Peter's Blog

Struggles and Rebirth

Written by Peter Johnston on .

Scene from Gravity

We recently watched the Alfonso Cuaron film "Gravity" again since it came out on disk. We were still watching on a large screen, but not in 3D as I had seen it in the cinema. It was still a visual feast, even if not quite as immersive as it was in the cinema in 3D. Some of the imagery that I had remembered from the first viewing became more clear on the second viewing, with some of the most iconic images retaining their emotive force on a repeated viewing. The image above of Sandra Bullock's character, Dr Ryan Stone, adopting the foetal position as a cable aboard the space station loops around as a high-tech umbilical cord gave a brief moment of security and safety in the film and reminded me of that other iconic image from science fiction's great 2001: A Space Odyssey.

2001 a space odyssey 

At the end of the film, a foetal image looks down on earth, a new birth, a new form of life. 

In Cuaron's film there are themes too of rebirth from the struggles and pains that afflict us. In the film, it is Stone's loss of her young child that provides the source of her inner pain, anger and grief. The film also deals with much more subtlety than you find in many responses to the "problem of evil" or the "problem of pain" in the world. 

David Milhalyfy talks about this in a recent article in which he explores the film as a response to the problem of evil in comparison to the atheist viewpoints of Richard Dawkins. He writes:

Concurrently, in the parallel and primary narrative of "rebirth as a possible outcome of adversity" (to use Cuaron's words), the emotionally remote Stone works through the death of her young daughter. In what film critic Stephanie Zacharek calls “as apt and unsentimental a metaphor for prayer as I can think of,” Kowalski has to persuade Stone to keep talking during a communications blackout with Houston mission control since “if someone is listening they might just save your life.” After the two astronauts are separated, Stone in a desperate moment confesses her inability to pray since “no one ever taught me how,” but a hallucination of the dead Kowalski ends her reticence and she pours out messages for her daughter. When, finally, she is back on earth, she says a single “Thank you” as the very last words of the film.  

This parallel narrative rebuts popular arguments that the existence of evil prove that there is no God. As Dawkins has written in his book, The God Delusion, attempts to “justify suffering in a world run by God” are “beyond satire.”

For Cuaron, however, the greatest unexpected gift trumps the worst unexpected evil. “Your kid died, doesn’t get any rougher than that,” the dead Kowalski tells Stone in her hallucination. But Stone’s improbable return to earth finds her renewed spiritually and thankful for her life. 

I found the article by Milhalyfy from Andrew Sullivan's Daily Dish, on which Matthew Sitman goes further and comes up with the brilliant title "A Space Theodicy" (wish I had thought of that!) to say:

On the one hand, there’s the perennial temptation to try to explain the ways of God to men, to produce a philosophical or theological argument that somehow squares the existence of an all-powerful, all-loving God with the tragedies and hardships, both great and small, we see and experience. Some of these arguments are more persuasive than others, but they tend to leave me cold. They often seem to rely, at least implicitly, on an understanding of the divine that makes God a bigger, more powerful version of ourselves – when we ask why God “allows” evil in the world, we impose a model of choice and decision onto God that’s extracted from our own experiences. God figures in these debates like a character in one of those ethics problems you encounter in an introductory philosophy course, which is exactly the kind of anthropomorphism classical theism strives to avoid. Note how Dawkins, in the quote above, writes that God “runs” the universe, as if God were a CEO or president. As Mihalyfy asks in his essay, “Of all people, who better than an astronaut to understand that there is not a physical God sitting up somewhere in the sky?”

The better question, then, is not why does God permit suffering, but how do we respond to it? What resources do we – whether religious or not – have to deal with suffering when it inevitably comes? The Christian answers by pointing to Jesus, the suffering servant. The Christian God is a God who suffered with us and for us in the person of Jesus, who knows in full what it means to experience pain, loneliness, anguish, and death. And, even more, in the mysterious accounts of Jesus’ resurrection, we are told that suffering does not have the final word. This does not really “make sense” of suffering, but it does make Christianity a faith that has solidarity with, and deep compassion for, those who suffer at its core. It means that Christians can say to sufferers that they are understood and loved in the midst of their suffering, not just by those around them, but by God – and that this understanding and love is not the mere whim or benevolence certain people might choose to exhibit, but acts of mercy that point to what is ultimately deepest and truest about our existence.