"We are such stuff as dreams are made on." Shakespeare, The Tempest

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Heaven Is For Real: Applying Kierkegaard to a Film

In Heaven Is For Real (2014), a film based on Todd Burpo’s best-selling non-fiction book of the same title, the evangelical Christian minister becomes convinced that his son, Colton, actually visited heaven while in surgery. Todd cannot make his faith-held belief intelligible to even his wife, Sonja. She misunderstands her husband and questions his obsession and even his sanity until Colton tells her something about heaven that applies to her uniquely. Then both parents are uniquely related in an absolute way through faith to the absolute—to the absurd, in Kierkegaard’s parlance. How Todd deals with his realization can be unpacked by applying the work of the nineteenth-century European philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard.

Before Sonja comes to believe in the impossible, a formidable wall stands between her and her husband as he grapples with whether to take heaven literally and comes to believe that Colton has been there.  “I’m sorry I can’t help you,” Sonja tells him at one point. His relation to the absolute, the impossible, has become isolating, for such a relation is individualized, according to Kierkegaard, and incommunicable to others.

In Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard dissects the Biblical story of Abraham being prepared to sacrifice his son Isaac. Essentially, Abraham goes above the ethical to embrace an absurd impossibility by faith. Faced with God's demand of sacrificing Isaac and God's promise that Abraham's seed will spread, Abraham has faith in the impossible on the strength of the absurd (i.e., that God will somehow present the old man with another child to fulfil the promise). It is absurd for God to have Abraham sacrifice his only offspring and yet promise that Abraham’s seed will populate the nations, yet somehow Abraham embraces this impossibility.

Kierkegaard contends that such an apparent impossibility held by faith cannot be communicated. A “knight of faith” must therefore be isolated in this respect. This is part of the price he or she pays for violating the ethical on the strength of the absurd, which transcends but does not obviate the ethical dimension. "Abraham is silent--but he cannot speak, therein lies the distress and anguish. For [Abraham might say] if when I speak I cannot make myself understood, I do not speak even if I keep talking without stop day and night. . . . The relief of speech is that it translates me into the universal."[1] By the universal, Kierkegaard has ethical principles in mind, for they are on the universal level because they are known inter-subjectively and thus can be understood by others.

For example, a person who resists the temptation to take more than his share of a food can be understood by others as doing so on the basis of fairness. This ethical principle is widely known, so a person acting ethically can appeal to fairness in justifying his or her action. In intending to violate his ethical duty to care for his son, Abraham no longer has access to ethical principles; a person of faith is alone, without recourse to shared understandings and thus support from other people. The paradox or impossibility embraced by faith "cannot be mediated,” Kierkegaard contends, “because it is based on the single individual's being, in his particularity, higher than the universal."[2]  A knight of faith, unlike an ethical hero, gives up recourse to intersubjective (i.e., universally understood) ethical principles; making matters worse, because the impossibility is particular to the individual (i.e., the faith is applied to a particular situation), it cannot be made intelligible for this reason too. God asks Abraham to sacrifice Isaac; it is not as if every man has the same demand and can thus stand in Abraham’s shoes. Therefore, Kierkegaard writes, "The true knight of faith is always [in] absolute isolation.”[3]

As effectively depicted in the film, Todd Burpo suffers from such isolation as he grapples with what his son is telling him and concludes that heaven is for real, rather than imaginary— a dream, fairy tale, or myth. That is to say, he takes heaven’s existence literally, rather than figuratively. Not only is Todd not understood; he is misunderstood, which puts him in a tight spot. Nancy Rawling, a member of the church’s board that oversees the minister, Todd, tells him that his obsession is hurting the church. Besides his leaves of absence, Nancy has a problem with what he is preaching. Underneath, she resents God for taking her son but allowing Colton to live. She does not know Todd’s isolated pain, and thus is jealous.

Before Sonja is convinced that Colton really did visit heaven, she chastises her husband for being sidetracked from cares of this world, including most notably their family. She does not understand that the absolute paradox of existence that so grips her husband is really about their family—Todd comes to this realization only at the end of the film.

Colton tells Todd, for example, that he sat on Pop’s (Todd’s maternal grandfather) lap in heaven. This sends Todd into a frantic search for pictures of the man. When Colton recognizes a boyhood picture, Todd is face to face with the absurd. “That’s impossible,” he says. “Everyone is young in heaven,” Colton explains matter-of-factly. Todd does not notice the inconsistency in one boy sitting on the lap of another boy roughly of the same age, or the convenience for Colton in everyone in heaven being approximately his age.[4]
Even Colton’s sister who died in the womb is Colton’s age in heaven. That a baby who had not made it out of the womb in life would exist as a girl Colton’s age in heaven is an absurdity that Sonja initially decries as impossible; but that Colton knows of the miscarriage, presumably from his visit, convinces his mother that her son had actually been in heaven, and, moreover, that heaven is real, literally. From her cognitive conclusion, Sonja suddenly has faith in the impossible. Even though Todd also believes that Colton spoke with the unnamed daughter in heaven, he and Sonja find they can only embrace without words on the strength of the absurd that transcends understanding.  The wholly other is finally ineffable; we are left with the experience of yearning beyond the limits of human cognition and perception.

