‘The Revenant’, Suffering and the Ethics of Beauty

“…he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire.” -2 Peter 1:4

“Who and what is the God who is to be known at the point upon which Holy Scripture concentrates our attention and thoughts?” -Karl Barth, Dogmatics in Outline

“…the good is an eternal reality, a transcendental truth that is ultimately identical with the very essence of God. God is not some gentleman or lady out there in the great beyond who happens to have a superlatively good character, but is the very ontological substance of goodness. The good is nothing less than God himself, in his aspect as the original source and ultimate end of all desire: that transcendent reality in which all things exist and in which the will has its highest fulfillment.” -David Bentley Hart, The Experience of God, p. 253-254

It’s always interesting when two separate interests collide and speak to one another. I’ve been slowly and deliberately making my way through David Bentley Hart’s ‘The Beauty of the Infinite’, and I have recently viewed the movie ‘The Revenant’ and was struck a heavy load unto my heart and mind after viewing it. Reading Hart’s work informed a lot of how I interpreted the movie, mostly from a philosophical and theological position and not so much a historical or sociological interpretation. This isn’t really going to be a review of the movie either, just a discussion on various themes that came to my mind as I watched.

The ‘Beauty of the Infinite’ is a densely breathtaking essay on “theological aesthetics.” Hart’s concern and objective for the essay (in his words) is:

“…a defense of the suasive loveliness of Christian rhetoric, as the coincidence without contradiction of beauty and peace, can be undertaken according to the opposition between two narratives of infinity: one that conceives of the infinite in terms of a primordial and inevitable violence, and one that regards the infinite as originally and everlastingly beautiful.” (p.5)

What struck me about ‘The Revenant’ was the overwhelming commitment to the idea of the infinite, or being, is to its core just inevitable violence. Along with the gratuitous beauty that surrounds the overwhelming suffering in these scenes. This is where the post-modern metaphysical critique comes into play, and most specifically the work of Frederich Nietzsche. Especially in his idea of “the will to power”, in which Nietzsche attempts to show that every absolute statement is a power grab of sorts, a type of control from one person over another. It’s more complex than how I just stated it, as Nietzsche himself proclaimed:

“Here we must be aware of superficiality and get to the bottom of the matter, resisting all sentimental weakness: life is essentially appropriation, injury, overpowering of what is alien and weaker; suppression, hardness, imposition of one’s own forms, incorporation and at least, at its mildest exploitation… life simply is will to power.” (Beyond Good & Evil, 203)

This is a theme throughout the entire film, the will to power. It is a brutal and grueling sight to behold as Glass (DiCaprio) seeks to have vengeance against a man in Fitzgerald (Hardy) for the wrong he has done to him. Coming back around to the problem at hand, the ethics of beauty and the will to power are pervasive themes and struck a deep nerve with me as I watched the film. Hart puts it eloquently:

“There is, moreover, an undeniable ethical offense in beauty; not only in its history as a preoccupation of privilege, the special concern of economically and socially enfranchised elite, but in the very gratuity with which it offers itself…its anodyne sweetness often seeming to make the most intolerable circumstances bearable: a village ravaged by pestilence may life in the shadow of a magnificent mountains ridge…Cambodian killing fields were often lushly flowered…” (p. 16)

This is utterly undeniable in the case of The Revenant. Not even just this film, but of life in general. If we take Nietzsche’s ontological claim seriously, it is striking and hauntingly prophetic. What leaped at me was my seeming flippant attitude towards these ideas; how much I was struck by the suffering not only historically of various groups of people, but of the suffering of creation and how much death and brokenness is to be found. This had not sat well with me, and I could do nothing but ask that inevitable question: “What is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?” (Ps 8:4) and “How long, O Lord will you hide your face?” (Ps 13:1)

This is where Hart seeks to offer an alternative ontology of being, one that is not inevitable violence but one of beauty and peace. This is the uniqueness of the Christian rhetoric, and the triune God is from which all being subsists and finds its origin. His being is eternally beauty and peace. Hart’s thought is heavily indebted to Gregory of Nyssa, and towards the end of the book gives a thought about the conclusion to be drawn from Gregory’s thought about Christian eschatology (to quote at length):

“A conclusion can be drawn from Gregory’s thought is that Christian eschatology…must inevitably subvert every kind of presumptuous discourse that would strive to put an end to the deferrals of difference. The eschatological -which remains a word of hope, a paschal evangel that denies death its tragic splendor- functions as a promise that the verdict of God is on the side of the particular, the name and face of the one lost, that his justice is not a transcendental reconciliation between chaos and order,violence and rest, but a reconciliation of the infinitely many sequences of difference. Which is to say that the promise that justice will never forget the other, that the other will always be blessed with an infinite regard and charged with infinite worth: not because the other belongs to an abyss of the ethical, but because the other belongs to the infinite beauty of the surface; because, as this eschatology insists, the entire weight of the infinite in which all things share, this infinite and infinitely various music, rests upon each instance, requires every voice.” (p. 411)

We as Christians do not own ourselves or our being but “belong from everlasting to Christ” (p. 411), and are freed from death by His work (life, death & resurrection), and are in wait until His return. Until then, we must, as Hart puts it so beautifully:

“…until that unending end that we await, though, our words may speak of him, invoke him on others, beckon others to him peacefully…” (p. 411)

As we beckon others and speak the Word, we must do it in the cadence of the infinite, as Hart puts it:

“…eternally beauty and peace…” (p. 411)

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