Terrence Malick’s film, The Tree of Life (2011), is a significant cultural achievement, not only cinematically but also philosophically. Back in 1969, the philosophically inclined Malick produced a bilingual edition of the German philosopher Martin Heidegger’s The Essence of Reasons, supplying the English translation.
With The Tree of Life, the meditative practices visible in his previous films–Badlands (1973), Days of Heaven (1978), The Thin Red Line (1998), The New World (2005)–have now reached a point where comparison with the work of philosopher Eric Voegelin is unavoidable. With The Tree of Life, Malick has visually translated Voegelin.
Voegelin’s emphasis is on how every human soul undergoes experiences of the divine. In his Anamnesis, Voegelin shows how the essential practice of philosophy consists in meditative recollections that remember experiences awakening the “awe” or “excitement” of existence.
In Anamnesis, Voegelin himself recalled early childhood memories in order to illustrate his expansive philosophy of consciousness by rooting it firmly in real human experiences. Similarly, in The Tree of Life, Malick uses film to communicate universal human experiences of the soul coming into contact with the divine.
Reviewers of the film have marveled at the overwhelming power of Malick’s cinematic recollections of family life, and most have considered the family drama at the center of the film to be its greatest strength. But they have been mostly puzzled, even if sometimes dazzled, by what frames this story–the story of a father (Brad Pitt), a mother (Jessica Chastain), and three brothers (Hunter McCracken, Laramie Eppler, and Tye Sheridan) whose lives are marked by the early death of the middle brother, R.L. (Eppler).
For the most part, the movie cinematically unveils the anamnetic consciousness of the brother Jack as he engages, as an adult (Sean Penn), in meditative recollection on the occasion of the anniversary of his brother’s death. But more significantly the movie also frames this meditative recollection with cinematic explorations of the Beginning (of the universe and the subsequent evolution of life on earth) and of the Beyond (the transcendent divine presence that interacts with a soul as it becomes immortal and journeys to the other side of death).
Dead Doctrine Fought with Imaginative Vision
I use Voegelin’s preferred terms, “The Beginning and the Beyond,” from the lengthy unpublished version of his Aquinas lecture with that title at Marquette University in 1975 (now in Volume 28 of the Collected Works, which I quote below), a work which I think is required reading for fully understanding the significance of how The Tree of Life both begins and ends: namely, with a cosmogonic meditation on birth (Beginning), and a philosophical myth on the soul’s transfiguration in death (Beyond).
Whether or not Malick has been reading Voegelin, The Tree of Life’s unique achievement is that the film is neither indebted to an identifiable “ideology” nor reducible to the “philosophy” of any thinker. Rather, its stunning accomplishment is to root cinematic experience firmly in the basis of the real human experience of a soul in relation to the divine. That inner experience, undistorted by the later accretions of doctrine and dogma, is the uncompromising focus of both Malick’s cinematic vision and Voegelin’s philosophy of consciousness.
For Voegelin, doctrine or dogma can be salutary when it protects “an historically achieved state of insight against the disintegrative pressures” of cultural disorder. But Voegelin also observes that in our present age “the deforming doctrinalization” at the basis of political ideologies (communism, fascism, totalitarianism, and other delusional “isms”) has perverted authentic (e.g., Christian) symbolizations of the divine. These perversions transpose authentic consciousness of a transcendent Beginning, and of a transcendent Beyond, into purely immanent, this-worldly concerns. This is a pattern of delusion that Voegelin has studied in detail and classified as variations on Gnosticism.
The problem we are faced with today, according to Voegelin, is that the deluded and deformed doctrinalization “has become socially stronger than the experiential insights it was originally meant to protect.” To recover the original meaning of the doctrinal symbols is thus an enormous task.
Yet Malick’s film is a major contribution to what Voegelin would call the “imaginative vision” that authentically presents “the comprehensive event of experience and symbolization.” This cultural achievement of “imaginative vision” is a necessary prerequisite, says Voegelin, because a meditative philosophical effort at recollection “can operate only within the [artist’s culturally] comprehensive [imaginative] vision and make it self-reflectively luminous for man’s existence in tension toward the Beyond.”
The New Evangelization and the Difficulty it Faces
Attempts at a “new evangelization” by the Catholic Church have highlighted how difficult it is to communicate true insights about the Beginning and the Beyond by using traditional symbols and doctrine.
Tracey Rowland, in Ratzinger’s Faith (Oxford University Press, 2008), illustrated two different papal emphases possible when tackling the problem:
While John Paul II “plundered” such concepts as rights, modernity, feminism, liberty, equality, and fraternity, his usual approach was to adopt the concept, gut it of those elements he deemed hostile to the faith, then repack it with Christian material.
. . . . With feminism he kept the concept, gave it a new anthropology, and relabeled it a “new feminism.” With human rights he again kept the concept, but tried to root it in the idea of the human person having been made in the image and likeness of God.
In contrast to “John Paul II’s strategy of philological taxidermy,” Rowland observed how Benedict XVI was wary of “trying to transpose concepts from hostile traditions.” She summed up the essential philosophical problem in the conclusion to her book:
Philosophically, the problem is that liberal idioms which may in some sense have had Christian or Aristotelian or even Stoic memories were over several centuries taken over and mutated in what von Balthasar has called spoliatio Christianorum (a plundering of the Christian intellectual framework). Often, by the time they emerged within the liberal tradition, they were hardly recognizable and conveyed very different meanings from their original classical–Christian ‘shadows’.
The question which John Paul II faced and Benedict XVI now faces is whether to pursue a strategy of trying to reclaim the language which has been plundered, despoiled, and mutated, or to find another language with which to address the world.
