Friday, February 12, 2010

A Serious Man -- theodicy and the Uncertainty Principle

Directors: Ethan & Joel Coen, 2009.

"I've done nothing!" This is an all-too-familiar cry. As parents we often hear our offspring say this when confronted with some form of judgment or discipline. When something is broken, it is the immediate plea of blamelessness. It is also the despairing cry of Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) late in the film, as his life has disintegrated in front of his eyes.

Yet has he really done nothing? After all, he or his family have arguably broken several of the Ten Commandments that they as Jews strive to keep. He has possibly set his desire for tenure above his love for God ("You shall have no other gods before me", Ex. 20:3). He has spied out his vivacious neighbor naked, much like David saw Bathsheba (2 Sam. 11:2), and lusted after her ("You shall not covet your neighbor's wife", Ex. 20:17). In his heart and his dreams he has slept with her ("You shall not commit adultery", Ex. 20:14). He has been tempted to lie, and is seriously considering doing so ("You shall not give false testimony", Ex. 20:16) His kids have stolen his money for their own personal desires ("You shall not steal," Ex. 20:15), and in doing so have not respected or obeyed ther parents ("Honor your father and your mother", Ex. 20:12).

This latest Coen brothers movie is a dark tragi-comedy that seems to ask deep theological and philosophical questions about life. Yet, for all their depth, they offer no answers. Only questions. They leaves us contemplating theodicy (the problem of evil) and the meaning of life, with no help or hint at any greater meaning.

Two scenes at the start of the film set the tone for what is to come. They provide the framework for interpreting this complex movie. The first is a Yiddish prologue that is confusing, but like life offers insight upon reflection. In a 19th century Polish village, a man is helped by a stranger who turns out to be an acquaintance of his wife. He invites him home for supper, but his wife insists the man is dead. She believes he is a "dybbuk," an evil spirit possessing the body. When she seeks to prove her point, he says to the husband, "I ask you, Velvel, as a rational man: which of us is possessed?" As he leaves, it is clear this married couple will not find an answer. They cannot know. Rationality will not help answer the question. Evil has won regardless of the answer.

After the opening credits we meet Larry. He is a physics professor in a small Minnesota university in 1967. He is telling his class the story of Schroedinger's cat, to illustrate Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle. The cat is in a box and can be either dead or alive. The uncertainty principle tells us we cannot know both position and momentum of an object with true certainty. If we know one, we do not know the other. So, is the cat alive or dead? Can we know? In context of Larry's Jewish faith, this really expands to the question is God alive or dead? Is this knowable?

Larry is a serious man. He has a reasonably happy life, a wife and two kids who attend Jewish school. He is on track for tenure, and that committee is about to vote on that question. Life seems to be going his way. And then it all falls apart.

His wife Judith (Sari Lennick) tells him she wants to marry their mutual friend Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed), another serious man, and so he must move out. His son is a pot-head, stealing to pay for his records and his dope. His daughter is stealing, too, to pay for a nose-job. His brother Arthur (Richard Kind) has been living with them, doing nothing more (apparently) than siphoning his cyst and writing his numerological treatise. And a Korean student wants to bribe him for a passing-grade on his test. It is a modern version of the book of Job! With all of this happening, a friend tells him, "It's not always easy, deciphering what God is trying to tell you." So, what is God trying to tell Larry? He decides to visit his rabbi, actually three.

In that Old Testament book Job had a stable and happy life, with a wife and kids and a steady income. But in the prologue to that book (Job 1-2), Satan argues with God that Job will curse God if he loses his family, his wealth and his health. God allows Satan to torment Job, causing his children to die, his finances to disappear, and his health to collapse. Despite his wife's encouragement to "curse God and die" (Job 2:9), Job holds onto his faith. When three friends come to comfort and then counsel him, their insight is not helpful.

Larry seeks out counsel from three rabbis. Their religious experience and faith should surely be able to help him, to explain why these bad things have been happening to him though he has done nothing. It is a classic question of theodicy. Alas, like Job's counselors, these rabbis offer little help.

The first is the young rabbi, who has seen little of life. Looking out on the empty parking lot, he offers the platitude of perspective: "Because with the right perspective you can see Hashem, you know, reaching into the world." As traditional Jews, they would avoid speaking the name of God (Yahweh) so that would not be guilty of breaking one of the Ten Commandments ("You shall not misuse the name of the LORD your God, Ex. 20:7). Instead, they refer to God by the Hebrew word Hashem, meaning "the name".

