Terrence Malick Redux – Nature vs. Grace

“The nuns taught us there were two ways through life—the way of nature and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you’ll follow… Grace doesn’t try to please itself. Accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked. Accepts insults and injuries… Nature only wants to please itself. Get others to please it too. Likes to lord it over them. To have its own way. It finds reasons to be unhappy when all the world is shining around it and love is smiling through all things.’ – from the film ‘The Tree of Life.”

“You desire to live “according to nature?” Oh you noble Stoics, what fraud of words! Imagine to yourselves a being like nature, boundlessly extravagant, boundlessly indifferent, without purpose or consideration, without pity or justice, at once fruitful and barren and uncertain: imagine to yourselves indifference as a power – how could you live according with such indifference? To live – is not that just endeavouring to be otherwise than this nature?” – German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.


I don’t know if you’ve taken a holiday recently. If you have, then you might find this easier. You might be more capable of lifting your mind out, above the water, above the littleness of daily life. You might be more able to find your imagination.

Imagine a beach.

Imagine a scattering of rocks cast across the sand, each of different shape, each of different size. Then a wave comes, carrying some away, leaving others behind. And then another wave arrives, and then another.

After this reasonably modest storm our beach is sparse: many of the rocks have gone. Many of the little black dots have left us, and there is endless golden yellow and blue. We have clean smooth sand in front of us. Now, certainly, the light rocks have all departed, as have the smooth ones. The waves have selected from the rocks, they have ensured the survival of only the fittest, only those who cling hardest to the beach, only those who struggle most forcefully for permanence, are allowed to continue. Our population of rocks is heavier, more jagged, more embedded into the landscape. The waves claimed what was weak and kept what was resilient. The survivers cling to the beach with all their strength.

But then again, if we stop and think, they don’t ‘cling’ to the beach do they? That’s the whole point isn’t it? We have described an impersonal process. Only life ‘clings.’ Only life ‘struggles.’ We do not have life here on our imaginary beach – we have pebbles on the sand.

The theory of evolution is often personified. We speak of ‘selfish genes,’ of ‘the struggle for survival,’ of ‘the purpose of evolution.’ But this is just us attempting to wrap our heads around an impersonal process. A wave rises up the sand, and the beach keeps the strong and discards the weak, that’s it, and the rest is anthropomorphism.

Now imagine if our rocks could breed, every hour, as long as the wave hasn’t taken them. Wouldn’t the rocks gradually grow more and more resilient to the swell? Perhaps we might call this rock, eventually, a crab, but the difference between a rock and a crab is simply time. They are, essentially speaking, the same. A rock that could breed, plus trillions of trillions of waves, is a crab. That mighty barrier separating the living from the non-living, in our minds, and in our hearts, is not quite the fortress that we thought it was.

The waves of the evolutionary process of course stand for the threats to survival, and the rocks are combinations of cells. The threats wipe out the less well-adjusted combinations of cells, resulting in gradual progress. The contribution of neo-Darwinian thought is to incorporate DNA and RNA into this process (unlike a Lamarckian model the organisms are not passing experience onto their descendants, but just their genetic blueprint). (The one guy reading this who has actually studied evolutionary biology loved that paragraph and everyone else nearly closed the page).

Now this is our explanation of all of life. It is an impersonal explanation. So try hard to strip away all of the personifications you have attributed to it. You are not a ‘living identity.’ You are a great assembled swarm of individual cells that have resisted the waves together, not because they wanted to (cells are no more personal than rocks remember) but just because they did, just because they had the right shape. Now the patterns that these cells have formed together are quite incredible. But essentially, we are just complicated rocks that have withstood the rising and falling swell of the mindless universe around us by gradually becoming more resilient organisms, doing so accidentally, entirely without intention.

Now one consequence of a proper understanding of evolutionary theory, stripped of all personifications, is that the traditional boundary between living and non-living, and between conscious and non-conscious life, has been significantly weakened. A human being is not as separated from a pebble upon the ground, as we once thought she was. The difference is one of ‘extent’, not so much ‘category.’ We can’t say that one has a ‘soul,’ or that one is made of some super material substance. No, if you could take enough pebbles, reduce them to their underlying atomic components, and then reassemble them into the right shape, you would have a human.

If we bring string theory into it, then we would speculate that all of the diversity of the periodic table is simply strings vibrating in different ways. Everything (lakes, trees, koalas, skyscrapers, dentists, iPhone’s) reduces on the atomic scale to just one type of thing, strings, little one dimensional building blocks.

So then that gaping chasm between a human being and a slab of pavement, that traditionally meant so much to human identity, has been narrowed to a sliver. Hence perhaps why Peter Singer is so quick to accuse those who attribute extra worth to humans of ‘speciesism.’ Perhaps he is right. Perhaps when we consider humans to be oh so valuable, and donkeys not so much, we are discriminating unfairly.

But I don’t think that Singer is being entirely fair here. He is always talking about the barrier between man and animal, and good on him. But why doesn’t he ever want to talk about the barrier between pebble and crab? That’s why, to my mind, Nietzsche is a much better philosopher. He pulls down all barriers, without special pleading. He obliterates the gap between man and animal, by obliterating the gap between man and rock. He doesn’t just knock down a few houses, he bulldozes the town. And I think, if Nietzsche was to use Singer’s language, he would simply accuse those materialists who assign great worth to life in general, of lifeism.

