The Tree of Life (2011)–Grace versus Nature

Terrence Malick’s new film, The Tree of Life is quite polarizing for its audiences.  NPR is even reporting that a small percentage of viewers walk out on the film and some of those ask for their money back.  Now I’ve walked out on a number of films over the decades and I can understand many reasons for not wanting to finish a movie.  There is no way to know why people leave before The Tree of Life is over, but I wonder if any do for philosophical reasons.  This is a philosophical movie, but I also found it immensely entertaining, beautiful to watch, and never boring.  This is one of the most ambitious films I’ve ever seen.  It makes me think of Erich von Stroheim’s Greed.  Another film about naturalism.

The Tree of Life attempts to answer one of the most difficult spiritual questions in philosophy:  Why do bad things happen to good people.  The film begins by telling us that life is a battle between grace and nature.  Throughout the film we hear the character pray to God asking for guidance, forgiveness,  understanding and meaning, and when a son and brother dies, his parents and siblings suffer greatly, partly at the loss, but mostly for not understanding why.

The film quotes The Book of Job, and has a scene where a pastor gives a excellent sermon on Job.  Job is one of the most complex stories in the Bible.  Many of the faithful have given up belief in God trying to understand “Why do the righteous suffer?”

I do not live by faith, but I like the word grace.  Terrence Malick shows the history of the universe in this film, making a good case for evolution is part of reality.  The faithful believe we are here by the grace of God, but I believe we are here by the grace of evolution.  Our universe is immense in size and ancient in age, and our lives are a miracle of unintentional consequences.  I think the word grace applies to that too.  I also believe the most sophisticated of spiritual philosophers accept evolution and incorporate it into their philosophy.

The difference between the faithful and those who accept evolution is life after death.  The faithful want to believe that no matter how much suffering we experience in this life, it will be soothed by the life we get after this one.  And Malick shows that in The Tree of Life.  I’ve wondered if some of the people who have walked out on this picture was because they thought Malick was selling evolution.  If they did, they should have stayed.  Malick sticks with faith all the way through, although it’s subtle, leaving room for some atheists to interpret the film differently.  All great fiction is ambiguous, so it’s unfair to suggest my views as the only views of this story.

Here’s the thing, for most of the faithful, suffering can only be made sensible if there is life after death, either through rewards or punishment.  To those who side with nature, suffering is just part of life.  There is no philosophical problem for atheists, because we don’t believe God is making us suffer.  The hardest thing for the faithful to endure is to believe that God is making them suffer.  Thus the story of Job.

The evolution of liberal thought is one that fights suffering directly by trying to make living in this life better for all.  Malick doesn’t go there at all.  This is a deeply spiritual movie in the sense that it is totally metaphysical.  Striving to do better is shown to cause suffering as illustrated by the role of the father played by Brad Pitt.

This movie is not for people who want escapism.  I’m not sure this movie is even for young people.  Terrence Malick was born in 1943, he’s not a baby boomer, but like Bob Dylan, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, he’s of the generation that speaks to the baby boomers.  I’d say anyone who grew up in the 1950s America should watch this film if they have a philosophical bent, it’s a film about and for us.

This trailer will give a hint at what The Tree of Life is like, but only the slightest of one.

This rather enigmatic web site gives more scenes from the movie, but you need a lot of patience to try out all the rather short clips.  Go see the film for the full cinematic rollercoaster ride.

JWH – 7/4/11

9 thoughts on “The Tree of Life (2011)–Grace versus Nature”

  1. what a wonderful review.

    i agree with just about everything you said. i use the phrase, the grace of chance, in place of evolution, but i understand your phrasing as well.

    your analysis of the ages, and therefore philosophical bents, of different audiences is spot on.

  2. Why do bad things happen to good people? Well, why wouldn’t they? It’s funny how that’s not a difficult question at all, unless you believe in a benevolent deity, huh, Jim?

    Nice review. But I think I must disagree with your phrase “the grace of evolution.” Grace, in this respect, means favor or good will, which simply can’t be applied to a natural process like this.

    And it’s especially inappropriate when it comes to evolution. The reason why Darwin’s natural selection struck Victorian society like a bombshell is that the mechanism was nothing like what any benevolent designer would use.

    Evolution is a bloody disaster for most individuals, since death – early death – drives the whole thing. And you’re born with your genetic code. Nothing you can do will change that. (Lamarckism would have been far easier for religions to accept.)

    Humans evolved by the majority dying horribly, mostly as children, before they could reproduce. Mutations are the raw materials of evolution, but the vast majority are detrimental, even deadly. Only a lucky few win that lottery. This is a wasteful process – wasteful of lives, inefficient, and completely pitiless.

