The Nuns are Right: Grace is More than Nature
Terence Malick's The Tree of Life
In The Tree of Life there is a beauty which is seen in the gentle beings who travel the way of grace not the way of coercive power. The coercive power of nature -- hurricanes, tsunamis, the domination of animals over others, and the controlling power of humans -- has tragic beauty of its own, but it lacks a kind of divinity. It is not yet the way of grace. The nuns are right. In the long run we see the smile in all things, not through power but through love.
Raw beauty seeking grace
An extended, stunningly crafted visual montage of creation follows. A voice-over speaks of two ways, nature and grace, between which we must choose.
Raw beauty seeking grace. Thus Denis Hack titles his review of The Tree of Life, the story of a family in Waco, Texas in 1956. In the movie the older son suffers a loss of innocence and struggles with his parents' conflicting teachings. The movie, directed and written by Terrence Malick, features Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, and Jessica Chastain. You get a good sense of it from the clip above.
Critics of the Film
Denis Haack, a Christian film critic, likes the film but thinks it should have included reference to the fact that grace is perfected in the way that, as Jesus was crucified, an atonement occurred that shows the way of grace.
Other Christians like the film but think that it should have recognized that nature, too, is filled with grace. Here is how one respondent -- Casey Tucker -- puts it after seeing the trailer, but not seeing the movie as a whole:
I would like to see this movie, but based on this and the comments I can see that there is some serious theological error. Grace perfects nature; they are not in opposition—one elevates the other. The Natural Law is the universal guide, and then with Revelation comes grace.
Appreciating the Film
As a Christian myself, I have no desire to quarrel with either Denis Haack or Casey Tucker. I, too, live with a sense that natural world is good in its own right, and perfected by a kind of love that was revealed, but not exhausted, in the healing ministry of Jesus, including his crucifixion and resurrection. And I live with a sense that we can gain guidance from the natural world itself. There is a kind of Natural Law that is good and beautiful, found within each of us and seen in the hills and rivers, the trees and stars. It has to do with learning to live within limits and with respecting our place in a larger web of life. When we violate this law of nature we fall into excessive forms of greed, appallingly forms of violence, and an inordinate and devastating influence on the rest of nature, as evidenced in global climate change.
But as I watch the video above, I get a different sense of nature. I do not think the nuns are talking the beauty of the hills and rivers and trees and stars; or about the universal laws we all rightly obey, but about an aspect of the natural world, fairly pervasive and manifest in human beings as well, which seeks to please itself and likes to be lord over other things.
In process theology we speak of this as unilateral power, and we juxtapose it with another kind of power that we call relational power. You can get a good description of these two kinds of power in an article in this website called Relational Power by C. Robert Mesle in Relational Power.
God's Grace is Relational not Unilateral
In process theology we further propose that relational power is the very kind of power that God exercises in relation to the world, and this power also dwells within each of us as a revelation from God.
It is the voice within us which says, along with the nuns, that we are happiest when we are humble, when we do not respond to violence with violence, when we live lightly on the earth and gently with each other.
If we live in this way, we are inwardly free, and we do not need to be recognized by the world as powerful. Our power is of a different order. It is a way of grace not a way of nature.
Process theologians further suggest that the evolution of cosmos itself has come about, not through the powers of coercion, but rather through the power of creation. The mystery at the heart of the universe -- God -- acts through the power of love not force. Rabbi Bradley Artson puts it well in his article: God Almighty? No Way. The way of grace may not be all-controlling or all-dominating; but it is all-tender and that is enough, in the long run, to melt even the most hardened of souls. This is the kind of grace revealed in the healing ministry of Jesus, and it is also the Wisdom of God -- the Logos -- by which the galaxies were beckoned into existence. It is a grace which gives rise to beauty, wonder by wonder, lifetime by lifetime, breath by breath, moment by moment, with a poignancy beyond all terror.