. The film dwells on babies and toddlers, on the wonder of the newborn to his father, on the wonder of the world to the infant. We see a single, uneventful scene from the childhood of the mother—she is standing in a field, looking around, and then her father is with her. We see swirling, beautiful depictions of the origins of the cosmos, of the galaxies as they move, of the formation of the earth and the development of life. We see a couple of dinosaurs, and we see the asteroid that brings the age of the dinosaurs to an end. We see the eldest son later in life, in a city, moving through his workday in a modern glass-and-steel skyscraper, and we see him, wearing the same suit, wandering in a desert, coming upon a surreal gate, eventually passing through it.
Watching the film, one searches for a thread to bring coherence to all the pieces, to untangle and reassemble them as a unified, ordered story. Perhaps it is all about the eldest son, his memories and reflections on childhood and growing up, on his complex relationship with his father, on the brother he lost. But then why do some of the most significant parts of the film take the mother’s perspective? And why does the camera dwell with such love on an infancy that he wouldn’t remember? Or again, perhaps it is all about a death, bereavement, a family struck by loss. But then why would we need to know about, say, the father’s thwarted vocation as a musician, and why the long vision of the creation of the cosmos?
Too much certainty about what such an elusive and disorienting film is “about” would be a little foolhardy, but one way to watch The Tree of Life, I think, is as a meditation on the wholeness of things, on how all things fit together, or if not that, at least on how all things are together. With its leaps and its fragmentariness, the film promotes a sense of simultaneity—of past and present, of the smallest and the greatest, of the most human, intimate, and particular with the whole sweep of the spinning cosmos and the emergence of life. So Malick can show us the beauty of a newborn baby’s toes, as seen by his father, and he can give us a vision of the beauty and grandeur of the growth of galaxies, and neither is allowed to upstage the other. A very particular family drama and the evolution of all life on earth are depicted side by side, each with a similar level of intensity.
Sin, conflict, deformity, loss, and death also play a part. On the whole the touch here is light. We see the boys encounter men who are crippled, and prisoners. We see them experiencing the shock of a child’s drowning, and dressed in black at the funeral. Jack, the eldest son, goes off the rails a little: he breaks a window, fires a rocket, steals a bit of lingerie. We see him, without provocation, shoot his brother’s finger with an air rifle. No great damage is done, but the film’s score lends to the incident the seriousness Augustine’s Confessions gives to the theft of pears from a neighbor’s garden. We hear Jack’s whispered prayer, echoing St. Paul’s: “What I wanna do I can’t do. I do what I hate.”
In spite of the lightness of touch, however, theological issues around loss and death in particular are right at the heart of the film. How can the suffering of the innocent, the sudden, pointless loss of life, be reconciled with the love of God? The question surfaces early in the film in connection with the death of the middle son in the family, but its centrality is signaled still earlier, in a quote that stands at the very opening of the film: “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?… When the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?”
To see how these lines can be taken as a kind of key to much of The Tree of Life, one needs to recall their place in the Book of Job. They come near its end. Most of the book has been taken up with an extended debate between the afflicted Job and his three friends. Repeatedly Job defends his integrity, rejecting the view of his “comforters” that some transgression must be at the root of his sufferings, and repeatedly he demands that God should appear. He wants to stage a trial: he wants God to show up and justify himself, to provide an answer to the question of why the innocent suffer. And then suddenly, shockingly, God does appear, speaking from a whirlwind. But the great oddity of the book of Job is that what follows is a massive non sequitur. God pays no attention to questions of the injustice of the world, shows no interest in the suffering of the innocent in general, or in why Job in particular has been stricken. In fact, he seems to show no interest in humanity whatsoever. Instead he dwells boastfully, almost bombastically, on the sheer magnitude of creation, the terror and splendor of it.
What if one assumes, though, that it is not a non sequitur: what if God’s speech is not a rebuke of Job, or a rejection of his question, or a change of subject? What if one assumes that it is, in fact, somehow, a genuine answer? This, it seems to me, is part of what Malick is trying to imagine in The Tree of Life. “I want to see as you see,” prays the young Jack, and perhaps the film itself is trying to see as God sees: What does the world look like if God’s speech is not a rejection of Job’s question, but truly an answer to it?
The figure of Job is, to a certain extent, represented in the film by the boys’ mother. She is good, kind, gentle, wondering, loving. We hear her early on describe and commit herself to “the way of grace.” (The opposition Malick sets up, incidentally, between “the way of nature” and this “way of grace” is the one theological misstep I spotted—his “way of nature” doesn’t sit well with a traditional theological concept of nature, nor with the film’s own portrayal of the natural world.) “I will be true to you,” she says, “whatever comes.” And then the scene changes and what comes is in fact the mailman, delivering the telegraph with news of her son’s death. We see her grief. And we see her questioning, her inability to make sense of the death. And it is precisely at this point, after this question of senseless death has been posed, that the long, beautiful, awe-inspiring scenes of the world’s creation begin.
Of course, how the whole history of the universe and the origin of life is an answer to the question “Why did my son die?” is made no clearer in the film than by the Book of Job. There is no theodicy here, no intellectual resolution to the problem of evil. The film tries to see God’s answer to Job, rather than to explain it. It does not give an account of the interconnectedness of all things, but tries to envision it.
In medieval theology one sometimes meets a distinction between reason and understanding, ratio and intellectus. Ratio, reason, is laborious, discursive, moving from one proposition to another, from premise to conclusion. Intellectus is a simpler and more immediate form of knowing—something like seeing all at once. The Tree of Life, then, is not a rational exploration of how all things fit together—it is not a matter of ratio at all—but an effort to imagine, to glimpse, fleetingly, something of the intellectus that belongs only to God: “I want to see as you see.”
If there is a reaching for a perspective on the whole in this film, however, there is also an intense fragmentariness to it, at every level. The central narrative is unfinished (we learn nothing of the fate of the youngest brother, never find out how the central father-son relationship develops, never learn where the mother’s grief leads her, and so on). Individual scenes are shot chaotically, full of shifting angles, inconsistencies, discontinuities. Dialogue is only half heard. But this fragmentariness is fitting in a film that strives after the whole: if one is going to attempt a vision of everything, it is only right at the same time to be as clear as one can about the unattainability of this vision. Like all the best theology, the film is woven through with an acknowledgement of limitation, of the brokenness of our understanding and the defeat of our vision.
Does the film succeed? Not entirely. It drags at times. It isn’t rounded, doesn’t feel balanced or quite finished. Many have found the final scenes, which contain a kind of eschatological vision of reconciliation, particularly unsatisfying. The older version of Jack, wandering in the desert, finally goes through the mysterious gate and comes to a beach where all the characters from his life are to be seen, reunited and solemnly joyful. The father lifts up and embraces his son, a movement in which all of the earlier love and wonder are present but none of the conflict and domineering; the mother, assisted by a mysterious figure (the Holy Spirit?) repeatedly, joyfully, offers her son to God in prayer. It is all perhaps a little heavy-handed, just as some of the other scenes are, undoubtedly, a little drawn out.
But one can’t expect heaven to be easy to portray in a film, or a perspective on everything to be neatly delivered in two-and-a-half hours. If Malick’s ambition exceeds his execution, the resulting film is nevertheless something important: not only the work of a contemplative, but a work with the breadth and the beauty, the ambiguity and the provocation, to draw its viewers down contemplative paths of their own.
Funding for this essay has been provided by a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation.