Around the end of the second week of classes this semester, about eight friends of mine and I went to go see the much-delayed and much-hyped movie Tenet. It was flashy, complex, and loud. But it was also, maybe without its director Christopher Nolan even intending it, highly profound. Principles abstracted from the movie have actually the key to my understanding of my Theology this semester as a singular story, a perfect story, the archetype of all of our story’s in its being the fulfillment of man’s true desires in hope.
Like most science fiction movies, Tenet is about saving the world from some catastrophic threat and like most modern movies it has a secular Hollywood-esque agenda as to what that threat is. Hope in Nolan’s view from this movie and his other works is ultimately found in some sort of future augmentation in man, usually for him something partially technological and partly the application of a principle to man’s actions that ultimately solves the threat man faces and remakes people, or mankind in general, into something more than they were. Interstellar, Nolan’s 2014 film about space travel deals with the power of love to some extent, Inception, with the power of faith in reality, and his latest movie Tenet with the power of hope that there will be a future for humanity giving him the performative means to accomplish what he needs. (Interestingly these correspond to the three theological virtues but on a secular level, but that’s another story) All three, although indistinctly, show also that these principles come from outside those who are experiencing the story, from in a way, outside the story, be it a man in some way outside of time, a man in a wormhole, or a man, in reality itself compared to those in a dream. From outside, from something more than man, comes man’s ability to augment himself to eventually become more than he currently is. Much of this is obscured by the flashiness of cinema, but they show deep in man, like what we see in ourselves, in the Greek epics, in the Bible, and even in the man’s Fall itself, our common desire for something more.
Man desires augmentation, he desires for his happiness, for his survival, that there be something for himself more than who he is now. We all share a desire for ultimate being, constant across the ages, across cultures, and across the means we choose to get there. We see that there must be something more real than this existence, something better. We don’t have it and it pains us. So we try to find it. Like the author of Ecclesiastes, we try many different ways. And we often despair, since they don’t achieve what we really want (unless we’re Lucy in A Charlie Brown Christmas, in which case if we get real estate maybe we do get what we want). Seeing that there is an end it often seems yet as if it is not attainable. Such is the world of our own efforts, our own abilities, and the world before Christ. Man is firmly stuck in the world of his own power, his own weakness, everything seems tragic. If only Adam hadn’t made that tragic mistake, we think, we wouldn’t be in the suffering we are. One swerve in his will, the cause of the Fall, seemingly pointless as he was trying to achieve what all really want by nature, this augmentation, and the world seems forever disrupted.
But then, immediately, Christ enters on the scene, changing everything, and at the same time, seemingly nothing. In his death things at first, appear to degrade even further. The hope of man promised to the Jewish people is killed by them when he does come. Things are looking even more down. “Where is God? Has he still abandoned us? The sin that started all this is so small! How come things are so bad?” we might have thought as Jewish disciples of Christ on Holy Saturday, with the one we think was destined to reestablish Israel, to augment us, to give us glory and happiness, having been killed as a criminal and now lying in a tomb.
We know how everything changes on an intellectual level. We know the story, the comic reversal that is the resurrection. Christ rises, and everything changes when the fire of the Holy Spirit and Baptism change us intrinsically. But how different do we feel? We are promised “salvation” by what Christ did, but it may seem like nothing has changed, as St. Paul accounts in his letter to Romans. There’s still suffering in the world, there’s still turmoil, there’s still the unfulfilled desire for augmentation. Where are the sunshine and butterflies in the world? Salvation is an ephemeral future that doesn’t seem to impact our now. Why be good, one may question, why stick by certain ephemeral principles we don’t fully understand when there are things by man’s power, as Machiavelli thought, that we can do and achieve right now.
Reversing the picture and telling the story from God’s perspective changes everything from our confused picture. For as to us everything is diffuse, complex, and out of our control, to God all is simple, ordered, and in His power, but more than all this, in His love, “For God so loved the world,” the Evangelist saysand for God in His unchangingness so also is this love unchangable. All Creation, all that happens, all of God’s causality, is as we see through St. Thomas, one single act of God and one single order. For God, everything in creation is known and anticipated as an ultimate cause at the end of the chain of causality, but most importantly, loved. God’s story is more than just a movie that we sit back and watch from our perspective but something of an active, cooperative agency. It’s ultimately a creative love that wills us to imitate God in His position as a creator, that makes us active agents within the story. We are made like unto God by fulfilling our place within a world of trickle-down economics. And by his love the story ultimately ends with something more than our existence within the story, unification with the author, a true, where we can become a true “something more than a man.” (also a quote from another Nolan movie, Batman Begins)
We’re players within the story, but we’re yet players that don’t change its ending. For as to God all of creation is as one singular act, the love with which he creates is constant throughout. The ending God wills for rational nature, man is unchanged from before man’s fall, the “original intent” we might perceive as man’s purpose afterward, to after the Fall, to after our Redemption. God wants to divinize us, to make us all more than man, that us, as St. Maximus would say, who are turned toward the Word, and thereby have our rationality, may actually join in the internal knowledge and loving of God, becoming like unto the Word, to God himself. Interestingly this becoming God-like is exactly what Adam and Eve sought for themselves through their disobedience that launched the Fall, perhaps making us shake our heads in confusion. They’re punished for seeking by their own agency what God ultimately wanted to give them? The nature of God’s causality partly answers this question again as we see God’s intended order as being a trickling down of grace and perfection in God’s order and in God’s time. In falling man grasped to achieve his final end by and through his own power, desiring to be God-like, but solely for himself.
