Jordan Peterson & Slavoj Žižek debate — “Happiness: Marxism vs Capitalism”

I find this discussion posted below wonderful. Neither Jordan Peterson or Slavoj Žižek are Christians, but they are both influenced deeply by classically Christian concepts. In this discussion , which was billed as a debate but turns out much better, begins with each speaking formally for 30 minutes, then each getting 10 minutes to respond to the other’s intro speeches, then it goes into a back and forth series of questions and responses. Both of these men have lively minds and that kind of humility that undergirds the search for truth. In effect what we have here is a modern version of a Platonic dialogue.

I have been somewhat of a fan of Žižek for years and more recently of Peterson — not an unqualified fan of course. In the end, at least in terms of this “debate,” they constitute, or at least lean towards, a kind of Christian balance but, I believe, without the full realization they are doing so. Peterson lays out his path, a kind of stoicism as it were, of pursuing the good life, and Žižek responds with a deep pessimism. My immediate thought was of St. Paul writing to the Romans about how he does the things he ought not to do and does not do what he ought, thus finding within himself the principle of sin acting against him. We might agree with Peterson’s path but find ourselves repeatedly incapable of staying on that path. In this sense the biggest lacuna in this particular discussion, and I believe in both men’s general work about the human condition, is a complete understanding of sin and its effects, though they both seem to have a better understanding than most. Nonetheless, this dialogue between these two original (especially Žižek) and deeply cogent (especially Peterson) thinkers is an incredible opportunity to have one’s mind creatively engaged.

RELATED POSTS:
Modern Times: Camille Paglia & Jordan B Peterson

Jean-Luc Marion on "The Gift" and the Economy, etc.

I’ve been on somewhat of a phenomenology kick lately. In that time I’ve come across the brilliant French philosopher Jean-Luc Marion. I have posted several of his videos already. Here are two more. The first one below I find is quite brilliant, in which he works through the logic of giving, gift giving, receiving a gift, and the nature(s) of the gift.

If I understand his explanation of “the gift,” I can’t help but think of the following passage from the Gospel of St. Matthew 5:38-48

38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, Do not resist one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also; 40 and if any one would sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well; 41 and if any one forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. 42 Give to him who begs from you, and do not refuse him who would borrow from you. 43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you salute only your brethren, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

“The most beautiful time was Christmas”

Martin Heidegger, before he became the 20th century’s greatest philosopher and infamous for a morally questionable life, was a devout Catholic. His father was the sexton in their parish. Martin and his brother helped. Below is taken from Rüdiger Safranski’s biography of Heidegger:

The “sexton lads,” Martin and his younger brother, Fritz, had to help with the church services. They were servers, they picked flowers to decorate the church, they ran errands for the priest, and they rang the bells. There were–as Heidegger recalls in On the Secret of the Bell Tower (Vom Geheimnis des Glockenturms)–seven bells in the tower, each with its own name, its own sound, and its own time. There was the “Four,” to be rung at four in the afternoon; the “Alarm Bell,” which roused the town’s sleepers from their slumber; and the “Three,” which was also the knell. The “Child” rang for sunday school and for rosary worship; the “Twelve” marked the end of morning lessons at the school; the “Klanei” was the bell struck by the hour hammer; and the one with the most beautiful ring was the “Big One”; it would ring on the eve and on the morning of high holidays. Between Maundy Thursday and Easter Saturday the bells were silent; instead there were rattles. A cranking handle set in motion a number of little hammers that struck against hard wood. A rattle stood in each of the four corners of the tower, and the boy bell ringers had to work the handles in turn to ensure that the harsh sound went out in all four directions of the compass The most beautiful time was Christmas. Toward half past three in the morning, the boy ringers would come to the sextion’s house, where mother Heidegger had laid the table with cakes and milky coffee. After this breakfast, lanterns were lit in the front-door passage, and everyone went out through the snow and the winter’s night to the church opposite and up into the dark bell tower to the frozen ropes and ice-covered clappers. “The mysterious fuge,” Martin Heidegger wrote, “in which the church feasts, the days of vigil, and the passage of the seasons and the morning, midday, and evening hours of each day fitted into each other, so that a continual ringing went through the young hearts, dreams, prayers, and games–it is this, probably that conceals one of the most magical, most complete, and most lasting secrets of the tower.” (Safranski 7)

That image of the boys going out into the snow around four in the morning to climb the bell tower and ring the bells is beautiful. These are the kinds of things we have lost in our frantic grasping after modernism and progress.


Cited works:
Safranski, Rüdiger. Martin Heidegger: between Good and Evil. Translated by Ewald Osers, Harvard University Press, 2002.

Two lectures by Jean-Luc Marion

Recently I stumbled across the brilliant philosopher Jean-Luc Marion. I have been reading some philosophy lately, and my focus has been mostly on phenomenology. I studied a bit of phenomenology in college, along with structuralism, post-structuralism, and deconstructionism. For reasons I can’t quite fathom, I now find myself diving back into these areas of thought.

Jean-Luc Marion is particularly interesting to me, in part because he is an unapologetic Catholic. I recently posted a video in which he answers the question of why he remains Catholic. I love his answers. (I guess one could say he is, in fact, apologetic because he provides an apologia for his faith.)

Below are two of his lectures. Though he is a philosopher and, therefore, brings his deeper thinking to the topics at hand, I find these talks very accessible. His very French accent is quite thick, but one gets used to it. I have now listened to each a couple of times. They are excellent.

The Return of Religion in Contemporary Art Criticism

My previous post featured Jonathan A. Anderson lecturing on the lack of theological considerations in contemporary art criticism. This lecture comes several years later and takes a look at how religion is reappearing in the writings about contemporary art over the past two decades.

 

The (In)visibility of Theology in Contemporary Art Criticism

Many art critics have religious leanings. Many artists have religious leanings. Many works of art deal with religious themes. However, there would seem to be an unspoken pact among art critics (and art teachers) that religion and theological concerns will not be seriously considered as a topic or approach to thinking and writing about art. This is not a great situation for either artists or anyone who would appreciate art.

Jonathan Anderson is an artist, critic, and professor, and author of the book: Modern Art and the Life of a Culture: The Religious Impulses of Modernism (Studies in Theology and the Arts). In this lecture below he surveys and addresses this lack of theology in art criticism, and why it matters — not merely because he’s a Christian, but because theology can help all of us better understand works of art.

Anderson mention James Elkins and his book On the Strange Place of Religion in Contemporary Art. Here is a lecture Elkins gave on that topic a decade ago:

Just War Theory – an overview

This is a great overview, in six short videos, of the Catholic Church’s teaching on the Just Defense (formerly Just War) Theory or Doctrine. It is also a critique of where that theory stands today in light of modern ‘total” war, and ultimately advocates for the original Christian position of pacifism, or peace making.

C. S. Peirce on God

cgs

Charles S. Peirce wrote the following in the late 1890’s:

I have often occasion to walk at night, for about a mile, over an entirely untravelled road, much of it between open fields without a house in sight. The circumstances are not favorable to severe study, but are so to calm meditation. If the sky is clear, I look at the stars in the silence, thinking how each successive increase in the aperture of a telescope makes many more of them visible than all that had been visible before. The fact that the heavens do not show a sheet of light proves that there are vastly more dark bodies, say planets, than there are suns. They must be inhabited, and most likely millions of them with beings much more intelligent than we are. For on the whole, the solar system seems one of the simplest; and presumably under more complicated phenomena greater intellectual power will be developed. What must be the social phenomena of such a world! How extraordinary are the minds even of the lower animals. We cannot appreciate our own powers any more than a writer can appreciate his own style, or a thinker the peculiar quality of his own thought. I don’t mean that a Dante did not know that he expressed himself with fewer words than other men do, but he could not admire himself as we admire him; nor can we wonder at human intelligence as we do at that of wasps. Let a man drink in such thoughts as come to him in contemplating the physico-psychical universe without any special purpose of his own; especially the universe of mind which coincides with the universe of matter. The idea of there being a God over it all of course will be often suggested; and the more he considers it, the more he will be enwrapt with Love of this idea. He will ask himself whether or not there really is a God. If he allows instinct to speak, and searches his own heart, he will at length find that he cannot help believing it.

Pierce is often called the father of pragmatism. Interesting.

Faith comes from what is heard

There can be a tension between the movement of faith and the desire to grasp with the mind the essence of faith. God gave us our minds and our rationality. We bear the image of God, in part, because we are rational. And we must keep in mind that rationality is not something cold. There is no such thing as cold rationality; there is cold logic, but rationality is, if anything, a hot, passionate, totality of the person kind of thing. Thus our rationality includes our passions, our intuitions, and our logic. We often misuse our rationality for sinful purposes. One of those sins is the desire to circumscribe the essence of faith in such a way as to turn it from something given and believed to something controlled and, perhaps, created by the individual. Theology should be the study of God (to state simply) but too often it becomes an attempt to control God, to demarcate and proscribe God so that one can handle God rather than be handled by God. So it often is with studies of faith. The result is something that looks like faith but becomes, instead, a “system” of faith, or an artifact of the individual to which the individual then, naturally, claims as his own. With this in mind consider these words from Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI):

“Faith comes from what is heard”, says St. Paul (Rom 10:17). This might seem like a very transient factor, which can change; one might be tempted to see in it purely and simply the result of one particular sociological situation, so that one day it would be right to say instead, “Faith comes from reading” or “from reflection”. In reality it must be stated that we have here much more than the reflection of a historical period now past. The assertion “faith comes from what is heard” contains an abiding structural truth about what happens here.  It illuminates the fundamental differences between faith and mere philosophy, a difference that does not prevent faith, in its core, from setting the philosophical search for truth in motion again. One could say epigrammatically that faith does in fact come from “hearing”, not—like philosophy—from “reflection”. Its nature lies in the fact that it is not the thinking out of something that can be thought out and that at the end of the process is then at my disposal as a result of my thought. On the contrary, it is characteristic of faith that it comes from hearing, that it is the reception of something that I have not thought out, so that in the last analysis thinking in the context of faith is always a thinking over of something previously heard and received. (Ratzinger, p. 91)

The use of our minds to comprehend the Gospel is important. But the Gospel comes to us from without, unlike philosophy which emerges from within. We hear the Gospel. It is something about which we have to make a choice—do we believe it or do we reject it? Could it be, however, that in our modern world Christians have become, in a manner of speaking, “pro-choice” in all things (except abortion, which many Christians unfortunately accept as well)? Being “pro-choice” in all things is to take a smorgasbord approach to faith where any and every “Christian” option is open, any denomination or system of thought, any so-called Christian “life style” option is open, and we can all call ourselves Christians just as long as we play the game of “let’s not think about it”. In other words, as long as we consider truth as a vague, warm confidence in our general rightness surrounded by Christian-sounding language, and a love for Jesus, then all is fair game. And if all is fair game, then we can march ahead. We are a “pro-choice” culture, and Christians have helped create, and continue to support, this culture. But the Gospel comes from without. We don’t make it up. We don’t change it. We don’t merely add a little bit of it to what we already have and stir it in to make something of our own creation. Perhaps that is the sin of denominationalism, where men became too confident in their (ever so slightly reductionist) systems and began to separate themselves from each other based on those systems. Many see the problem with denominationalsim, and yet vague, warm “christiany” feelings are not the antidote. The Gospel, which comes from outside, is the antidote. And that Gospel proclaims Christ. Ratzinger continues:

[I]n faith the word takes precedence over the thought, a precedence that differentiates it structurally from the architecture of philosophy. In philosophy the thought precedes the word; it is after all a product of the reflection that one then tries to put into words; the words always remain secondary to the thought and thus in the last resort can always be replaced by other words. Faith, on the other hand, comes to man from outside, and this very fact is fundamental to it. It is—let me repeat—not something thought up by myself; it is something said to me, which hits me as something that has not been thought out and could not be thought out and lays an obligation on me. This double structure of “Do you believe?—I do believe!”, this form of the call from outside and the reply to it, is fundamental to it. It is therefore not at all abnormal if, with very few exceptions, we have to say: I did not come to believe through the private search for truth but through a process of reception that had, so to speak, already forestalled me. Faith cannot and should be a mere product of reflection. The idea that faith really ought to arise through our thinking it up for ourselves and finding it in the process of a purely private search for truth is basically the expression of a definite ideal, an attitude of mind that fails to recognize the intrinsic quality of belief, which consists precisely in being the reception of what cannot be thought out—responsible reception, it is true, in which what is heard never becomes entirely my own property, and the lead held by what is received can never be completely wiped out, but in which the goal must be to make what is received more and more my own, by handing myself over to it as the greater. (Ratzinger, pp. 91-91)

The movement of the faithful, in terms of understanding, is to hear the truth, receive it, and make it one’s own—except never entirely one’s own, for it remains outside as it dwells within. The action between the Gospel and the individual is not an interplay, it is not a synthesis where both are changed. Only the individual is changed. What appears to be change within the Gospel is, and can only be, discovery. The Gospel does not change, but one can spend time, forever perhaps, in plumbing its depths and scaling its peaks. New territories discovered only yield more beauty of what is already there. The heart and mind of faith is not unlike that of the scientist. To study the Gospel is to study the creation, what God has made and made available to all who would submit to its unequaled riches.


Work cited:
Ratzinger, Joseph Cardinal. Introduction to Christianity. Trans. J. R. Foster. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2004. (Note: First published in German in 1968)

novel reality: authorship and free will

Should Raskolnikov have murdered Alyona Ivanovna?

This should sound like a strange question. And it does sound strange. Of course Raskolnikov should not have committed murder. But wait, does Raskolnikov exist? This is a crucial question in light of the question of transcendence. If Raskolnikov exists at one level of reality (as a character in a story) then Dostoyevsky must exist at a higher, more substantial, more transcendent level of existence. Which leads us to another question: Is Raskolnikov free of Dostoyevsky, that is, does Raskolnikov have free will, did he freely choose to kill Alyona Ivanovna? If not, should Dostoyevsky have been arrested for murder?