And if Singer is right (and I sure think he is), with the few tentative steps he takes, then Nietzsche is right to carpet bomb the village.

That is to say, that if this remarkable thing we call humanity has arisen purely by mindless processes (an accidental byproduct of the rising and falling of waves), then there isn’t much basis for that reasonably crucial belief most of us hold that says that human beings are valuable. Mr Singer wants to do some very delicate trimming of a few upper branches and the problem with that, and I hate to say this, is that his tree has no trunk.


One other way that people personify evolution is by saying that that we must somehow obey its edicts. Some in the eugenics movement argued that we have a moral duty to further our own evolution as a species by destroying the weak and breeding the strong. Evolution is our master, they were implying, and we must obey it. Nature is progress. Nature is survival of the fit and abandonment of the weak. We must conform to nature. But they misunderstand what evolution is. Evolution has no purpose. Do the rocks on the beach have a destination in mind? Do the waves have a goal that they strive towards? So neither then do our cells, which are just as impersonal. So then there is no ‘ought’ that we can derive from the processes of evolution. There are no moral judgments. There are just rocks, bouncing against rocks, producing people (incrementally, and over much time). So then why should we feel compelled to conform our lives to the directions and manners of nature? I am not bound to obey some mindless process of rocks and waves. Nature just ‘is,’ it cannot produce an ‘ought.’

Now this is great news, because to this point no civilisation founded on the principles of Darwinian evolution has been anything less than a train wreck.

If we are to build a workable society, we must not build it on the principles of nature (as if nature has principles, another personification). No we must build upon whatever it is – this strange spark inside us – that makes us turn to each other in love. Now we can explain this impulse, love, by way of neo-Darwinian theory. Love produces babies (I’ll leave the details out). Love allows for cooperation, trade, the shadows of what we now call society. Yes love can be explained by its evolutionary roots.

But evolution on its own leaves the concept hollowed out and dry. If the evolutionary explanation of love is the whole story. If love is *just* a complex way of evolved rocks propagating their existence mindlessly, then we have stripped love of its majesty. Love becomes an illusion foisted upon our brain by our genes to promote survival. It feels like we are tapping into something cosmic, something Earth bending, something out there, real and meaningful. But no, no, it’s just that your atoms see in someone else’s atoms the possibility of propagation or trade, and so particular chemicals are secreted which encourage your brain to care.

If we close the door on the divine, on the idea of a creator, if we have just a material explanation, and not an explanation by way of agency, then we reduce the whole universe to just physical laws and mindless atomic incidents. Everything that we care about, literally every single thing, is just atoms bumping into atoms in different ways. It is just waves and rocks and some going and some remaining.

Now (and I want to say this without personification), some people do live in a way that mirrors the impersonal processes of evolution that made us. Some people have a view of life that is hard and inflexible.

“It takes fierce will to get ahead in this world. If you’re good, people take advantage of you.”

“Toscanini once recorded a piece sixty five times. You know what he said when he finished? “It could be better.” Think about it.”

Striving constantly, for notice, for permanence, for existence, clawing away at your competitors, pushing them down and you up – that is what survival of the fittest means. In such actions, we all announce that we think life is just some mindless struggle for survival. In such actions we proclaim that we think life all stems from meaninglessness. Such actions stem from this atomic view, imbibed not expressed. It all stems from a view that you get one chance in this hostile universe, and the only way you’re going to take that chance it is through struggle.

“In this world, a man, himself, is nothing. And there ain’t no world but this one. There’s not some other world out there where everything’s gonna be okay. There’s just this one, just this rock.”

And then they pin Jesus Christ to a cross and he says, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do,” and there isn’t anything in that sentence consonant with the way of nature. It is a sentence only makes sense, as a way of life, if there’s something else out there. I mean if matter is it, if we are just evolved rocks, if we get one life, one chance to rise, then getting killed when you could have shied away from truth, and going down speaking words of forgiveness, it just doesn’t fit. Jesus gets no payback for his righteous death.

And that is the way of grace. It is a way of life that tries, at great expense to itself, to spread light and life to everyone else. It encourages itself to fall, so others rise up. It defies evolution, turns against it, subverts it.

It believes that the universe is made of more than just matter. Sure, it leaves room for the physics. I am not arguing for some simplistic either/or dichotomy. No I am arguing for both. I am arguing for a view in addition to the physical, mechanical explanations, not instead of them. Such a view may fit very well with evolutionary theory. But rather than say that evolution is the whole show, it says that evolution is just a tool that the creator used.

In doing so it injects meaning into this drab, mechanical, atomic reality, rescuing it from nihilism, turning people from atomic colonies, into human beings. It asserts that this mortal struggle is only one chapter in the book, and not even the best one. As comfortable as it sometimes looks, as natural as it seems, this is not home. We are stowaways here. We are exiled to the universe. We came from somewhere far over the rainbow and this is just a halfway house. There’s better accommodation on the way.

“Do good to them. Wonder. Hope.”

“Help each other. Love everyone. Every leaf. Every ray of light. Forgive.”

It looks naive. It looks foolish to this world around us. Maybe it looks weak and sentimental. It isn’t about rigid religious judgement. It’s just basically, a way of life that at its core embodies selfless love and hope.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” – Jesus Christ, from his sermon on the mount.

This difference here, between the way of nature, and the way of grace, is I think perhaps the core theme explored in Terrence Malick’s the Tree of Life and the Thin Red Line.


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