Lars von Trier’s film, Melancholia, raises what Tillich calls “the religious question” and can be read through the lens of radical theology. This approach offers both an interpretation of the film and an entrée into radical theology.
Melancholia tells the story of two sisters, Justine and Claire. In the first part of the film, Justine has just been married and arrives at her wedding reception, held at Claire’s mansion. What follows is a nightmare scenario. Justine suffers from chronic depression, and try as she might, she cannot enjoy the party. She is beset my demands to enjoy herself by her family, her employer, and the wedding planner.
Each has different expectations of Justine. Her father is a hedonist, and encourages her to enjoy the extravagance of the party. Her mother is opposed to marriage, and encourages Justine to seek happiness by abandoning her new marriage. Justine’s wealthy brother-in-law, John, tells Justine that since he has spent “a great deal of money” on the wedding, he expects her to look happy in return. Her employer offers her a toast, but turns the moment into an opportunity to promote her to a new position at his ad agency, and demands that she give him a tagline for a new campaign that very evening. The wedding planner grows impatient as Justine’s withdrawal from the party due to her depression ruins his carefully laid plans.
Justine’s husband tries to console her with a photo of an orchard he has secretly bought for her, in the hopes that some day she can go there and be free of her depression. He gives her the photo to keep with her as a memento. After sexual foreplay, Justine abruptly leaves the room, leaving husband and photo behind as she distractedly wanders the opulent grounds of the estate.
Over the course of the evening, as Justine fails to meet the expectations of her family, employer, and social norms, and fails to enjoy the wealth, beauty, and sexual pleasure available to her, each guest turns against her in anger and frustration. As dawn breaks, Justine’s family has berated her, her new husband has abandoned her, and her boss has fired her. All bonds, familial, economic, and social, have been broken in the course of the evening.
The second part of the film takes place some time after the wedding. Justine has slipped into an almost catatonic depression. Strangely, in the time since the wedding, a massive rogue planet, named Melancholia, has emerged from behind the sun, on a path toward Earth. Astronomers predict that it will pass by the Earth, providing an amazing astronomical spectacle, but leaving the Earth untouched.
Justine’s brother-in-law John is an amateur astronomer, and follows news of the new planet enthusiastically. Justine’s sister Claire is afraid that the planet will collide with the Earth. Despite John’s insistence that astronomers have calculated its path and determined Earth’s safety, Claire obsesses about the planet, and visits websites that claim that the planet’s true course is being covered-up by authorities.
John spends his days with his son, Leo, excitedly anticipating the arrival of Melancholia. Claire spends her time caring for Justine, who she is able to gradually bring to good health. Leo is excited for his aunt’s return to health, as he wants to build “magic caves” with her, a request he makes repeatedly, thought Justine is as yet too ill to do this with him.
Gradually, Justine becomes more functional as Claire attends to her with patient care. Justine is able to care for herself, but remains depressed and uninterested in regaining all that she lost on her wedding day.
It soon becomes apparent that Melancholia will pass by Earth only to arc back again on a collision course. Justine welcomes the destruction of the Earth, calling the world “evil”. Claire is incredulous that Justine could say such a thing. John initially denies the prediction of disaster, but once his own calculations confirm it, he commits suicide. Claire is terrified of her and Leo’s impending doom, and tries to flee with him to the local village. After returning from this vain attempt at escape, Claire she tells Justine that she wants to spend their last moments together out on the terrace, with music and wine. Justine rejects this idea entirely, upsetting Claire.
Justine goes outside to Leo, and tells him they are going to build a magic cave. As Melancholia looms larger in the sky, the trio gather branches and make a tipi outside. They gather together inside, as Melancholia collides with and obliterates the Earth.
