They Who See God’s Hand: The Tree of Life as an “Upbuilding Discourse”
[Ed. note: A very, very welcome guest post from Nicholas Olson]
The very moment everything was taken away from Job, he knew it was the Lord who’d taken it away. He turned from the passing shows of time. He sought that which is eternal. Does he alone see God’s hand who sees that He gives? Or does not also the one see God’s hand who sees that He takes away? Or does he alone see God who sees God turn His face towards him? Does not also he see God who sees God turn his back?
(Father Haynes, The Tree of Life)
Job traced everything back to God. . . The very moment everything was taken away from him, he knew it was the Lord who had taken it away, and therefore in his loss he remained on good terms with the Lord, in his loss maintained intimacy with the Lord; he saw the Lord, and therefore he did not see despair. Or does he alone see God’s hand who sees that he gives, or does not also the one see God’s hand who sees that he takes away? Or does he alone see God who sees God turn his face toward him, or does not also he see God who sees him turn his back, just as Moses continually saw nothing but the Lord’s back?
(Søren Kierkegaard, “The Lord Gave, the Lord Took Away; Blessed be the Name of the Lord”)
My reaction after an initial viewing of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life might best be described as that sacred mixture of awe and joy that we call “worship.” While I’m in no place to make grand declarations about Tree’s place in Malick’s canon—let alone the history of film—I’ll simply say this: Tree has affected me in ways that few other films have. It’s a temptation with this film to describe how it makes you feel without articulating how and why it’s summoning those emotions. If such an articulation is ultimately evasive, then perhaps we are merely talking about one of the finest examples of kitsch we’ve yet seen. Since I began this essay by describing my reaction to the film as one of both awe and joy, let me be more precise: each viewing of Malick’s Tree overwhelms me with a sense of gratitude for created existence in all of its range and fullness. The sense in which Malick’s film is at its most gratifying for me is in that it presents Creation—of which human existence is constituted—as a gift. And on that basis, it asks a simple question: are we—in our special human-creature capacity to image the Creator—living graciously or in dis-grace?
After first viewing Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, I attempted to draw some connections in the film between Job, the Creation sequence, and “the two ways through life” through a Kierkegaardian lens focused on human beings’ essential givenness. Admittedly, it was with some diffidence that I employed Søren Kierkegaard in my review of the film; though I thought its Christian themes were clearly mediated through a visual framework constituted by an existential vocabulary (namely, through Jack’s memories of, and search to recover, “home”), I was basing the Kierkegaard connection on Malick’s academic pursuits. It’s often cited that he studied Kierkegaard in school (though Martin Heidegger is more often cited), and Malick is also said to have written a screenplay adapting Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer—the most Kierkegaardian American novel we have, and set in the mid-twentieth century, too.
At the time, my hesitance stemmed from what I thought was the relative tenuousness of the connection; it’s not exactly considered a shrewd critical move to draw attention to a director’s personal interests when commenting on his or her film. Admittedly, then, I was both relieved and intrigued when a friend alerted me to a more direct connection between Tree and the Danish philosopher. In a scene that seems both a thematic microcosm of the film as a whole and right at its center, a preacher is giving a sermon on Job, and part of the sermon, as it turns out, is taken directly from Kierkegaard’s 1843 Upbuilding Discourse, “The Lord Gave, and the Lord Took Away; Blessed be the Name of the Lord.” Given that the Discourse is concerned with Job’s agonizing plight and, yet, his maintenance of gratitude, it seems to me that the Upbuilding Discourse, while by no means disrobing the film of its mystery or multiple layers of influence and theme, provides us with a compelling entry point to consider Tree afresh from a holistic perspective.
We know that Kierkegaard’s overriding concern was with what it means to exist, or, what it means to be a human being. Ultimately, the impressive variety of his work could all be categorized under this quintessential question. While much of his work—particularly his pseudonymous authorship—can be difficult to interpret, some of it is rather straightforward. One of his more accessible works is the Upbuilding Discourses. To “build up” (opbygge)—to edify—is a biblical metaphor that Kierkegaard expounded upon rather extensively in Works of Love. And it’s helpful to see what he meant by “upbuilding” before considering “The Lord Gave, and the Lord Took Away; Blessed be the Name of the Lord.”
In Works of Love, Kierkegaard discusses upbuilding with particular attention paid to the last four words in 1 Corinthians 8:1. The latter half of the verse asserts that knowledge puffs up, “but love builds up.” Kierkegaard’s concluding statement on the phrase functions as a fine summary of what he means by upbuilding:
To build up is to presuppose love; to be loving is to presuppose love; only love builds up. To build up is to erect something from the ground up—but, spiritually, love is the ground of everything. No human being can place the ground of love in another person’s heart; yet love is the ground, and we can build up only from the ground up; therefore we can build up only by presupposing love. Take love away—then there is no one who builds up and no one who is built up.
In sharp contrast with his German Enlightenment colleagues, Kierkegaard’s presuppositional ground is Love rather than Freedom or Reason. According to Kierkegaard, “Love is not a being-for-itself quality, but a quality by which or in which you are for others.” Yet, how do we know that love is the presuppositional ground from which we build up? Kierkegaard says that “[i]t is God, the Creator, who must implant love in each human being, he who himself is Love.”
It is helpful to understand the logic here by turning to Kierkegaard’s consideration of the human self in The Sickness unto Death, wherein he asserts that the self “must have either established itself or have been established by another.” Vital to Kierkegaard’s thought is that fundamental to human agency is human beings’ essential givenness. The self is a derived relation, and one of the most basic forms of despair, according to Kierkegaard, is one’s failure to submit to the qualitative contour of this essential givenness; it is a failure of fit for the creature to live outside of the Creator’s designations. And the purpose of the Creator’s designs is a loving relationship with His creatures. For He is Love. Hence, we are most ourselves—we experience flourishing to the fullest—when we are self-giving lovers of God, of other human beings made in the Imago Dei, and of the entire Creation. This does not collapse particularity or uniqueness, but provides shape for its most authentic possibility.
To build up presupposes that love is the spiritual ground for human existence; it presupposes that this love is in the other. It is unconditional self-giving for the benefit of the other.
The Upbuilding Discourse that is referentially preached in The Tree of Life is, fittingly, a consideration of Job’s response to suffering’s sudden onslaught upon his life. It is an exposition of his specific response found in the latter half of Job 1:21: “The Lord gave, and the Lord took away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” Over the course of church history, it has been both a comfort and a discomfort that, after chapter one’s depiction of Satan’s role in Job’s suffering, Job’s immediate response makes no mention of Satan. It is the Lord who took away, says Job. And, yet, the question which we must strive after is how Job, in a worshipful posture, was able to conclude, “Blessed be the name of the Lord.” Put another way, what is the source of Job’s gratitude even in the midst of seemingly incomparable loss?
“The Lord gave.”
That these words are the first to proceed from Job—even ahead of “the Lord took away”—is significant to Kierkegaard. For him, even before these words, the judgment Job was to render between God and himself had already been decided when Job said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return.” Kierkegaard notes that “[w]ith those words, the dispute was settled, and in his soul every demand was silenced that would claim from the Lord something he was unwilling to give or would desire to keep something as if it had not been given.” That is, Job, in his loss, recognizes the givenness of all that constituted his existence, and his response, though immensely sorrowful, is not without gratitude. Kierkegaard’s exuberant ruminations on this recognition are worth quoting in full:
But Job! The moment the Lord took everything away, he did not first say, ‘The Lord took away,’ but first of all he said, ‘The Lord gave.’ The statement is brief, but in its brevity it effectually points out what it is supposed to point out, that Job’s soul was not squeezed into silent subjection to the sorrow, but that his heart first expanded in thankfulness, that the first thing the loss of everything did was to make him thankful to the Lord that he had given him all the blessings that he now took away from him. . . . [H]is thankfulness was . . . honest, just as honest as the idea of God’s goodness that was now so vivid in his soul. Now he recalled everything the Lord had given, some particular thing with perhaps even more thankfulness than when he had received it; it has not become less beautiful because it had been taken away, nor more beautiful, but was just as beautiful as before, beautiful because the Lord had given it, and what might seem more beautiful to him now was not the gift but God’s goodness.
One point can’t be any clearer and more emphasized: Job was upright before God before and after his tragedy because Job desired the Giver above and beyond His gifts. The loss of the gifts did not destroy Job’s soul with ingratitude, because all was not lost. Job’s trust in the Giver was not crushed. Job’s intimacy with God—Job’s uprightness—was founded on faith in God’s love and goodness.
And, in part, this is what Terrence Malick seems to be up to in Tree: conveying and inspiring Job’s way of life in this particular sense—a longsuffering gratitude that is present even in the midst of our suffering and alienation. It’s the posture of one who believes that there is a trustworthy Love which is the ground of existence, a “Love which is smiling through all things.”
“The Lord gives and the Lord takes away…and that’s the way He is. He sends flies to wounds that He should heal.”
So says a well-meaning neighbor in an attempt to comfort Mrs. O’Brien, who is experiencing the heartache of losing one of her sons. But something about the statement—which is another direct reference in the film to the line from Job that is Kierkegaard’s subject—seems to provoke more troubled lines of grief on the mother’s face. Earlier, her response to a preacher’s reassurances that her son was “in God’s hands now” was a bit of a rhetorical rebuttal: “He was in God’s hands the whole time, wasn’t he?” Though she is sorrowful, grief-stricken, and wrestling with suffering’s despair, Mrs. O’Brien is still upright. She offers prayerful thoughts to her Lord; she has not lost her sense of trust in Him. The tragedy was foreshadowed in the very beginning of the film, when she says, “I will be true to You, whatever comes.” And true she remains, because of her steadfast belief that those who follow the way of Grace “never come to a bad end.”
Though she remains ultimately faithful, Mrs. O’Brien echoes the common human question to God in response to suffering: “Where were you?” Malick has already framed the film’s non-linear, image-driven narrative by opening with Job 38:4, 7, wherein God’s response is set in rhetorical parallel: “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? . . . When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” These verses foreshadow what comes in response to Mrs. O’Brien’s anguished question—a breathtaking Creation sequence wherein Malick imagines universal foundations being laid. But it’s important not to forget Malick’s framing choice to include verse 7—creation is gift that brings joy if we receive it well.
While the film digresses from conventional narrative during the twenty minute Creation sequence, Creation is the narrative against which all of our narratives make sense, and, likewise, it’s an essential foundational part to the film’s whole. Creation is a gift that we receive, cultivate, and share or that we horde for ourselves to the corrupting spoil of ourselves and others. The sequence inspires a joyful awe—a sense of gratitude, you might say. Living with a fully-embodied gratitude in response to and relationship with the Creator is the “way of Grace.” It is the devoted giving of one’s self because of the joyful recognition that one’s very existence is contingent upon, and constituted by, His giving.
Thus, on my reading, “blessed be the name of the Lord” connects the seemingly disparate theodicy narrative and the two ways through life narrative into a coherent one. Do we see our existence as a gift that leads us to cherish the Giver? Broadly speaking, there are two answers to that question. And the answer will govern one’s existence—one’s way of life.
Twice, the O’Brien brothers are awakened from their morning slumber; the exact scene is almost duplicated, save for the manner in which the boys are awakened. In the first instance, their mother approaches them with a loving playfulness, sneakily placing ice cubes on the boys’ skin. The scene is filled with laughter; the curtains are lifted to let sunshine in the room. In sharp contrast, Mr. O’Brien storms in and bluntly rips the covers off of the boys and leaves at once. The parallel scenes are indicative of the two ways of existence being portrayed in direct contrast; the former is lovingly conceived, while the latter is rudely demanded.
“Grace doesn’t try to please itself,” says Mrs. O’Brien in the beginning of the film, and she embodies that belief throughout. In seeing God’s love “smiling through all things,” she is filled with a gratitude for existence that overflows in the extension of gracious love to others. In living in fit with who she was created to be, Mrs. O’Brien herself is a pro-creative force, cultivating love, joy, compassion, and forgiveness in others whether they accept it immediately or not. By her temperament and behavior, she seeks reconciliation and restoration.
“Your mother is naïve,” Mr. O’Brien warns his boys. He sees his wife’s way of living as weak. If you’re gracious, then people will take advantage of you. Mr. O’Brien’s primary goal is to “get ahead in the world.” And he is self-absorbed in his nearly singular focus on achieving this self-perpetuating end. He covets status and values self-sufficiency. Because the world operates on trickery, things and people must be manipulated to accomplish what we want for ourselves. As Mrs. O’Brien describes it in the beginning of the film, the way of nature “finds reasons to be unhappy” in spite of the Love which is the ground of existence.