The New Approach of Pope Francis
With Pope Francis, it now appears that the papacy intends to adopt the strategy of avoiding “plundered, despoiled, and mutated” language as much as possible. The new pontiff seems to be quite fond of less formal language and more spontaneous gestures, thereby achieving an immediacy of communication that for the average person permits no evasions or equivocations.
With his new style, Francis has in a very short time garnered much attention and considerable appreciation. It is remarkable to note how consonant the Pope’s fresh approach to evangelization is with the advice of Voegelin.
The Tree of Life Offers Experiential Analyses
Voegelin, in “The Beginning and the Beyond,” says that “the symbols of the past,” in order to speak to our contemporaries, “must be reexamined,” so that their significance “as instruments of historical interpretation” can be truly rediscovered. Voegelin argues that “we do not need an entirely new universe of symbols.” Instead, “we discover the new language” that we need is mostly “the old language of experiential analysis that has been buried under the doctrinal deformations.”
The glory of Malick’s film is that it performs experiential analyses that allow one to rediscover what doctrines like original sin are really all about. One example would be the passage of St. Paul (Romans 7:15) alluded to when Jack as a child speaks in voiceover: “What I want to do, I can’t do. I do what I hate.”
We understand this in experiential context: his father, a frustrated musician, is forced by the current state of the natural world to take a different career path. The father transmits this pattern of domination and frustration to his sons, who in acts of vandalism and rebellion enact a natural pattern of development that is redeemed only by revelatory acts of grace.
Traditional dualisms like “nature and grace,” argues Voegelin, are untenable in an era like ours of globalization, unless we can recapture in meditative reflection their experiential basis: “The dichotomies of Faith and Reason, Religion and Philosophy, Theology and Metaphysics can no longer be used as ultimate terms of reference when we have to deal with experiences of divine reality with their rich diversification.”
The Divine Outbreak Seen in Natural Experiences
In this regard, The Tree of Life is innovative because it shows the divine outbreak of grace within natural experiences: for example, one dinosaur gratuitously spares another; or, more pertinently, the father (who seemingly symbolizes nature more than grace) and the mother (vice versa) both embrace Jack in a union more intimate than the filmic voiceover first suggests (with its invocation of the nature/grace dualism), because it is from the “one flesh” of their union that the family itself is generated–the natural union that hurtles every soul, from the Beginning, on its path to the Beyond.
Every soul thus experientially encounters exterior illustrations of “grace” and “nature” as analogies for more fundamental interior movements of the soul. Voegelin points out that the symbols we inherit e.g., “original sin” “cannot rely for their personal and social acceptance on ‘tradition’ alone. Their truth emerges from the divine-human movements and counter-movements in the mysterious flux of divine presence that we call history.”
Sealing with Grace One’s Final Acts
For this reason I would see the dancing light that both begins and ends the film as a visual metaphor for the individual soul. (It is also symbolized within the film by the candle lit in remembrance of a death.) Those reviewers who take it to be an image of God are not entirely wrong, however, because it is indeed the flux of divine presence that bestows luminosity on the soul.
The penultimate image of the film is a bridge over water. I take this as a visual representation of Plato’s “Metaxy” (the “In-Between”), a symbol Voegelin uses to describe how the soul dwells: that is, somewhere between the immanent, physical, external world and its transcendent, spiritual, divine Origin and Destination.
Such symbols (the Beginning, the In-Between, the Beyond) are unavoidable if we wish to stay true to the mystery. Voegelin criticizes the human “penchant to hypostatize” our experiences and to perversely darken these experiences with Gnostic dogmas:
The experience of divine reality, it is true, occurs in the psyche of a man who is solidly rooted by his body in the external world, but the psyche itself exists in the Metaxy, in the tension toward the divine ground of being. [The soul] is the sensorium for divine reality and the site of its luminous presence.
What Voegelin writes in his magnum opus Order and History (Volume IV, The Ecumenic Age) applies also to the events recollected in The Tree of Life:
Since the events are experienced as movements of human response to a movement of divine presence, history is not a merely human but a divine-human process. Though historical events are founded in the external world and have calendar dates, they also partake of the divine lasting out-of-time. The historical dimension of humanity is neither world-time nor eternity but the flux of presence in the Metaxy.
The shore everyone is wandering on at the film’s end I take to be a liminal state, on the edge of death. Visually, it supplies a mythic representation (similar to Plato’s philosophical myths) of the soul’s state just before death, before its final entrance into the Beyond. The people of Jack’s life “flash before his eyes” in his philosophic meditation, before he “descends” in the elevator back into everyday life, rather than ascending (like his mother) into the Beyond.
In this liminal state, we see what souls do, just before they pass over to what grows from grace–the Elysian Fields of eternal life (symbolized by Malick’s field of sunflowers). A soul gets to perform a final act by which its natural life and its natural end in death may be sealed (or not) by an act of grace. Jack’s mother here leads the way, as the cinematic myth, showing her at the moment of death, shows her performing her last act of grace.
Malick visually alludes to the pagan Three Graces, yet transfigures them with the mother’s Trinitarian spoken Word in the voiceover. She achieves immortality in the moment of her death, a transfiguration to which we are witnesses, thanks to Jack’s mythically meditative vision.
Not only Voegelin, but also the great German Thomist, Josef Pieper, author of Death and Immortality (1968) and The Platonic Myths (1965), would have no trouble recognizing the significance of Malick’s imaginative vision here: namely, that artistic “re-mythologization” is a praeparatio evangelica (preparation for the “new evangelization”) when it returns with care and sensitivity to the truly real human experiences.
Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. This essay was originally published as “Outbreak of the Divine,” in Convivium Magazine (March 2012) and has been updated to include mention of Pope Francis. It is published here with permission.