Cosmotheandric Realism: On Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” (2011)

Terrence Malick studied philosophy at Harvard before being awarded a Rhodes scholarship. After a short time at Oxford, he left without finishing his dissertation. His adviser there was the behaviorist Gilbert Ryle. Reportedly, he left Oxford because of a disagreement with Ryle concerning how to understand the concept of the “world” in 19th and 20th century Continental philosophers (principally, Kierkegaard, Heidegger, and Wittgenstein). Malick’s translation of Heidegger’s Vom Wesen des Grundes was published by Northwestern University in 1969. He didn’t start making films until 1973.

His most recent release, The Tree of Life, could be summed up as a film-adaptation of the book of Job. The film opens with a quote: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth…when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” (38:4,7).

Malick manages to weave together the evolution of the universe and the mystery of human life into a single story of creation and destruction. More an invitation to a spiritual experience than a coherent narrative, The Tree of Life situates the human within the vast expanse of cosmic time. First, we witness the birth and childhood of three boys in 1950s suburban America. Then, we are brought back in time to witness the original flaring forth, the formation of galaxies, the accretion of the solar system, the cooling of the earth, the emergence and evolution of life, and the extinction of the dinosaurs. The human narrative then picks up again, depicting the existential struggles of the eldest boy, Jack, as he comes to reconcile himself with evil, death, and the hypocrisy of his authoritarian father. Unable to understand how such disorder could be allowed to exist in a divinely created world, he eventually comes to ask God, “if you’re not good, why should I be?”

It’s a uniquely insightful movie that will be cherished by the philosophically inclined.

I’ll leave you with Fr. Robert Barron’s commentary:

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