Eric Voegelin’s introduction to The Ecumenic Age is a rich, evocative piece of writing. Regarding religious structures, Voegelin was concerned about the “doctrinization of symbols” that impede the experience of “divine presence.” God can become an object to believe in or not, rather than a soulfully experienced transcendent God of “the Beginning and the Beyond.” Of course, Voegelin identified many other social and philosophical trends, such as ideological movements across the political spectrum, that also threaten the soulful “experience of reality.” Voegelin was not anti-religious. At the very least, he understood religion to be “socially effective” in evoking a spiritual experience in people’s souls that could counter ideological or gnostic tendencies in society. Voegelin suggested “meditative practice” to overcome the doctrinization of symbols. One does not get the sense, however, that he held much hope that Christianity in the West could reawaken old symbols of transcendent experience so they could be socially effective once again, at least not in the near term.
Religious symbols of every tradition have become eclipsed by the breadth of our globalized age. Still, it is obvious that millions of people in the West remain devout within their religious traditions. I suspect Voegelin was being mildly ironic when, citing Plato, he cautioned against “molesting the faith of the true believer with philosophy.” This is because once one’s faith is shaken, there is no guarantee they will become a philosopher, open to experiencing the soulfully ordering presence of the divine Beginning and Beyond. It is the notion of “old horizons” being overtaken by “new ones” that is of interest for anyone who lives their religious faith with a relatively healthy openness to pneumatic experience, and takes the time to meditate on the symbols of transcendence that make up their religious tradition. In the case of Christianity in the West, what is its place in our culture? Is it possible that the transcendent symbols of Christianity are capable of opening a person’s soul sufficiently in this place in time? If so, what continues to draw people away from religious practice today? What is the alternative? Proportionally, there are fewer people practicing religion in the West than ever before, but there are also fewer people studying philosophy in our universities. Although our politics and culture have become polarized and tribalized, there is still a semblance of order present beyond the banalities of politics. Neighborhoods work, community organizations happily exist, and cities come together with festivals celebrating the arts, sports, and high holidays like Thanksgiving, Christmas, or Easter. Where are the people at? Besides an innate instinct for good will, where are sources of spiritual order to be found by people if not in the church or the university?
Everyone understands the limitations of film, and everyone understands that reading is superior to watching when it comes to absorbing a story and meditating on the characters and themes present in the tale. That said, movies are cultural artifacts of our day and age, and people watch them by the millions. In fact, with the continuous creation of new digital networks, it is clear there are more movies being made today than ever before. Two movies I have seen recently, Hologram for the King and Don’t Look Up, are quite revealing of our day and age, if one chooses to meditate on them. They are also spiritually evocative for the viewer, in the emotional and experiential way that films can evoke.
A Hologram for the King takes place in Saudi Arabia, where American businessman Alan Clay finds himself trying to sell made-in-America technology for a Saudi city being constructed in the desert. The movie portrays Saudi culture, with all of its discipline and formal rules of social engagement, through Clay’s eyes, but really, it is Clay’s sufferings that are being thrown into stark relief by the Saudi sun. Clay’s marriage has broken apart, and his career has hit the skids. Worse still, Clay is suffering from an unsettled conscience. His daughter is the victim of his failed marriage and stalled career, and Clay has, in a sense, betrayed his own country by shuttering a bicycle factory in the American rust belt for a better deal in China. Clay’s drive to pursue the American dream by making money has left him impoverished in spirit.
At no time is Christianity referenced as being part of Clay’s formative experience. This is revealing. Clay is part of the global elite, travelling in jet planes and rubbing elbows with the people whose wealth influences the lives of future generations, yet he is adrift when it comes to a philosophical or spiritual foundation upon which to live. Clay has tried to anchor his storm- tossed life to transient and unstable values, and he is drowning. This state of suffering is revealed in his poor health and his need to abuse alcohol.
The manner in which Western culture has fallen to a state of unfulfilling debauchery is revealed first by the film’s portrayal of the dignified and ritualized relationships between people in Saudi Arabia. The open and quiet landscape of Saudi Arabia also affects the pacing of the movie, bringing a natural sense of calm to the telling of the tale. Clay is in the desert, and anyone familiar with the Bible will understand the implications of this backdrop. He is bewildered when alone, and bewildered when trying to negotiate the rigid Muslim culture he finds himself in.
The Western viewer of the movie cannot help but begin a process of comparing and contrasting their life with the one portrayed in Saudi Arabia. The contradictions found within Saudi culture are revealed, whether it is a casual reference to State sanctioned executions outside a Mosque, black market alcohol, or a simple man’s expressed desire for freedom from the rigid Saudi social structure, but so too is the beauty of venerating God and the dignity born of social ritual shown. In our comparisons of culture, we see there is indeed something alluring here, something that we have lost. This is made most obvious when Clay finds himself at a Danish embassy party where drunkenness, drug use, and sexual licentiousness empty the world and the soul of meaning, goodness, and beauty. On the other hand, while being driven through Mecca, Clay suddenly feels self-conscious and awkward because he senses he is in the presence of a transcendent God. The West’s drift from order is also revealed when a Saudi businessman asks Clay about the shuttering of the American bicycle factory. Would he change anything if he could do it again? In the Western person’s quest to liberate themselves from all social and cultural expectations and responsibilities, have they become neglectful and uncaring for the history and vision of their own nation? We appear to be harming the social fabric of our cities in following the allure of profit, or in asserting an ideological position we want everyone to be oriented by. In contrast, the Saudis are building a city for themselves in the desert.