But, two of Mr. O’Brien’s eventual admissions are important. The first deserves more recognition; after a memorable dinner table scene, Mr. O’Brien exclaims to his wife that she “undermines” everything he does. Implicit in the admission is that the way of grace is not so weak or ineffective after all. And, in the more-often cited admission later in the film, Mr. O’Brien confesses that he “wanted to be loved because [he] was great,” but by virtue of this self-focused imperative, he “lived in shame,” “dishonored [Creation],” and “didn’t notice the glory.” In this confession, Mr. O’Brien makes the nature of his disgrace apparent—he wasn’t living in such a way that he was filled with gratitude for the gift of life. He did not see the ground of love that he stood on.
“How do I get back—where they are?”
Before concluding, I need to be more specific about the sense in which it’s appropriate to consider The Tree of Life a “Kierkegaardian Upbuilding Discourse.” And, as it relates to “Kierkegaardian,” the first noteworthy consideration is that the film is primarily framed through Jack’s existential point of view. This frame provides the basis for the dreamy, impressionistic nature of the film. We are presented with his choice between the two ways through life; we are invited to his memories of childhood in small-town, Texas; and we bear witness to his ultimate “repetition” of faith. The whole film is framed in accordance with Jack’s existential crisis—in this case, conceived through the dialectic of his being lost and needing to find home. And, in Kierkegaardian fashion, Jack is his own psychologist. He focuses on the conscious choices that have led him to the proverbial desert he presently inhabits. And he looks to his mother and brother, specifically, to try to find his way back home—to a restored place of faith, and thus, coherent personhood.
How might we describe The Tree of Life as “upbuilding” in the Kierkegaardian sense? The most obvious is that which I’ve already mentioned above: Mrs. O’Brien’s line that there is a “love smiling through all things” is a comment that is predicated on the Creation sequence in the film. In this film, and arguably in others of his, Malick seems to presuppose that Love is the ground of all things. And the acceptance or rejection of this ground constitutes the way of existence that the O’Briens inhabit respectively. Yet, I think we might take this line of thought a step further by suggesting that Malick does not just depict this as a theme for his characters, but does so in such a way that seeks to demonstrate its universal truth for his viewers. And this is profoundly Kierkegaardian in a “subjectivity is truth” sort of way.
Kierkegaard’s oft-misunderstood phrase has nothing to do with truth being relative in the sense that nothing is of ultimate significance; rather, Kierkegaard was deeply concerned with the idea that persons don’t come to faith by mere intellectual assent to some objective truths—no, rather, truth must become truth for you. To put it more starkly, the truths of the Christian faith must be lived out, embodied by the person in committed choices. Kierkegaard had Hegel’s systematizing in mind in saying it, but his overriding concern is how one becomes a Christian. In the midst of his milieu and its own excesses, Kierkegaard—like a good Lutheran—rightly had in mind the personal nature of faith. But how is this accomplished in Malick’s film? Is there a sense in which he presupposes love in his viewers?
Part of what makes Tree so wonderful for me is in its rendering of the intimate relation between the universal and the particular. And while the cosmic imagery is important on this point, I more have in mind the O’Brien family. They are particular enough to be interesting, and yet they are universal enough that we see ourselves and others in them. First names are either not mentioned or rarely named. The small town in Texas is the ‘50’s, but not too identified with a particular time and place. The central protagonist’s name is “Jack”—a generic name in its own right. Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien are primarily referred to as “father” and “mother.” Jack speaks of needing to reconnect with his “brother.” In short, part of the wonderfully divergent responses to Malick’s film has to do with our being invited to bring the particularity of our own experiences to the universal outlines presented in the film. In a sense, Jack’s faith crisis becomes recognizably your plight that is filled with your (past and potential) memories and choices. The film can be a functional invitation for you, its viewer, to find your feet firmly on Love’s ground.
Lastly, how might I conceive of Tree as a “discourse?” Of course, we’ve already mentioned that Kierkegaard’s Job discourse is directly referenced during a sermon in the middle of the film. But I want to take it a step further without undermining the image-driven nature of the film. If there’s any filmmaker whose depicted world evinces an “ontic logos,” Malick is certainly one of them. His is a worded world—a meaningful cosmos. This is what I’ve been getting at: love is a “discourse” incarnated in God’s creative work, and this is the teleology that Malick depicts in his films—Tree in particular. To provide a couple of relevant examples, I’ll point to the recurrent imagery that suggests the dialectic of being lost and finding home.
