Immanent Responsibility: Freedom and Despair in Winter Light (1963) and First Reformed (2017)
Konner Childers · August 25, 2023
13 min read
Look people have, throughout history, woken up in the dead of the night, confronted by blackness…the sense that our lives are without meaning, the sickness unto death—
Yeah, but this is something different!
(Ernst and Michael)
I don’t know if we can ever evade the familiar yet often cumbersome shadow of our ‘roots’, but whether they serve as the object of our antipathy, source of embarrassment, or anchor for our lives, we operate in terms of our social and cognitive history. In this sense, those of us who have moved on (or tried to) might benefit from wrestling once again with the antiquated traditions we have since abandoned. In my youth, I cut my teeth on Calvinism and matured within such a context. For me, piety involved self-denial, compassion, and asceticism (reminiscent of monastic traditions). Yet this sense of responsibility was juxtaposed with a pessimistic anthropology: the human condition is one of profound depravity, meaning we are inclined to hurt others and pollute all that is good. So, these methods of piety were part of recovering from such an internal sickness, the methods themselves being a part of divine grace. Today, I still find value in some of the general principles of responsibility and Reformed (“Calvinism” and “Reformed” are interchangeable) self-cultivation, even if I am not a practitioner. I mention all this because there is an intelligent re-packaging of these principles in a recent film, something meaningful and convicting for us today.
Paul Schrader’s First Reformed (2017) is one of the most poignant, honest, and clever films made in recent years. It depicts an alcoholic pastor of a Calvinist church, Ernst Toller, who experiences a crisis of faith. So far, there is nothing quite new here. However, the way Schrader flips a familiar motif inside out gives us a lingering moment to face ourselves and one another in the context of the Anthropocene. Before reviewing the film, I should note that Schrader intentionally structures the story to parallel Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light (1963), wherein a local pastor loses and vaguely regains his faith in a “silent god.” Winter Light is the second installment of Bergman’s trilogy, a trilogy structured around divine silence.. Although highlighting the structural similarity in their respective narratives is a goal of this essay, I hope to, in the end, clarify the ways in which the thematic content is diametrically opposed. Both deal with what theologians call “theodicy,” namely, an answer to the problem of evil in a religious context. Both are apocalyptic in nature: in the films a revelatory experience for the protagonist uproots the narrative and he is reborn into a new world. Theodicy, at least in certain religious traditions (e.g., Second Temple Judaism), is traditionally apocalyptic: the revelation and explanation of evil is only intelligible in terms of the creation and recreation of the world. So, for the mid-20th century Winter Light, there is no theodicy. There is no way to reconcile the horrors of the world with a benevolent deity. As a result, a minister loses their faith in the kerygma—that is, the eschatological proclamation of hope one finds in Christian creeds. Schrader does something very interesting, yet subtle, in First Reformed: he suggests that the problem of evil is irrelevant, if it is even the right question to ask. In the Anthropocene, we have wrought potential decimation on our planet’s future. We have ensured wars and rumors of wars, plagues, and wastelands for both thalassic and dry ecosystems. For First Reformed, the problem of evil is the problem of us, and it does not concern divine silence; rather, it concerns our own silence and complicity in the destruction of the world. The problem is not how god can allow the horrors of the earth; it is, instead, that if there is a God, can sordid creatures such as ourselves be forgiven for allowing and creating those horrors?
The opening credits of First Reformed are presented in the same manner as one might expect if they were watching a mid-20th century film (à la Winter Light). As with Bergman, we begin in the sacred confines of a local church, engulfed in the atmospheric gloom of a cold, bristling, and arid landscape. On a second viewing of First Reformed, I noticed my initial response was to try and adjust my screen’s brightness, soon realizing the immense bleakness was not an error on my screen’s behalf. After a few well-crafted and symmetric shots, we see an isolated pastor writing his intentions to keep a record, consisting of both confession and reflection—“when writing about oneself, one should show no mercy.” The film is carefully dressed in apocalyptic garb: his recorded words will be destroyed in a year’s time, such that by introducing the written record we are made aware of how it shall expire—one might think of the lifetime of a sand mandala or even Buddhist eschatological parables about all things, even records, emptying in the end. This explicit self-awareness is not accidental for Reformed congregations. Indeed, as someone who has learned and developed in such a context, I should say that Max Weber, a German historian, seems entirely correct in tracing the reflexive scrupulosity of Western contemporaries back to Reformed Protestantism.¹ So, what happens when the entire foreground of a hyper-aware religious leader is shown to be complicit in the most reprehensible of acts? That is, remember the apocalyptic framing of our narrative: the duality of cosmic endings and beginnings. In this sense, we might say that the greatest sin is the destruction of creation (“the destroyers of the earth” Rev. 11:18).