What strange questions. And yet they help us triangulate toward an understanding of our relationship to God. We think of God as being the author of creation. If so, then we can think of ourselves as being players in the story He is authoring−History. Raskolnikov is a real character within the world of the work we call the novel Crime and Punishment. Raskolnikov is real, but Dostoyevsky is more real. Raskolnikov’s existence, including his every choice, and even his thoughts, are contingent on his author, on Dostoyevsky. We are also contingent. We are real but God is more real. Or to put it another, more difficult to swallow way, if God is real (the standard of reality) then we are not real.

Of course, in a very critical and important sense, we cannot say we are not real, for “not real” is not the category of existence that God has given us in terms of our experience and in terms of our moral choices. We are real, for that is what we know. God may be more real, or so much more real that in comparison we seem merely like characters in a novel, but the reality we live is very real to us. Our reality is a gift of God’s creative act. We are real and we must come to terms with it. But we also must come to terms with God being more real, being our author, our creator. Or perhaps we do not “come to terms” with God, for that is a kind of negotiation. Instead we bow the knee, lie prostrate, tremble before God, who is both loving and terrifying.

God is sovereign, thus in an important sense we are not free from God, for we cannot be free from God and continue to exist. And yet, it is clear that it is God’s will that we are free to make choices, especially moral choices. Raskolnikov is not free from Dostoyevsky, and yet Raskolnikov’s choices (willed by the creative act of Dostoyevsky’s mind extending onto the page) are free and thus can be judged. He is not a puppet of his master, rather he does what he himself wills, and we read it that way even though we know an author is behind it all. We know we have free will because we experience free will. We know God is thoroughly sovereign because nothing can exist apart from God, and nothing can be counted on−including God’s promises−unless God is sovereign. But we cannot live fatalistically nor can we blame God, for we do what we will−and we know it. If we are held accountable for our free choices then we have met justice.

So, should Raskolnikov have murdered Alyona Ivanovna? At the level of the world of the work, at the level of the story, the answer is no, and Raskolnikov should have to pay for his crime. And yet, at the level of the author, at the level of reality in which Dostoyevsky lived, the answer is yes, for it was the will of the author that it should be. This is the prerogative of all authors, and if we call God the author of creation and of our existence, then we must understand the prerogatives that are properly assigned to God, our creator, our author.

Beauty and the Meaning of Life

This documentary offers a critique of the modern attack on beauty, and on some of the key modern ideologies about what is art and what it means to be an artist. It is provocative and well worth the watch.

I am not sure if I agree with every part of his critique or his tastes. His argument is well considered, certainly, but I find so much in Modern Art beautiful—though much ugliness too (and I can say something similar about art from all periods, though there is more beauty in the past). I love the best of modern architecture, experimental film, and music—much, I am sure, Roger Scruton would not like. I spent a lot of time studying Modern Art years ago at university and I am probably influenced a great deal by that period in my life.

His basic argument seems to be that ugliness is bad and beauty is good, that beauty is linked with something transcendent in humans, and that all this is self-evident, which makes it less an argument more a statement of fact (if you believe it, which I do). Nonetheless, I too advocate for beauty.

“All was contingent”

The end of Modernism: The demolition of the Pruitt–Igoe housing project, 1972.

The following quotes are from Richard Tarnas’ The Passion of the Western Mind: Understanding the Ideas that Have Shaped Our World View (1993). I have to say this is a great description of the modern “situation” and the context in which we swim. The questions I have are how much am I influenced, affected, and corrupted by these things, and how much is the Church also corrupted, etc. Do we truly live our lives as though all is contingent, or do we hold fast to permanent things?

As the twentieth century advanced, modern consciousness found itself caught up in an intensely contradictory process of simultaneous expansion and contraction. Extraordinary intellectual and psychological sophistication was accompanied by a debilitating sense of anomie and malaise. An unprecedented broadening of horizons and exposure to the experience of others coincided with a private alienation of no less extreme proportions. A stupendous quantity of information had become available about all aspects of life—the contemporary world, the historical past, other cultures, other forms of life, the subatomic world, the macrocosm, the human mind and psyche—yet there was also a less ordering vision, less coherence and comprehension, less certainty. The great overriding impulse defining Western man since the Renaissance—the question for independence, self-determination,and individualism—had indeed brought those ideals to reality in many lives; yet it had also eventuated in a world where individual spontaneity and freedom were increasingly smothered, not just in theory by a reductionist scientism, but in practice by the ubiquitous collectivity and conformism of mass societies. (p. 388)

The quality of modern life seemed ever equivocal. Spectacular empowerment was countered by a widespread sense of anxious helplessness. Profound moral and aesthetic sensitivity confronted horrific cruelty and waste. The price of technology’s acceleration advance grew ever higher. And in the background of every pleasure and every achievement loomed humanity’s unprecedented vulnerability. Under the West’s direction and impetus, modern man had burst forward and outward, with tremendous centrifugal force, complexity, variety, and speed. And yet it appeared he had driven himself into a terrestrial nightmare and a spiritual wasteland, a fierce constriction, a seemingly irresolvable predicament. (p. 388)