One striking image shows a child swimming away from a home sunk underwater. It’s a metaphorical home that is uninhabitable. Throughout the film, there’s also the recurrent depiction of Jack wandering—lost—in the desert as indicative of his present state of being. The nature of Jack’s lostness is that he is alienated from God and others. Thus, the depiction of Jack’s coming to faith—the restored personal union between the finite and the eternal (to put it in Kierkegaardian terms)—is characterized by his finding an eternal sea of water after wandering in the desert. But not only that—he’s also restored and reconciled in his relationships. This final sequence is perhaps the most striking in its visual representation of the redemptive discourse: stepping through the open door as if taking a momentous step of faith; rising from the ground as if joining in the reality of resurrection; the bride preparing for the coming wedding feast with the Groom.
Of course, Tree is also an aural “discourse.” And the best example is to continue considering the “eternity” sequence. Matthew Lee Anderson, among others, has pointed out the compelling choice of Berlioz’s Agnus Dei which then transitions into the Lux Aeterna. Viewers with an attuned ear will recognize that the scene is Christological and thematically centered on communion. Malick’s “upbuilding discourse” is a demanding one for the common viewer because it is dedicated to cinema’s form. Yet, the words are there if we are committed to see and hear them in the way they are conveyed.
The best manner in which to connect the major points from this essay is to return to Kierkegaard in Works of Love. In his consideration of “love builds up,” he says, “[I]f a man erects a house, be it ever so small and low, from the ground up, we say that he built up a house. Thus to build up is to erect something from the ground up.” While Kierkegaard was making a simple analogy to make clear what he meant by “upbuilding,” we can extrapolate from the analogy a fine point in pursuit of summation. To be at home in the existential sense that we’ve been heretofore considering starts by building up from Love’s presuppositional ground. It begins with the recognition that God the Creator is Love, and finds fulfillment in the creaturely response to live as an extension of the gift of life. Even if we find ourselves in Job’s or Mrs. O’Brien’s plight—if the home that’s been upbuilt has been temporarily torn down—we must keep our eyes on the ground that the Creator has tilled, the trustworthy love which is the basis of our existence.
But is this way of life sustainable apart from Christ? Is there a discernible Christology in Tree? Contrary to popular opinion, I would assert that there’s most certainly a Christology in Malick’s film. Apart from Anderson’s consideration of the Agnus Dei, I’d offer two other points of consideration. Fittingly, the first brings us back to the scene when the preacher is giving his sermon in reference to the Upbuilding Discourse. Toward the end of the sermon, he asks, “Is there anything that is deathless?” And at that precise moment, the camera lingers on a stain-glass portrayal of Christ. It’s a small, direct clue that is indicative of a more indirect reference that permeates the whole film for me. As Michael Leary has alluded elsewhere here on Filmwell, Malick’s film is good biblical theology. And I would contend—along with Leary—that it is so in such a way that could not be detected apart from a Colossians 1 Christology.
In the end of the film, immediately before Jack flashes a knowing, return-to-faith smile, he has visions of future resurrection qua interpersonal reconciliation. His return to faith has already restored “home” in one sense, and yet we are still exiles until home is restored in the fullest and final sense. Christian faith is the hope of love that shines forth in hints of this fallen Creation’s glorious order, and it’s also the hope of love that sustains us in our losses, fears, and falls. In short, the tree of life is the way through life that leads to life in all of its abundance. And if we have eyes to see and ears to hear, we can see God’s hand all around us—whether He gives or takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.
 Hong, H.V., and Hong, E, ed. The Essential Kierkegaard (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997), 311.
 Ibid., 310.
 Ibid., 308.
 Hong, H.V., and Hong, E, ed. The Sickness Unto Death (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980), 13.
 See Michelle Kosch, Freedom and Reason in Kant, Schelling, and Kierkegaard (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006) for the best exploration of human agency and “givenness” according to Kierkegaard’s work. And I owe a great deal to my friend Samuel Loncar for pointing me in these directions.
 Hong, H.V., and Hong, E, ed. Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992), 115.
 Ibid., 115-6.
 The Essential Kiergegaard (1997), 304.