Tuesday, January 21, 2014
A Review of Two Movies
I’d like to give the story lines of two movies being shown at my local theater. And yours. And everyone else’s on the planet. I’ll give away a bit of the plot, but guessing the titles of these movies will be up to you. I’d like to know which you think you’d like better.
The first begins with literally everything being blown away from what would be a single point in the middle of nowhere except that there is literally no where for it to be in the middle of. But soon the infinitely small particles that are everything begin forming bonds, some strong enough to eliminate practically all space between them, others setting some particles in orbit around other particles. Soon the smaller glomerations conglomerate, and so on, until there are glomerations so large that the viewer’s mind can comprehend neither the number of such glomerations nor their sizes.
For nine billion years, there is literally no life anywhere in this vast existence. Things change—the distances between the largest glomerations expand, and the structures of the smallest glomerations change, but because literally nothing that exists thinks, these changes are not thought of as progress. Nothing cares what happens: what happens, happens, and that’s that. For nine billion years this goes on.
After the nine billion years, on one glomeration that orbits another, larger glomeration that is one of incomprehensibly many such larger glomerations in one incomprehensibly super-glomeration that is one of an incomprehensibly large number of such super-glomerations, some small glomerations suddenly do something different. The camera doesn’t catch what they do, but they begin to combine in new, complex ways, and within a billion years these new agglomerations engage in processes totally unlike any previously seen anywhere in the universe: beginning as a small, extremely complex cluster of glomeration, each increases in size and complexity until some part of the complexity breaks down for any of a number of reasons, at which point the component glomerations return to simpler structures. That is, life appears: organisms begin life and die.
Before long some of these organisms consume other organisms, breaking them down into components that enable the consuming organisms to increase in complexity, and as time goes on, some consumers arise that not only grow more complex by consuming other organisms, they are able to maintain their current complexity only by consuming others. For billions of years organisms maintain their complexity by consuming—eating—others. Those that are successful in avoiding being eaten while eating others become more complex and numerous, having added such characteristics as the habit of reproducing themselves, the practice of transmitting abstract ideas like food and danger from one to another, and the ability to hide from predators. Those unable to avoid being eaten or killed for other reasons disappear.
For the first three billion years in which there is life on earth, the rule is simple: the stronger kill and often eat the weaker. But at some point—again, this event happens off camera—some members of this species—some humans—develop a unique means of self-preservation by inventing what they call morality and getting at least some of the strong to believe that even though they are able to kill the weak and would benefit from doing so, it is wrong for them to do so. Then to the degree the idea catches on, weaker humans are able to survive in human society by wielding morality the same way skunks, weaker as they are than the bobcat, can walk fearlessly through bobcat territory once bobcats understand the power of the stink gland.
In time, as human life depends less on physical labor, the idea of morality enables physically weak people to contribute to not only their own welfare but also to the welfare of humans stronger than they. And so it is that the idea of right and wrong, and the disregard of the might-makes-right ethos that had governed the entire history of life in the universe to that point, a survival strategy differing from those of other species only in that it applies exclusively to relationships between humans, makes it possible for humans to dominate the entire planet.
But the might-makes-right ethos never entirely disappears, and more powerful humans are still able to engage in zero-sum relationships with each other: wars to the death, enslavement of losers in wars, taxation of losers of elections, and pollution and government debt passed on to future generations. Wars and pollution eventually raise the planet’s level of toxicity to the point that the humans then living, who are also saddled with the debts incurred by the previous generations, which have also depleted the planet’s natural resources, do not have the wherewithal to return the planet to human habitability. Humans die off, beginning with the weak, but as the accumulated poisons destroy their genes, the stronger first mutate into a transitional species, which itself soon becomes unviable and dies off.
After the death of the last humans and their domesticated animals, all memory of them disappears, and, no other species having developed morality, the earlier zero-sum, might-makes-right ethos alone rules the planet for the next untold billions of years until its sun becomes a supernova and consumes it, ending all life. After billions or trillions or quadrillions of years—it’s hard to tell—the gravitational attraction of the galaxies overcomes the momentum of the initial explosion and they begin to come together. Eventually all particles in the universe converge on one spot, and the movie ends leaving the viewer wondering if the entire process will be repeated.
So we have a universe unaware of its own existence, no aspect of which is aware of its own existence, with the exception of a few complex agglomerations of otherwise insentient matter whose history spans an imperceptible fraction of that of the otherwise dead universe. These organisms die off to the regret of no one, and death reigns until all matter is completely destroyed. Maybe.
The second movie, unlike the first, has a protagonist, but he never comes on camera. In fact, though the viewer knows that he exists, the story line consists of what happens to the characters as they try to decide whether or not he does and act out that decision.
God, the protagonist, creates the universe because he is by nature community and he wants to enjoy the company of beings unlike himself in that they are not God, but like him in being good, generous, and loving. However, he also desires to show himself to be forgiving and self-sacrificial, and this provides the basis for the conflict: he creates an incomprehensibly wide variety of beings, the weaker with mass and volume, the more powerful without, but these creatures, fully aware that he is good and that rebellion against him is inexcusably evil, rebel against him.
This rebellion becomes the central point of the story, as the creatures do everything they can to avoid the death that is the creator’s recompense for rebels, while refusing his offer to forgive those who repent of their rebellion. The guiding principle of the societies built by the rebels is that might makes right. On a personal level this plays out in murder and other forms of assault, theft and vandalism, adultery and fraud, and perjury and slander. On a larger level it is seen in war, slavery, taxation, eminent domain, and other forms of oppression.
The story’s turning point is where God himself intervenes by sending the being he loves most, his son (yes, you read that right), to show his goodness, generosity, love, forgiveness, and willingness to sacrifice himself by living among the species he created in his own image and allowing those people to kill his son. He then makes his son come alive, and promises to forgive the unforgivable and give eternal life to those who make his son their master.
The son’s slaves begin as a small community, but they eventually conquer the world through deeds of love and mercy. Some of them are killed for their obedience to the son, some disobey the son in horrible ways, not everyone joins them, and sometimes whole areas that were in at least some semblance of submission to the son turn away from him, but eventually the whole earth in some sense acknowledges the mastery of the Son and so is characterized by justice and peace.
Later God gathers his son’s slaves together and graciously allows them, undeserving as they are, to live with him forever in a new, resplendent universe, and to give those who have rejected his son the eternal punishment they deserve.
So we have two stories that could not be more different. One begins with lifeless disorder, proceeds into order and eventually life in which might almost without exception makes right, swallows that life up in death, and ends when the lifeless order again descends into nothingness. The other begins with life, passes through a brief period in which death first thrives and then is conquered, and ends with a look forward to eternal life.
I know which one I would like to see. How about you?