Man is condemned to be free. He faced the necessity of choice and thus knew the continual burden of error. He lived in constant ignorance of his future, thrown into a finite existence bounded at each end by nothingness. The infinity of human aspiration was defeated before the finitude of human possibility. Man possessed no determining essence; only his existence was given, and existence engulfed by mortality, risk, fear, ennui, contradiction, uncertainty. No transcendent Absolute guaranteed the fulfillment of human life or history. There was not eternal design or providential purpose. Things existed simply because they existed, and not for some “higher” or “deeper” reason. God was dead, and the universe was blind to human concerns, devoid of meaning or purpose. Man was abandoned, on his own. All was contingent. (p. 389)

Will our modern/postmodern Christianity crumble like the Pruitt–Igoe housing project, as a testimony to bad policy, poor planning, and ideologically driven innovations? Are we condemned to disregard the past, to live with a constant skepticism of that which came before, of that which we have been given, and imagine we can overcome it all through sheer will and rationality? Or is there a time for going back, to seeking the wisdom of others, to digging into the pre-modern soil of ideas, and searching the assumptions of a different age when all was not contingent? I think so.

Theology and the Narrative Arts

I am posting this from an old, now defunct blog of mine. But I feel there is enough good stuff in it to warrant posting again here. It was originally posted 21 April 2008.

In this post I ruminate on the relationship of art to our belief, or absence of belief, in God, god, or gods. As is typical for me, my train of thought is more lurching than steady, and my end goal is more personal than pedagogical.

Our lenses
I love Pasolini’s seminal film Il Vangelo secondo Matteo (1964). It is a work of great and simple beauty. It is also a powerful film that flies in the face of the overly sentimentalized and often lifeless cinematic versions of Jesus’ life that came before. And yet, Pasolini, though he seems to be taking the story directly from the words on the page (the Gospel of St. Matthew), understands Christ through his own political and personal commitments. In other words, Pasolini, the devout Marxist, unabashed homosexual, and hater of the Catholic Church, saw a Christ that was both thoroughly materialist (philosophically) and politically radical (of the socialist ilk).


An earthy, socialist Christ
Enrique Irazoqui as Jesus
from
Il Vangelo secondo Matteo (1964)

As I understand it, for Pasolini, Jesus was a kind of pre-incarnate Karl Marx (rather than the incarnate God) who challenged the status quo of his day, and died as the earliest socialist martyr. Pasolini’s belief in the non-existence of God played a big part in how he saw Jesus and why he made the film. In a sense one could say Il Vangelo secondo Matteo is a kind of materialist corrective to the church’s position.

As I said, I love Pasolini’s film, but he got it wrong. I say this because of my own beliefs about God and about Jesus which, though personal on the one hand, are also objectively true (arguably). My understanding of God is integral to the set of the “lenses” through which I look at the world. In other words, the difference between me and Pasolini is not really about any of his films, rather our differences go back to our presuppositions about God, truth, and the goals of human existence—even if we may agree on many things, and no doubt I am generally in awe of Pasolini as an artist.

Certainly great works of art are not, in our experience, predicated on any particular belief about God. [Though I would argue they could not exist unless God exists.]

The God Who Is There
I have been thinking lately (and off and on for a long time) of the role that theology plays, or does not play, in how one approaches watching a film, looking at a painting, listening to a piece of music, or reading a book. So much of what we get out of a work of art comes from what we are able to bring to it, especially what it is we want from that particular work of art, and of art in general. What we want, I believe, is deeply affected by, and even grows out of, whether or not we are convinced of the existence of God, or god, or many gods, or none at all. So much depends on whether we are convinced of some ultimate meaning in the Universe, or whether we believe there is no ultimate meaning. And so much depends on how honest, even ruthlessly honest, we are with ourselves about these issues and their implications.

I use the word theology specifically. The term “theology” is a compound of two Greek words, θεος (theos: god) and λογος (logos: rational utterance). What I am interested in is a reasoned and rational examination of God, not merely of some vague spirituality (but that’s another presupposition isn’t it). What I find critical is the blunt question: Do you (do I) believe in God? How one answers that question has profound implications across the board.

But the question is already on the table. We have inherited it. We can’t get away from it, just as we can’t get away from a myriad of other questions. And how we live our lives, including the art we make, is directly related to our answer. Art is a part of how we live our lives and, in many ways, emerges from the very heart of the matter. This is as true for Pasolini as it is for Spielberg as it is for Tarantino.

Often a work of art has, embedded within it, the answer to the question. Sometimes that answer is obvious. More often the answer is like backstory, a kind of presupposition that sits in the background and informs the art out front, as it were.