In Winter Light, pastor Tomas administers the Eucharist and is later visited by someone worried about their despondent spouse (similarly to First Reformed). Tomas is asked to speak with Jonas, whose despair comes knowing that China’s nuclear armament has reached a new stage (this is not a sequel to Oppenheimer, so put the meme template away). Tomas tells Jonas, “We must trust god,” yet when Jonas meets his gaze Tomas cannot look him in the eye, knowing he himself does not believe those words. At the altar, upon hearing the kerygmatic promise, Tomas has a conversion experience. This is apocalyptic, insofar as it involves revelation; the scales descend from his eyes, and he sees that the haunting demon that threatens reprobation in his ear is a specter, an illusory void. Of course, this inversive scene is an iconoclastic commentary on religious life: liberation in the modern era is encapsulated in a pastor’s refusal to attempt to justify a silent god. Indeed, in a later scene, he starts his deconversion by retracting the vapid assurances he gave to the suicidal parishioner:
Picture my prayers to an echo-god… every time I confronted god with the realities I witnessed he turned into something ugly and revolting. A spider god, a monster.
Ironically, this occurs at the very altar by which he previously administered holy rites, the center of the cosmos for his parishioners; thus, his repudiation of the sacred is one swift upheaval. The eschatological foundation of re-creation—the very means of communion with the divine—is profaned, unmasked, and shattered. There, in space and time, Tomas is liberated and joyful.² It’s important that we unpack the logic of this development: Tomas cannot justify a silent god, whose passivity with respect to the horrors of the earth means he is either evil or nonexistent. Tomas cannot provide a satisfying answer to theodicy.
Returning to First Reformed, Ernst Toller, the pastor, is asked by a pregnant parishioner named Mary to tend to her depressed husband, Michael. As with Winter Light, the pastor is presented as confounded with doubt (he claims the journal he is writing is no different than the prayers uttered to god…“when he is listening”). From the moment he sits down with Michael, the film begins to carefully construct an inversion of the question and problem of evil (such as the one that plagued both Tomas and Jonas). The visceral and foreboding atmosphere in First Reformed is meant to elicit a feeling of remorse. In doing so, the film transgresses the form and function of theodicy. Let me explain. You see, Michael is not struggling at all with how a benevolent god could sanction all the suffering around us. Because that is not the issue. Rather, he is burdened with an impending fatherhood (unlike in Eraserhead). The world their child will enter faces insurmountable climatological disasters, posing cataclysmic risk for socioeconomic stability, agricultural security, global health, and housing. In typical Reformed fashion, we don’t begin with the problem of evil; instead, we have the problem of us. Notice how the thematic question posed to the pastor isn’t “How can a good god allow this?” The question he asks is, “Can god forgive us for what we have done to this planet?” In this sense, god is not in the dock needing justification. We are. One finds a similar pessimism in True Detective, where Rust reflects on losing his child with, “she spared me the sin of being a father.” The film kind of says, “Fuck it, let’s turn it up a notch” when it comes to abortion. Although the pro-life movement is typically associated with American Christians post-Nixon, the film, again, inverts what we might expect to be the zealot’s problem. For here, the ethical dilemma is whether it is sinful to not abort. Michael, as we have already seen, does not ask “how can god sanction all the evil in this world?” Rather, he asks “how do you sanction bringing a child into a world we have destroyed, ensuring their own suffering?”
It is uncomfortable watching a character unravel in the way Ernst does when talking to Michael. Every rebuttal and inquiry directed to Rev. Toller is met with two eyes darting to the floor, while his mendacious thumb caresses his mug like a crucifix. The conversion events in each movie are opposed: whereas Tomas is liberated from compunction with the death of god, Toller is convinced by what Michael has revealed (“I shared his beliefs but not his despair”) and is liberated towards responsibility. Toller already knows guilt intimately (“I talked my son into a war that had no moral justification”), yet the most important thing we can do in acknowledging our (global) iniquity is to continually accept responsibility in repairing our world. But this does not mean wallowing in condemnation and guilt—that would be another form of despair. Rather, as Toller (echoing Kierkegaard) says, “courage is the answer to despair…we have to choose despite uncertainty.” We should be on guard against two extremes, self-assurance and self-defeating despair, both of which constrain us to apathy. Each day I am tempted by the latter, as many of you probably are. But let us remember the contradiction Michael embodies: by virtue of being an activist and raising alarm he implicitly commits himself to the possibility of change and not a fatalist calamity.
