A Space Theodicy

by Matthew Sitman

David Mihalyfy offers a theologically-inflected take on the film Gravity, noting that in addition to the “survival narrative” of astronauts Ryan Stone and Matt Kowalski (played by Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, respectively) struggling to make it back to earth, there’s another story going on:

[I]n the parallel and primary narrative of “rebirth as a possible outcome of adversity” (to use [director Alfonso] Cuaron’s words), the emotionally remote Stone works through the death of her young daughter. In what film critic Stephanie Zacharek calls “as apt and unsentimental a metaphor for prayer as I can think of,” Kowalski has to persuade Stone to keep talking during a communications blackout with Houston mission control since “if someone is listening they might just save your life.” After the two astronauts are separated, Stone in a desperate moment confesses her inability to pray since “no one ever taught me how,” but a hallucination of the dead Kowalski ends her reticence and she pours out messages for her daughter. When, finally, she is back on earth, she says a single “Thank you” as the very last words of the film.

This parallel narrative rebuts popular arguments that the existence of evil prove that there is no God. As Dawkins has written in his book, The God Delusion, attempts to “justify suffering in a world run by God” are “beyond satire.”

For Cuaron, however, the greatest unexpected gift trumps the worst unexpected evil. “Your kid died, doesn’t get any rougher than that,” the dead Kowalski tells Stone in her hallucination. But Stone’s improbable return to earth finds her renewed spiritually and thankful for her life.

Mihalyfy doesn’t quite make this explicit, but what he’s doing in this essay nicely connects to how I would argue religious people, especially Christians, should grapple with the problem of evil and suffering.

On the one hand, there’s the perennial temptation to try to explain the ways of God to men, to produce a philosophical or theological argument that somehow squares the existence of an all-powerful, all-loving God with the tragedies and hardships, both great and small, we see and experience. Some of these arguments are more persuasive than others, but they tend to leave me cold. They often seem to rely, at least implicitly, on an understanding of the divine that makes God a bigger, more powerful version of ourselves – when we ask why God “allows” evil in the world, we impose a model of choice and decision onto God that’s extracted from our own experiences. God figures in these debates like a character in one of those ethics problems you encounter in an introductory philosophy course, which is exactly the kind of anthropomorphism classical theism strives to avoid. Note how Dawkins, in the quote above, writes that God “runs” the universe, as if God were a CEO or president. As Mihalyfy asks in his essay, “Of all people, who better than an astronaut to understand that there is not a physical God sitting up somewhere in the sky?”

The better question, then, is not why does God permit suffering, but how do we respond to it? What resources do we – whether religious or not – have to deal with suffering when it inevitably comes? The Christian answers by pointing to Jesus, the suffering servant. The Christian God is a God who suffered with us and for us in the person of Jesus, who knows in full what it means to experience pain, loneliness, anguish, and death. And, even more, in the mysterious accounts of Jesus’ resurrection, we are told that suffering does not have the final word. This does not really “make sense” of suffering, but it does make Christianity a faith that has solidarity with, and deep compassion for, those who suffer at its core. It means that Christians can say to sufferers that they are understood and loved in the midst of their suffering, not just by those around them, but by God – and that this understanding and love is not the mere whim or benevolence certain people might choose to exhibit, but acts of mercy that point to what is ultimately deepest and truest about our existence.

Here’s one more passage from Mihalyfy, a gloss on Stone’s gratitude at the end of the film:

As the script specifies, Stone “drags herself from the water, like the first amphibious life form crawling out of the primordial soup onto land.” After she stands, she looks around, and then, as the music swells in a major key, she tilts her head upward. The camera-shot from below emphasizes Stone staring into the heavens. Yes, evolution exists, Cuaron communicates, but when the odd phenomenon of life is comprehended by the life-form that has become sentient, the fact that there is life at all confirms the activity of a benevolent God.

The Christian vision is one in which suffering is real and terrible but not, ultimately, the deepest element of our lives. Our hope is that there’s a goodness and love more enduring than our trials and tribulations that, paradoxically, suffering actually can reveal. This is not to claim Gravity is a “Christian” film – indeed, Milhalfy notices that both Christian and Buddhist imagery figures in the movie. Instead, it seems that spiritual resources – something like prayer, especially – allow Ryan Stone to endure suffering, and to cultivate gratitude for her life despite such suffering. I’m far more interested in how that actually happens, how faith and spirituality can connect with the suffering person to allow them to move forward and live, than I am in debating the theodicy problem with atheists whose view of God is as crude as the fundamentalists they so frequently deride.