Moral Objects
A work of art is, in some ways, a mysterious thing. Like love, we know what art is, but we can’t always nail it down and give it a clear definition and well defined boundaries. Art emerges from deep within our humanness. Every culture and society has organically produced art, that is, art which emerges naturally from within that culture or society. When I was an art history major many years ago I was introduced to many ancient works of art, via slides of course, like this exciting number:


Seated female, Halaf; 7th–6th millennium B.C., Mesopotamia or Syria
Ceramic, paint; H. 5.1 cm, W. 4.5 c
m
Metropolitan Museum of Art

This little statuette dates from nearly nine thousand years ago. Most likely it is a symbol of fertility. And most likely it was part of the symbolic rites and proto-religious system of that time. Many thousands of figures like this one have been unearthed. This little object speaks volumes about what was important to that ancient culture, like the importance of fertility to agrarian societies, and the importance of sexuality, and the very human need to supplicate before a god for one’s well-being. It also speaks of the human tendency to create symbols and to understand the world in terms of abstractions.

What I find interesting is how ancient and deeply ingrained is the human need to grasp at metaphysical solutions to the everyday muck of life problems, fears, and desires. I also find it fascinating that humans have to make physical objects that express the metaphysical, the ontological, the teleological, etc.

Even the Israelites, who had seen the ten plagues on Egypt, who had witnessed the parting of the Red Sea, who had the pillar of fire and the pillar of smoke in the wilderness, who had seen the walls of Jericho miraculously fall, and who had seen many other wonders of Yahweh, still created the golden calf, and still kept idols of other gods in their houses, and still built or maintained the high places (religious sites on hilltops to worship gods other than Yahweh). Today we have our idols and gods too—witness the way we worship our sports teams, or entertainers, our possessions, ourselves, for example.

Moral Stories
What humans have always seemed to enjoy are stories of moral dilemmas played out in both mundane and fantastical ways. Consider the medieval mystery plays. These were more than merely pedagogical in nature, they were social events that brought people together and incorporated some audience participation, including talking back to the characters during the performance.

I hear that in some movie theaters in other countries (I write from the U.S.) audiences are very vocal and even talk to the screen, as it were, and critique out loud the actions of the characters while the film is playing. Regardless, quiet or vocal, we all seem to gravitate toward the moral. We like passing judgment, we like justice, and, interestingly, we like wickedness too. However, without some kind of absolute from which morality emanates, having a moral opinion is, in final terms, as much comic as it is tragic.


Medieval Mystery Play

So why do we continue to hold moral positions in a morally relativistic and credulistic world? If I had a clear answer I could probably chair some philosophy or psychology department somewhere. My guess, though, is that we will invent an absolute if we can’t find one. In other words, if one doesn’t believe in moral absolutes, or in something big enough (God for example), then one will invent a substitute absolute, for example: an economic or political system, or a biological and physical set of laws, or maybe an absolute that claims there are no absolutes. Regardless, the moral story still digs deep into our souls.

Even the most mundane and vapid kinds of films have some moral content which can be understood within a larger framework of meaning. Consider this audio review by a pastor at Mars Hill Church in Seattle of the recent film Tranformers.

Only Physical, or Metaphysical?
As I take a look at the popular art of today, that is, television shows (i.e. CSI, Survivor, et al) and film (i.e. Michael Clayton, Enchanted, et al), I see worlds presented that do not include God, or any so-called traditional god, that is, a creator deity with whom our destiny lies. These are materialistic worlds, worlds in which stuff is the ultimate reality, where there is no final truth, and where one can find no source of meaning of life. Interestingly, the goals of the characters are still all about meaning, and soul searching, and truth.

The characters or contestants are driven forward by things or ideas that they deem important. This is basic story telling. This is fundamental script writing. But it doesn’t make sense if there is no final meaning in the universe, otherwise it’s just a cruel game. Why should we care that someone is searching for something that doesn’t exist? Or even if, for some untenable reason, we do care, why should they search? (Why should anyone wait for Godot?) Consider this quote regarding the modern predicament:

The quality of modern life seemed ever equivocal. Spectacular empowerment was countered by a widespread sense of anxious helplessness. Profound moral and aesthetic sensitivity confronted horrific cruelty and waste. The price of technology’s accelerating advance grew ever higher. And in the background of every pleasure and every achievement loomed humanity’s unprecedented vulnerability. Under the West’s direction and impetus, modern man had burst forward and outward, with tremendous centrifugal force, complexity, variety, and speed. And yet it appeared he had driven himself into a terrestrial nightmare and a spiritual wasteland, a fierce constriction, a seemingly irresolvable predicament.

