The Tree of Life: 4

The Book of Job’s theophany has horrified many readers.  God allows Job to suffer just so He can win a bet?  Then when he does appear, terrifying poor Job, He refuses to explain or apologize, but proceeds to boast about his awesomeness?  Finally, to add to the confusion, he berates Job’s suspicious comforters, and tells them that, after all, Job was right, and they were wrong.  Then he gives Job ten new children (as if that makes up for the loss of the previous set) and otherwise doubles his wealth.  It’s rather bewildering on the surface.

There is a moment in Malick’s movie that likewise puzzles.  We see the mother suffer terribly for her dead child, for the snuffing out of all the things he could have been and done, and then, in the final mystical sequence, we hear her say “I give my son to you.”  This is uttery weird and ambiguous (not to mention tasteless and pompous) and could be construed to mean a thousand different opposing things.

Let’s ignore our distaste and likewise ignore for the moment the possibility that the mother herself does not say this, but that Jack imagines her saying this in his vision of the shores of the afterlife.  What would it mean if the mother herself really says it?

One could say that she has essentially given up on her theodical desire, her desire to have God justify Himself.  This is as much to say that she has given up on her son.  She pits God against her son and ends up going with God.  Tough luck that the boy never grew into himself and realized the potentialities he had.  There is no use holding on to the hurt because there is no way of reversing what happened.  So there is the possibility that in “giving God her son,” she accepts the loss as it is and expects nothing more. “He had a good nineteen years. It would have been nicer if he’d lived longer, but there is no use in holding on to what could have been.”  In this reading, she gives God the boy as he turned out to be.  She accepts history as inalterable. She lets go of the stifled possibilities, the refused potentialities.  She disavows the counterfactual; she submits to the matters of fact.  She mourns and gets over it. Anyway, as one of her insensitive comforters reminds her, she still has two more kids.

I don’t believe the film endorses this reading.  I think rather a better way to read the declaration is the following: in giving the boy to God she gives him not as he turned out to be but precisely as he could have been, precisely as a store of refused potentialities. But for what purpose?

The question leads to the heart of the film’s theology.  There are several indications that the film refuses the traditional conception of God as transcendent Creator and rather suggests the possibility of God as the ever-evolving universe’s ultimate Creation.  In short, Malick adopts something like the process theology of Alfred North Whitehead, who once said that God is not before the world, but with the world from all eternity.  As Creator, as the agency who pulled the trigger that caused the Big Bang, God belongs to, and comes from, a kind of absolute past.  But as a creation, as the fabrication of the desire that the Big Bang is, God belongs to, and comes from, an absolute future.  In short, the film endorses a notion that the evolutionary processes of the universe indicate God’s coming-to-be.  In “giving her son to God,” she is giving him as a genetic element in God’s emergent being.  God is that which is generated from all the potentialities that history has refused.  God is the singular expression, the absolute antitype of the human collective in its indefinite entirety.


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