    The horrible reality of the struggle for survival makes it hard even today for many believers to accept evolution. There is absolutely no “grace” about it. It’s not what anyone would choose, anyone but a sociopath, at least. It just happens to be true.

    I don’t know how much this has to do with the movie, since I haven’t seen it. But there’s a good reason why evolution has been so difficult for religious believers, far more difficult than other scientific discoveries that also showed the errors in church teachings.

    There is no “grace” in evolution, none at all. Even the result is often kind of a Rube Goldberg construction, good enough, but not optimal. (Have you ever had appendicitis? I wouldn’t have survived my childhood without modern medical care.)

    1. I only meant we are here because of an accident of evolution, and even that’s a kind of grace. I did not mean to imply that evolution was a force of grace. Without evolution we wouldn’t be here, and I’m thankful for that.

    2. I’ve thought more about your reply Bill. Evolution isn’t even a force of nature – it’s only an explanation for the way nature works, and it’s only an explanation after the fact. It’s not even predictable. It has no attributes, so it can’t be God like or divinely inspired.

      But we can be grateful for evolution, and there’s a kind of grace in finding oneself aware in this gigantic reality. Nature is brutal, but we still have to be thankful for its existence. It took 13.7 billion years of creation and destruction, of a lot of life and death, to produce our lives. I find a kind of grace in that. Sure nature allows us to live, but will kill us in the end, maybe even horribly, but not intentionally. Nature is 100% indifferent to our lives. I even find grace in that.

      1. I know you understand this, Jim. I was just objecting to your wording. Words matter. Nature is 100% indifferent to our lives. It’s just that I don’t see how the word “grace” can apply (using dictionary definitions of the word, anyway).

        But never mind that. Let me disagree about something else. (Heh, heh. You know I”m argumentative, right, Jim?)

        Evolution really is predictable, in a sense. Oh, you can’t tell which particular gene will mutate or anything. But evolution is a science, and evolutionary biologists have made many successful predictions based on their understanding of the science.

        That’s one of the reasons this is a fundamental theory of biology – probably the fundamental theory of biology. It’s relatively easy to find an explanation which fits the data after the fact. The real test comes when you can make successful predictions using it.

  3. Excellent review. We had several people walk out, and it would be interesting to find out why. One theater in our area actually says they will not refund money to people who leave because they don’t understand the film. My companion thought that understanding might be the booby prize; that this is a film to be “experienced.” Certainly there is a lot to (re)-experience here: the initial quote from Job (38:4, 7) really set the emotional tone for me; the imagery (which reminded me of 2001); the soundtrack (Gregorian chants, I believe); life in the 50’s (from the repressed anger right down to the aluminum multi-colored drinking glasses). But there is a lot of food for thought here, as well, with the whole question of grace/nature being at the forefront of that. Personally, I have no difficulties believing in both of them, rather than setting them against each other; I see a type of grace even in the most destructive aspects of nature like the earthquake/tsunami in Japan earlier this year (things/people that were “spared,” for instance).

    1. Love the name of your web site, Inner Landscaping.

      The Tree of Life could be considered a sermon on Job. I don’t know why it’s not more popular with the faithful, it’s obviously a religious picture, and how often do they come around. The Tree of Life is certainly far more spiritual than The Passion of the Christ, which the faithful flocked to.

  4. I’m jumping on this thread on the 11th hour but I’ll say it for my benefit or for those who may also stumble across it after I have……

    My question, would we agree that evolution and adaptation are two different things? Evolution to me means that I move from being a human to an oak tree while adaptation means I move from a hairy knuckle dragger to a vanilla latte drinking voter. Am I off base here?

    Is there an instance where we are able to prove that anything has evolved into something else? Would your explanation for it fall under adaptation?

    1. Think about it this way, TC: What do you mean by “something else”? Organisms change over time. When do they become “something else”? How do you tell when they are “something else”?

      In scientific terms, they become a different species. But that’s just a label we use. We label individual species, but it’s not always easy to tell what’s a new species and what isn’t. Taxonomists are always disagreeing about that sort of thing, because there isn’t a hard and fast dividing line. Labels don’t exist in nature.

      As two separate populations get further and further apart, it gets easier to tell that they are, indeed, two different species by our definitions. At least, that’s how we label them. And as time goes on, and they get even further apart, we might consider them as being in two different genera. And then, after even more changes, as being in two different families.

      But all of these things are just the labels we use. We are deciding ourselves what categories to use. They don’t actually exist in nature. It’s we who are deciding what’s “something else.” And the evidence clearly shows that this is all a matter of the accumulation of small changes (call that whatever name you want – natural selection, evolution, adaptation, etc.).

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