Saturday, January 10, 2015

Interstellar and the Incarnation

(Warning: Minor spoilers ahead.)

2014: A Space Odyssey
When Interstellar came out last November, the hoopla surrounding it was matched only by the film itself. It was, in a word, spectacular. It was a true space epic on par with 2001: A Space Odyssey in its scope and profundity, and it arguably outdid 2001 with its more humane depiction of mankind's future (i.e., no disturbing acid-trip tran- scendence into who-knows- whatzit). Add to it moments of thrills and suspense, plus outstanding special effects that afforded scientifically accurate space phenomena, and it is as I said: spectacular.

It is not unfair to say the film espouses humanism, but it's not entirely fair either. True, there is a great deal of emphasis on humanity's ability to save ourselves with our pluck, ingenuity, and (above all) science and technology, but there is something more than these that the film acknowledges, something outside of science and technology and pure reason but not wholly outside of us: love.

Kickin' it old school.
This is a new kind of hu- manism. Old school human- ism (from the Enlightenment to Modernism) saw Reason as the supreme attribute of humanity, and thus its advancement was our pri- mary motive power: we are built to know, so let us unlock and understand and manipulate and control the very fabric of existence. Love, being primarily emotional, was unreasonable, and therefore of limited use outside of coercion and manipulation. (See The Abolition of Man.) Such an older humanism is present in Interstellar, mainly embodied in Matt Damon's character, the interestingly named Dr. Mann, who talks a big game about his duty to preserve the human species at all cost. Such costs included betraying his own teammates (killing one of them) and nearly wrecking the entire interstellar mission in a foolhardy move that only killed himself and jeopardized everyone else. All the while, he excuses himself as doing what is necessary, and how one day the human race will recognize him as a hero.

Dr. Mann: the failure of the old.
He's an interesting character, mainly because you know he doesn't believe a word of what he's saying. The brilliance in Matt Damon's performance is the anguish and struggle you see come over Dr. Mann as he does his nefarious deeds in his well-meaning attempt to save humanity. There's more that could be said about him, but the movie makes the basic point quite clear: Dr. Mann's way is not the right way. His attempts to be purely detached from his decisions fail miserably (in more ways than one), and Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) rightly dubs him a "coward," someone who uses rational justification as a smokescreen for giving up hope.

But what exactly drives Cooper and the others? The answer is love. Love is their motive power. Not some abstract "love" for the human race, but specific, concrete love. Cooper goes on the mission because saving the earth means saving his daughter. Amelia (Anne Hathaway) is trying to reach a fellow explorer trapped on a distant planet because she loves him, even though getting to him is not an option, and the scene where she argues for going there anyway ends up with her admitting that she's wants to go there simply out of love, but what's wrong with that? Maybe love is something scientifically understandable, some force or power or substance in the universe existing dimensionally in ways we don't yet understand but know it's real because we experience it nonetheless.

Cooper and Amelia: the near miss of the new.
That scene is fascinating to watch, because as Amelia goes on, her argument breaks down and sounds utterly absurd, and the movie lets it sound absurd because it is utterly absurd to try and scientifically quantify love. It is (as she puts it) "transcendent," something existing beyond the scope of pure scientific inquiry, and yet it is knowable because we just know. Our experience and intuition rise to defy (and convince) our reason. It was this sequence, listening to Amelia speak of love this way, that made me later realize how amazingly, frustratingly close to the truth this movie got.

Listen again to what was being said: Love is a transcendent something existing and acting within our universe and yet is greater than it, filling it, and driving us in our deepest being to move beyond ourselves towards something other than ourselves. That sounds suspiciously like God.

Think about the basic plot: Cooper agrees to go on an interstellar journey across space and time to save humanity from an inevitable doom, and he does this all out of love. That sounds suspiciously similar to the Gospel.

Somewhere in time....
And think of the climax: When Cooper is swept up into a tesseract of Time, he attempts to communicate with his daughter out of frantic, desperate love for her by interacting with the physical world from his transcendent position. During this scene, he at times literally had his finger on the Incarnation: his transcendence touched the very dust.

This is not a Christian movie. Christopher Nolan was not deliberately trying to symbolize the Gospel or Incarnation. I believe that it just happened that way, because the Gospel and the Incarnation are true (not just factually and historically but also ontologically and ultimately), and you can't talk about "love" in any serious or profound way without them. It just isn't possible. (It's vital to note that the very strength of the "love" in this film is made possible because we see it incarnated in Cooper's relationship with his daughter. In this way, it avoids becoming merely sappy and sentimental.) This is the film's true power and what makes it so moving: not just its incredible composition as a work of art but also that it was so incredibly close to the truth. It brushed up against it multiple times, literally (as I said) placing its finger on it.

In the end, brushing up was all it managed to do. Since the film contained no concept at all of Christ or God (either for or against), it couldn't make the final step to connect it all together. Just as old school humanism emptied Reason of any higher meaning and thus left it bankrupt whenever it came up short (as it did in the 20th century), so Love in the new humanism points to nothing beyond itself and thus must ultimately remain mysterious and unknowable, a transcendent something that we experience but don't really understand. We experience it, but are ultimately shut out from it. It is there, but it is silent.

Thus, the film feels like a near, near miss.

But, good grief, what a spectacular near miss.