The Apocalypse of God
Melancholia captures what Peter Rollins terms the Apocalypse of God. (3)
This apocalypse is an event that Jesus initiates when he calls the Kingdom of God from the future into the present moment, bringing the transcendent into the immanent. This ushers in the religionless religion that Bonhoeffer identifies as faith:
“Faith is the participation in this being of Jesus (incarnation, cross, and resurrection). Our relation to God is not a ‘religious’ relationship to the highest, most powerful, and best Being imaginable – that is not authentic transcendence – but our relation to God is a new life in ‘existence for others’, through participation in the being of Jesus. The transcendental is not infinite and unattainable tasks, but the neighbour who is within reach in any given situation. God in human form – not, as in in oriental religions, in animal form, monstrous, chaotic, remote, and terrifying, nor in the conceptual forms of the absolute, metaphysical, infinite, etc., nor yet in the Greek divine-human form of ‘man in himself’, but ‘the man for others’, and therefore the Crucified, the man who lives out of the transcendent.” (4)
But what brings about the for-otherness? According to Rollins, it follows from the experience of crucifixion. (5)
To follow Christ is to follow Christ’s loss of all systems of meaning (religious, social, political, etc) on the cross. Crucifixion is the experience by which God calls us to enter the world without the power and protection of systems of meaning. Bonhoeffer says that
“[W]e cannot be honest unless we recognize that we have to live in the world etsi deus non daretur. And this is just what we do recognize – before God! … The God who lets us live in the world without the working hypothesis of God is the God before whom we stand continually. Before God and with God we live without God. God lets himself be pushed out of the world on to the cross. He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us.” (6)
In Melancholia, this stripping away of all systems of meaning happens to Justine at her wedding. Yet all of these were oppressive to her – they all made demands of her that she could not meet, and made promises of meaning upon which they did not deliver. Any investment she would have had in them would have been idolatrous. In Tillichian terms, if she had made any of these her ultimate concern, they would have failed to fulfill her. In this way, the stripping of these sources of meaning strips away the power these narratives have over her. So far, this is a properly Tillichian approach, but Rollins takes us further than Tillich. Where Tillich suggests that these idols fail because they do not ultimately fulfill, Rollins argues that anything that promises ultimate fulfillment is an idol. In this way, any image of God that offers fulfillment is an idol. Christ on the cross loses God. Bonhoeffer calls us to live without God. What is lost is the deus ex machina that guarantees meaning.
The crucifixion of Christ occurred outside of all systems of meaning. The crucified were stripped of political rights, were cast out of society, and to be crucified was to be cursed, religiously. So when Paul calls us to follow Christ (in whom there is no Jew or Greek, etc), we are being called to exit all systems of meaning. Christianity is not another meaning-granting system among many, it stands outside of all meaning-making systems. Bonhoeffer addresses it in this way:
“Here is the decisive difference between Christianity and all religions. Man’s religiosity makes him look in his distress to the power of God in the world: God is the deus ex machina. The Bible directs man to God’s powerlessness and suffering; only the suffering God can help. To that extent we may say that the development towards the world’s coming of age outlined above [the God of the gaps], which has done away with a false conception of God, opens up a way of seeing the God of the Bible, who wins power and space in the world by his weakness. This will probably be the starting point for our ‘secular interpretation’.”
Although Justine is liberated from the systems that oppressed her, her experience of liberation is devastating and traumatic, and suggestive of what is to come in the full Apocalypse of God.
It is once one has been liberated from these systems that the Apocalypse of God can occur, that one can be for-others, because one is no longer committed to this world, one is not defined by it, and so one can be for-others without prohibitions that arise from our systems of meaning. But how can one be for others if one rejects the world?
Starting from Nietzsche’s death of God, Altizer describes this rejection of the world as a radical No that allows for a radical Yes, an eschatological faith:
“Friedrich Nietzsche … brought to an end the metaphysical tradition in the West. … No longer is there a metaphysical hierarchy or order which can give meaning or value to existing beings. …[T]he proclamation of the death of God – or, more deeply, the willing of the death of God – is dialectical: a No-saying to God (the transcendence of Sein) makes possible a Yes-saying to human existence (Dasein, total existence in the here and now). Absolute transcendence is transformed into absolute immanence. … Nietzsche’s vision of Eternal Recurrence is the dialectical correlate of his proclamation of the death of God.” (7)
Altizer points out that Nietzsche’s critique of the Christ of Christianity makes room for Jesus:
“What Christianity has called the gospel is actually the opposite of that which Jesus lived: “ill tidings, a dysangel.” Christianity is a dysangel because it retreated into the very “history” which Jesus transcended and transformed, the transformation of blessedness of Jesus’ proclamation into the No-saying of resentment. Thus Nietzsche looked at Christianity as the stone upon the grave of Jesus.” (8)
So Christianity has acted to block the Apocalypse of God by becoming a meaning-making system (undoing the crucifixion), and it is this system that Nietzsche critiques. But Nietzsche’s critique leads us back to Jesus, and the possibility of a different kind of faith. Altizer again:
“[In Eternal Recurrence], opposites coincide, radical negation has become radical affirmation. … Does Nietzsche point the way to a form of faith that will be authentically contemporary and eschatological at once? We shall define eschatological faith as a form of faith that calls the believer out of his old life in history into a new Reality of grace. This Reality (the Kingdom of God) effects a radical transformation of the reality of the world, reversing both its forms and structures, a transformation that must finally culminate in the “end” of the world. … [I]n Jesus’ proclamations … the Kingdom of God ceases to be a promise and becomes instead a present reality. … [T]he Kingdom – supramundane, future, and belonging to a new era – penetrated from the future into the present, from its place in the beyond into this order, and was operative redemptively as a divine power, as an inbreaking realm of salvation.” (9)
Eschatological faith is also dialectical. The Kingdom of God and kosmos (“old creation”) are antithetical categories. … But Hellenistic Christianity assumed a non- dialectical form: the world became the arena of sanctification, redemption now takes place without any effect upon the actual order of the world. … The Church thus invested the world with an ontological reality … and thereby established what Kierkegaard was to call the great compromise of Christianity. … Christianity had become a “world-affirming” religion. … If the death of God has resurrected an authentic nothingness, then faith can no longer greet the world as the “creation”. Once again faith must know the world as “chaos”. … Therefore the dissolution of the “being” of the world has made possible the renewal of the stance of eschatological faith; for an ultimate and final No-saying to the world can dialectically pass into the Yes-saying of eschatological faith.”
