Cinema Insight: About Time…And Eternity

by Joshua Clemmons

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Predestination is one of the big mysteries. In a lot of theological conversations, even the amateur kind that might occur over a beer or coffee, one finds the discourse eventually honing in on this question: How does God, who knows everything and is all-powerful, either permit or operate in the world in such a way that allows for real freedom on our part?  

Why not pick the possible world in which Adam and Eve didn’t eat the fruit? In the liturgy in the Catholic Church, at the Great Easter Vigil, in the Exultet we say “oh necessary fault of Adam.” Felix culpa. “Happy fault.” It’s a mystery, first and foremost, and it’s a mystery of light, not simply and only of dark, though that’s there too. It’s a mystery because it goes beyond the human capacity to really understand, not because it’s irrational, but because it’s supra-rational. We might only ever glimpse a truth about the mystery that is God’s governance. To know some truth about Upper Management, it is like peeking through a keyhole at an infinite expanse. Still, I do think that we can say something about it.  

I think I might have found a slight insight from a movie, in fact, and it is my hope that exploring certain background assumptions for the plotline to be sensible, I can articulate something of an intuition about God’s providence.  The movie I’m thinking of is About Time.  Though it involves time travel, it is not sci-fi. It’s actually a feel-good movie, and somewhat of a romantic comedy. It’s also a good father-son movie. It’s thematically rich.  

Spoiler alert! I’m going to have to give you a little bit of the plot, but it’s still very much worth a watch and one of those movies that will make me laugh and cry every time. I think it has become one of my favorite movies.  The protagonist’s father retired at 50, constantly reads and spends quality time with his family at their house by the beach, eating sandwiches and playing table tennis with his son who, when he grows up is told of a secret that has been running in his family – all the men have a peculiar capacity to go into a dark place, close their eyes, think about a time in their life that they have lived prior, and assuming their desire to be there, they can travel back in time to that moment.

Our young lead is able to strategically reset various social scenarios both in work and in life, getting the girl of his dreams and starting a family and so on.  But as he averts disasters, there is one instance in which he goes back to a time before one of his children came to be. Upon his return to the present, he goes to find his little girl and is met by a little boy – a completely different person is now his child!  It is here that I believe I’ve found at least an assumed providential order. Things must be calibrated just so for any specific person to come into existence and we take it for granted that some kind of higher order decision has been overstepped.  Our protagonist immediately realizes that he has to go and fix the problem and bring back his little girl, and the audience is along for the ride, but without imagining that it is wrong to annihilate this new child for the one before. Ultimately, it seems wrong for the main character to leave things in the augmented state of affairs because those were not his to tamper with since they went beyond a boundary that we all somehow intuit.  One child is supposed to be and the other is to remain as a mere unrealized possibility. 

We live in one finite universe. I don’t believe in an infinite multiverse, because an actual infinite seems a mathematical impossibility. Not all possibilities are actualized and not all possible people escape the infinite sea of potentiality. We have one finite creation, and it’s this one.  Why is it that this world exists?  Why this state of affairs and why this network of persons in existence? 

A time traveling father’s reverence for what seems to be an overstep of a properly divine right provides us with a hunch.  Perhaps it has to do with who is meant to be. Who is to exist? Are various stories, various “stories of souls” to riff on St. Thérèse of Lisieux, each including evil and pain as well as good, bound up with a primordial predilection of God for specific persons to exist?  Is this criterion of personhood the hinge upon which one world remains only a possibility and another actualized by the Creator?  

Love has been defined as the affirmation of the will to the effect, saying: “It’s good that you exist.” Who is supposed to exist? That’s God’s prerogative, but unlike the protagonist of our movie, he didn’t travel through time to make it happen. In his eternal present, he simply decides. So, with referential awe, we can say with the biblical sage:  

“For you love all things that exist, and detest none of the things that you have made; for you would not have made anything if you had hated it. How would anything have endured, if you had not willed it? Or how would anything not called forth by you have been preserved? You spare all things, for they are yours, O Lord, you who love the living” (Wis. 11:24-26).  

May Peace be with us all. 

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