In typical Hollywood fashion, the lonely and drowning character of Clay is rescued by a lover. Interestingly, however, is that the meeting of lovers is given a transcendent base beyond the carnal. The two characters are in need of the same thing, but they are suffering at opposite ends of a disordering tension. Clay, utterly adrift following his futile attempt to order his life through wealth and power, needs to find his roots in the mysterious, transcendent beyond. His new friend, Doctor Zahra, needs to escape the rigid structure of Islam for a life in the lived experience of the transcendent God. The doctrinal truth of reality ordering Saudi culture has separated her from a life in divine presence in Voegelin’s Metaxy. She suffers in silence in a world where her personhood has been repressed. The only place she can meditate on the good things experienced in divine presence, or suffer the separation from the good, is in the secret place of her heart. So, the first symbol of transcendence born from Clay and Zahra’s friendship is the relationship itself, which draws them both out from a stultified sense of self.
The transcendent base of their relationship is furthered by the wonders and beauty of the ocean, and by a doorway whose symbols of the moon and sun suggest a balance and unity that transcends any superficial sense inherent to carefully followed public religion, or the escape from religion altogether. These symbols may seem simplistic to some, but in the context of the movie they are evocative, and beckon our gaze to the Beyond. We leave the movie appreciating the discipline of religious practice, and the dignity this practice bestows upon people. We are also left with the hope that there is a freedom and beauty in the Spirit that can perhaps bring us a new stability in our lives. At the same time, the movie acknowledges that the new globalized economy in which we live is not going away. How will we root ourselves by honoring the God of the Beginning and the Beyond if we do not have a religion or shared language for such a thing?
Don’t Look Up is described as a protest movie in relation to global warming. On that count, the movie is largely a failure. However, the movie does evocatively remind us of the beauty and mystery of life on this earth amidst the suffering, violence, and general inanities of human existence in political and cultural form. Politicians are portrayed as self-serving and short sighted, looking only to consolidate their power in the next election cycle, largely through control of image via the media. The media of today is shown to be concerned first with entertainment, second with ideological positions, and possibly in the end, with the story itself. Our nouveau riche, made so by the tech industry, are shown to be not only utterly self-serving behind the veneer of making life better for people, but are blindly guided by an ideology resting on progress. Sir Peter Isherwell, the representative character for this class of people, firmly believes that computer technology, married to the person, can help us evolve into a glorious future.
These corruptible estates in the body politic are fat targets, and easy for any of us to recognize. The movie goes one step further, however. The distractions of our day and age, made louder and more colorful with technology, turn the most serious statement of concern—that our earth is about to be destroyed by an asteroid—into a meme that people can laugh at through the given day. Scientists like the character Doctor Randall Mindy, governed by a quest for the unadulterated, scientific facts, succumb to the demonic allures we all face, namely, the desires for wealth, power, fame, and pleasure. No one is immune from our fallen condition in this movie, including average citizens, who are taken in by the memes and other distractions being pumped at them through the media. Where has the gift of reason, endowed to all of us, flown to? The movie makes it clear that the wonders of life lie at our collective mercy. Yet the movie also shows that all of us, from our political leaders to our skateboarders, are engaging with reality through the eyes of fantasy, or seeking to escape reality through ideology or pleasure.
In the moments leading to the comet’s collision with earth, the transcendent source of truth is realized by a group of friends breaking bread together. Reconciliation has healed fractured relationships during the happy preparation of the feast, walls between people have tumbled down, and giving thanks to a God some may never have believed in suddenly feels like the most natural thing to do. Divine presence is experienced as real and enlivening. The word of God is no longer something to believe in or not. Rather, it is something in their midst. In the face of impending death, the dinner table prayer to a Heavenly Father feels very evocative indeed. Now Doctor Randall Mindy, at the head of the table, has a new insight that eclipses the noise of distraction and conflict in his society. He realizes soulfully that there was something good and beautiful here in their collective life. Consider this a spoiler alert; in the tale, the comet strikes earth, rendering the characters’ new found sensitivity to divine presence moot. For viewers of the movie, however, life goes on after the film credits have rolled.
Any interested observer of culture will wonder: will the viewer of Don’t Look Up or A Hologram for the King recognize what has happened for the characters, and likewise, grow in openness to divine presence in all its mystery? Or, will interested observers treat the movies as mere entertainment, and simply click to the next movie, or the next distraction, in order to avoid a world that remains frustratingly in transition, opposing our designs, and threatening our status and our relationships? The hope is that the gravitas found in the closing scenes of these movies will remain for some viewers like the proverbial seed, because eventually life does grow serious for each of us, and we all need to turn somewhere in the search for understanding.
Originally appeared on VoegelinView Read More