Justine demonstrates with No-saying when she calls the world evil. Whereas John denies that Melancholia will destroy the world, and Claire is terrified that it might, Justine never indicates what her expectation is, though she welcomes an apocalypse, because the world, as it exists, is a source of oppression.
This echoes Tillich’s concern about reading God into the horizontal plane:
“If the idea of God (and the symbols that applied to Him) which expresses man’s ultimate concern is transferred to the horizontal plane, God becomes a being among others whose existence or nonexistence is a matter of inquiry. Nothing, perhaps, is more symptomatic of the loss of the dimension of depth than the permanent discussion about the existence or nonexistence of God – a discussion in which both sides are equally wrong, because the discussion itself is wrong and possible only after the loss of the dimension of depth.” (10)
For John and Claire, the threat posed by Melancholia is their ultimate concern. John responds to this threat by despair and suicide, and Claire responds by despair and religious ritual: she tries to flee what cannot be escaped, and then proposes “wine and music” at the mansion(Sunday morning, anyone?). The existence of the threat is of ultimate concern for the couple.
For Justine, however, the ultimate concern is the evil of the world. If Melancholia will destroy the evil world, she welcomes it. Her eschatological faith is one that is independent of the actual threat of Melancholia. If the rogue planet had simply passed by Earth, she would still remain committed to the destruction of the world.
Bonhoeffer puts it this way:
“Who is God? Not in the first place an abstract belief in God, in his omnipotence, etc. That is not a genuine experience of God, but a partial extension of the world. Encounter with Jesus Christ. The experience that a transformation of all human life is given in the fact that ‘Jesus is there only for others’. His ‘being there for others is the experience of transcendence. It is only this ‘being there for others’, maintained till death, that is the ground of his omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence.” (11)
Justine has experienced crucifixion. A personal apocalypse engenders in her an eschatological faith that prepares her for the Apocalypse of God: the coming of Melancholia to destroy the world. Because Justine’s faith is not a world-affirming faith, she can become other-affirming. The radical No produces a radical Yes. She says No to Claire’s religious responses to Melancholia, to anything that offers assurance (and not just false assurance). Justine’s radical Yes comes when she goes to Leo and tells him it is time to build a magic cave. Justine invokes magic and uses sticks to build an obviously-feeble shelter. There is absolutely no pretense here. The invocation of magic and the frail and failing shelter point directly to the coming Apocalypse, rather than directing Leo and Claire to thoughts of escape or survival. In this place of weakness, Justine comes together with those she loves, free to love them as they are as Melancholia/God comes to obliterate the world.
This is radical liturgy: an act of love that exposes and affirms our brokenness rather than trying to cover over it. In this space, Claire is able to weep, and to be with those she loves. Justine remains calm, and Leo, the child, waits almost expectantly. Radical liturgy does not draw us into despair, but acknowledges the place where we already are, and allows us to acknowledge it and share that place with others in love.
What happens after the world ends? What does the post-apocalypse look like? It is not a place where all is made right according to the systems of meaning of the old creation. It is a place that begins to emerge in the magic cave, in a place of weakness, united in love and frailty, open to the world-destroying, incoming Apocalypse of God.
1 Walter Kaufmann, trans., The Gay Science (New York: Vintage Books, 1974), 182.
2 F. Forrester Church, Ed., The Essential Tillich (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1987), 2-7
3 Peter Rollins, The Idolatry of God (New York: Howard Books, 2012)
4 John de Gruchy, ed., Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Witness to Jesus Christ (London: Collins, 1987), 273-75.
5 Peter Rollins, Insurrection (New York: Howard Books, 2011)
6 John de Gruchy, ed., Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Witness to Jesus Christ (London: Collins, 1987), 273-75.
7 Thomas J.J. Altizer and William Hamilton, Radical Theology and The Death of God (Indianapolis: Bobbs Merrill, 1966) 98-103.
10 F. Forrester Church, Ed., The Essential Tillich (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1987), 2-7
11 John de Gruchy, ed., Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Witness to Jesus Christ (London: Collins, 1987), 291.