~Richard Tarnas, The Passion of the Western Mind
What does one do with this? How does one come to terms with a spiritual wasteland, or an irresolvable predicament? Is it such that rational human beings must suffer the conflict of a great desire for meaning in a world that has no ultimate meaning? Is religion an answer or a placebo? No matter what we do we do not get away from these questions. How we solve them, or come to terms with them, is a big deal (or maybe it is also meaningless). My contention is that there is a God, that that God is there, and that that God is knowable. But am I deluded? I don’t think so. And the person who thinks I am deluded believes from a place of conviction as well. I find this more than fascinating.


Michael Clayton

What most recently sparked my thinking about all this God and art stuff was a recent viewing of Michael Clayton. The story in this film plays itself out in a Western (geographically & conceptually), materialistic world where there is no transcendent god. It is a thoroughly modern view of human existence. There are no moral absolutes. And yet, Clayton is a man in search of himself. He is in desperate need of a positive existential moment. He needs to make a self-defining, self-actualizing choice so that he can move beyond his cliff-edge existence and become who he should be. He needs to make the right choice even if it is difficult and painful, even if it means giving up who he has been. There is nothing narratively original in this aspect of the story. It is as timeless as a Greek tragedy. [Note: Need implies the metaphysical. There is no “need”, no meaningful calling or longing, without transcendence.]

The film’s story revolves around a legal battle in which a company is being sued for its harmful actions. Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson) is the attorney working the case. Unfortunately for his law firm and for his client he is deeply troubled by the case. He feels he is defending murder, in a sense. The firm sends Michael Clayton (George Clooney) to talk with Edens. Part of that conversation goes like this:

Michael Clayton: You are the senior litigating partner of one of the largest, most respected law firms in the world. You are a legend.
Arthur Edens: I’m an accomplice!
Michael Clayton: You’re a manic-depressive!
Arthur Edens: I am Shiva, the god of death


“I am Shiva, the god of death.”

Wow. Where did that come from? Shiva, the god of death? It certainly grabs one’s attention, and it sounds rather cool, but why, in this film, out of nowhere make a reference to one of the principle deities of Hinduism? I say “nowhere” because there is no indication throughout the film that any of the characters believe in any kind of god or religion. In fact, it could be argued that the problem facing all the characters is that, because there is no god, no ultimate reality to which they are finally accountable, they are lost in a sea of moral floundering. Morality becomes personal preference, personal conviction, and power.

Making a reference to Shiva, the destroyer and transformer Hindu god, makes some sense then. First, Edens feels like a destroyer, or at least one who defends the destroyer. He has personal convictions of wrongdoing and it is eating away his soul. Second, in a world personal morality one can choose, as one needs or sees fit, any god that works for the moment, so why not Shiva? Shiva becomes Eden’s god of choice because the concept of Shiva explains his convictions somehow. Shiva is his self-image for the moment. Tomorrow it might be a different god. Maybe Vishnu or Brahma. Or maybe a Sumerian god.

Interestingly the reference to Shiva comes up again. Once Clayton confronts Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton) with the fact that he has carried out Eden’s plan to expose the company, we get this bit of dialog:

Karen Crowder: You don’t want the money?
Michael Clayton: Keep the money. You’ll need it.
Don Jefferies: Is this fellow bothering you?
Michael Clayton: Am I bothering you?
Don Jefferies: Karen, I’ve got a board waiting in there. What the hell’s going on? Who are you?
Michael Clayton: I’m Shiva, the God of death.


“I am Shiva, the god of death.”

Again it’s Shiva, the god of death, and this time the line is used as a final punctuation to the film’s climax. However, unlike Eden, Clayton uses the line more for its effect on Crowder and Jefferies than from a sense of personal identification. What might that effect be? Within the context of the film, and within the context of a largely non-Hindu society, this line comes as a kind of shock, a non-sequitur of sorts, that specifically draws attention to itself. I imagine the filmmakers intend the line to read something like “I am the fictional, mythological god Shiva (in a metaphorical sense of course) who is bringing about a kind of death to you, a death that you are powerless to avoid.” In other words, we are not to assume that the filmmakers or the characters actually believe in the existence of Shiva, rather the idea of Shiva is appropriated in order to convey something meaningful. It becomes a “helpful myth” to underscore the moment. [Note: Many materialists see all religion this way. Religion is the “helpful myth” of choice for the individual in the moment—but no more.]

To the person who does not believe in Shiva, such a line might merely have a kind of cool factor, like an ironic t-shirt. To a devout Hindu this line might be somewhat disconcerting —I don’t know because I am not a Hindu. What is interesting is that none of the characters have made an actual conversion to any religion, or even gone through any particularly religious experience. Edens has had mental breakdown because of deep moral tensions. Clayton has crossed over into a personally powerful existential decision. But neither have obviously embraced Hinduism. (If I missed something, let me know.)