Seeking nonetheless to be understood and to spread his new faith sourced in his particular circumstance, Todd feels the need to preach on heaven as literal—even inviting radio listeners to come hear him at his church on the next Sunday. “You don’t have to save the world; that’s already been done,” Nancy had already warned the evangelical minister. Kierkegaard warns that a false knight of faith is sectarian.[5] Todd’s partiality—his mission to get others to accept the absurd in spite of his unique vantage-point—stems from the obsession and feeds off pride. In his sermon, Todd claims that love demands telling people that they are loved. Does it? Might this be as much presumptuous as it is compassionate? Maybe love more naturally issues simply in being witnessed rather than being told.  In any case, his Augustinian conclusion from heaven being real (rather than imaginary) that God is love, and therefore that we should love one another, is hardly harmful, and it closes the gap that existed, when he wrestled with the absurd, between his preoccupation with heaven and tending to the people in this world.

Kierkegaard’s knight of faith "is the paradox [;] he is the individual, absolutely nothing but the individual, without connections and complications. This is the terror that the puny sectarian cannot endure. Instead of learning from this that he is incapable of greatness and plainly admitting it, . . . the poor wretch thinks he will achieve it by joining company with other poor wretches.”[6] Hence, Todd advertising his upcoming sermon on heaven to radio listeners can be taken as an attempt to pivot off the insecurity of a faith-based isolation by trying to convince other people of the veracity of his claim and being oriented to how they should live accordingly.

Kierkegaard tells us,

A knight of faith “is assigned to himself along [;] he has the pain of being unable to make himself intelligible to others but feels no vain desire to show others the way. . . . The false knight readily betrays himself by this instantly acquired proficiency; he just doesn't grasp the point that if another individual is to walk the same path he has to be just as much the individual and is therefore in no need of guidance, least of all from one anxious to press his services on others. Here again, people unable to bear the martyrdom of unintelligibility jump off the path, and choose instead, conveniently enough, the world's admiration of their proficiency. The true knight of faith is a witness, never a teacher, and in this lies the deep humanity in him which is more worth than this foolish concern for others' weal and woe which is honoured under the name of sympathy, but which is really nothing but vanity. A person who wants only to be a witness confesses thereby that no one, not even the least, needs another person's sympathy, or is to be put down so another can raise himself up."[7]
Todd expects his distended congregation to accept his faith-claim even though the minister came to it out of his particular relations. In fact, Todd goes on to tell them how they should live accordingly. He dismisses, in effect, the innate unintelligibility of the absurd. It is possible, nevertheless, that Colton’s visit is a dream or hallucination. After all, the book tells of Colton describing Jesus sitting on a throne just to the right of God—an image that fits with Todd’s evangelical paradigm. Interestingly, Colton’s repeated emphasis on heaven being beautiful does not necessarily point to, or require, a literal interpretation. Moreover, the meaning, and sense of spiritual well-being that the boy gets from the experience would not be diminished had he actually been dreaming or hallucinating—the latter from a hormone released by the human brain in the process of dying yet not dead.[8] In turning to preaching his message, Todd is vulnerable to building a house of cards on a fiction.

Kierkegaard’s false knight is plagued by pride, and is too weak to leverage the strength of the absurd into a sustained faith that can withstand the solitude of intelligibility and the ever-present possibility of non-existence (i.e., the visit being a fiction). The figure is akin to Nietzsche’s ascetic priest—a voluntarily-weakened bird of prey that is too weak to resist its (dominating) urge to feel the pleasure of power by dominating others. Telling others how to live by bracketing off areas of strength by Thou Shalt Nots, the weak herd animals who nonetheless seek to dominate are not strong enough to accept their inner constitution of weakness. They are not of true faith, and yet their herd follows them as if purblind. Were Todd content to be a  witness to love simply by loving, he would not feel the need to save the world on the word of his son. As Nancy points out, God’s Son has already done that.

[1] Soren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling (Penguin Books: London, 1985), p. 137.
[2] Ibid., p. 109.
[3] Ibid., p. 106.
[4] Colton may have been dreaming—sitting on his great grandfather’s lap without seeing the man’s face then suddenly the man is a boy like Colton.
[5] Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, p. 106.
[6] Ibid., p. 107.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Researchers from the University of Pittsburgh have studied the hormone and found it to have such a property. As for common images, we can look to cultural (i.e., shared) myths and the related archetypes (e.g., Jesus with a beard—an image that came about in the early Middle Ages—Jesus being represented as clean-shaven in the ancient Roman, or Patristic, epoch of Christianity).