Seriously: you need to see it.

-Jon Vowell (c) 2015


Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Built to Behold (Pornography and the Beatific Vision)

"Whatever you want me to be..."
"One thing have I desired of the Lord, [and] that I will seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and inquire in His temple." Ps. 27:4

We all know why pornography in any form is wrong. The arguments have been made again and again. It is the objectification of human beings that reduces and degrades an individual person's unique Image-bearing self down to a mere sexual object. It is also inherently selfish, a one-way street of desire, where everything is taken in by the voyeur but nothing given in return, and thus reduces and degrades the voyeur to a mere appetite, an animalistic maw, a black hole, an empty void and abyss. Pornography is the hell of the users and the used.

There is, however, another reason why it is wrong, evil, diabolic. There is a reason that strikes at the very essence of what pornography is and therefore its essential perversion. To put it another way, if evil is merely the corruption and perversion of some good, then pornography, being evil, is essential a perverted good, and it is the perversion of that good that reveals the true tragedy. And guess what? It isn't about sex. We assume this, and understandably so (for pornography speaks to sexual desire), but it is not the true core, the most basic good it corrupts and destroys. Peel back the sexual, and you find a more fundamental drive, one that speaks to a unique element of our humanness.

We are built to behold.

Eye to eye
When David says there is "one thing" that he desires above all else, we need to listen careful to his answer. What he desires is intense intimacy and comm- union with God (which is the true sense of the word "dwell" in Hebrew), and that intimacy comes in two forms. One is the pursuit of true knowledge ("to inquire in His temple"). The other is aesthetic appreciation: "behold" in Hebrew means to contemplate with pleasure. This is no small thing. It is similar to the experience one may get when considering a work of art (such as a painting or sculpture or building), but is also similar to the experience everyone has when they look at their beloved, especially eye to eye. Indeed, looking upon beautiful things does something to us that we can't quite understand. We feel drawn in and locked out, called forth and ignored, embraced and left behind. And all this merely in the act of seeing that is also somehow experiencing. To see is, in some way, to experience; and the more intense or profound the sight, then the more intense or profound the experience.

This was not lost on philosophy, and certainly not Christian philosophy. Plato and Aristotle both saw the contemplation of the "Good" as the highest end to human pleasure and happiness (though they disagreed on how to reach such contemplation), and later Christian thinkers like Augustine, Anselm, Bonaventure, and Aquinas would work off of them and conclude that since God is "the Good" and God is love, then the only way to truly contemplate Him was to love what we contemplated, to behold Him with pleasure. It is from this logic that Dante's Divine Comedy concludes with the Beatific Vision, the pure beholding of God that is also communion with God.

Dante approaches home
This Vision is no mere fancy of mystics. On the contrary, it is exactly what Christ prayed for in reference to all believers. During His prayer in John 17, Jesus refers to "the glory" that He enjoyed with God "before the world was" (vs. 5), and that that same glory would pass on through Him to all who believe in Him (vs. 20-23). What exactly is this "glory" that Christ shared with God before the world was made and that He now shares with all believers? The communal love found in the Trinity itself: "that they all may be one, as Thou, Father, art in Me and I in Thee, that they also may be one in Us.... And the glory which Thou gave Me I give to them, that they may be one, even as We are one: I in them and Thou in Me.... That the love with which Thou has loved Me may be in them, and I in them" (vs. 20-26).

In both the Old and New Testament, the "glory" of God is shorthand for his essential nature, who and what He really is at His core. What Christ revealed about God's "glory" was the mystery of communal love found in the Trinity, and it is that "glory" we are called to and swept up into so that we may behold: "Father, I will that they also, whom Thou has given Me, be with Me where I am, that they may behold my glory which Thou has given Me, for Thou loved Me before the foundation of the world" (John 17:24). This is eternal life: to know God and Christ in a deep, intimate way (John 17:3), the intimacy of seeing that is also experiencing, for we were built to behold.

"We shall behold Him...."
It is that good that pornography fundamentally perverts. We are built to behold the Good, whether in its substance found in the triune love of the Godhead, or in its beautiful shadows found in sunsets, in paintings and sculptures, and (yes) in the naked, freely given body of the beloved to whom you also freely give yourself. Our eyes were made to see God, and thus experience God, now and forever, and this is what makes pornography so perverse and yet so powerful: it is tapping into our fundamental drive to behold the Good, to behold God, to have the door open and the clouds part and the gray rain curtain of this world rise up and away and reveal the home our hearts ache to have, our real home, our real Lover and Friend.

We are built to behold, and porn is the perversion of beholding.

What do we do with this? There is no simple answer. For those struggling to escape pornography's powerful grasp, the remedy will be complex, a multifaceted administration of grace through hard knocks and strong friends. However, let this truth also be a part of the remedy. Let it provide some clarity, some solid ground to stand on: it is the fair beauty of the Lord that you really seek to see, that you are meant to see, and it is that desire that pornography has sunk its tentacles into and corrupted towards lesser, perverted substitutes. But you are not a hopeless case, because you have this hope: you were not built for unreal images on a page or screen (or stage); you were built for God, to behold Him who no eye can yet bear, nor any mind yet conceive. Draw near to this God, to His beauty, and He will draw near to you (James 4:8), and you will find help in time of need.

-Jon Vowell (c) 2015