Interestingly, the narrative arc of Michael Clayton follows a traditional Western style morality tale. And yet, one could say the characters, who do not overtly believe in any god, still wrestle with issues that derive their moral content from a Judeo-Christian heritage, and then, ironically, symbolically claim a Hindu god as justification for their actions. I find this both puzzling and not surprising. It is exemplary of the pluralistic/post-modern society that I live in.

In the film’s final shot we see Clayton riding alone in the back of a taxi. It is a meditative shot. He does not look happy or fulfilled; it reminds me of the last shot in The Graduate (1967). Maybe he is, but his countenance is rather sullen. Has he saved himself by his actions? Has he found redemption for who he was? How can he be sure he has actually changed as a person? None of these questions are answered. One could say that finally he made the right decision after a life of bad ones, and that is good. Although on what basis can we judge? But one could say that he still has not solved the deeper question of his existence. After all that his life is meaningless and he will eventually die. The film offers no hope. It cannot based on its presuppositions.

The radical truth is that in a world without a God that stands as an ultimate source of meaning, then any decision made by Clayton cannot have any meaning. His final decision, though it may resonate powerfully within us the viewers, doesn’t really matter, no matter how personally, existentially transforming it may be for him. At best one can say he made his decision, so what. Any decision would have had the same value. But, of course, we know deep down that can’t be true. We live knowing there is right and wrong, and what we believe we believe to be true. Because of those beliefs the film succeeds as a kind of cheat. We let it work, we fill it with meaning, though it does not deserve such grace.

Crimes and Misdemeanors
Consider the film Crimes and Misdemeanors, Woody Allen’s brilliant 1989 film about morality, choice, and justice. In this film Allen explores how morality flows from where one begins, that is, from the set of presuppositions one claims about God, the universe, our existence, meaning, etc. He also seriously toys with our expectations (our need) for justice to win out.

The film is also very much about the existence, or non-existence, of God, and what that means. I love this quote from Judah Rosenthal:

I remember my father telling me, “The eyes of God are on us always.” The eyes of God. What a phrase to a young boy. What were God’s eyes like? Unimaginably penetrating, intense eyes, I assumed. And I wonder if it was just a coincidence I made my specialty ophthalmology.

There is something both sinister and humorous about it. It also represents our modern tendency to analyze ourselves and mistrust our motives.

But there is so much more to consider in this quote and in this film. The following three part video analysis by Anton Scamvougeras is an excellent overview of the film’s themes. If you have not seen the film, then don’t watch these clips yet; first go watch the film!

When I first saw Crimes and Misdemeanors I was both stunned and thrilled. At the end I thought “perfect”, that’s how it should end, with him getting away with murder, not because I wanted him to, but because I so expected him to get caught and I liked the irony. Allen turns everything on it head and gets us to think. Thinking is a good thing, especially about truth and morality.

Our view of God has a great deal to do with how we understand and appreciate Crimes and Misdemeanors. If there is no God are the characters and their actions meaningless? Is our desire for justice merely a temporary chemical reaction to a situation that emerged from the chance combination of sub-atomic particles? Or do we live as though our desire comes from someplace more profound?

[Side note: In Star Wars, when the Death Star blows up the planet Alderaan, do we merely observe the rearranging of material particles (something of ultimate inconsequence), or do we assume that blowing up a planet and its inhabitants is an act of evil? Get over it old man Kenobi, you moralist! That was no tremor in the force. Probably just gas.]

Finally

I am convinced there is no such thing as a story without some moral content. 
Either a series of events are purely a-moral, an arbitrary grouping of cause and effect acts without meaning, or they are, in some way, the result of decisions. If decisions are involved then those actions have meaning and therefore have a moral dimension. I see narrative as being fundamentally the result of decisions and therefore fundamentally moral.

But as soon as we make a moral claim we assume an absolute. We might say our claim is purely cultural or situational or merely a personal decision, but we don’t really live that way, we don’t really believe it. When we say war is wrong, or rape is wrong, or Nazi death camps are wrong, we assume a universal. We know they are wrong. And if we claim universals then what is our foundation? This is the very point at which our belief or non-belief in God, god, or gods, has the most gravity. This is also a good time to go and re-read C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity.

Woody Allen leaves the question open in Crimes and Misdemeanors, but he is relying on the fact that we cannot. He creates in us a tension, and something to talk about. Michael Clayton leaves us somewhat satisfied, yet under its surface there is no final meaning, its only opinion. What is great about both of these films is how they tap into the very human predicament of having to sort out the deep questions of how we are to live our lives and upon what are we going to base our choices.

I can be in awe of an artist even though our beliefs about God may differ. What we have is a common humanity, which is a truly profound, fundamental connection. Even so, it is worth calling out our differences as well, not for the sake of creating divisions, but of understanding each other and seeking the truth. For we are, by nature, truth seekers. But then that’s another universal I am claiming.