If you don’t already know (spoiler alert), the stories of both Jonas and Michael begin and terminate in despair. Both end their life in the same manner as the other. Ironically, the greatest threats we face today are the climate crisis and nuclear warfare, the prospects of which drive Jonas and Michael to suicide. Michael’s funeral is uncomfortable, insofar as the reverberations of a teenage choir serve as a dissonant backdrop for a widow in a desolate industrial setting. When Mary spreads Michael’s cremated remains, it is not romantic. It is not pleasant. The ashes do not sweep away in a pneumatic whirl. Rather, she sits there struggling to empty the clumped ashes from the bag, while the wind refrains from acting and instead lets the legacy of her late suicidal husband cascade around her shoes. There is perhaps one funny moment (at least to me) in the film where after Michael’s death Toller writes in his journal: “What is one’s last thought before you pull the trigger? ‘There goes my head’ or ‘Jesus watch over me’ or neither?…I’m going to tear these pages out.” Although the film is tense, gritty, and dark, one should not take it as ultimately pessimistic. It offers a sallow image of our guilt, but it also offers some form of salvation. As Epictetus, an ancient Stoic philosopher, would say, our past transgressions and their consequences are no longer up to us. What’s done is done. But there are things still up to us, things that are still under our control. And that is our redemption: choosing to act in accordance with our responsibility to one another. There is always an approximately discrete point of the ‘here’ and ‘now’, in which we might recognize some redemptive moment to act in such a way that all sentient beings have a more secure and enjoyable future. At the end of the day, both you and I face a burden of responsibility. No one is going to save us from our own ineptitude, and nothing will exonerate us from the consequences of passivity.
For me, the well-known photograph of an emaciated polar bear (shown on Michael’s laptop) is Golgotha, in the sense that it is one of the most horrific events to observe, yet by virtue of bearing witness to it we can redeem ourselves. Those who know me know I am a vegan (vegetarian if that’s not possible). A deeply rooted conviction of mine is our collective and individual responsibility for animal welfare. That multitudes of sentient creatures will starve into extinction, panic in the pocket of wildfire, or expire under unrelenting heat means that nothing else should matter except mitigating the current and future harm we are creating. The chances to act in this capacity should be received as magnanimity.
Both First Reformed and Winter Light flirt with despair, and both offer avenues through and around it. But the problems posed in Winter Light, though amplified with the onset of modernity, are ill-posed. Whereas the looming problem in Bergman’s trilogy is the silence of god, First Reformed confronts us with our own silence. However, despair is a mistake. Though our ignominious participation in corrupting the earth precedes us, we always have moments of redemption, in which we can accept responsibility to heal our wasteland.
¹ Weber famously argued in his “Protestant work ethic” that the Reformed movement thoroughly subdued Western societies in a necessarily introspective way of life, such that self-awareness of one’s actions and guilt replaced self-assurance provided by Catholic indulgences for absolution of sin.
² One might think the expected response would be one of solemn and poignant reflection on the apparent absurdity of human existence without traditional dogma. But one should see past this cheap emotional ploy, disguised as something ‘profound’. Nihilism is not the culprit of cultural despair; the supposition that nihilism is the necessary conclusion for a secular age is the culprit. A world without god is not absurd; the ultimatum between theism and abject nihilism is absurd. Bergman is not disingenuous when showing Tomas as at peace with the death of god.
As opposed to Nietzsche’s madman being the ‘honest’ hero who bravely observes the conclusions of the Enlightenment, the delusional character is a proleptic cultural analysis, wherein melodrama and melancholy will unfortunately characterize the coming age’s response to the loss of a deity. See Robert Pippin in both: “Love and Death in Nietzsche,” in Religion after Metaphysics, ed. Mark Wrathall (Cambridge University Press, 2010), 7-28; “Nietzsche and the Melancholy of Modernity,” Social Research 66 no. 2 (Summer 1999): 495-520).
Konner (he/they) is a PhD student studying philosophy of physics and mathematics. Their interests include STEM, literature, film, and music. Find sometimes serious musings and pictures of his dog (Rory) on twitter: @weylperson. His website is konnerchilders.com
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