Thus man wants something apart from God, and gets it. Getting his way in the garden, he now sees by his own power, has to work by his own power, and has to fail by his own power. We cry and groan, as we all know and experience, from the pain and the disappointment we see all around us. For we are left with the knowledge implicit that there is something more to hope for, and we know by the pain and suffering around us, even though we continue to try to reach it, that this is something unattainable by our own power. The redemption God offers enters then is allowing us to again reach our final end, but with it having been made more obvious, from man’s perspective, as to the real order of things. Through a tragic unveiling of his own weakness when he tries to “go it alone”, man reveals even more the comic direction and character of the whole universe when he sees that God is still ultimately in control of the entire cosmos. Furthermore, man can desire his final end more of God by seeing it in comparison to the sorrows, and by his sorrows and tears, as St. John of the Cross described, merit an increase in charity as the jewels which he will bring with him to God.
Obviously, man is still not yet at his final end, but while nothing has seemed to change externally, the order of the cosmos, if man is redeemed and participates properly has been restored in a manner to that of the Garden of the Eden. Man has the potential now to be back within the trickle-down economics of God’s design. By power that is not his own, by grace working within Him, he can perform deeds above his nature, and that work toward bringing him to his supernatural end. Such are the effects of justification, which proceeds totally gratuitously by the same philanthropic love with which God originally created all things and constantly showers down good. The justified man knows and believes in his end by supernatural faith, regards it as attainable by the grace of God working within him as supernatural hope, and desires that end as a supernatural charity. Further, these virtues interrelate with each other, as man’s charity will imitate God’s in its desire for the good and beneficence of others. While fully realizing that all power to perform such deeds comes from God, he will do them, fulfilling his role in the Divine Order as his deeds become a medium for God’s grace to shower onto others. And in doing so, the justified man who works by God’s grace is shown to be acting by a performative faith that makes man’s ultimate end of union with God present in the present as that basis on and by which he acts.
For as grace flows forth from God’s being, grace flowing forth, through, and acting in man, not just for himself, but for others, it is in the one in whom it acts a sharing with the ultimate reality that ought to be our hope even now within the temporal order. It is a performative thing, giving us a foretaste of our final end even now and ought as such to order all of our actions. For we have as a final end God himself a person, who in Jesus Christ from the invisible became like unto our fallen lowliness of materiality (in all ways but sin importantly of course). Our end is a life lived as God lives in his eternity, a relationship as Pope Benedict XVI emphasizes in Spe Salvi with a higher form of being so entirely unimaginable and unattainable by our own powers that it’s laughable and comedic that we even try.
Sin in this sense is almost as a laughing matter, as to how ridiculous it is. It’s a shorting of ourselves as regarding our final end. For in sin as we regard our final end as something that we can attain by our own power, we shortsell hope. We tell ourselves that man’s fulfillment is in political order, in technology, in another galaxy, in becoming powerful, famous, rich, or even immortal within the current material cosmos. Such is a sad mistake, an ignorance of man’s true end of being joined to the eternal and infinite God. It is a choice within all of us and the same as Adam’s. Do we want the garbage we can see and do by our own power alone apart from God or do want the ultimate happiness that comes from Him and Him alone?
Like a character in a story who somehow enters reality and meets his author, we have a choice of meeting our author and entering a new realm of existence, a realm more real than the current world, and a realm on which we can place and substantiate actions now, of faith, hope, and charity, that both pass inspiration to the virtues on to others and in doing so act for the glory of God from whom all being and causality, all goodness, happiness, and existence ultimately flow and to whom they are meant to return. Therein is sainthood, recognizing the more than this world in hope, and with his grace choosing it implicitly in each and every decision we make. Such is what manifests the comic victory of Christ, his triumph over death, in that martyrs choose the eternal reality over the passing appearances, the ultimate Word, over their own logoi. Such is the victory of the love with which Christ held out to the end of death in love for us all, in his desire, unchanged from the beginning of creation, to be with the bride he had created. If we likewise hold out on unto death we can also share in what we desire, in that ultimate desire for being, for reality as it is. Such is our tenet that we ought to live by (Tenet). Such is that love that transcends time and space (Interstellar). Such is that singular idea, that we are to live for. (Inception). Such penetrates, even confusedly into the murks of popular culture, a hope in the universe, for there is something beyond the universe, that all is ultimately from our perspective a comedy, from God’s perspective, a lyric poem of his love for us, in our struggle to live as we should an epic, and looked at before salvation, a tragedy. It is ultimately the archetype of all stories, the ultimate reality, epic, of who man truly is, what reality really is, and where everything is headed.