Whatever else Terrence Malick‘s film The Tree of Life (Malick, 2011) is about, it is clearly about the struggle between Nature and Grace. The relationship between Nature and Grace is a standard theme discussed by all great Catholic theologians from Augustine to Aquinas to Rahner. Malick’s version is lifted almost verbatim from The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis (see Book 3, Chapter 54):
“Grace doesn’t try to please itself. Accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked. Accepts insults and injuries. … Nature only wants to please itself. Get others to please it over them. To have its own way.”
On this broadly Augustinian view, “Nature” primarily refers to human nature, the way human beings are apart from Christ, and “Grace” is the way we can only live with supernatural help. In The Tree of Life, the mother is clearly associated with the way of Grace, and the father with the way of Nature, and here we see another aspect of the dualism: Law vs. Gospel. The father’s strict discipline based on seemingly arbitrary rules and an impulse toward an eye-for-an-eye suggests an Old Testament, pre-Christian vision of God, while the mother’s emphasis on love and forgiveness suggests a New Testament vision of God.
But there is something odd about the way the viewer experiences this distinction in The Tree of Life. The movie – or at least the children through whose eyes we see the story – clearly preference the mother and the way of Grace. Yet it is far too simplistic to say that the mother is good and the father is bad. It is obvious that the father loves the children just as much as the mother does. And his disciplinarianism is motivated by his love: he is simply trying to prepare them to succeed in a world he sees as harsh and cruel. What’s more, the film recognizes that there is something good about the father’s strictness. When the father goes away for a business trip, the children run wild without any discipline.
Likewise, the film doesn’t present the mother as always correct. It is hard to take seriously her suggestion that the sky is “where God lives”. She herself doesn’t entirely believe that God is this remote: when the priest comforts her for the death of her son by saying “He’s in God’s hands now”, she replies “He was in God’s hands the whole time”. In context, this is an accusation – how could God allow this – but it also shows an inconsistency in the mother’s thinking. She, like the mainstream Judeo-Christian tradition, tends both to think of God as transcendent – far away in heaven looking down – and also to think of God as immanent – present here with us at every moment where “all the world is shining” and “love is smiling through all things”.
The odd thing is that the mother, following Thomas à Kempis, uses the word “Nature” for human fallenness. Yet for most of us “Nature” most readily suggests the non-human world, the world of trees and waterfalls and stars, the world The Tree of Life presents as so beautiful and full of wonder. Nature is where we most easily see God’s love smiling through, “Every leaf. Every ray of light”, as the mother says. So Nature would seem to be something good, something that points us toward the way of Grace. Yet the mother opposes Nature and Grace.
It seems to me that one of Malick’s aims in The Tree of Life is to overcome these dualisms – not just Nature and Grace, but also Law vs. Gospel and Transcendence vs. Immanence: “Father. Mother. Always you wrestle inside me. Always you will.” The goal is to see God as both Father and Mother. The key scene for this interpretation is the sermon at the center of the film, the priest (referencing Job 1:21) says we must learn to see the Lord who gives as the same as the Lord who takes away.
I don’t think it is possible for interpreters to make too much of the quote from the Biblical book of Job that opens to movie:
“Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation … while the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” (Job 38:4, 7)
This line is from God’s speech to Job from the whirlwind, a mystical encounter with God that Job has after Job has, in essence, asked God why He allows (causes?) innocent people to suffer. God doesn’t directly answer Job’s question. Instead God gives a speech about the vastness, complexity, and terrifying beauty of the universe. God takes Job on the same journey the movie takes us on with its journey though the story of creation and the evolution of the dinosaurs.
Part of the point of the God’s speech is that God is the creator of both the beautiful things and the horrible things in nature, the monsters like Behemoth (Job 40:15) and Leviathan (Job 41:1), represented by dinosaurs in The Tree of Life. The movie begins with the death of the main character’s brother. This is the event that Jack (played by Sean Penn as an adult) is trying to make sense of with his reflections on his childhood experiences. Jack and his mother can’t understand why God would take away their brother/son. But that is because they think of God as simply a God of love who smiles through the leaves. They can’t understand that the natural world is as violent as it is beautiful – the creation sequence ends when a meteor strikes the earth, killing the dinosaurs that were the high point of the evolutionary narrative. If God is willing to kill the dinosaurs which took billions of years of evolution to create, then why are we surprised that he is willing to kill a 19 year-old human child?
The difficulty is learning to see the short life of the human being, the brief flowering of a sunflower that is born, spends its life turning toward the light, and soon withers and fades. Some of the flowers are destroyed by weather or animals or other natural mechanisms. But even the short life of these flowers is beautiful. And in fact the mechanisms that kill the flowers are themselves beautiful in a terrible way, like dinosaurs and meteors.
There’s a line from the trailer, that I don’t remember seeing in the movie: “Someday we’ll fall down and weep, and we’ll understand it all. All things.” That’s what’s happening at the end of the film. The main character is coming to understand, to be reconciled to both his mother and his father, to see God shining through all things. The mother is right to insist on the way of Grace: “the only way to be happy is to love”. But she’s wrong to think that Grace is a matter of escaping Nature. Nature can be terrible in its indifference to human concerns, but nature is not selfish, and even in Nature’s awe-inspiring terribleness we can see God smiling through. “Nature” is not the right term for human fallenness.
I’m not sure if Jack is supposed to be literally dead at the end and in heaven – I need to see the movie again – but he is certainly having a beatific vision, a mystical experience of the love and beauty of God. We see him embracing both his mother and his father, the beauty of Nature’s grace and the terror of Nature’s law. He’s having the same sort of experience that Job has when God speaks to him out of the whirlwind. This mystical experience could be just a symbolic near-death experience. Did you notice how the sound of the elevator beeping between floors sounds like an EKG? And if I recall correctly, Jack comes back down the elevator after having the vision, symbolically returning to life.
Either way, the mystical experience Jack has had is occasioned by his childhood memories and reflections on the origin of the universe – the movie we have just watched. Jack has glimpsed the big picture, the universe from God’s point of view. He has seen the terrible beauty of Nature. The goal is that we the viewers, having been inside Jack’s mind and therefore having experienced the same meditation as Jack will have the same mystical insight he gains at the end. We will be able to walk away from the movie believing that the God who gives is the same God who takes away. Nature, too, is supernatural Grace.