Sunday, July 27, 2008

Existential Estrangement in "The Dark Knight"

The Dark Knight just got to 300 million in sales in record time (ten days) and is number seven on the list of most discussed movies of all time (and still climbing, I would guess). The day after seeing it with Carl, my fourteen-year-old son, he asked me a question about it, and the question made me realize that at the conceptual center of the movie there is a theological concept that Paul Tillich put at the center of his theology. Since I am an unabashed Tillich fan, I thought I'd make the connection for you, with Carl's help. (He has a much better recall of the movie's details than I do.)

First, the theological concept: existential estrangement.

As Tillich updated his theology for our time, his concept of existential estrangement (EE) replaced "sin" as a means of describing our feeling of separation from God--and I am simplifying here. To make the point that EE is universal in human experience, he describes it as resulting from the impossibility of doing all the good we want to accomplish when we are limited in knowledge and time and talent and resources, etc. As a result we all live compromised lives--lives that leave a gap between the good we wish for and the reality of our lives: estrangement.

But what if there were an accelerator for EE that made you confront the gap between your ideals and the reality of your life not by the accumulation of many small compromises over the long view of life, but with dramatic immediacy? The role of the Joker in The Dark Knight is precisely that--and it is played by Heath Ledger in his last role with such effectiveness that the movie already has people talking about the Oscars.

The movie's primary protagonists--"the bat man," as he is referred to in the movie to emphasize that his identity (as Bruce Wayne) remains hidden, and Harvey Dent, Gotham City chief prosecutor--are left contemplating the compromises they need to make to catch The Joker. And in a statement that sounds like EE on steroids, Dent says, "Either you die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become a villain." Describing the way that happens to Dent and Wayne/Batman in the movie would turn an action movie into dull reading, so here's the film trailer.

It is particularly interesting that at the movie's end Dent, who was unequivocally heroic in the public's view, has both turned him into a villain and died, while "the bat man," who was already compromised in the public's view, must take the rap for Dent so that Gotham still has its hero and can keep its faith alive. Thus, by completely sacrificing his already compromised reputation, "the bat man" keeps Gotham from a moral cynicism that could plunge it into chaos. He thus becomes Gotham's moral savior by becoming its completely estranged hero--its dark knight.

Of course Eastwood's Dirty Harry character long predated The Dark Knight in that respect--as did Shane and too many other westerns to count--but nowhere is the concept of existential estrangement depicted so effectively and so centrally as in this, apparently, most popular movie ever.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Introductory Blog: Life as a Question Mark

The Templeton Foundation's most recent "big question" asks whether science makes belief in God obsolete. Reading through the postings there I realized that someone needs to make a simple observation, and then make it over and over again: There are things--basic things, crucial things, momentous things--that no one can know.

I don't mean the grains of sand on the seashore variety, then. The class of "things" I have in mind relates to the fact that, ontologically speaking, there is no privileged position to be had within human experience. It's the question Kant introduced by his self-styled "Copernican revolution" in philosophy: What is the epistemic status of metaphysical speculation? His answer: it is all speculation. For our knowledge does not extend to the "noumenal"--to that which outstrips the forms of experience possible to us as human beings. Paul Tillich gave the point its simplest expression: "Finite being is a question mark." (Systematic Theology, Vol. One, p. 209.)

Of course, science does pull back the veil in a sense: Ingenious telescopes and microscopes, particle colliders and spectrographic instruments, and so much more have revealed astounding and unguessed insights.

And yet, the class of "things" that science does not and cannot reveal to us is literally the most significant class for determining what human life is about: It is the class of basic metaphysical assumptions. And it contains beliefs about the nature of ultimate reality, the ultimate origin of all that we can know, and whether that ultimate origin helps us to determine anything positive in the spheres of values and morality. Kant answered with his famous "antinomies"--arguments designed to show that the ultimate questions can be argued equally well in both directions. God--no God; beginning to the material universe--no beginning; ultimate meaning to existence--no ultimate meaning, etc.

No doubt, many persons are distracted by the marvelous success and progress of science and technology. (And that success is so well known that it need not be elaborated.) But that distraction is ironic, if Kant was right about both the purely speculative theoretical role of metaphysics and its crucial practical role in ordering human morals and values. The irony is that the marvelous success of science and technology has not made the basic questions that religion has traditionally answered less important, but rather much more important. And here's why the Templeton Foundation's question of God's continued relevance in the face of science's ever broadening influence prompted me to muse in a Kantian mode: the divergence of views presented in that forum clearly depict the basic truth of Kant's view, that our basic metaphysical views are both crucial practically and pure speculation theoretically.

And since religion traditionally has claimed its own form of revelation--the kind that cannot be revealed through scientific instruments, no matter how wonderful--it seems that someone should be asking these questions: How can we evaluate the religious truth claims which purportedly can fill the void that science cannot? Moreover, how can religion reveal anything to us, if it makes claims that can never be more than speculation, theoretically?

These are weighty questions that thoughtful persons will want answers to. And they require us to question the way we think about them--a questioning of the means of pursuing answers to the questions. A questioning of how revelation might emerge out of the fog of metaphysical speculation. I invite you to ponder these questions with me--or better said, I invite you to "metaponder" them with me!