But I don’t want to be so hard on Malick’s failed comforter: there’s painfully little any of us can say to grief, or to any of the other human needs that inspire religious feeling. And I think it’s an inability or unwillingness to recognize that fact that is the deeper mistake of bad religious art: it wants to argue us into faith. It won’t rest without a moral, a message, a lesson to take home. But religious persuasion can’t work that way—because religious thought doesn’t work that way.
When we reach for our most fundamental beliefs—whether these are beliefs about a deity, or politics, or family—we aren’t likely to find words there. We’re much more likely to find images, metaphors, memories, half-felt impressions. We’re likely to find, that is, something far more slippery, more vague, more illogical than discursive argument. Words come afterwards—but the fact that they so often rest on a foundation of images goes a long way to explain why the most seemingly persuasive arguments fail so often: why we seek out evidence that confirms our beliefs; why we ignore evidence that does not; why being caught in contradictions often makes us hold on to them even tighter. Arguments rarely touch our central beliefs where they live, and the most perceptive religious thinkers understand this.
All true, and yet, and yet… I don’t think the chasm is quite so wide as all that. Arguments can serve as channels through which all that torrent of desire and emotion can be redirected. They can frame reality in a different way, even if it takes time for one’s perception to adjust, as in artwork where the figure is blended against the ground. People don’t change their minds on the spot when presented with an opposing argument, but given enough time, it may produce a subtle shift in their thinking. Persuasion is still worth the effort, is what I’m saying.
Why does music serve me in the same way as religion as described above? Why does it provide me with comfort, catharsis, inspiration, ecstasy and awe? I don’t know and don’t care, really. Those feelings don’t go away as one becomes more skeptical, and they don’t need to. But “religion” is not necessarily the answer for everything we can’t put into words. Arguments, words, as limited as they are, have made me aware of the futile, inherently confused nature of so many traditional yearnings: for gods, afterlives, and ultimate teleological meaning. I could never go back to those kind of simplistic narratives. But there’s so much more beyond those…
Also, I haven’t actually seen The Tree of Life, but here’s another interesting meditation on it in a similar vein:
For me this film is about how everything is sacred. The film clearly treats every second, every person, every thing as a thing of beauty. Every fleeting moment of life, whether it be the birth of a star or a family meal is as important and intertwined into the fabric of being as everything else. All these moments have an effect on how things unfold, no matter how large or small. The fragility and smallness of human life is blown up onto a grand a scale as the creation of everything itself. The film opens with the question of grief, and responds by showing us the vast complexity of everything, by some way of a non-verbal answer.