Rabbi Scott's advice is superficial. He ignores Larry's problems and offers no help. Yet, there is some truth in his words. Hashem, or God, is reaching into this world which he created. He has already come here in the person of Jesus, but he is reaching out to us, through many means. Sometimes we need the right perspective to see God's hand at work in ways that impact us, or in the wisdom of a trusted friend.

Larry moves onto Rabbi Nachtner, the preaching elder. But Nachtner can only offer him fables and stories. His main story about a goy dentist seems to be meaningless, with no answer to Larry's question. When Larry complains, "I want an answer!" the rabbi replies, "The answer? Sure! We all want the answer! But Hashem doesn't owe us the answer, Larry." What advice is this? There is no answer. God does not promise us one. But Nachtner does pose a question worth considering, "How does God speak to us: it's a good question."

Like the young rabbi, Nachtner is less than helpful to Larry, but his question is provocative. How does God speak to us? He speaks to us in a multitude of ways. He speaks through the mountains and the stars (Psa. 19:1), through the marvels of the human anatomy (Isa. 49:5) and the wonders of the simplicity and complexity of life. This is known as natural revelation (Rom. 1:19-20). He speaks to us through the inner conscience that each of us possesses (Rom. 2:15). He speaks through the words of a stranger and the wisdom of a friend. He speaks through the circumstances of life that he moves to his ends. He speaks through the words of Scripture that were penned thousands of years ago but still retain relevancy in application to our lives. And he speaks through the still small voice of the Spirit, as he did to Moses on the mountain (Exod. 25-31). He speaks but we often fail to listen. And in failing to listen, we fail to hear.

In desperation Larry seeks a meeting with the oldest and wisest rabbi. But this does not happen. This spiritual giant is too busy thinking. He is not doing anything or interacting with anyone. He is pondering, perhaps the meaning of life and cannot be interrupted. Larry will not find out answers from him.

With his impending divorce and a quarrel with his other neighbor, Larry turns to lawyers for legal advice. His lawyer needs assistance from the wiser partner. And this lawyer finds an answer. But just before he can share this with Larry something happens. Just as with the wisest rabbi, answers evade him. Are there really answers to life's questions?

The Coens avoid simplistic answers. Indeed, they avoid all answers. They show Larry confronting certainity in his mathematical proof of the uncertainty principle, but experiening uncertainty and unknowing in the practical things and matters of life. To them, God is uninvolved. He is uninterested in Larry and his situation.

The key to the film is in the moral quandary that Larry faces with the Korean student. Unlike Job, who was unaware of Satan's bet with God, Larry faces this head-on. The student tells him, "If I receive failing grade I lose my scholarship, and feel shame. I understand the physics. I understand the dead cat." He understands the story but not the math. His bribe leaves Larry facing the dilemma of keeping the money and changing a grade, a sin, or standing on the moral high ground. When the student's father later shows up at his home, their dialog provides revelation: "Look it doesn't make sense. Either he left the money or he didn't" For a serious, rational man that is as clear as mathematics. There is no uncertainty there. Not so for the Korean: "Please. Accept the mystery." Larry: "You can't have it both ways!" But the father says, "Why not?"

As in much of physics, so in life: there is mystery. Is there meaning behind Larry's sufferings? Perhaps. Can he discover what it is? No. Life is like that. We often do not understand why things happen. Does this mean life is meaningless. Not necessarily. We must accept the mystery.

As the book of Job ends, God restores to Job what he had lost, double in most cases. But in the Coen's world, life is not fair. Is God alive or is he dead? They do not answer. However, God spoke out of the storm to Job at the end of his experience (Job. 38:1) and never explained why he had to suffer so much. It was enough that he is God. Man cannot question God's purposes or intentions. The Coen's closing scene is perhaps a direct reference to this speaking from the storm to give an account but no answers. Like Larry, we may never know why bad things happen to us or to others. Yet, we can accept the mystery that God appears dead even while he is alive.

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs

1 comment:

  1. This is one of those type of movies that I just don't get... I mean I don't get the dark humor, I don't get the script, and I'm definitely entertained. I do like the Cohen Brothers and think they are extremely talented movie producers, I just did not like this movie. There aren't very many movies that I stop watching part way through, but this was one those movies. After 30 minutes, I just couldn't take any more. Critically acclaimed as it was, I can't see past giving it 1/2 a star on a scale of 1 to 5 stars.